Monthly Archives: March 2017

Exercise 3.1

For this exercise I selected ten photographs taken this calendar year for social purposes, not associated with my work on Identity and Place.  They were selected for no other reason than I like them  (personal or aesthetic) without any initial regard to whether they might be viewed as either a mirror or a window.

I then went throught the selection and categorised them as follows:

Curiously, the mirrors are fewer in number, suggesting that maybe I try to take the photos people would like me to take or see into situations rather than reflecting the images that I want to take for me (see previous post).  The only unambiguous ‘Mirror’ is the nighttime shot of the Wellcome building near Euston Station in London.  I’ve always been attracted to the bold primary colours of night photography, traffic trails and so on.

A few are hard to categorise and perhaps fit into both categories.  Maybe these have more of a narrative to them and hold for interest for the viewer – for example Rob staring into the train window, reflected back.

The off cammera gaze of Wassail and others make it hard to categorise these as Mirrors in any sense.  This is because there’s no direct connnection – no eye contact – linking viewer/photographer and subject.

Art portraiture: a personal epiphany?

Reading Face (Ewing, 2008), I suddenly realised the required difference of approach between art portraiture and commercial portraiture that I am perhaps more familiar with.  Instead of apologetically trying to make photographs that people will like, art photography has a different mindset – that of seeking to peel back the ‘veneer’ of the mask, makeup or fake smile to reveal the ‘real’ person undernearth.

Yes, it is important to establish trust with the subject through openness, integrity and good ethics towards photography.  But also I have a right – a responsibility I might argue – to get the photographs that I want.  It’s ok to experiment, change my mind direct the shoot and try to peer beneath the mask…and capture what I might be privileged to see.  That’s my role as an art student.  Not just to make them want to buy a print for the wall.

Writing it down in a reflective way makes this all so obvious.  But I can see how I’ve been so ingrained (for decades) in thinking that, above all else, I have an over-riding social / professional duty to produce work that the customer likes.  This stifles my creativity.  It feeds my fear of being ok to be  experimental rather than on the safe side.  Seminars are geared towards creating ‘portraits that sell’.

A small thing.  But something that has helped reorient how I approach my work

Ewing goes on to explore this portrait, Anastasia, by Inex van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin which can be found on page 75 and online at:


He argues that, at first sight, we are viewing an ‘elegant, refined, Versailles-like decadance, this delicate waif of a woman’.  However, upon closer inspection the mask is not actually a mask at all but black make up.  A mirror rather than a mask?  Is the viewer really looking at a ‘mirror reflecting male lust’ (ibid, p74)?  Clearly this is a carefully constructed portrait image driven by a vision of the photographer to express a personal vision and explore the viewer’s gaze, rather than to produce a portrait that the subject was ‘happy with’.


Ewing, W.A. and Herschdorfer, N. (2008) Face: The new photographic portrait. London: Thames & Hudson.

Personal notes taken during tutor feedback session

OCA_IandP_Tutor Feedback on Assignment 2General

  • Overall – ‘80% there’, which is good and allows for some polishing in order to be ready for Assessment.
  • Add a menu item to show how things cross reference and inspire my developing practice.
  • Use a paper journal to develop thoughts and ideas organically.  photo the page and add to blog – no need to duplicate.
  • More pictures in blog
  • Critically review my work as though i was not familiar with it – it it clear, concise and unambiguous?


  • Try reshooting 1. with a real background of a real gathering?  White background a little lost against blog background.
  • Play with the order – mask as first shot?
  • 100 word intro and more consistent, short, titles.  Give space for interpretation of the images.
  • play with arranging small physical proofs to find the right order


  • Gillian Wearing – Masks, NPG (booked for 22 March)
  • Eggleston – recent exhibition.  Look at how he physically works to decide order and layout of presentation.

(Raw notes retained for archival purposes):

My Tutor’s feedback report can be found here.

