Text and audio: use in BoW

The course material described Karen Knorr’s use of image and text to put across a political perspective, and asked me to reflect upon my own use of text in the BoW. I also consider the use of sound (in the ebook form).

One aspect I’m aiming to convey is the stillness of the canal as a contemplative space that underpins a stage for socialisation of a deindustrialised space. To allow for this stillness, I’ve avoided the use of text alongside individual images. However, for A3 I did include a foreword (an artist’s statement) and ambient sound recordings and music alongside the images.

My thinking since A3 has evolved. There are a number of areas:

  • Ebook title: I’d used the title Air Land Water: a canal as a world within a world. The main title connected to graffiti on one image and described very generally the materiality of the subject matter. The subtitle was a working attempt at hinting at the heterotopic qualities of the canal. I think it requires more precision to allow the viewer to know something of what the book is about without being too directional. I’m now thinking along the lines of Leeds and Liverpool: worlds within a world. It seems important to locate the work on this particular stretch of canal as viewers come with their own very different experiences and perceptions of canals, which for some seem to suggest I’m misrepresenting the space of a canal, whereas I’m concerned with a specific canal that travels through some rugged landscape and deindustrialised northern cities. I’m also minded to avoid the use of ‘canal’ in the title for the same reason – in the UK, it is now loaded with connotations of slow boat trips and celebrities on boats. Whereas I’d like to hint at the socialisation of space, without bluntly prescribing ‘the socialisation of a deindustrialised canal’.
  • Sound: Since A3, I’ve invested considerable time and effort in the operation and appearance of sound buttons in the ebook. However, I now feel that they may be a distraction from the work – for much the same reason as I’ve avoided text alongside individual images. I’ve decided to remove sound for now and just use it on a website to complement the book. The website would then also give a different experience to the work, rather than simply reproduce the images and sound already featured in the book. For the piece of music included in A3, I’d use it to accompany a video of some of the images.
  • Foreword / artist’s statement: by including this at the beginning of the book, it risks leading the viewer towards my own interpretation, and interferes with their own shaping of meaning. Therefore, for the next version I’ll move the text to the back of the book and include something simpler at the front, more akin to the text on the inside cover of a paper book.

I realise the importance of considering the specific effect of text and music in an ebook – perhaps for A3 I was more interested in using it to compensate for the lack of tactility in an ebook; to give a different kind of viewing experience. However, I’ve found that the best intentions do not always make to enhance a tried and tested form. There are also practical issues with sound files bloating the size of the ebook and making it difficult to download on slow connections. I’ve concluded that a website is a more appropriate format for the multimedia experience.

A late night with Walker Evans: sequencing

I rarely struggle to sleep but I did last night – possibly my head churning with thoughts after a day out collecting images, followed by a level 3 tutor lead hangout. I was drawn to revisit Walker Evans’s American Photographs over a cup of lemon and ginger tea.

The book was originally published in 1938 and has been hugely influential on subsequent generations of photographers, including Stephen Shore. It is no frills photography, where subjects are photographed straight on and themselves banal. For me it conveys the experience of being in the places, what Gerry Badger has described as ‘thereness’. They are very still, contemplative works.

I was interested in what ideas I might glean for the next iteration of my own book (even if an ebook). The photos are printed on one side of the spread only and page numbers are on opposing pages, without additional text. Place and dates are listed after the photos, avoiding the distraction of words. The prints are not uniformly cropped, creating variety of layouts as pages are turned. Some are landscape format and others portrait. There is something about the positioning of the page that gives weight, lightness or breadth to the images. It is not completely consistent, with only the right margin strictly respected. Perhaps a layout from an age that predates the precision of digital design tools. Anachronistic? I noticed how my page-turning hand comfortable rested on the empty page while I viewed the image. I realised there is no turning hand to obscure images in ebooks – the only space needed is that to separate the image from what surrounds it. The ebook acts as a one-sided spread and the illusion of relationship to paper books through the ‘book’ word shouldn’t be held too tightly.

The book’s inside cover advises that the photographs were painstakingly selected and put in series by the photographer and they should be viewed in that order. The images flow through in different ways; groupings of similar content, connections between elements, and the form of the images. The end of a grouping is often marked by a discordant image as punctuation.

