Research Point 2

As you’ve seen, there are many examples of photography that avoid the use of the human figure in order to communicate truths and stories about humanity. Do your own research into areas you’ve been inspired by in this project; delve deeper into the areas that interest you. Continue to think about how this might inform your own practice. 

As people, we constantly leave imprints on the landscape that betray how we live our lives.  These can be very revealing.  Forensic scientists analyse this in a quest for evidence and to build a profile of a suspect.  Evidence of human activity can therefore say as much about who we are as our facial portrait does.  For example: photographs of the mass graves of war victims, the plans and weoponry used can all reveal more about a despot dictator than any portrait ever could.

While photographs of our actions can reveal a lot about us, so can images of items that we own.  Klepuszowska highlights the importance of mundane items in the lives of others.  Using shallow depth of field and a plain back background, Living Spaces draws attention to these items invoking a sense of isolation for these older people.  Is something we regard as unimportant is suddenly portrayed as very important in the lives of others we feel humbled.  The viewer develops a sense of connection to their plight through this contrast.  For this to work the items must be capable of attracting the empathy of the viewer, not obscure items.

Accomplished portrait photographers frequently talk of connecting to the real person behind the mask of a smile, aiming to reveal something about their personslity.  While there are many exellent examples where this is true, any single portrait image can only ever hint at one aspect of character, never revealing the full persona,  Alongside detecting character, attitude and demeanor, our actions and possessions say a lot about who we really are.

In On Photography, Sontag points to Irving Penn’s 1975 commissioned portraits of celebrities where he presented images of their cigarette butts.  Speaking about another photographer’s work, Szarkowski commends that so much of someone’s personality can “be coaxed from subject matter <that is> profoundly banal” (Sontag, 1979. p137)

Darren Jones

Darren Jones’ approach is to make a still life out of the things we take away with us on a trip.


Jones’ work raises questions of what is really important in our lives.  Going on a trip is when we have to be ruthless, packing only essentials in order to travel light and adhere to airport baggage limits while still wanting to be comfortable.  Here we can see his priorities condensed, distilled and beautifully arranged.  If someone asked for a list of our most important items how many of us would say toothpaste?

The items have been arranged like flowers or other delicate, precious items, befitting of their relative importance while staying away from home.  It makes for a slightly incongruous arrangement overall.

I’m keen to explore this idea deeper: contents of bags, car gloveboxes, bedside reading choices, crockery, shoes, finger nails and doorways all potentially offer insights into who we really are.


André Kertész

Kertész arguably created one of the photographic world’s most iconic still life images with ‘The Folk’ in 1928.


Here an everyday eating utensil has been seen in a clean, minimalist way that highlights the pleasing form of the folk while in no way attempting to make an abstract form of it. It is, simply, what it is – readily identifiable as a folk resting against the side of a bowl.  I note that the apparent simplicity of the image belies the effort that went into setting it up, painstakingly arranged so that no shadows overlap confusingly.  Both item and shadow are independendly distiguishable as folk and bowl.

There’s a quiet sadness, in this as well as other work by Kertész, which fascinates me: the bowl is apparently empty; a dark shadow features prominently;  there’s no evidence of a dinner guest at the table.  I read from the Phaidon website that Kertész was a ‘deeply reserved‘ man who ‘often spoke of the lack of close contact with other artists‘.  He had fled twice – from his home in Hungary and then from Paris in the war – so perhaps there was a sense of never being settled in a place called home, entirely at ease.  Is his personal sense of loneliness what we can really see in this image?






Laura Letinsky

Canadian photographer Letinsky’s still lifes resemble the aftermath of a restaurant table, fruit peelings and dirty crockery arranged in an apparently haphazard but actually carefully placed layout.

Why would Letinsky apply all the meticulous control over lighting, perspective and placement as for any normal still life in order to recreate a ‘pile of washing up’?

It could be as simple as Keith Arnatt’s Rubbish Tip, or Tillmans’ exploration of the aesthetic beauty in discarded items.  But that would not be consistent with her careful placement of items with all the attention to detail of a normal still life study.

I find that I admire her work a lot, noting how it is “a vehicle to explore the tension between the small and minute and larger social structures“. 

Although carefully placed and so storytelling rather than historical in nature, I feel like a historian gazing over a map of a battlefield when I view it.  Where was the power around the dinner table? Did the meal end amicably or with someone getting up to leave? Were passions high or convivial?  A landmark birthday or celebration?  The detritus on the table resembles the fallen soldiers on the battlefield, the dirty plates their bombed-out garrisons and hides.  I often perceive elements of our human condition and relationships in her images, all backed by crisp white linen.

