The exhibition was vast and took me several hours to take in. The photographs were intense and oppressive; even the landscapes of Somerset where McCullin now lives and I grew up had the atmosphere of the Somme. It is sometimes said that photographs say as much about the photographer as the subject, and in the later landscape works I felt that might in fact say more about the photographer than the subject! When watching him interviewed, I’ve always felt the weight of McCullin’s war experiences cast a deep shadow over his identity.
For a change, photography was allowed in the gallery. However, I didn’t feel like taking home McCullin’s horrific and tragic experiences; and I felt similarly about the books on display in the Tate’s shop. By intention, many of the images were almost too painful to see. McCullin has said he regrets that his images have changed little; there is still war and famine. I wondered whether if people had seen them on the scale possible on gallery walls, rather than newspaper magazines (or now on small screens), they would have had a greater impact, been impossible to ignore. The images viewed at this scale and in this volume certainly had a far greater effect on my own experience of them.
A section of McCullin’s work was directly relevant to my own project’s Northernness. He had spent time in Bradford, Liverpool and other Northern cities at a time when they were industrialised.
The images brought home how I was photographing a deindustrialised North, a sense of an aftermath that has been so long coming through a slow decline that the before is beginning to escape living memory. As a separate matter, I talk about the lasting effect of deindustrialisation on communities in my dissertation.
I felt the McCullin retrospective was a huge success – it disturbed and left me speechless for a while, which was McCullin’s intention when taking the photographs.
RedEye network emailed members advanced notice of 30 minute portfolio discussions with renowned practitioners. Free for members. Erik Knudsen is one of those practitioners (https://www.onedayfilms.com/photography/) – a film maker and photographer and professor of digital culture at UClan (https://www.uclan.ac.uk/staff_profiles/professor-erik-knudsen.php).
I’ve been lucky to book one of the few available spots with Erik in early October and am using this post to note the preparation for the discussion, the discussion itself and the outcome.
Erik’s own work. I spent time browsing his website this afternoon. What attracted me to having the discussion the focus of his photography and film on the ordinary, along with a feeling of psychological tension – perhaps the anticipation of change or the downtrodden acceptance of slow change. His work ‘Doubt Project’ is described in the context of doubt being part of his creative and spiritual development – something he has learned to recognise an embrace. There is always doubt in art, perhaps an equivalent to doubt or anxiety when putting one’s own children out into the world. I feel doubt, but I tend to brush it aside rather than embrace it.
My tutor suggested that I think about how I talk about my work and recommended looking at Chris Killip introducing his work Skinningrove.
Oddly, I haven’t really thought much about talking about my work but rather showing it without the distraction of me talking. However, I do enjoy listening to photographers talking about their work and what it means to them. I suppose I’ve got into the habit during my time at the OCA of being ‘tutored’ and placing more importance on listening and learning, rather than talking myself. However, it’s time to move on from that. Perhaps I also think of the CS work as being the ‘talking part’ of this course.
Killip talks intimately about his images and stories connected with making them. In a similar way to how someone might talk enthusiastically about their holiday photographs. I have felt a growing intimacy with my selected photos as I’ve continued to work with them and in my mind is to revisit my CS work before submitting A4 BoW – testing where the two faces of the final year join. This would be a good opportunity to also consider how I might talk about my work.
When Laura El-Tantawy published her In the Shadows of the Pyramids work, I was impressed by the video presentation, including the narrative in her own voice. I had a look at her website to see if there was new work.
I found the powerful piece, Beyond Here is Nothing. In this post, I’m concerned with the video production of the work. This wasn’t done entirely by the artist herself as the credits show other names for multimedia productions. A sign that this is not straightforward to make as a professional production.
The images pulse rhythmically on the screen, only present for a second or so. They are projections onto the black space of the screen – making no attempt to fill it but stand as photographic images projected onto a dark space. This works very well, conveying something that is photographic. It also doesn’t make me think ‘slide show’. Images appear in different positions in the dark space, creating a dynamic movement on the screen without panning or zooming. Some images appear side by side (they are mostly a portrait aspect) – there is consistency in their placement across the screen, so the comfort of knowing what to expect.
The sound track includes ambient sounds across the production space and Laura’s voice centered. ‘Best listened to with headphones’ indicates that care has been taken over the stereo placement of sounds. It is immersive but I found myself not listening to the words after a while, they became another part of the the overall sound scape. The sound of a voice rather than the meaning of words.