There is a quietness in the book that allowed me to become immersed in the photos. The book’s title is clear and unremarkable – they are American Photographs. Does anything else need to be said? The reader is left to realise the nuances.

I was left feeling that my ebook might include too many distractions from the photographs – do I need to include sound, just because I can and to compensate for the lack of materiality of an ebook. Would this additional material be better left for a website. Is my working title only tenuously attached through its connection to a single image. What about simply Leeds and Liverpool plus some subtitle. Do I really need to include more than one image on a page to emphasise their connection – does this just labour the point. The connection can be made between subsequent images and individual images left to breath quietly alone.

Just because we can do something with digital, we don’t necessarily need to do it. In the end the work should be left to speak for itself. Perhaps it is time to pull back from the experimentation and save it for another context. I’ll be spending time with other photo books (perhaps sited broadly within the landscape genre) and reflecting further in advance of A4.

Terms of meaning

The course material discusses meanings that go beyond the literal into the metaphorical as a ‘richer mode of expression’. I’m asked to consider a number of terms and think how I might apply them to my own or another photographer’s practice. I’m considering my own work (even if I’m stretching things a little) to help me reflect on how it might be interpreted. This is an interesting exercise for words that are easily expressed and demonstrated in writing but are less familiar to me in the visual domain.

  • Metonym – a single characteristic of something substituted for the whole but they are so closely connected that the whole can be understood (eg calling business people ‘suits’). I’m not sure that this works so well visually as many different objects can have similarities and don’t have the same precision of meaning as words. One example in my BoW are the posts in the overgrown field. The posts can be understood as a game of football, even in the absence of people. In that image the game would be ludicrous because of the overgrown grass. If it was just a fence post in the field, it would have had little meaning or interest.
  • Rhetoric – in language this is concerned with speaking or writing effectively to communicate a point of view persuasively. In my BoW I aim to show the idea of the canal as a world within a world; separated from the outside but a reflection of it nonetheless. While it is a work in progress, it conveys the idea of a place apart from its wider environment and the range of human activity played out within the separated place.
  • Symbol – this is where one thing represents another, even though they are not directly connected (so different to a metonym). Still water is present in many of my images. It is a symbol of tranquility and somewhere we can feel safe; there is water to sustain us (though I wouldn’t drink from the canal) and likely to be food nearby (there are fish in the canal). Like a waterhole on the savanna.
  • Connotation is where an idea or feeling is invoked beyond the literal meaning of a word. In my images, the cracked open safe on the canal side connotes robbery or criminal activity.
  • Innuendo – often hints indirectly at something impolite or negative, without naming the thing itself. Perhaps in a way that is intended to be rude. There is no intended innuendo in my BoW. I mostly associate this with sexual innuendo in advertising and fashion images.
  • Euphemism – hints similarly to innuendo but in a way that is polite and not intended to be harmful. I wonder if photography has a general tendency to euphemise through its aesthetics and safe distance from the actual. In particular in my BoW, I think about the discarded possessions dumped along the canal. One individual asked how I feel about them and a short version of the answer was a mix of disgust and disappointment and fascination. However, the photograph euphemises them because we can look dispassionately at a distance and be interested in the form of the discards and what their stories might be.

These kind of words help us explain the visual. This isn’t always helpful – words risk distracting from the visual, when I prefer to enjoy the ambiguity of the visual. They have their place but should, I think, be kept well away from the visual experience itself. Unless of course, one is wanting to illustrate with photographs.

What about The Frank Album?

The course material asks me what my thoughts are on Alec Soth’s Frank Album and whether there are any ethic issues with it?

Soth’s information about the concept is here: https://thefrankalbum.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/help-us-create-the-frank-album/. Nothing is shown of the finished work but I found this on Vimeo ..

The concept is interesting but not innovative; asking a public to contribute a story to a found (purchased) collection of photos without a history. Soth didn’t mind if contributions were fact or fiction – it seems an exercise in putting together the story of a stranger. I find the process more interesting than the outcome, which reminds me of looking at the lives of others on a soap opera or reality TV. The album is a collectable, commodified artwork, produced by the artist through his commercial business. Obviously, possessing something curated by Alec Soth is attractive for collectors. I suspect that it is this provenance that makes the work attractive, rather than anything special about the photographs themselves, which could have been taken from any family album.