Letinsky talks about how “photography conflicts with and constrains our sense of our environment by reinforcing certain ideas we have about perception.”  I’m not confident that I fully understand her point here, but it could be a reference to how we take and consume photographs, reinforcing these perceptions unconsciously as we go in order to make thing fit our model of the world.  The plain white tablecloths may well invite us to view the images – and the human behaviours they represent – with a fresh backdrop, not influenced by our prejudices and past experiences.


Research Point 1

Read Chapter 4 ‘Something and Nothing’ in Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson. You will find this on the student website named PH4IAP_Something and Nothing.

To what extent do you think the strategy of using objects or environments as metaphor is a useful tool in photography?

When might it fall down?

Write some reflective notes on these points in your learning log.



This strategy provides the photographer with virtually endless scope to use everyday items from the world around us and make them represent something else that is perhaps less readily available or harder to photograph (either in a person or elsewhere).  So the first thing to say is that this type of metaphor has very practical use where photographing the ‘real thing’ would be difficult or dangerous.  Of course this comes with a warning that it can be used lazily where better results could be had by seeking out the subject.

Because the subject matter is often banal, Cotton warns against making the assumption that the subject matter is what would otherwise be ‘without visual symbolism. In truth, there is no such thing as an unphotographed or unphotographable subject‘.  The job of the viewer is to seek to find out what meaning the phorographer identified in it, knowing that there must be one.

As with Orozco’s ‘Breath on a piano’, mundane objects in combination allow us to see things in a new and perhaps subversive way – Just who was it that dare breathe on the prefectly polished piano? Who used scrap car doors in a doorway (Wentworth, 1999) and who balanced a courgette and carrot on a cheese grater (Fischili and Weiss)?  This quirk is what piques the interest for me, stops me and motivates me to explore the image in more detail (Barthes’ concept of Punctum raises this phenomena in Camera Lucida).  We know that any photograph is a moment in time that actually existed once (maybe constructed sculpture from the parallel art movement in the 1960’s exploring minimalism), but it wouldn’t normally look like that.

I can see how this is a tremendous tool for drawing the viewer’s attention to an attribute that the phorographer seeks to highlight.  It is as though the photographer presents a riddle to be solved, ‘drawing on our natural inquisitiveness‘ (Cotton), the reward being to gain an insight into the subject.  A ‘portrait’ of someone characterised by a love of food and a very large, pointy nose might unkindly have a wedge of cheese in the image instead, as a crude example.

The risk is thst cetrain aspects are accentuated by this strategy at the expense of others giving an incomplete view of the subject, or misunderstood (the puzzle too cryptic) and getting it entirely wrong.  This feels more serious when we are talking about people – at least with a straightforward portrait the viewer can rely on his own senses, not just curious items thst the photographer substitutes for the original. Rather than a complex and intriguing image it may descend into stereotype and crude characature.

But for me thats the whole point.  Sculpture is never the original, it is an interpretation.  So is painting.  Minimalism is accepted as an artistic style across mediums.  Why should photography be any different, shackled in creativity by its ability to faithfully reproduce?  The responsibility of the photographer therefore is to remain alert to this risk of over-simplification for an image to be persuasive and rich in meaning.

However, James Melling challenges even this with his exploration of lighting a single subject.  At first sight his work resembles an early Cokin Filter catalogue, with images of the same glass house through various coloured filters and graduated filters, solarisation and other vivid colour techniques.  What might be dismissed as crude and amateurish is visually engaging and exploratory, showing diversity while only changing the light that falls upon a fixed subject.

Alfred Stieglitz: Clouds

Reading Sontag’s On Photography again, Chapter 5 introduced me for the first time to the cloud formations of Alfred Stieglitz,  taken between 1922 and 1935.

For some time I’ve been collecting my own series of cloud images, a few of which are shown here, for apparently similar reasons to Stieglitz in that:

  1. They are aesthetically pleasing to look at:
  2. They can “represent corresponding inner states, emotions and ideas

Clouds can be transient, heavy, light, mysterious, forbidding, domineering or airy.  They can influence moods and reflect them.  Of course they can also be changed for better or worse by man in the form of contrails, hinting that the scars man makes on our environment.

So are they images about people or the clouds themselves?  What does choosing to take the photograph, like or dislike it reveal about us as people?

There is something disorientating about an image without any ground.  Yet looking up is such a natural thing to do.  Are these Landscapes? Skyscrapes?  Naturescapes?  The decision to include or exclude the ground has a significant effect on how the image is viewed, becoming abstract formations by the simple action of cropping or selective framing.



Reflection Point

Reflection point

• Where does that leave the photographer? As storyteller or history writer?

• Do you tend towards fact or fiction? 

• How could you blend your approach? 

• Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?


Make some notes on these questions in your learning log.