Watching this has particularly influenced me in the use of the black space as a screen for projection of images. As if within a darkened cinema. I suspect some may complain that the space is too dark and they would prefer white (like a photobook), however, the specificity of video involves darkness and shadow. The projection of whiteness from screen to eyes is a distraction from the image and uncomfortable to the eyes, like a blaze of light. In my next experiment, I’m going to embrace the darkness rather than try to mask it.
Three images were presented and discussed by the speakers and the dialogue continued separately on another platform (I attended the presentation only).
I don’t summarise the whole discussion here, but note a couple of areas that interested me in particular.
The important difference between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ was discussed when unpicking the meaning and significance of images. In particular, not just looking at the image but seeing by looking into it and what is happening. I of course agree that this is important but it is difficult to escape our own cultural perspective when deciding upon meaning. For example, one of the speakers (person of colour) observed that the ‘white halo’ could be seen in the image above – as if the man being carried was an innocent. I remark that seemed racist in itself to me; a perspective based purely on skin colour. I saw calm black man carrying a white man with a thuggish appearance, who looked like he was injured. Even if we see, it is not easy to escape our cultural background but it is important to remain open to different perspectives and alternative meanings.
A different image was discussed along with the idea of ‘in making images, we make ourselves’. This of course relates to the well-trodden ideas of meaning that are part of the study of visual culture.
Aside from the subject matter itself, I’ve noticed that many people (including professionals in the field) seem to find it difficult to talk fluently about images. There often seem to be frequent ‘uums and ahhs’; perhaps it the challenge of translating the verbal into the visual, combined with a lack of rehearsal. Something to be aware of when I come to talk about my own work!
Fordlândia is a place I’ve previously not heard of – it reminded me of Saltaire (Titus Salt’s workers town situated on the canal) but in the Amazon forest and built to supply the Ford Motor Company with rubber. The experimental town was short-lived and unsuccessful. Ramírez-Suassi’s discussion with American Suburx is a good read (Read on americansuburbx.com/2020/06/jm-ramirez-suassi-fordlandia-interview.html), but I mention it here mainly because of the way he talks about place (and an old industrial place at that):
“The photobook is a balance, at least its the intention, between this utopia (or maybe call it heterotopia, a concept made up by Foucault) and a life experience…”
Heterotopia is a new word for me and seems pivotal to the book which, like my work aims to, pulls together different perspectives and ideas of a place. The word isn’t defined during the interview but it is explored in academic papers, for example, Heterotopia and Actor-Network Theory: Visualizing the Normalization of Remediated Landscapes . The concept is apparently not easy to interpret from Foucault’s original words ( referenced as Of other Spaces, 1986) but is concerned with the idea of incongruity within a space and contested meanings ‘enabling an out-of-placeness‘. This would counter attempts to place order on space. Even at this late stage, it is something I will explore further within CS as it has the potential to act as a glue between my writing on the disparate narratives of the canal and the concepts of how meanings are formed.
For me, heterotopia is a word that explains how I feel about and perceive the canal. It has the potential to help in articulating both my BoW and dissertation.
My BoW tutor suggested that I might find Frank Watson’s Soundings from the Estuary (the Estuary) of interest. Watson shares images from the project on his website (https://frankwatsonphotography.com/soundings-from-the-estuary/).
The Estuary shows expansive, bleak landscapes without people. Buildings tell the stories of past and present uses of the landscape, and detritus washed up on the shore are tales of property carelessly discarded. This is no beauty spot, but I am drawn to its uncommonly represented space. A fascinatingly ugly place embellished by the scars of human activity. It is almost monochrome antidote to oversaturated blues and greens. Looking at work that has similarities but has no personal connection, helps me articulate what I like in the canal. There is perhaps space for thoughts to breathe more easily.
A striking difference to the canal is the Estuary’s expansiveness. While shooting yesterday around an urban area, I thought about how enclosed the canal is; often screened by trees and hedges from the open landscape that surrounds it, sometimes constructed along the lower sides of hills and enclosed by terraced housing and old industrial buildings. One cannot easily leave the canal without following a formal pathway. There is a narrow, 2 meter wide towpath as the only route between mirky water and overgrown hedgerow; it could become oppressive in places. When it passes through open countryside, the vistas broaden and can become expansive. This contrast might be used in sequencing images.
There are ideas here for how I might articulate my own project and I’ll revisit these for A3.
My tutor suggested I revisit Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, unpick what makes it successful and see if there was anything I could draw from it for my own work.
The canal and the Mississippi are obviously two very different types of waterway, with ‘water’ perhaps being the only commonality. The latter dominates the landscape and shapes the places around it, providing and threatening life with its expansive waters. The canal is contained and calm, with people often oblivious to its existence – it can be easily overlooked.