While there are ethical codes for news and documentary photography, the ethics of art works seem to more fluid and must be taken in their own contexts. Frank is clearly identifiable from the images but it seems he was not traced, which is unsurprising given the limited circulation of the project. Therefore, it was not possible to ask permission from Frank or his family. There is nothing in the photographs that would seem to be harmful to Frank if published.

If I were Frank, I wouldn’t mind the photos being used in this way; a personal acid test. However, I don’t think there can be a blanket ethical position on the use of found photographs – they should be considered in the specific context of discovery, use and content.

The Emperor’s New Clothes?

The course material refers to a number of examples where artists use their mistakes to make art, sometimes using verbose explanations to explain their intentions and justify the work. I am asked to reflect on artists’ mistakes and make the case for and against ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ argument. The course material is framed mostly in terms of photographic technical errors (eg overexposure or accidental exposure of photographic paper) and I didn’t immediately appreciate that it can refer to any error throughout the making process.

Before looking at the pros and cons, I put my hand up to thinking I don’t believe it is that important what an artist says about their intention. Intentionalism is only one aspect of how one finds meaning in a work. I suggest that it is over-emphasised, perhaps because it is the default mode of much journalism on photography – I rarely read a critical perspective in the BJP for example. Terry Barrett writes about this in his book Criticizing Photographs . An artist’s intention is only one interpretive strategy and only a part of how meaning is found. For example a work could be interpreted through a feminist or a marxist lens. Some artist may not offer explanations of the intention behind their work, either out of choice or because they recognise subconsciousness comes into play – there can be no yarn of The Emperor’s Clothes if there are no words.

I start by considering two examples picked during a scan through of BJP.

©Aikaterini Gegisian, source: gegisian.com

The Handbook of the Spontaneous Other is a work by Aikaterini Gegisian (https://gegisian.com/portfolio/handbook-of-the-spontaneous-other-2019/), who was interviewed in the April 2020 issue of BJP by Diane Smyth. Arguably the broken images made into collages are as much as mistake as David Bate’s deliberately broken and carefully photographed crockery in Bungled Memories that is referenced in the course material. What is interesting is the apparently contradictory intensions of the artist. Gegisian says the book attempts to stem the consumption of the other and is ‘a figure of resistance against this commodification of pleasure’. However, she also says that it should be taken with a ‘pinch of salt’ and as a ‘mechanism’ to say it is acceptable to enjoy looking at the images. To me, this is incoherent and conspires to make the viewer an ‘Emperor’.

Hinge ©Garry Fabian Miller, source: garryfabianmiller.com

I skimmed through a number of BJP back issues, with little sign of reference to mistakes informing work. Much of the featured work is about serious social narratives and represented with more or less straight photography. However, the critically acclaimed photographic artist Garry Fabian Millier is featured in the November 2019 issue of BJP. He works experimentally without a camera using Cibachrome exposures (down to his last 100 sheets of the discontinued paper). It seems to me that working experimentally as a modus operandi is akin to continually working with mistakes. One person’s experiment is another’s mistake? His work is based on abstract representations of Dartmoor and his experiences while walking it. He has continually experimented with his materials to discover different ways of making marks. However, listening to him speak (interviews are on his website) there is no pretence about what his work means, it is simply an emotional response.

From Brighton Picture Hunt by Carmen & Alec Soth, source: Dazeddigital.com

Alec Soth is mentioned in the course material and, being a photographer I enjoy, I explore the Photoworks project referenced. Alec Soth is interviewed by Martin Parr and this tells the story of how the work came about (https://daylightbooks.org/blogs/multimedia/16937645-brighton-photo-biennial-daylight-multimedia-alec-soth-martin-parr-podcast). To cut a long story short, Soth was invited on a two week commission to photograph during the 2010 Brighton Biennial. He didn’t apply for a working visa and was told by customs authorities he wasn’t allowed to work while visiting the UK – reasonable, though it is framed as a problem with bureaucracy, rather than Soth’s lack of understanding of visa requirements for most any country. This was the ‘mistake’ in his process. To recover, he used his 7 year old daughter to make the photographs, with some suggestions and encouragement from himself. Alec Soth also edited a selection from the 2000 photos.