The camera can be used to cover a wide specturm of content from story to historical,including a mix of the two.  At one end of the scale the camera can record the past with a degree of reliability – such as Eugene Atget’s portrayals of 19th century Paris. But even here there is selection rather than objectivity – history is said to be written by the victor, so can it ever be reliable?
The typologies of the Bechers probably get closest to authentic history due to their objectivity.
But the camera is a great storytelling device.  Eggleston and Shore – along with Frank and many others – curated their own images to recreate the story, the narrative, of how they felt everyday life was for people in Memphis or an other US town.  
The photographer always records a moment in time, a historical fact captured from that moment on.  Allowing ‘am here now’ to become ‘was there then’ (Barthes) indefinitely. Something that really did exist at a point in history.  But it can be influenced by storytelling before and after pressing the shutter, by arranging, posing, cropping, framing selectively to create a narrative.
Im not sure why photography comes against such scrutiny as to whether it provides a true historical account or not.  Historical novels and costume dramas never seem to suffer this and are widely accepted.
My personal work often tends towards fact rather than fiction.  But this raises the suggestion of being able to introduce more storytelling in order to expand the scope of areas I can explore.  Assignment 4 was an historical account of the places i frequented as a child, blended with an attempt to tell the story behind Thomas’ poem – and inspire the viewer to create their own story too.
The departure point for me is an ethical one of not wanting to deliberately mislead with the camera. Untruths are fine in photographic storytelling as long as people know thats what they are.  But nobody – not even Donald Trump it seems – wants to see ‘fake news’.

Initial thoughts on Part 5

“The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Starting Part 5 already feels like a bit of a revelation.  Its a shame that it comes so late in the course as it promises to be fascinating.

The emphasis has moved from photographing people towards consciously leaving them out, capturing the much more interesting and curious traces they leave in the landscape, rather than what they look like.

My trepidation towards photographing strangers is well documented in this course already.  But I’m learning now that there is something else going on beyond that: I’m rediscovering what inspires me.  Im fascinated by how we interpret and damage our environment, the traces we leave upon it.

Once again I’m enthusiastically buying books to pour over by Wentworth and Shore to go with others by Godwin and others, instead of feeling ‘I have to learn it’.

I have much greater appreciation of contemporary portraiture now from Lensculture, Hotshoe and the BJP and galleries but, even still, it is very rare that one genuinely ignites my passion and interest quite like photographs that contain no people.  I don’t look at my own portrait photographs or hang them on walls, but I do my other work.

Maybe I have just still not learned to love them.  But I see people everywhere in my day to day life – I want to see the world instead.  A slow shutter speed and ND filter so they blur out of the image – rather than them being the actual point of it…

I look forward to exploring this further through my studies, mindful that it is easy to just photograph what I like rather than to stretch myself and grow.  But ultimately, I have to be pleased with the results.

Assignment 4 – Self Reflection


In this assignment I tried to understand what Thomas intended the poem to be about and interpret that within the context of images of my own childhood landscape.

I have chosen photographs which might be interesting sights from nature which are transient in nature and so easily overlooked.  Hopefully the viewer will draw upon their own emotions and background as to what they mean for them – spiders, water, midges for example might carry happy or unpleasant memories for different people.

The sequencing of the images was chosen to simulate how the human mind tries to be in the present, but is then interrupted by memories of the past or other distractions.  Our minds do not work in a linear way.  Concentration is easily broken making it harder than it sounds to enjoy being in this moment for long.


Analysis of the images

Looking at the images in sequence with more information about my intended meanings:

  1. Flowing: An attempt to start the work by focussing the viewers attention on what is below his/her feet, grounding them in the ‘here and now’.  How often do we look at what is directly below us when crossing a bridge?  Looking straight down on a river from above the weeds in the flowing stream almost look like a willow tree taken from the side.  This changed constantly as the weeds moved with the flow – another photograph taken seconds later would look different.
  2. Mown: Taken back in the mind to a childhood playing field, the viewer might interpret this in different ways – happy memories of junior football prowess with friends, or perhaps abandonment, the pitch being apparently deserted and featureless.
  3. Blue Canvas: Clouds fascinate me for their unique and apparently infinite different formations.  Like an abstract painting in the sky, happening right above us.  But how often do we notice them?
  4. Anticipation: Once again back to a childhood pursuit, filled with wonder and expectation as to what the future might hold (i.e. might we catch a fish?  How big?).  I’m curious to know what the fisherman is keeping in the bag suspended in the tree.
  5. Hatch: Midges hatching on the river bank.  Living each moment to its maximum potential, unwittingly constrained by an incredibly short lifespan of possibly just one day.  How did they acquire the learning that there is safely in numbers so quickly? For me this raises questions about whether we can afford to waste large portions of our lives thinking about the past and the future rather than living in this moment like the midges.
  6. Full Time:  I find it interesting that the commemorative board for the ex-mine emphasises the gloomy blackness of the pit workers contrasted with the family happily enjoying the same space for recreation.  Is the loss of an entire industry progress? The quotation places the setting as DH Lawrence’s Eastwood in Nottinghamshire.  The grown man stands in another ‘goal’, perhaps reflecting on what has actually been won.
  7. The Silk Road: Another interpretation on how temporary and impermanent things are, to be cherished as they come into our lives?  Or maybe a warning not to get stuck in the past like a fly in a web?
  8. The Old Clock Ticks. The surrounding area has various stone circles from the neolithic era.  At certain times light will momentarily illuminate different stones creating questions about their significance and the transitory passage of time though our lives.  Shortly after taking this photograph the sun continued its trek across the sky and the moment was gone, throwing the whole area into dull shadow.
  9. The Rainbow Bridge: Some cultures have a concept of a ‘rainbow bridge’ that the deceased cross to an afterlife.  Following our dreams can indeed present a pot of gold for us but we cannot know what the future holds for sure.  Is being lucky enough to witness this phenomena the real prize?  What is really at the other end?  Rainbows only arise when good weather and bad weather exist in equal measure.

