Category Archives: Research and reflection

Final Reflections on I&P

There is a sense of ‘developing a practice’ starting to come through in my work now which I’m very pleased about. I’m inspired to continue with Assignment 5 and the Part 5 exercise 5.3 ‘Amberline’  as longer-term personal projects (or develop them further in Level 2 Landscape), as also encouraged by my tutor.  For Exercise 5.3 in particular, I find the lack of people in the images intriguing and draw parallels with the work of Atget.  This is something I will take into my next course, Level 2 Landscape, and explore deeper.

I&P has presented me with a significant challenge and was definitely the right course to choose after Context and Narrative. Assignment 1, Photographing Strangers, felt like a mountain to climb at the beginning but Assignment 5 shows how far the course content and my tutor have developed me. I’m thinking very differently about my work in areas such as cohesiveness and finding meaning.  But the biggest change is that I am now welcoming rather than fearful of the opportunity to work with strangers. The key is to get to know them while being clear on my creative purpose  – then I can portray them with purpose and confidence.

One thing that kept cropping up in my discussions with my tutor throughout Identity & Place is how I work.  Or, as I fondly call it, the ‘notebook issue’.

My tutor has advocated more use of a physical notebook as an effective, organic method of capturing, stimulating and linking creative thoughts and ideas.  I’ve tried this a couple of times and two issues arise

  1. Falling back into using the digital tools essential for my work life
  2. My handwriting!

I organise my professional life using an online ‘to do list’ app (Todoist) and Microsoft OneNote.  I always have my phone in my pocket, so I fall back into a habit of capturing ideas on the fly in my to do list. I then collate these at a later date, grouping them into the project or Assignment I’m currently working on.

This works really well for ensuring that I capturing things and don’t forget them because I didn’t have a pen at the time.  As a left-hander, I also sometimes go back to my written notes and struggle to read what I actually wrote.

Ive tried mind mapping tools but these seem to be clunky and I lose spontaneity with them.

Nevertheless, I do want to make more use of a physical notebook to ‘break’ my habit of keeping things logically structured and think more organically, letting ideas morph into new ones.

Trying to find a perfect compromise, I think I need to accept that my single to do list is ‘king’ for enduring I never forget anything g in life so I’m reluctant to give this up. But I also need a companion notebook to explore themes and ideas in a less structured way. I will also try slowing down with a nice pen so that I can hopefully read it again after.

Sometimes the simple things seem the hardest to fix.  This is a theme I’ll take with me into Level 2.

Looking back at the practitioners who were a major inspiration for my work during I&P, these would have to be Arbus, Tillmans and Kosloff’s ‘The Theatre of the Face‘ for setting out the progressive journey photographic portraiture has taken in the last hundred years.  Alongside this, Rankin provided a mental ‘bridge’ between my old, more commercially-oriented way of thinking and taking a more artistic approach.

As discussed in my self-reflection on Assignment 5, Arbus taught me how empathy can provide an ethical platform for curiosity in approaching people as potential photographic subjects.  I was lo longer thinking ‘apologetically’ as an annoying person with a camera, but as someone with clear intent to show people as unique, worthy but visually interesting individuals.

Authenticity and Personal Voice

https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/authenticity/6325

Interesting discussion on the OCA discussion forum which caught my eye because I’m thinking a lot about personal voice as I approach Level 2 and a sense of authenticity in others was such a key part of my I&P Assignment 5 just completed.

 

Andrew makes the distinction with cats:

“when the work of photographers is researched as the basis for a piece of work ‘does anyone know a photographer who has worked with cats jumping out of windows’, which is then used as an inspiration for a series of cats jumping out of windows. This seems too contrived to produce authenticity. Whereas, ‘I saw a series of cats jumping from windows and wondered how it would feel to be that cat’, which is then used to make photos while jumping from objects speaks to an authentic interest of the photographer.”

 

Like I’ve done in Assignment 5 – taking clear inspiration from Arbus in the method of approach, relating to subjects and highlighting less ‘normal’ members of society -for the Assignment to work I had to internalise this and expresss it in my own way.  I’m genuinely interested in exploring how individuals relate to place in a spiritual way and find their own path away from the mainstream religions.  I hope this diversity and authenticity (in them) shows through in the result.