I looked through Soth’s book several times over the weekend and a number of things struck me.
There are no signs of affluence in the photographs, but a sense of making-do and the make-shift. This is embraced in the work. The canal also flows through many areas that are not affluent but is also diverse, passing through picturesque open countryside and more affluent rural communities. There is a choice to be made here – a focus on the less represented margins or a more democratic view. One might be seen as a ‘broken Britain’, the other as a place of contrasts.
The portraits included are of ordinary people who seem to embrace distinctive identities or have characteristics that are out of the ordinary. This makes them visually interesting. They are connected by their connection to the river, which dominates the landscape. The canal does not form the same type of broader connections between people as it is not a dominant feature of place. Those that use and work the canal are mostly indistinctive – men and women dressed from the local ‘outdoor shops’, practical synthetic clothing to protect from the elements. I have struggled throughout to find a visual people angle that grabs my interest, but last week had the idea of drawing people in through their words, their tales.
While Soth’s theme is the river, he often looks away from it and water is absent from many images. For example, empty interiors, preachers, construction workers. They are held together by the overall sense of water in the book; the juxtaposition reminds me that there is water nearby, even though I don’t see it in the image. It occurred to me last week that I was restricting my images to those that included water, even when there are subjects looking away from the water that are visually interesting. This is an unnecessary constraint – as long as the overall series conveys a sense of the water, I can broaden the range of images. I don’t just see the canal, I see from the canal.
Soth’s editing and sequencing of the images creates a varied and interesting visual impact. One thing I particularly noticed was alternate warm and cooler mini-sequences within the overall work. That particular aspect is not necessarily relevant to my work, but the importance of visual variety is.
I listened in on a Redeye photography network hosted a 30 minute live ‘snapshot’ with Jessa Fairbrother (http://www.jessafairbrother.com/), an artist who embroiders her photographic prints. She talked about her work ‘conversations with my mother’ and demonstrated her stitching technique. It can take her up to 3 months to complete a single work and she works on a small scale (mostly A4 from what I understood).
While I personally would have no interest in, or capability for such intricate work, it was enjoyable hearing her talk about her work and process. In particular Jessa mentioned she has rigorous intention for her work and mentioned the symbolic use of knot making; showing attachment and a private act. In contrast she has work where prints have been stabbed with needles to make patterns, which she sees as being detached. She also talked a little about the use of the photographic print being important to her as a referent to the subject.
What struck me is the conviction with which Jessa discussed her intention – that knots could have also suggested confusion or restrain didn’t matter. She was convincing in her interpretation because that is what it signified to her personally. Something I will keep in mind, once my intention finally settles down!
BJP’s July 2019 issue looks at projects that ‘celebrate unforeseen beauty in our shared landscape’. I first read this as ‘unseen’, which I understood as unnoticed or disregarded, but ‘unforeseen’? I suppose surprising or unusual. The article features 3 projects with unusual takes on the landscape and perhaps a source of inspiration as I shape my own perspective on the landscape. I found all three interesting, including still lives built around objects collected by retracing London bus routes on foot and views of the Eiffel Tower from many different houses. But I look a little closer here at Caleb J Adam’s work on Menorca’s fiesta of San Joan (https://www.calebjadams.com/santjoan).
The work records the island’s spectacular horseback festival, but doesn’t just focus on the spectacular. Adams includes quieter moments away from the action, including indoor scenes that are completely removed from the action. This gives an expansive view of events and seems to break ‘the tyranny of linear perspective’. I suspect some viewers might find the work disjointed but really it is just ‘unforeseen’ – not what we have come to expect.
I have a number of quiet photographs, not over-looking the canal, that I’ve been wondering what to do with. In an earlier post I wrote about an idea for contrasting the banal landscapes with the picturesque but these moments seem to sit outside that contrast. Perhaps I could include them as occasional interludes, isolated on the page as they are in space.
Since looking at Paul Graham’s American Night work again, I’ve been reflecting on my own approach to ‘disrupting linear perspective’ in assignment 2. I’ve not had a tutorial on this yet, but received some feedback from other students. Some liked the insets, others weren’t so sure.
Paul’s work makes the ignored divides in American society visible by using whited out (overexposed) images of the poor, interspersed with full colour images of affluent housing (without people). The whiting out asks a visual question and the full colour images drive home the answer. Towards the end of the work, street portraits of the poor in full colour add a second assault to the senses.
