Category Archives: Practitioners

Study Visit – Cathedral of the Pines, Gregory Crewdson.

Crewdson is known for his meticulously planned, cinematic ‘frames’. This exhibition, Cathedral of the Pines, is said to be his most personal to date.

Up until this point my relationship with Crewdson’s work was mixed.  On one hand it is impossible not to be full of admiration for the depth of planning, choreography and technical quality in each image.

In fact I would describe his work as a Hollywood movie lasting just 1/125th of a second.

But is it too clinical?  How much of Crewdson am I really  seeing here, or is it sanitised and synthesised? Is it so objectively, so precisely, reconstructed that it loses the essence of the original idea?

Looking wider, how much of the recognition should go to his numerous crew instead?  Does it matter that a ‘Director of Photography’ is employed to do a lot of the thinking?

Does it matter whether or not he actually presses the shutter:

There are recurring themes in the works: Bare bulbs; cars with open doors; semi naked ladies staring blankly; sheds or outside toilets.  The holes in the ground – reminiscent of his tales of his his father’s psychotherapist practice on the basement of his childhood home.

There is a curious portrayal of the genders too.  The female is seen in many images as naked, wet hair, staring forward at nothing obvious.  The signifiers are of vulnerability and introspection.  By contrast only one male is shown completely naked, but safely cocooned within the steel shell of his VW Camper.

It is tempting to treat each image as an intellectual puzzle, knowing that each and every element in the image is placed deliberately the brain tries to ‘solve’ the riddle.  I found myself trying to find the reason for every included element like a scene of crime detective.  Like an accountant going over a balance sheet, I felt that everything should be objectified rather than left as a subjective artistic view.

But it dawned on me that the opposite might actually be true.  Since every element is a faithful reproduction of Crewdson’s original vision for the photograph, it could equally be argued that we are seeing a reproduction that is very faithful indeed.  Like a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork – everything uncannily replicated, true to his original idea.

Why the recurring themes like car doors and blankly staring ladies?  Is Crewdson moving the key elements of his mind around, juxtaposing them in different scenarios?  We all have recurring thoughts and dreams that we seek to reconcile as part of our life work.  How therapeutic is it for Crewdson to analyse, dissect and reconstruct these inner thoughts?

Indeed, a fellow student on the visit questioned whether we would similarly challenge a painter, having spent months meticulously working on an oil painting.  Clearly we would not.  On reflection it seems unfair to challenge Crewdson for being so meticulous about his work.

I initially found this exhibition difficult for the reasons outlined.  As well as gaining a much better understanding of his work, I came away with great respect for Crewdson as an individual too, not just for the sheer technical accomplishment, but for the almost obsessive attention to detail to faithfully create what is in his mind.

With this in mind, the work is surely authentic and courageous because I now know that he did not miss out anything at all in what he is showing us about his inner thoughts.  The interpretation is left up me – and I’m not the psychotherapist here.



Michael Wolf – Tokyo Compression

this caught my eye and wanted to save it.

Michael Wolf stands on the Tokyo underground platform as the steamed-up windows reveal the commuters that scroll before him. As we look at the disquieting images we might ask why people tolerate this? You can feel the discomfort. The fingers down the condensation-soaked windows look like fingernails against a cell wall.

But we can also see how it feels ‘normal’ to be a commuter in this every day. It is tolerated.  A fascinating insight into what we humans will accept.

The condensation reduces the faces to abstracts, not real people, just shapes and colours behind a window.  We cant see their gaze, their expressions.  It is as though their humanity is suspended while on the train.  Faceless.  Until they arrive at the other end.

At the Flowers Gallery until 1 July.



Exercise 3.2 – aspects of personality

This exercise requires me make a list of some unique aspects of my personality then set about expressing these attributes through a photograph.

I noted that the exercise does not use the word ‘portrait’ on this occasion.

I reflected on a few ideas then went for a walk around the city of Derby.  I opted for a gritty black and white aesthetic to echo the darker, more melancholy, shadow-self that resides below the happy, cheerful persona that other people identify with as being ‘Ian’:

_IMG2767 There is a constant conflict within me of wanting structure and order vs. seeking a simpler, less structured life where random fun things happen.