Alec Soth – Portraits, the Ground Glass

My tutor recommended this short video interview with Alec Soth as part of my feedback for Assingment 1.

I first became acquainted with Soth’s work last year on an OCA Study Visit to Bradford where he had a positive influence on me. The write up from which can be found here:

In this short video he explains how the relationship between him and his subject is influenced by the use of a large format camera. He talks about how the 10×8 ground glass focussing screen, which he focuses on – literally – from under the dark cloth, effectively detached him from his subject.

They will still talk and ask questions to some degree but Soth talks about the distance that this arrangement creates between them compared to a typical subject.  He will stare intently at their eyes for no other reason than to focus accurately.  This is something that would not be socially acceptable to many subjects with a normal camera and would make them feel uncomfortable.

At one level the end result is a portrait of an individual looking relaxed in their environment.  The distance shows through as the subject does not appear ‘imposed upon’ or startled.  The natural focal length and distance mean that the personal space of the subject is respected.

However Soth is very conscious of the effect this relationship with his subject has on how he is portrayed in the end result.  He feels that this is as much a portrait of him as it is of them.  The distance allows him the space to treat his subject more like an object, it might be argued.  This is reinforced by the slow approach needed when using a large format camera, tripod and physical isolation under the cloth.

Personally the idea of slowing down for portraiture is something I need to experiment with. I would be very conscious of being ‘slow’ and risk the subject getting bored or accuse me of ‘faffing about’ – while Soth appears to be very ambivalent to this idea.  Although he doesn’t say this in the video, I’m sure he would be prepared to wait under the cloth until he got just the expression he was needing from the subject, however long that takes.

In a past life as a wedding photographer I would often use a tripod for territorial reasons – to subtly, non-verbally signpost to the groups where I planned to put myself and so which direction they needed to face.  Then, when I had them all in position, I would head back over to my ready-placed tripod and take the shot.  Aside of the very practical considerations of using a large format camera, Soth is also using it to assert his authority as the photographer, in control of the situation and demonstrate symbolically that he is prepared to take it slow and get everything just right.

Maybe his customers respect this consideration and attentiveness more than I imagine, in this age of hurried Instagram snaps?

Lensculture interview with Martin Schoeller

Wanted to save this to my blog to ‘capture’ it somewhere for future reference.

Born in Germany, Schoeller had a failed attempt at making it in New York before beconing known for his portraits of famous people on the covers of magazines like GQ.  His work shares some of the aesthetic qualities used by Parr and Gilden – Close range and sometimes unflattering, saturated vibrant colour, and high Clarity for example.  It also shares characteristics with the deadpan genre as often of close up faces not expressing any particular expression or gaze of acknowledgement towards the lens.

However they do something deeper in respect of revealing who the person is.  They expose an honest and slightly vulnerable side that can only come from getting to know the subject well and making them feel at ease.

In interview Shoelller states that he takes three portraits in each sitting: a flattering one, a close up and something more conceptual. I like this approach for various reasons.  Firstly it shows pre planning and structure to the shoot.  He knows what he wants to achieve at the outset.  The various poses give him options if one suits a particular subject more than another.

Secondly it develops different artistic and commercial disciplines.  He is extracting maximum value from his time with the famous person before him, extending his artistic mind while bolstering his commercial portfolio.

Are they all as good as the other? Does it dilute Schoeller’s personal style as mixed and undefined? in a purist sense, maybe.  But in practical terms I think this is healthy.  He can always choose how to curate and publif the images to manage his consistency of style. But it keeps him aware and striving to experiment with new ideas.  In support of this philosophy, on being asked to give one piece of advice for other photographers, he offers the suggestion that we should take as many photographs as we can: to ‘do’ not just view the work of others and ‘edit the mediocre ones’ in post processing.  

Assignment 2: Planning and thoughts

This was a very challenging assignment to get my head into for various reasons.  As such I spent a lot of time hitting dead ends and procrastinating, which is not something I’ve encountered before.

Identity and Place is definitely stretching me in new directions.