That a 7 year-old would offer a refreshing perspective on any place is probably not a surprise to any parent who has handed a child a camera (my own children were the same). What is more interesting is some of the angered responses to the work on forums. One example is the aPhotoeditor website (https://aphotoeditor.com/2010/09/23/7-year-old-exhibits-her-work-at-photo-biennial/). The general thrust of the arguments against is that no other 7 year old would have been allowed to enter the Biennial and was only allowed because Soth’s work is canonical. This is like the Emperor – most would not mention his nakedness because he is held sacred. While there is truth in this, another truth is that Soth’s visit had been paid for, he was billed on the Biennial and the organisers needed to recover costs – it seems like a creative work around when faced with economic realities. Also, it is not just any random 7 year-old, it is a 7 year-old working in collaboration with a famous photographer; that adds to the story and interest. What is fascinating about the analogy here is that the child is conspiring with the Emperor’s nakedness, rather than calling it out!

Rather than clothed or naked, I like to think of the analogy in terms of subtler states of undress. I perceive very few things as binary as there are often complex, alternative perspectives at play. At one extreme the viewer is fed contradictory gobbledegook to justify and explain work, at the other an honest explanation of a mistake and the creative work around. I listen to the artist, if they share thoughts, and make up my own mind in context.


Paul Graham’s ‘mistake’

The course material discusses Paul Graham’s over-exposure mistake that triggered his concept for his work American Night. Graham describes the work as a way of representing America’s fractured society. It occurs to me now with current events, that the overexposure can be read as whiting out and blindness through white privilege.

© Paul Graham, source: paulgrahamarchive.com

I am asked whether I’ve ever made a mistake that I didn’t know how to recover and then, what would I do to turn it into something useful.

I’ve made mistakes in life and allow myself to make mistakes as part of learning. However, I find it difficult to recall many photographic mistakes. I think this is because shooting with a modern mirrorless camera it is difficult for a mistake to get to the point beyond redemption , unless one is not paying attention. Even if something is poorly framed, there can be a change for a second bite of the cherry. There are many in camera aids, such as accurate spot-metering that it is difficult to make catastrophic photos, even if it is easy to making uninspiring ones! I have on more than one occasion dashed out with a camera only to find that it was missing a battery – but there is simply no photography then.

The course material goes onto to discuss another mistake involving light sensitive photographic paper. These kind of mistakes just can’t happen with inkjet paper.

Perhaps my mistake is over-control. If I improvise on the guitar a mistake is spontaneous and out in the world; I play through it or play on it to make something fresh. I’m not sure that this situation can be replicated on a digital camera, unless shooting blind. For street photography in the past, I’ve set the camera on manual exposure and focus and rolled with it, just stopping every now and then to check settings, which gave some interesting exposures. But I’m not sure that level of inconsistency would be welcome for work during this course. Of course, Paul Graham made a mistake and then applied it consistently to a whole series of images, so it was no longer a mistake.

When I do make mistakes, I try to use them to explore ways that may not have previously occurred to me. That I rarely make mistakes with a digital camera could mean that I’m treading too carefully with it.

Discussion point: chance encounters

The course material asks if there is anything I feel compelled to do but cannot see a way to incorporate it into my project. It also asks whether I would be comfortable using opportunistic encounters in my work.

I would like to incorporate portraits into the work – they rely on chance encounters along the sparsely peopled canal and so far, I’ve had few opportunities. With the current direction of work focusing on alternative perspectives on space, location or activities would also be important. I also would need landscape orientation to fit with my picture-in-picture presentation that I’ve become keen on. So far I have a few portraits from the canal but have not yet used them. The question reminds me that I should redouble efforts in this area!

Staged photo: man using canal as footpath with shopping. We talked for a while and I asked for a photo.

I’m comfortable using opportunistic encounters as I’ve done a lot of street photography in the past.

Exercise: ‘Photography’

Read ‘Photography’ (Chapter 2) in Howells, R. (2011) Visual Culture on the oca- student website. Note down your own response to Howells’ arguments. 