 

Clive W adds that “the degree is all about finding out; who you are as a photographer, what you want to photograph and why. It’s investigative.”

It makes sense now why the course advocates that I take risks, discover, explore.  It’s this self exploration and learning how to express it using a camera that is so important.

 

Looking back, I can see that the early signs of developing a personal voice started to appear late in Context and Narrative, then developed steadily over Identity and Place. Reflecting on my own work now themes around personal spirituality crop up again and again, as does a relationship with the land around us.  At one point I feel quite disheartened with I&P and the focus on people and portraits, I yearn to say more about the places we occupy again, our relationships with our environment.

By contrast, in Assignment 5 I absolutely relished working with people and portraits, enjoying every shoot and resolving to continue as a personal project.

 

As these themes crystallise into a personal voice it looks clear that I’ll better relate to subjects who actually say something about me.

‘Photography is now over’ – Wim Wenders

It was a bit startling to read this when 1/3 of the way through a photography degree, especially coming from Wim Wenders, my favourite film director and a keen photographer himself!

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/12/wim-wenders-interview-polaroids-instant-stories-photographers-gallery?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Wenders, who created Paris, Texas and Until the end of the world, makes the argument that “It’s not just the meaning of the image that has changed – the act of looking does not have the same meaning. Now, it’s about showing, sending and maybe remembering. It is no longer essentially about the image”.

I would take the view that photography has always changed perceptions about how we see, and always will. Neipce, Fox Talbot and Daguerre opened the door for people to see themselves perhaps for the first time unadulterated by a painter’s vision. Sontag argued in the 70’s that Photography was undermining our sense of empathy through constantly seeing war images.

The ‘selfie generation’ is driving one such paradigm shift in ‘seeing’ right now. I believe that to be Wenders’ key point when he talks about ‘Now it’s about showing, telling and maybe remembering’ instead of having “produced something that was, in itself, a singular moment. As such, it had a certain sacredness. That whole notion is gone.”

Firstly, outside of the ‘selfie culture’ i’m not sure that I agree with him.  There is a thriving commiunity of contemporary photographic artists as well as installation artists using the medium as a tool for displaying their work.

Looking at the selfie culture itself, he has a point.  But Pictorialism, abstract and other movements may come and go as Wenders laments, but the fundamentals of photography are unchanged as it evolves as an art form. i.e. it is for the photographer to derive meaning from what he sees before him and communicate that meaning through an image.

I do agree that an intended meaning of “Look! Me at the Eiffel Tower doing a duck face” on a selfie isn’t very stimulating to most people.

Mindful photography

Part 5 develops a theme that I started to explore in Assignment 4, that of the concept of mindfullness in photography:

Whatever it is, begin to notice how where you are influences you”

And

in the moment is where good photographs are often found”.

Harding Pitman clearly identified with what was happening in the would around him, the sprawl of LA Style urban paraphanalia acrcross the world making places less uniquem characterful and more ‘western normalised’ over time.  https://www.lensculture.com/articles/robert-harding-pittman-anonymization-the-global-proliferation-of-urban-sprawl

I’m realising that successful photography must be woven into the very life we lead, not just to be a passive, detached activity like Sontag warns of in Plato’s Cave, to “help people to take possession of a space in which they are insecure” (Sontag, 1977. P.9) speaking of tourists that use the camera to pry into the cultures of others while being safely protected from it by the lens they peer through.

Instead, photography with personal meaning is dependent upon living mindfully, fully in the present, so that we are receptive to:

  • What is happening around us right now and;
  • How we feel about it.
The photograph is a combination of these two things – the awareness and the personal artistic response.
As we consider this concept more fully, is becomes harder to separate out many of the basic tenets of, say, Eastern Buddhism from practicing any art.  Perhaps that is why religion has inspired so much art through the ages: Tibetan Thankga Paintings and Mandalas, Christian frescoes, Greek statues of deities and American totem poles amongst them.  They are artistic responses to a spiritual belief, rooted in, and inspired by, a connectedness to the world around thrm.
This opens the door to the practice and study of photography being part of a personal spiritual journey and not merely an academic pursuit, developing a deeper awareness of the world around us and our place within it.