After taking this I also considered that there’s a voyeuristic element to this image – as though a person unknown is watching me through a venetian blind.  I fear our gradual loss of civil liberties caused by CCTV, internet surveillance, and so on as we cannot be assured that those watching us always have good intent.


_IMG2766This image describes me on two levels.  I love to be alone in nature, especially near trees and water.  Despite being in the centre of a busy city this rower have found his own quiet space, the image framed to exclude the surrounding buildings and bridges.

Like me, he’s seeking to enjoy a journey as much as the achievement of the destination.  No competitiveness, no challenge.  Just being, moving, travelling.



Is this graffiti reflecting my nature of wanting to help and support people?  Or is it a mirror, reminding me how often I don’t do this?



I’m easily discouraged by obstacles.  I’m trying to learn to step back and see the way around them.


I feel very inspired to develop this into a body of work and, for this reason alone, has been excellent at helping me out of a bit of a rut.  Compared to previous OCA courses I am finding the portraiture in I+P to be more challenging, so it was good to be ‘let off the portraiture leash’ for a while and take photos I enjoy again.

My idea is to consider developing this to see how this mirror of self, portrayed through inanimate objects, changes over time.  Perhaps a photobook over a year.  Like keeping a written journal but containing photographs.  It will be fascinating to see how feelings, mood, style and environment work together and evolve over a period of time.  I need to be careful to ensure that this introspective self indulgence doesn’t become all consuming though.   While I adore the work of Francesca Woodman, things didn’t end up well for her, as we know.  There are also aspects of the self-exploration into the troubled life of Claude Cahun here, as already explored in detail by Gillian Wearing:

Often a fan of bold ‘Martin Parr like’ primary colours and implied humour, it was interesting to explore this darker side of self.  I believe we all have one inside us.  Hopefully the viewer would feel that they knew something of my personal journey when they reached the end of it.  Although it should really be a personal journal that triggers other ideas and thoughts.  My tutor has encouraged the use of a paper-based photo scrapbook and journal for this purpose so I will combine the two some how.   I note that some people engage on ‘Project 365’ and ‘Photo a Day’ projects.


Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 – Tate Modern

Being a long standing admirer of Tillmans’ work I was keen to make the trip to London to see his exhibition at the Tate Modern.  Comprising 14 themed rooms of his work to date, the exhibition flyer/booklet stresses that this is not just a retrospective, however.

On entering the exhibition it soon becomes apparent why.  Each room is more of a themed installation than just gallery space.

One room may house images on the theme of ‘travel’, juxtaposing huge closeup abstract views of a car headlamp with scenes of remote corners of Africa, for example. Tillmans draws the observation that the car headlamps ‘are more angular now, giving them a more predatory appearance’, drawing parallels with human eyes and hinting at them reflecting a more aggressive rather than ‘wide eyed innocent’ world we now live in.

Another room, based upon his work Truth Study Center (2005 onwards), is ingeniously laid out on trestles rather than just the walls.  The subject matter highlights the difficulties separating fact from fiction in the modern world of photography, politics  and media – all the more poignant in the current era of ‘fake news’.  The trestles form a sort of maze through the room, getting in the way of our clear path through.  It is hard to see every table without going back on yourself at least once.

Other rooms explore issues of gender and sexuality, the environment and other topics.  One contains his books and posters laid out for perusing, evoking a feeling of visiting the photobook sale at the Format Photography Festival – except here of course there was only one exhibitor.

Further underlining the intention that this is a series of installations rather than just photographs, one room is empty apart from seats and a high quality hifi system.  Playing a small selection of tracks from Colourbox, Tillmans also wants us to take time out to appreciate this art form as the artist intended, not on a squarky little mobile phone speaker or headphones.

Tillmans continues to inspire for his ability to see everyday things in a way that reveal so much about the people around it.  There’s s strong political and environmental narrative in much of his work but this is done while still leaving the viewer space to reflect and think (the exception being the EU Referendum posters perhaps which leave no space for ambiguity!).

Footnote: I was disappointed to note that, shortly after my visit I saw that an OCA study visit has been set up for the same exhibition, led by my current tutor.  If only I’d waited a week!  If I can arrange to go, it would be interesting to visit again with my tutor and fellow students to see how their perception of the exhibition compares with my own.

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?

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.