There is a similar idea that I’m trying to convey in my BoW – marginal landscapes that are shaped by culture but not often represented in images of place, which tend to be more interested in the spectacular or the pastoral. A kind of denial or ignoring of their existence that misrepresents space and therefore culture. Making things seem brighter than they are – ignoring the darker corners. When shooting an old building yesterday, a passerby asked, ‘what’s over there then?’. When I explained, he jokingly commented ‘ah, each to his own with weird photography’.
Having sat with my ‘insets’ for a while, I have a number of concerns:
Scale is required for visibility – this is likely to be difficult to achieve in the world after lockdown and for any digital assessment of the work.
I thought that the insets were an effective way of disrupting the linear, having been unconvinced by using diptyches. However, Paul’s work successfully does this in a succession of images in a book, along with his over-exposure motif.
Condensing two images into one does not allow them to breath and perhaps hinders a viewer being able to reflect upon them – too much going on in one space.
Graham’s work has given me the cue to look at other options, including how I might work in book form, which also allows digital contactless sharing.
Vic Allen is the Executive Director of ACDC, the charity that runs the art galleries at Dean Clough Mill, Halifax (http://acdc-arts-deanclough.org.uk). Vic kindly offered to speak to the OCA North group (8/3/20) about the process of putting on an exhibition and everything connected with it. Dean Clough hosts a large programme of around 30 exhibitions per a year in its galleries and operates on an open submission basis.
Vic spoke for several hours – a valuable opportunity to hear an open and honest account of the workings of galleries and the art world. I note here just a few points that seem important to me at this time.
On the art world – there are often very set ideas about what the ‘art world’ is. Vic’s advice was to make your own art world and quickly recognise that the idea that buyers of art are ready and waiting somewhere in the world is a myth. There is no system and sometimes the way people think things should operate holds them back from making progress.
If you are approached with opportunities, thinking carefully about which you accept and recognise the difference between success and fulfilment.
Collaborations with other artists tend to bring more people into an exhibition space – more connections.
On the importance of exhibiting – allows work to be seen in a different context, feedback (including curatorial) is mechanism to move practice forward and gives a sense of progress. Advice is to exhibit whenever possible to get work into the work. Be aware that show is not the destination – it is just part of the progression.
Philosophical diversion into the nature of art – Vic’s perspective is that art and culture are antithetical. Art should be about breaking a sense of habit and challenging norms, whereas culture (dominant culture) is about standards and fitting in. Vic used nice analogy about a matriarchal monkey and rice in the sand. Encourages artists to think about ‘artistic values’ – galleries are a bit like car show rooms and have little to do with the process of making art itself.
Practicalities of packing art work – a) grid of masking tape across glass (if glass breaks it holds it together and stops it damaging work) b) wrap in anti-scratch packaging material c) pack in bubble wrap (bubbles outward and secured with parcel tape d) use corner protectors (home made with cardboard or pipe insulation works. Generally – always buy bulk supply as far cheaper than from the high street.
On approaching galleries – know the gallery and what they put on (visit regularly to decide if it is a fit); target gallery thoughtfully; for leads, look at where like artists are exhibiting; go to openings regularly and network; support other artists.
On making submissions to galleries / for exhibitions – be prepared to show work during networking; have no expectations of acceptance; have solutions and go with specific work to make life of commissioners easier, remove barriers to ‘yes’. Take care of presentation – but do not go over the top, otherwise there is no space in which the curator can operate and there could be a perception that the work is already out there in other spaces if too polished. Ideal pack would be covering letter, artist statement, specific request about exhibition (including in which space). Avoid sending digital media if possible – never sure how it will be viewed (colours etc) and is not helpful in round-table group review situations.
On framing. Vic shows a lot of unframed work (feels it adds authenticity) – eg use bulldog clips, map pins (see through), bluetac (lots and avoid white as it melts), magnets (though attract to kids), polycarb sheet over art work direct on wall). If framed, use mirror plates (halfway up frames) – these are screwed into wall (therefore secure) and painted over so they blend in. Check any gallery specific requirements.
Other – having website (up to date) is recommended; can be browsed by curators looking for something specific (amongst others things). Important to develop own contacts database.
In conclusion, this was a Sunday afternoon well spent. The OCA North group also discussed making a proposal for a group exhibition to ACDC – if successful, this would most likely take place around September 2021.
After quite a time immersed in the world of words and finally finishing my first draft dissertation (A4 CS), the wettest February on record is over and I’m feeling the call of the image. A fellow student kindly pointed me in the direction of Freya Najade’s work, Along the Hackney Canal.