Howells & Negreiros’ (HN) Visual Culture dedicates a chapter to photography. It provides a survey of photographic technical developments and examples of works that influence the photography as art debate, and explores the broad uses and subject matter of photography. The purpose of the survey is to offer context to the key debate, ‘photography representation and style: is it just about the subject matter?’. Or, if photography is only about subject matter and not an artistic interpretation, how can photography be considered art.

HN explore the for and against arguments at length, citing a number of commentators, including Roger Scruton (against) and Nigel Warburton (for). The central test they seek to answer is whether a photograph can represent a ‘aesthetically significant intention’, through a photographer’s decision. While they do not express their own position, they give the last word to Nigel Warburton. He proposes that ‘it is only in a series of photographs that a photographerʼs choices can be made clearʼ – a photographerʼs work must be contextualised in a series for ‘stylistic features and intentions to emergeʼ and demonstrate photographyʼs status as ‘a medium which has the capacity to embody important and aesthetically relevant intentions’.

Throughout HN’s discussion we are faced with degrees of choice and intention. While a painter may have the possibility of many artistic choices, it is argued that a photographer has fewer, particularly when a camera is highly automated; so it is more difficult to uncover aesthetic intentions, exercised through choice. Who then is to judge when intention is significant? Is the careful framing of a scene and choice of moment using a fully automatic iPhone camera a significant intention; or must a camera be used where there is control over technical choices? Megan Halpern and Lee Humpreys explore iPhoneography as an emergent art in a journal article . They conclude, ‘Iphoneography represents an example of an emerging art world currently in the process of legitimation by distinguishing the process, artifacts, and actors from mass consumers of iPhones and photo apps.’ Their article explores how artists are not just concerned with the moment of capture, but also with remediation post-capture. This is not new in photography.

If the camera is considered to be a tool, in the same way a paintbrush can be, then it can either be used to paint the wall of a garden shed without artistic intent, or to paint a mural with artistic intent. The art is not dependent on the tool its but the use of the tool; it can either be used for utility (recording subjects) or for art (representing a vision of how an artist sees). Therefore, I share HN’s perspective that it is about intention. But who judges that intention is more problematic – particularly when a photographer may not consider their own work to be art, but photography; while the institutions of art declare that same work to be art and exhibit it as such. Who decides?


Exercise: Rhetoric of the Image

This exercise requires reading of The Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes . As I wanted to explore semiotics in more detail, I also read David Chandler’s Semiotics The Basics .

Barthes’ has text understandably featured at various stages of the OCA photography course. It is about how signs can persuade (their rhetoric) and in particular images and text. Barthes’ discussion focuses on an advertising image for ‘Italian’ food ingredients – so signs that include both image and text (not just the ‘image’). Points of interest to me on re-reading at this point in my studies are:

  • The polysemous nature of images, sits uncomfortably in a cultural environment that seeks definition, clarity and meaning, and simplification. Barthes states ‘all images are polysemous; they imply underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signified, the reader able to choose some and ignore others’ (ibid: 39) It is the centrality of the reader in meaning that is important; that there is not one reading and each reading echoes an individual’s psychology of perception.
  • In contrast, Barthes notes how society uses techniques to ‘fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs‘ (ibid:39). This takes place within the context of cultural codes. For different reading of an image ‘each sign corresponds to a body of ‘attitudes’ – tourism …, … art …’ (ibid:47)
  • Barthes notes the directive nature of text in shaping meaning. Without text, images have no fixed meaning. They cannot be argued as true or false. Just as a statement cannot be argued as red or blue (EH Gombrich).


Exercise: The photographic activity of postmodernism

Thoughts after reading Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’ :

Thoughts on essay

A recurring theme in the essay is the notion of ‘presence’, and its partner ‘absence’.