The ideas I was able to come up with seemed either ephemeral, in that I was not able to develop them into tangible plans that supported the assignment brief or were difficult to execure for practical reasons (time, logistics, etc).  In addition to all this, work and family pressures limited the time I had available for photography and studying.

I purchased a book to help trigger some creativity which is reviewed here:

From the brief:

“This assignment is about taking what has worked from the above exercises and then trying to develop this further in terms of interchanging the use of portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio). You need to develop a series of five final images to present to the viewer as a themed body of work. Pay close attention to the look and feel of each image and think how they will work together as a series. The theme is up to you to choose; you could take a series of images of a single subject or a series of subjects in a themed environment. There is no right answer, so experiment.”

I took the key words from the brief and played around with them.  The book suggested this as a method of stimulating creativity while staying true to the brief.  Essentially I had things like:

  • Vice-versa
  • 5x portraits
  • interchanging studio and location
  • themed body of work – how the set work together
  • experiment.

One of the things that worked well for me in Part 2 was spending time with people to really understand what made them ‘tick’ then trying to portray this through an image.

However, I found that the greatest challenge was in finding the time to organise the logistics of getting subjects, at a free time, to a specific location when I was not at work doing my full-time day job.

So it made sense to try and turn this on its head for Assignment 2 (vice-versa): how  could I show more creativity in terms of exploring the idea of portrait photography, while making while life easier for myself in terms of the logistics? I wondered if the answer lay in Exercise 2.4 and The Portable Tent Studio (Boothroyd & Roberts , 2015: p52)?

Inspired by Gone Astray by Clare Strand I spent a lot of time considering the purchase of a dedicated background then selecting a series of subjects to place against it, to highlight the disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in society, aspiration and inequality gaps.  I’m also very interested in how society seems to be splitting into two groups, not just based on wealth but in social and political ideology.  We are becoming more polarised and less tolerant of people ‘not like us’.  This idea could explore things such as pagan folk that I know in front of their village church (where seen as suspicious even though very similar in most ways), a homeless person in the doorway of a well known supermaket or bank, etc.

However this simply was not going to possible to orchestrate in the available timescales.  Additionally I was concered that the idea might be too literally contrasting and just appear strange and a bit ‘forced’.

Second idea

I also had the idea that it would be good to explore the idea of how people felt about their lives, past and future, through the background representing the past – or background to their life – and something else their hopes and aspirations.  But this could be a challenge to get people to the right location with sensible timescales for the reasons outlined above.

The first option considered was to use studio lighting to take portraits of people based on how they feel their life is going right now and what they are looking forward to.  The background would be part of the conversation then I would add this in afterwards using a chromakey background roll.  I wanted the subjects to be able to freely choose the background and not be limited by the practicalities of gettigthere.  Additionally, the logistical challenge was solved.

The risk of this approach were that the background looked too literal, artificial or ‘cheesy’.  But I wondered whether this could be used in a positive way to detach the background from reality.  Martin Parr in (Parr, 20xx) takes a similar approach where the perspective of the local photographer often seems quite incongruous.  Here we have a similar situation in that we often perceive our personal history to be more of a monster – or nostalgic bliss – than it really was.

Another option was similar but involved asking the subjects what colour they would give to their past then use this as the background with coloured gels.  This is less literal and relies on our perception of colour and semiotics for us to interpret the meaning.  I thought it would be interesting to contrast this with them as they are now.  The subject could also wear or hold an item in a corresponding colour representing where their aspirations now lay.  These colours may be similar in a content person, or wildly different in someone whose life has since taken significant turns.  The colours may jarr or be harmonious.   There may be shadows of the past, or not in their lives represented by allowing shadows to fall on the background.