The photographer shares some images from the book on her website (https://www.freyanajade.com) . On her LensCulture gallery, she provides information on the project:
Along the Hackney Canal is a long-term project, which I started to work on soon after moving to Hackney and falling in love with the canals and marshes. I am particularly drawn to this area for its beauty, which is different from the perfectly ordered English gardens and parks, or the wild, uncivilized nature of oceans, mountains and forests. The further one follows the canals to the east and north, the more indecisive the landscape seems to become, between civilization and wilderness, trimness and griminess, vital beauty and gloominess. The city appears and disappears trying to juxtapose nature and centuries of human urbanization
The images show ‘beauty’ – many have a painterly quality and the even litter in the canal appears otherworldly in its watery dance. I do not know this particular canal, nor I have seen the full work, but what is shown mostly has pastoral overtones. There is one photograph of an improvised keep-out wall with broken bottles concreted in along its top. This provides a forceful stop amongst the pastoral – it would be interesting to see in the context of the full book.
There is a marked contrast between this project and Debra Fabricius’s Urban Drift (https://www.debrafabricius.com/section532241.html), which focuses on decaying buildings along Regent’s Canal and shows photographs that are less well crafted – I don’t know whether for deliberate effect or unintentional. There are more words explaining this project (perhaps too many), which left me with an feeling that the concept may have been worked on more than the images.
When searching for this work, I wandered into a YouTube video with Martin Parr explaining to a student Skype meeting that everyone is a photographer so your photographs need to be different from everyone else’s to stand out – a difference he suggested by presenting a unique view and a strength of connection with the subject matter.
Whether I like Freya Najade’s photographs or not isn’t relevant; what I perceive is a strong sense of connection with her subject matter and a personal perspective on it . Which is why I’m inclined to give it attention and look a while. It feels genuine. It is the importance of this personal connection that I am reminded of by looking at this work.
Miranda Richmond spoke at the OCA North meeting in Halifax on Sunday 12th January 2020. She is a painter who works in the tradition of David Bomberg and was married to Miles Richmond an artist in the Borough Group. She has exhibited widely across the north of England and in London and currently has an exhibition in Dean Clough which is on show until 24th January. Her website is here: http://miranda-richmond.co.uk/index.html
As well as enjoying her work, I was interested in her process of making and how that might be related to photography.
She talked about the idea of disappearing into the landscape and being at one with it – trying not to bring thoughts to bear on it and letting work shape itself through a process of mark making. I found myself faced with the recurring theme of ‘eastern’ perspective (specifically meditational) that my tutor had advised to treat with caution in the context of academic essay writing – what is perceived as mystic thinking can be problematic. However, while I’ve decided not to write about it, it does form part of my practice and a feeling I also experience when making music. There is something about art which can take us beyond ourselves.
Miranda showed us her sketch books and was asked how long she typically spends on sketches in the field (some drawings, some water colours) – 1.5 hours. This is longer than I would spend in any one spot with a camera, though I’m aware that many photographers will spend this long in a single location, either for traditional landscape or street photography. My photography practice generally incorporates walking and a route – this works against the idea of spending substantial time in any one place. This is particularly true of my photographs along the canal which have involved an AtoB route for logistics. Next time I’m out, I’ll experiment with working a single spot.
I was left with a suspicion that other arts could be more focused on the process of making and the visual output than the contemplation of context, meaning and intention that seems to pervade photography. Perhaps if the balance were tilted more towards the making, some photographic work would become more visually compelling and stand without elaborate contextualisation.
The museums are across the street from one another, yet are world’s apart in their presentation of works. It is this I consider in this post – the exhibition spaces and representation of photography.
MfF was mostly given over to the works of Helmut Newton – glamorous and carefully executed fashion and portrait photography, mostly in monochrome. And after a while looking, much like eating too much chocolate. The presentation was uniform, with the same style and size of frames used in the main galleries – the frames were all hung portrait; with landscape aspect photographs, small in the vertical framing. The presentation was easy for the eye to follow the flow, without the frames distracting because of their uniformity. It surprisingly did not appear odd to have landscape photos taking little space in the portrait orientated frames. However, the overall impression was perhaps that of a neatly ordered library.
In contrast C/O has a highly contemporary feel and was much busier than its neighbour. The presentation was deliberately irregular (almost chaotic), and visually unsettling. Perhaps partly down to the number of different artists on display. It created a sense of liveliness in the gallery, with visitors uninhibited and engaging with one another and the works – shaping a context that didn’t suit contemplation, but made the gallery energetic and welcoming.
The experience has started me thinking about how I present my own work and the use of alternative spaces. Outdoor spaces, places that are not conceived for art exhibitions – how might different contexts be used to shape the perception of the viewer.