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.





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.

Power in Simplicity: How This Modern Photographer Mastered His Style – Photographs by Charles SheelerReview by Coralie Kraft | LensCulture

A diversion from my current course content but entirely relevant to the development of a personal style.

Charles Sheeler is celebrated in this Lensculture article by Coralie Kraft as a great example of how to make your work recognisable as your own, ‘putting your stamp on it’, developing a personal voice.

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/museum-of-fine-arts-boston-power-in-simplicity-how-this-modern-photographer-mastered-his-style

I can see how his work carries a trademark sense of grand vertical space, mundane industrial scenes looking like prestigious cathedrals, understated yet at the same time imposing.

Kraft cites Annie Leiberwitz and Alec Soth as both having a strong and immediately identifiable style – I’d quickly add Douggie Wallace and Gregory Crewdson to that list as well.

How does my own work measure against this test?  Clearly I’m still developing a personal style as my studies progress, but some themes are already clear:

  • In an era of natural looking desaturated colour being the norm, i often make use of strong colour and high contrast
  • Abstracts and simple form
  • A sense of lonliness in the landscape, desolate places – especially megaliths
  • Our relationship with the land as a vehicle to explore ourselves and our ancestors
  • Paths, routes, entrances.  A sense of travelling
  • Social justice, the haves and have nots of modern society
  • A slightly quirky view on life.
This post is intended primarily as a bookmark to refer back to, in order to see how these themes develop as my studies continue.
 
 

 

Developing a personal voice / Identity and Place / direction after the doldrums

I have been reflecting on this in light of my recent ‘creative block’ (previous post).

I see the land and how our ancestors lived in it as important.  I’m interested in walking, routes, maps and ancient monuments. My spirituality is based around the concept of a Mother Earth.

So this is my ‘place‘, exploring the ‘identities‘ of the natural world and folk that used to inhabit it.

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains.” (Macfarlane, 2012).

I feel that this is something I care about, a part of what drives me as a person and therefore I ought to get back to incorporating this into my photography.  It forms the basis of what I might develop to become my personal creative voice.

How do I give the ancestors, the land, the environment a voice in these modern times? What are the commonalities with how we live here today? What are the conflicts and issues?

I feel that I need to start bringing these threads together in my studies – my personal passions, my sense of identity and place.  Still stretch, explore and experiment, open to all the wonderful influences that my OCA studies reveal to me.  But maybe I’ve been trying too hard to go somewhere different than where my passion lies. Hopping about.   I need to be true to myself and use that as the basis for my practice – while still stretching myself as hard as I can with this underpinning it.

 

References

 

Macfarlane, R. (2012) The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.  London, Penguin.

Challenging times again

Ive taken a break for a couple of weeks, being away with my partner and friends in SW England and at a festival.

Before i went i was feeling very flat and demoralised again with my practice.  This is something that hasnt happened before (been taking photographs for 30 odd years) but has happened twice on Identiy and Place.

First of all, lets get this out of the way, it is nothing to do with the quality of the course or my tutor.  My tutor has been fantastic throughout – a great mix of encouragement, support yet prodding and challenging me where I need it.  And I quietly smile to myself when she’s intuitive enough to know which one I need – wise stuff and immensely helpful.

The course content is exactly what I wanted it to be – a challenge in the largely unexplored arena of people photography.  So that is also good.

While on holiday I hardly picked up a camera.  It felt like I needed a break.  I did read – I used the time to really try and get under the skin of the more difficult texts such as Barthes and Sontag. I was asked to take some photographs of my partner and her colleagues at an award ceremony.

A bit messy.  Could have arranged them better.  Shows where my head was at the time.

This lack of motivation created a loss of inertia, a downward spiral, a loss of confidence, apathy and procrastination.

Not good.

So what is going on?  How do I get my mojo back?

I have really dug deep into myself during my time off to try and learn why.

I think one thing is work pressure.  Ultimately photography is foreced to be a hobby to fit in around work.  When work is busy and stressful (and it is just work, not anything that feeds my soul) then my energy for other things is diminished.  But that is just reality. A reality faced by many others on the same path.  But work hasnt been / isnt great.