Logistics were a challenge for a group of subjects and an outdoor shoot.  I considered a Facebook ‘appeal’ for willing subjects and take them to a pre selected location for a shoot.  But available time meant that this would be hard to organise and at the mercy of the weather on that particular day.  Initial explorations highlighted that it would be near impossible to get a date every subject and I could align to.  The other option was to do each subject individually but, when working full time and having family duties on Sundays, this meant only Satudays were possible.  So the shoot would take a long time to complete.

Realisation phase – the culmination of ideas

Still struggling for inspiration I finally realised that I was making life difficult for myself by being too ambitious.  I needed to set my sights closer to home and accept the constraints upon me.  Practitioners such as Gawain Barnard in Maybe We’ll Be Soldiers (Barnard, 2011) have used their local environment not just for convenience but because it allowed them to really get to know the people and environment they were working with while also exploring themselves deeper within that context (Barnard, 2011).

For practical and personal reasons I really liked the idea of working with a single person in a mixture of location and studio setting to highlight some sort of contrast in modern society .  I wanted to know the person well (either beforehand or by the end of the project) and bring that personality out in the images with authenticity and empathy.  Meanwhile – and just as importatly – I wanted to be able to readily identify with this person closely enough to be able to inject something of myself into the work.  It shouldn’t just be photographs of ‘them’.

The next post under this category shows the final result:


Barnard, G. (2011). Maybe we’ll be soldiers.  Available at: [last accessed 12/03/17]

Ingledew, J. (2011). The a-z of visual ideas: How to solve any creative brief. London: Laurence King Publishing.

Parr, M. (20zsssss).  Auto Portrait.  Available online at:  [Last accessed 12/03/17]

Exercise 2.4: Same background, different model

For this exercise I decided to return to the pub theme for a second time (last time I promise!).  I had the idea that a pub has a steady procession of people coming in and out all with different stories to tell.  But most of them come and go with the company they arrived with, often not engaging wider apart from withe the landlord.

I often visit my local on Saturday lunchtime so decided to carry my camera with me and place it on the table in front of me.  I would then start a conversation with whoever came to sit next to me with a view to taking their picture.  The aim was to make that particular seat becoming a focal piont, a podium, for whoever passed through.



I’d never met Andy before and he presents a rather intimiading character.  He is a lifelong fan of the Manchester City football team, evidenced through numerous tatoos, a beard in time colours and tshirts.  Apparently Andy always dresses like this – he was not on his way to watch a football match.  He had stories to tell, many of which involved getting into scuffles.  By day he is a bus driver and expressed annoyance that the bus he drives is in the opposing team colours.



John is a retired potter and school teacher.  He is also the Green Man of the local Morris Dancing team and often gets asked to impersonate Santa over the winter season.  Turning slightly to one side makes it easier to hear when the pub is noisy, apparently due to his new hearing aid.   Afterwards I wished I had put his hands in shot as a link to his trade since this would have made for a more interesting final image.


Tony has befriended an injured jackdaw that was found by the pub landlady.  At home Tony is a also full time carer for his enderly mother.


With hindsight I can see that I broke the rules with this last photo, having rotated my chair and taken it from a different angle.  While still recognisable as the same venue, it is clear that this breaks the uniformity of the overall set in the way the Irving Penn did:  Suddently this background seems more important because it is different, so confuses the eye as it looks for the meaning to the set.

This is an exercise I could do a lot more with.  The context of a pub is clear in the background and a 35mm lens gives a sense of environment without being uncomfortably close to the subjects and introducing distortion.  Almost like speed-dating – there is a sense of a procession taking place before me, people coming and going.

The key learning from this exercise was how you don’t get a second chance.  I could have made a better image of John to contextualise his hands as a potter but the thought occurred to me too late.  That’s a valuable lesson in pre-visualising the shot and directing the subject to attain what is in my mind.

Corner Portraits – Irving Penn

Kozloff draws a distinction between the ‘detached yet stringent’ portraiture of August Sander (Kozloff, 2007, p:191 ) who was discussed in Part 1 and the portraits of indigenous peoples shot by Penn for Vogue magazine between 1950 and 1970.