Another Paul Hill post – he’s struck a chord with me! I spotted this video when looking for something on John Blakemore, but a fellow student’s referencing of it in her Paul Hill study visit write-up prompted me to spend an hour or so watching it. It was time well passed
Notes taken as I watched are below. I’ve only typed what are the relevant points for me at this time.
Paul’s thinking about landscape and genre is unconventional and refreshing. He dislikes the concept of genres, describing them as ‘ambiguous and vacuous compartments’, suggesting that work should be ‘driven by the desire to say something, rather than to show something’. This is contrary to the view expressed by Bate considered in an earlier exercise. I’m with them both – they are necessary and useful in some contexts, but not to be taken too seriously or something to become too attached to. However, he does offer a description of landscape photography as, ‘everything you can see when you look across imagination and reality’. This reflects a psychogeographic and mindful approach to photography.
Towards the end of the video, Paul summarises his thoughts (after having bemoaned the clichés of landscape photography and ignorance of what it might be):
What you point your camera at is, of course crucial, but it is only the starting point of what could be a journey of self-discovery, rather than an exercise in making decorative clichés.
During a recent OCA visit, Paul Hill recommended looking at the work of John Blakemore. I located a recording of John discussing his work at an ‘On-landscape’ conference . The video is over an hour long and features John talking through his journey in photography. I note a few lessons from his talk.
He once taught photography and described the ‘3 Rs’ of photography: Relationship (that this must be developed with your subject over time); Recognition (an eye for when and what to photograph); and Realisation (the process of bringing the work into the world). When he is not preparing for exhibition work, he realises his work through photo books that he makes himself. He talks about sequencing and using ‘formal devises to contain the flow’ and how he’s never been interested in the single image.
He is renowned for his monochrome prints and work and that is what appears when searching the web. Examples of this can be found in the Hyman collection . However, he talks about recent colour work and how he gives up control of everything to do with post-processing. His interventions at the point of capture and realisation in book form.
In his landscape work, he mentions focusing on details that imply the broader scene. This echoes the idea of knowing many things from one thing. He comments on enjoying the loss of scale that a small detail can contain – ‘transcending its obvious subject’. He is a photographer whose work is primary driven by the visual form; he doesn’t talk about the concept for his work, just what he wants to show (visually).
What struck me is how little interest Blakemore and Hill have in experimenting with photography technology. They appear to work with tried and tested tools – Blakemore commented that he only uses two lenses, a 50mm and a 90mm (both marco) and Hill that he prefers wider angle lenses; 28mm or 35mm. He in particular likes to be unencumbered by anything that restricts his ability to move freely in the landscape, so has always shot 35mm film (and now, I think, a digital Panasonic Lumix for colour work). I have a preference for wider angle lenses when out walking and making street photography. I like the idea of selecting one lens and sticking with it for my project – a consistency in angle of view throughout. I’m currently more inclined towards 50mm as it works better in drawing in specific areas of detail along the confines of a canal path, whereas the 35mm lens is more greedy in what it takes in.
Unfortunately, I could find no trace of Blakemore’s workshop contents online (or video of him running one), so I’m just left with Paul Hill’s mention of John asking everyone to sit with their eyes closed for 10 minutes and take in their surroundings before photographing the first thing that caught their attention. I could be described as a meditational practice – I was curious to see it in action!
During a recent study visit, Paul Hill recommended looking at the work of landscape photographer Paul Caponigro. I found two useful resources; a YouTube video in which Caponigro talks about his relationship with photography and examples of his work on the website of a gallery representing him, including pdfs of catalogues .
Caponigro discusses his philosophy on photography in the YouTube video. He has what could be described as a mindful approach. He talks about Ansel Adams and Minor White as influences, but preferring White as he had a more spiritual approach; saying he looks at things not just for the actuality but what else they are. Caponigro suggests that to be a good photographer emotion is more important to work on than technique. He aims to ‘see everyday with fresh eyes’.
Caponigro’s work is concerned with the observation of the forms of nature, which his images sometimes show as other-worldly abstractions. This would reflect his mindful philosophy of seeing beyond the everyday. This quality in the images of showing something other than we might see in the familiar makes them compelling viewing.
If I think back to my earlier photography, my interest was mostly in the form of things. What studying photography has encouraged me to do is analyse images for meaning and theorise their context. Despite the mantra ‘shoot first, analyse later’, it is very difficult to resist left-brain take-over and enter a constant state of analysis. After all, formal education is dominated by the pursuit of logic and analysis. A bit like improvising on a musical instrument, I need to let go of the analysis while playing the camera and go with my instincts.