I’m also suffering from something I call ‘People paralysis’.  I find it harder to motivate myself to take pictures of people…sometimes. I took these photographs of strangers at a festival a week ago.  I think the difference is that they knew they were ‘supposed to be’ photographed at an event.  There was no ‘approaching strangers’ hurdle to ask them involved:

So it isn’t a fear of people per se.  Its a fear of approaching, of supposed to be there in that role of photographer.  I need to work hard to overcoome this but, equally, i need to enjoy my photography again by taking images of things that inspire and interest me.

This fear drives a procrastination which is hard to overcome after a 12 hoour working day and a hot dinner in the evening.

—-

Yesterday a friend asked me to share some photos from the events above.  This I did, to the expected oohs and aaahs on Facebook of those I was there with.  And suddenly Im back.  Motivated, and thinking about Exercise 4.3 again.  But why do we fall into these lulls, waste time and struggle to overcome them?  Especially when it is something we know we fundamentally like to do?

Study Visit – 21 May 2017. Bradford ‘A trio of exhibitions’

1. Britain in focus: A Photographic History

  • Not seen a real daguerrotype before, only in books, so this was fascinating to see.
  • Noted how Cameron would defocus to create a soft effect.
  • Learning that US soldiers would purchase daguerrotypes in junk shops, discard the photo then use the holder to store items made me reflect on how much of our archives are lost.  Cameron is prominent in history as she had good contacts, was wealthy and photographed famous people.  But how many local photographers were doing good work, exploring new boundaries, but we never knew?
  • Parr reminds us to photograph the banal…as that is tomorrow’s curiosity.
  • The soldeirs took a risk – but these are the only records we now have for some aspects of the war (unsanitized by the propaganda machine)
  • Smaller exhibition than expected – is this really a celebration of out best wotk over the years? Or have much of Bradford’s archives now been relocated to london i wonder?

2. Pinhole Camera

  • A beautiful ethereal feel to the images, dreamy, otherworldly. Evokes the work of Francesca Woodman in feel if not in technique.
  • Sarah van Keuren: pinhole cameras need long shutter speeds so they hold a collection of expressions, not just a single frozen moment.  “Seems to get at a certain hidden truth” about the character of the subject.  This is something ive reflected on before, how a portrait, a single moment, can never fully represent a full person as they cannot be ‘all of themselves in 1/125th of a second.
  • I’ve been working more with black and white film cameras lately. Theres s connection, a richness, a less-clinical and more emotional representation that appeals to me. How can i apply pinhole photography to my practice to develop this idea further?

https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/whats-on/poetics-light-pinhole-photography

3. Mother River, Yan Wang Preston

  • An ambitious project, following the Yangtze River for its length of 6,211km and taking 63 photographs with a large format camera exactly 100km apart.
  • As a group we explored whether this was a good strategy or not.  How many exellent photo opportunities were excluded because they were not exactly on a 100km ‘Y Point?  Some images were not particulary interesting.  However i took a different view.  This made it authentic, not artificially enhanced by picking only the good bits.  If three quarters of the images were strong, then I can believe that three quarters of the river is interesting in real life.  I feel I’m being shown the truth.
  • The work reminded me strongly of a similar project i understook last summer, to walk the entire 15mile length of my local River, the Amber.  Instead of taking photos at fixed points however i took them at the interesting bits.  Which i more successful?  It depends on the viewer’s sense of connection with the land i would argue, not just the images themselves.

General notes:

  • Had a really good chat with the tutor/leader on the study visit about the use of blogs.  I thought i was expected to fill my blog with reviews as evidence of having read books, etc.  However this is not the case, making the blog too verbose for assessors to review and diverting from its msin purpose of being a place to refect, show learning and to critique.  Ive taken a different approach with this post with this in mind.
  • Other advice was to keep my work personal and interesting.  Dont be scared to take risks, say more about who I am, what I like – and brave enough to say what I don’t.
  • As ever, great company from my fellow students. Discussing and sharing makes the course ‘come alive’ and i always come back more motivated and inspired in my studies.