Penn started ou by taking the portraits in local dress and occasionally masks set against a faded backdrop from a commercial studio.  However this soon evolved to using a backdrop with a ‘vague, shifting tonality'(ibid. p192) as explored in the course test for Part two and Exercise 2.4 Different Subject, same background.  By taking these people out of their natural environment he created a sort of theatrical ‘stage’ to display them on to ‘set off their picturesque shabbiness to graphic effect’ (ibid. p.192).

Many of the portraits have something quite incongruous and amusing about them while at the same time being stark and austere.

This theme can be traced back to his earlier work, for example Corner Portraits (1948).  Instead of a plain, dingy backdrop cloth Penn here placed two plain walls and an acute angle to create an effect of a ‘corner of a room’.  Again there are no props or ecourtrements, just the subject and the bare corner backdrop.

The portraits are fascinating for the way in which each subject makes the space his/her own in some way and engages with it differently.  Some lean against it defiantly separate.  Lots of others appear to quite literally back themselves into a corner, contorting their limbs and bodies into the recess of the corner.  We can’t help but read meanings into this even though we know nothing of the subjects: shy, timid, gregarious or whatever, based on little more than their clothing and how they place themselves in a corner before the unforgiving lens of the photographer.

Penn leaves us in no doubt that the portrait photographer can gain a lot from placing his subjects in a simple environment which they can relate to in their own way.  When this relationship is established, the background becomes an amplifier, or reflector for the subject’s personality, revealing more than just the face ever could.



Kozloff, M. (2007) The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press.

Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes

Widely recognised as Barthes’ last and most accessible work, Camera Lucida has become essential reading in photography despite its diminutive size of some 119 pages.

It is as much an exploration of Barthes’ own mind as it is of photography per se.  It looks at the relationship between the photograph, death and the theatre.  As part of my feedback for Assignment 1 my tutor suggested I particularly focus on what Barthes has to say about the theatre and how it feels to be photographed.

Barthes starts by recollecting a memory of a photograph of Napoleon’s brother, being astonished at being able to look ‘at the eyes that looked at the Emperor’. Sometimes I have stopped myself to pause over a similar wonder about photography – we can see legendary moments from history.  This simple fact can be easily overlooked as we delve deeper into the meanings, semiotics and psychology of photography, but worth pausing to reflect on as ‘the photograph reproduces to infinity what has occurred only once’ (Barthes,  1980, p4).  He notes that there are three fundamental aspects to photography: to take photographs, to undergo being photographed and to view photographs, pointing out that the majority of books on the subject educate on how to perform only the first of these.

Regarding the experience of being photographed, Barthes notes how this can never be a passive experience because as soon as he notices that he is receiving the attention of the lens he instinctively engages ‘in the process of posing’.  ‘This transformation is an active one: I feel that the photograph creates by body or mortifies it’ (ibid, p11).  He feels engaged in the process of how he will ‘come out’ on the paper at the end. So it is not just the photographer who is engaged in the process of taking the portrait, Barthes himself as the subject is too.  He refers to it as ‘the photographic ritual’ ‘the social game’.  He wants us to know that he is posing consciously yet he also still wants to be authentic with ‘the precious essence of my individuality’ shiny through.

But what is this individuality? He notes that, however hard he tries in countless photographs, he never finds ‘its ground zero’ (ibid. p12) and some form of expression is evident.  I have noted in the previous post how this individual identity is not fixed but evolves over time.  Because it is so fleeting, so malleable, so locked in the past, we can never truly look at the photograph and declare it be be who I am right now.