It occurs in the idea that most creative art has the ‘aura’ of the artist; the original touch of brush marks for example, in the single unique ‘original’. The artist’s presence. Quoting Walter Benjamin, Crimp argues that modernism found it necessary repress photography’s overturning of art’s ‘judgement-seat’ – ‘it is a fetishstic, fundamentally anti-technical notion of art with which theorists of photography have tusseled …’ (Benjamin from a short history of photography). There seems to be a desire in some practitioners of photography for the presence of aura, a dissatisfaction with work perceived as mechanical and untouched by the hand. This is seen in the use of textures to overlay photographs alluding to the canvas of hand created works. It is also seen in the use of legacy techniques such a cyanotypes, which are more akin to print-making than contemporary photography practices. It seems to deny the identity of the medium.

Crimp’s main theme is postmodernism being about art’s plurality – the plurality of copies, and notions of presence and absence. He thinks of presence in three ways:

  • Being there – in front of.
  • A presence that is not there – a ghost for example.
  • A performer with presence – more than just being there.

Crimp suggests that representation through photography gives a ‘peculiar presence … through absence, through its unbridgeable distance from the original …’. It is this photographic activity that he calls postmodernist.

Returning to the concept of the absent aura in photography, Crimp observes that Benjamin was not disappointed by this but saw it as liberating. Of Atget, Benjamin noted that he ‘liberated the object from the aura … the remarkable thing about his pictures is their emptiness’. (ibid, p113). He goes onto consider how connoisseurs sought to reclaim the aura of photography, using the ‘machinery of art history and museology’, for example through identifying vintage prints. This activity is of course closely related to the market place for art and attributing a value to works that are unique (or limited to some extent) – the possession of something beyond reach of others. Crimp refers to this as the ‘subjectivisation of photography’ – how the “spark of chance” is converted to connoisseurship of style.

© Richard Prince. Source: guggenheim.org

Crimp argues that the photographic activity of postmodernism operates to displace the aura – ‘to show that it too is now only an aspect of the copy, not the original’. He contextualises this with the works of Sherrie Levine (rephotographing the works of Edward Weston and others). This was in turn duplicated by Michael Mandiberg . Crimp also mentions Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Stills with ‘her self … understood as contingent of the possibilities provided by the culture in which Sherman participates’. And that of Richard Prince, with his use of images from mass advertising (directorial photography disguised as a form of documentary) – Crimp observes that by manipulating the images and recontextualising them, the commodities become a function of absence, acting as clues to ‘their invasion by these ghosts of fiction’.

Crimps conclusion is that ‘in our time, the aura has become only a presence, which is to say, a ghost’. This resonates in the idea of an absent referrent in postmodern images, or the hyper-real.

Relation to my own practice

My current practice sits at the straight photograph end of Crimp’s spectrum of photography-art (the other end being directional – ‘self-consciously composed, manipulated and fictionalised’). Mine is the kind of photography that relies on my presence and attention for the moment where I am and my eye for visualising a frame that might have visual interest when photographed. It relies on what is present in a place, rather than what is added later through manipulation. It is quiet in its absence of manipulation.

Presence is a psychological idea that interests me – our own presence in a moment, mindful and without distraction. It is connected with the psychogeographical genre. With photography mirroring that presence and, in the case of the canal, the water mirroring its changing environment. The water reflects the image, the camera catches reflected light, the mind reflects upon meanings extracted from reflections – some long past, others that are imagined and may not even materialise.

On an unrelated thought – there is perhaps a mystification of ‘aura’ to avoid using overtly commercial language in the context of art. So the value of a painting could be justified by because the ‘aura’ of a famous artist is in the work. More straightforwardly, its value is in its scarcity and marketability as an attractive object (like a diamond perhaps). Similarly, photographers hoping to make their work valuable, must limit its supply.


Exercise: the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction


This exercise asks for an opinion on Walter Benjamin’s essay and the perspective of Siegfried Kracauer (in 1927), cited in the OCA course materials, who ‘remarked that objects would become known for how they appeared to the camera, not how they actually were’.

Walter Benjamin’s essay

Walter Benjamin’s influential essay was originally published in 1936 and analysis the effect on art of ‘mechanical reproduction’ (photography and film) . With this history of visual culture, the essay came around 4 decades after the quality of film reproduction had reach a high standard and became a medium of expression in its own right. Open Culture offers an insight into the earliest films at around 1900 – beyond Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 Horse in motion, which was more scientific in nature . The essay also significantly pre-dates the age of digital reproduction and the internet, with the worldwide web first open to the public in 1991 .