The images were selected from the following ‘contact sheet’ and were shot on both full frame and APS-C digital cameras over a series of walks during the past four weeks (longer walks of 10 miles+ necessitated the carrying of a smaller camera).

Lightroom (_IMG0453.DNG and 34 others)

To ensure consistency of colour rendition when using different cameras for the same set, custom colour profiles were created for each camera using a Colour Checker Passport:


Self assessment against the course criteria:

  • Demonstration of technical and visual skills (40%) – In this assignment I’ve tried to ‘see the less observed’, the everyday magic of life that we overlook in our obsession for being in either the past or future.  Hopefully the viewer will see these mundane things as worthy of more of their attention.  The final version to be submitted for Assessment will probably take the form of a photobook so the viewer can take a journey through a photo album in a very physical sense too.

    Mundane items have also been used as signifiers for the past as well – fishing, goalposts, mines – but have metaphorical ‘hooks’ (literal in the case of fishing!) to playtime, miners strikes, etc. that many of us will recollect.

    For the future element, I initially looked to provide more obvious signifiers of death and inevitability – there’s a dead bird on the contact sheet, for example.  But the point is that the future is not determinable.  ‘The Old Clock Ticks’ intends to convey a sense of mystery and uncertainty (what is hidden in the deep shadows with the stone circle?) while also signifying the ‘shaft of light’ that many who have experienced near death experiences speak of.  ‘Rainbow Bridge’ hint at this, ruined dreams and disappointment in less obvious ways too, leaving room for the viewer to find their own interpretations.

  • Quality of outcome (20%) –  I agonised for some time as to the order in which to present the individual images before deciding that I wanted to reflect the way the mind flits between past, present and future, finding it hard to just be in the present moment for long.  The risk is that the viewer might find it random or incoherent how the images have been sequenced.

    I debated whether to include the poem at the beginning or end.  I even considered breaking it up into sections, interspersed throughout the images.  Finally I considered coupling sections of the poem as titles for each image, which forced too literal a link.  I eventually opted to place the poem at the beginning but I’m still not sure that I’ve fully settled this debate in my mind yet.  So this could change again before submitting a final printed version for Assessment.

  • Demonstration of creativity (20%) – The pursuit of this assignment required walking more than 30 miles in and around the landscape where I grew up to re-discover places and the drivers for my personal nostalgia.  As suggested by the course materials, I also understood to study more deeply around creative writing and poetry in particular to tease out what Thomas was trying to get at in Bridges.

    Looking back over the this course, Context and Narrative and this Assignment in particular, I feel that I have an emerging personal voice centred around themes of how we relate to our landscape and fellow humans.  Like Keith Arnatt, or Tillmans have inspired before, I see a beauty in the mundane – the shape of trees, the flow of water and a sense of melancholy in all of it based on the way we treat what is all around us.

  • Context (20%) –The course materials coupled with the Text chapter in Context and Narrative (Short, 2011) have opened up new ways for me us use test in my work, both as content and as inspiration.  I have sought to dig deeper into the less superficial meaning of a poem and re-tell the same story through photographs.  I’m pleased with how I feel the work urges the viewer to consider what they are missing in the present moment, to be honest about whether they spend their time in the past or future with all the emotional attachments that come with it.  Equally, I don’t think it tells the viewer what to think.  It gives room for their own memories and fears.  This Assignment has opened up the potential for using poetry to inspire photography.  A close friend is a published poet and we are already discussing how we can take this further as a joint project.



Short, M. (2011) Basics Creative Photography: Context and Narrative (Basics: Creative Photography). Worthing, UK: AVA Publishing

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London. Penguin

Thomas, E. (first published 1917) The Bridge. At: (accessed on 10.09.17)