He goes on to analyse how four characteristics come in to play, constantly changing in influence and proportionality, photograph by photograph:

  • The one I think I am
  • The one I want others to think I am
  • The one the photographer thinks I am
  • The one he makes use of to exhibit his art.
It is clear from this that the subject is only actively engaged in the first two, both of which may themselves come into conflict (we may want to appear thin when we feel fat, for example).  Efforts to appear thin (holding in the tummy, perhaps!) could count for nought if the photographer sees us as fat and chooses to exploit that characteristic in his work.
Before subjugating himself completely to the will of the photographer, he observes that there is a moment where he ceases to exist purely as subject or object, but is a subject in the process of becoming on object.  Therefore, in an interim state of neither one thing nor the other, he is essentially dead, or a ‘spectre’ (ibid. p14).  He muses how hard the photographer works to prevent him becoming ‘dead’ in this way through the use of contextual backgrounds and props to keep him ‘alive’ (if just for commercial reasons).  But he is effectively already passed over into being just an object, fearful of how his captured image might be perceived in external context. He asserts that he ‘has a political right to be a subject’, and must fight to protect that right.
Ultimately the subject becomes dead, just an object, once the image is taken.  It no longer has life of its own, is static and frozen in time (curiously, we ‘shoot’ our victim at the point of this death by pulling the trigger known as the shutter).
Barthes draws a parallel of this idea of death with theatre, arguing that theatre and photography are closely aligned.  Theatre has a tradition of making the actors appear dead – Indian Kathikali for example – in order to separate them form mainstream society with whitened faces.
Later in the book Barthes sets out to explain the concepts of studium and punctum which have been covered more fully in my learning blog for Context and Narrative and so shall not repeat here.  He then illustrates this through an account of seeking the essence of his late mother’s personality in a photograph.  In most photographs she was ‘dead’, an object as set out earlier in the book.  But one photograph of her as a younger girl carries a punctum which triggers him to declare it to be a likeness of her.  I wonder how much of the thinking behind the book reflects a personal quest to come to terms with the loss of his mother and to explore why a single photograph can have such a powerful effect on personal memory.
In addition to introducing the academic concepts of eidos, studium and punctum, this book has Led me to consider the different perspectives of Operator, Subject (referent) and Viewer in different ways.  In practice, the gaze of the subject must be selected and considered in light of Barthes’ observations – if I were to summarise the key message of the book into one phrase it would be empathise with the subject before the camera in order to be able to photograph them.


Barthes, R. and Howard, R. (2000) Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. London: Vintage Classics.

Phillip Prodger – Views on Portraiture

A Lensculture interview with Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and curator of the recent William Eggleston exhibition.

Prodger argues that portraiture can actually be a very poor means of capturing ‘identity’ in that the photograph can only ever capture us at a brief moment in time while our identities are not fixed – they change throughout our lives as we evolve, learn and experience life.

Further, he goes on to say that less skilled photographers can make work that is superficial by focusing on key features that have strong semiotic correspondences.  He draws parallels with a writer making a ‘tireless nurse compassionate or an evil villain dastardly’, for example.

Fundamentally I agree with this in the sense that the changing character of people in response to their life experiences is what makes us who we are.  Without this we would all be much the same or doomed to never changing our lot through striving to improve ourselves.  We are never a ‘finished product’ in personality terms.

At one level we all know this and accept it from photography.  A cringeworthy example of this might be when mum shows their offspring’s boyfriend/girlfriend the family photo album and a very different (younger) side to the current beloved is exposed to teasing and embarrassment!  Apart from crazy teenage haircuts there are more significant issues too: a person suffering physical disability through accident or illness is bound to be a different identity in a portrait to who they were before it happened.  At a physical level the cells in our body renew after a period of weeks or months, meaning that, quite literally, none of us are the same person we were last year.

Given that we accept that the human character, or identity, is not set in stone a photographic portrait can only ever hope to capture the essence of that person right here and now.  I think this is where Barthes was coming from in Camera Lucida when he says ”

Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me (the “intention” according to which I look at it) is Death” (Barthes, 1980: P15).  That moment has gone.  That particular aspect of the subject has gone.  That fact that is cannot be recreated exactly is what makes the photograph so special, and if skilfully done, represents identity at that particular time.


Barethes, R.  1980 Camera Lucida,  London, Random House.