Benjamin’s essay plots the history of the reproduction of art, observing that art has always been reproducible with a degree of effort and varying success at fidelity to the original. This kind of reproduction would include the creation of forgeries that sought to pass has having the same value as the original object. Lithography was invented in 1796, which allowed artists to reproduce art at a speed that would keep pace with printing. However, the invention of of photography (1839) represented a revolution in reproduction. The work of the hand was replaced by the work of the eye and a machine, offering the opportunity for far more speed and precision in the reproduction than had previously been possible. However, still infinitely slower and less reproducible than the digital images and networks of today.

Benjamin makes some interesting ontological observations about photography (and film) as compared with traditional art works.

  • He notes that a reproduction does not have a unique location in time and space, whereas an original object can only be in one place at one time. The original object, therefore has it’s own unique historical fingerprint and cultural presence. Benjamin argues that ‘the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’.
  • Unlike manually created reproductions (or forgeries), Benjamin argues mechanical reproductions are outside the ‘whole sphere of authenticity’. For two reasons: the reproduction is more independent from the original (it can show different angles, only certain elements, levels of detail, tonality, and colours for example). And, ‘technical reproduction can it the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach to the original itself’.
  • Benjamin comments that mechanical reproduction always ‘deprecates the quality of the presence of the original’, where it is a work of art or a photography of a landscape. This is echoed in John Tagg’s much later observation that a photograph represents ‘a new and separate reality’ . Questions of authenticity of an art object reproduced in a photograph are wiped away (‘the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning … its substance … the history it has experienced’). Benjamin refers to this as eliminated aspect as ‘aura … which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction’. There is no longer a ‘unique existence’ and the reproduced object can be taken to any location: ‘a tremendous shattering of tradition’.

Having examined ontological questions, Benjamin examines the implications for communication (‘sense perception’). There are elements of his discussion that I feel are later echoed in Guy Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle . ‘The masses … overcoming the uniqueness of reality by accepting its reproduction … destroying its aura’. Benjamin suggests that the perception of a ‘universal equality of things’ has meant that even unique objects are no longer perceived as such. Tellingly he states, ‘the adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scopes, as much for thinking as for perception’. A ‘society of the spectacle’.

The age of digital reproduction

Douglas Davis’ The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995) recontextualises Benjamin’s essay at the outset of the internet age. It however, predates mobile technology, including the now ubiquitous camera phone (the iPhone was first released in 2007). Both Benjamin’s and Davis’s thoughts are summarised, fittingly, in a YouTube video produced by Then and Now .

Davis’s essay concludes with, ‘here is where the aura resides – not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise.’ While authenticity or aura was deprecated in the age of mechanical reproduction, Davis suggests that it has shifted beyond the thing itself to the point of consumption of the reproduction.


The digital age is young but has torn apart the world known by Benjamin and Kracauer. We are now in a world where there is uncertainty about if there was an actuality that shaped an image or if it is purely of the digital world. It seems as the implications of situation are unfolding right now. James Bridle’s radio series, New Ways of Seeing questions how we are to make sense of the world in the information age.

There is truth in Benjamin and Kracauer’s arguments, but we have also moved beyond their time and face new and recent uncertainties, the outcome of which cannot be predicted.


Exercise: genre

The first part of the BoW course has focussed on the idea of genre and explored work within various genres of photography. In this post, I reflect on the significance of genre in the creation and consumption of photography. In addition to my course work to date, I also referred to David Bate’s introduction to Photography: the key concepts .

Before considering genres in depth, I saw them simply as a method of labelling – not too dissimilar to signs in supermarkets above the aisle; Fruit & Veg (so I can find carrots), Bakery (so I can find wraps). Which, to a certain extent they are; allowing us to place a photography within a category so that we can conceive where it belongs and what we might find with it. Yet, I’ve always been surprised when one of the first questions people ask is, ‘what sort of photos do you take?’. Perhaps because I’ve been experimenting with different genres in my studies to now, it has not seemed important or relevant. However, replying ‘all sorts’ to the question seems to receive a disappointed reaction. It could be like someone asking ‘where do I find the bread?’ and being answered, ‘somewhere in the shop’.