Here are my reflections on the excellent OCA study visit to the Paul Hill archive in Birmingham library on 6 April. Thanks to Amano for organising it! Thank you to Paul for giving his time – I felt privileged to experience such an influential photographer speaking first hand about his work and photography in general. The notes include only points that I feel a need to address in my own practice – a full account of the day’s discussions and information that I absorbed would be too time consuming.
Hand written notes are below. I found the discussions around Paul’s monograph White Peak Dark Peak particularly valuable and focus mainly on those.
The monograph includes work made over a period of 10 years and is centred around Paul’s walking around his local Peak District Hills. It is shaped by a local perspective on the landscape – a connection and understanding developed through recurring visits over a long period of time. The antitheses of a photographer who might visit with the sole purpose of seeking the spectacular (for example the ubiquitous wispy waterfalls that frustrate Paul). Paul talked through individual photographs (shown as prints) and a mock up of the book. Printed versions of the book were also displayed.
In terms of Paul’s practice, he mentioned several times during the day ‘zen-like’ work. This, combined with photographs made during long walks and an instinctive reaction to what he sees, placed his work in the psychogeography genre in my mind. A place where I increasingly see my own work located, while struggling with the cumbersome term (one that Paul did not use himself). It is perhaps timely to revisit books on ‘zen’ photography and the relationship of psychology and photography as context for psychogeography. Paul also recommended looking at the work / practices of a couple of other photographers: Paul Capinegro and John Blakemore (10 minutes of eyes closed before photographing in workshops).
The work is all in monochrome, though Paul commented that he hasn’t shot monochrome since the 1990s and now works with digital colour. At the time, he was exploring the patterns in the land and worked on a post process that retained details in the mid-tones to reveal those patterns. This was also why skies were mostly absent – they weren’t his interest. Paul described himself as a formalist, interested in the visual appearance and not so much driven by the conceptual. Though acknowledging that there is inevitably an underlying concept, even if it is not the primary motivation for the work. I have a visual preference for full tonal ranges and enjoy that some areas might be lost in shadows – adding a sense of mystery or foreboding perhaps. However, Paul’s explanation of his practice at the time allowed me to understand why he chose to process the images how he did.
Paul spent considerable time talking through the mock-up of the book and his process for arriving at the layout and sequencing of the photographs. Including details of why he chose to place certain photographs together on spreads and when he chose to leave the space of a blank page. Much of this was to do with the subtle connection of form revealed in the photos. Central to the process was printing of images and laying them out on an open floor to take in an overview. He still works in this way today, despite being a big fan of Blurb for sharing personal work and making a mock up of his later monograph Corridor of Uncertainty , which he also talked through during the day. I’d been considering printing postcard sized versions of my own project work as it progresses – Paul’s practice has given me the final nudge.
A thoroughly enjoyable (if long day with my travel) that happily connected well with the current direction of my own practice.
In the April 2019 issue of BJP, I read with interest Mark Power’s reflections on photographing on the streets as he travels across the USA . Some of his observations seem to serve as good advice to me as I begin my photographic journey.
Like other photographers, he emphasises the importance of printing work to get a sense of a project’s progress and guard against making the same pictures over again (ibid, p39). For my own practice, I intend to start making small prints of the work I think is of value so I can easily experiment with sequencing in the space I have available (and conserve paper).
There are some interesting comments on Power’s approach to working on the street. He says that he prefers to walk as ‘pictures collected on foot are naturally more subtle’ (ibid, p39), so rather than describe his project as a road trip, he prefers to call it ‘a series of urban hikes’. I’ve been thinking about the approach to the canal and the large stretches of emptiness between the towns it joins up. To capture the portrait element to the work, I think I will need to divert from the canal path into the surrounding urban areas (where there are more people). So the idea of attaching a ‘series of urban hikes’ to the canal route would be a good way of describing the approach.
Power concludes by discussing the complexity of projects and that the world ‘cannot easily be packaged in a simplistic way’ …
Discovering where [the] journey leads is probably the whole point of the trip. As Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously said: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”.
In the OCA course material we are advised not to be in too much of a hurry to fix our projects in a particular direction, but to let them unfold. Kierkegaard’s aphorism is a nice way to remember!
Taryn Simon is introduced in the BoW course materials. I followed a trail and stopped at a TED Talk of Simon discussing and showing her work . Her work is investigative – she explores hidden sites and deception through images. She says that her interest is in ‘the space between image and text’. And has a compelling hook to explain that, ‘at best image floats away into abstract fantasy, but text acts as a cruel anchor that nails it to the ground’. This creates a brutal image, but her work The Innocents speaks to what can happen if the limitations of images are not recognised. It deals with wrongful convictions based on the misuse and careless use of photographic evidence. Her closing remark is, ‘distortion is a constant and our eyes are easily deceived’.
How might this type of work (The Innocents) be situated in within the genres proposed for this course? It features tableau but its main thrust seems to be conceptual – how images mislead. So the categorisation doesn’t work that well in this case. If I call it portraiture overlaid by the conceptual (traditional genre, with meta-genre) it is clearer. If I use Terry Barrett’s categories and call it ‘ethically evaluative’ it goes direct to the function of the photos in this case. This serves as an example of the shortcomings of labelling, using work that highlights the limitations of photography.
I found Simon’s work fascinating and an example of how text is essential to the understanding of some work. Without context to explain, the concept would have been missed. While I enjoyed the work, it is not an approach that appeals to me – as she says herself, she spends very little time making photographs and most of her time trying to get access to people and places.
A brief note on a brief video of Jeff Wall advocating for staged photography at SFMoMA . Having come from looking at the extreme of Gregory Crewdson’s work, it was interesting to listen to Wall advocating a middle ground and observing that a lot of photography is staged (eg some of Cartier-Bresson’s). His point is that it should not be thought of a choice between staged and straight photography but as a continuum, with different positions along it.
This is an important concept for my own work, where I’m concerned with people not looking as if they are staged. However, I should perhaps be thinking more in terms of staging people, without them looking staged. This thinking changes my process to one of increased intervention, but with the specific aim of work not looking as if it is staged.
In the context of ‘tableaux vivants’ (living pictures) as opposed to ‘nature morte’ (dead nature – still life), I look at the work of Gregory Crewdson.
For this research, I watched a 50 minute lecture by Crewdson, in which he also shared his images on screen. It was hosted by Haggerty Museum of Art and shared on YouTube . I took notes, with times in the video noted in the left margin – attached below.
Crewdson’s work is hugely influenced by cinema and he mentions Close Encounters and Blue Velvet in particular as having influence on his own work. He talks about a tension between beauty and sadness and stillness and unease and wanting to create work that is somewhere between the real and the cinematic. While he enjoys the narrative qualities of cinema, he explains that he was drawn to photography because of its limitations in conveying narrative; how it leaves open ended questions. This works with his aim of representing tension.
While I’m already familiar with Crewdson’s work, I was unaware of the extent of his engagement with cinematic processes in making his images that he discusses. For example the use of sound stages to create buildings and rooms from scratch based on architectural drawings, and the use of snow/rain/fog machines. His work Beneath the Roses took 8 years to make, ‘on a cinematic scale’.
Crewdson talks about his cinematic approach to post-production and how he can take months compositing a single image (‘why they have amazing focus’). Also, how the final image will have little connection to the actuality of what he saw. While post-production is seen as a separate and significant event by many photographers, Crewdson’s seems close to cinema.
While I have neither the means or inclination to embark on tableau vivant to the scale and complexity of Grewdson, I’ve gradually become more interested in staging photographs (during Self and Other) and may well do so in my upcoming work.
I’m beginning to think about the upcoming study visit, OCA Study day: Library of Birmingham archive room with photographer Paul Hill. Before thinking about any work in progress I might like to take along to the event, I’ve looked at Paul’s work. I have his book Approaching Photography and Hill’s own website is generous in sharing information and examples of his work .
My notes from a quick reading of the book are attached. It is intended to be a primer and the material dates from the 1980s (reissued 2004), but includes advice and suggestions that I still find relevant. Hill concludes by reminding us that the authenticity of our way of seeing is pivotal to the value of our photographs – after an earlier caution that ‘intention can be destroyed by flashy techniques that have little substance …’. In the upcoming study visit, it would be interesting to ask him, what advice he might add to the book now we are immersed in an internet and mobile media age.
Hill’s website includes some of his writing as well as examples of his work. What he has to say on ‘style’ is important to the idea of ‘finding a voice’. He says ‘Style gives an image that visual impact that acts like a magnet to the eyes . Stylists make ‘showstoppers’ through their command or subversion of conventional techniques that expose us to unique ways of seeing . Their personal signatures are more compelling than the subject matter alone .’ . I feel this could add a critical perspective to my upcoming consideration of ‘genre’.
I enjoyed viewing Hill’s work online – it looks like an embodiment of the advice he offers in his book; unique and authentic. There is a good online display of his White Peak Dark Peak work at the Hyman Collection . The sky is absent from many of the photos, giving a perspective on the land without the drama and distraction of sky. Incomplete from the perspective of the eye in an actual landscape, but more complete as a photographic perspective.