A photograph is more complex than a supermarket commodity as it is a cultural text that requires reading. A genre as a guide to what we might expect and how we might approach that reading is important. As Bate succinctly puts it, ‘ … the theoretical importance of genres is that they enable photographers, spectators, and institutions to share expectations and meanings’ .

The importance of describing my own work in the context of genre is now clear to me. I need to work on articulation of this, but broadly I would situate it at a cross-roads between psychogeography and portraiture (a mix of contemporary and traditional genre nomenclature). Psychogeography, is a genre I intent to (re)visit in my research as I attempt to describe my own work.

In the course material, the advice is not to feel restricted to ‘one genre or style’. Sound advice, but what do we mean when we say ‘style’ in photography? The origin of the word relates to the way in which a mark is made (from stylus as a writing instrument). When our marks are made with the help of a machine and post-production offers a wide range of possibilities to the look of an image, there is perhaps a risk that many photographs become so similar that they are styleless. This is a matter I’ve previously considered in the context of film versus digital, with the former to a certain extent baking in a look based on the type of film used and the later being almost infinitely flexible with digital processing of RAW files. It’s time for me to pin this down as well as genre.


Bate, D. (2016) Photography: the key concepts. (Second edition) London New York: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Exercise: conceptual photography

This exercise asks for a viewing of interviews run by Source Magazine, enquiring about conceptual photography . And then, to explain my own understanding of conceptual photography.

The series of interviews were helpful to gain an understanding of how and why the term evolved and its place among photography genres, even it that seems to be subject to some debate.

There are a few aspects to my understanding.

Firstly, semantics and the importance of having a word to describe something. When conceptual photography surfaced in the 1960s, there was not the critical industry around photography that exists now. It is suggested that the term conceptual was adopted by photographers (John Hilliard) to help describe their work / a ‘flag to indicate a photograph might require more work to understand’. Effectively a label to assist viewers / critics in placing and categorising the work. In the interviews, John Roberts suggested that during the 1970s the photographic discourse became dominated by humanism, so the ‘conceptual term’ was useful to flag an alternative perspective. It is also suggested that there is a discontinuity between now and the 1960s and therefore the term (as originally used) is dead.

My understanding of the term conceptual (in its original guise) is work that is more concerned with the expression of an idea than a visual aesthetic. However, this can be contentious as Sean O’Hagan observed; there is an inference that other photography is not based on a thinking approach and doesn’t need some effort to decode it. All photography is conceptual to some extent (a photography is a concept of its referent). There can be confusion between the concept of a work and the notion of it being conceptual. Personally, I would reserve the term conceptual for work where the idea drives the making of the work and the idea might also be more interesting than the visual that is representing it. Alternatively, analysing first and shooting later; rather than shooting first and analysing later.

To find a contemporary example of conceptual work, I looked at the April 2019 edition of the BJP and saw that Erik Kessels’ 24HRS in photos work was featured. The concept here was to physically show the number of photographs uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours so viewers might gain some visual understanding of the enormity of the numbers.

Source: uk.phaidon.com © Erik Kessels




Exercise: psychogeography

This exercise poses a question related to psychogeography – ‘do you think it’s possible to produce an objective depiction of a place or will the outcome always be influenced by the artist? Does it even matter?’

It is helpful to first be clear on what is meant by objective. A dictionary definition of objective: ‘(of a person or their judgement) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts:  historians try to be objective and impartial.   Contrasted with subjective. Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual:  a matter of objective fact.’

There may be an argument that because a camera is a machine the depiction it renders is objective. However, this would be a fallacy. The photographer takes numerous decisions in making an image. Which place to photograph, when to visit the place, where to stand when photographing it, what technical settings to use when taking the photograph and how to approach post production et cetera.

Examples of these decisions can be illustrated in the works referenced in the OCA materials. In Mark Power’s 26 Different Endings he made one photograph at locations from each of the fifty-six pages meeting the edge of the London A to Z. The place was influenced by his choice of process for making the work and within that process, which place he chose from each of the page edges. On arriving at the place, he chose where to stand, which perspective to photograph, when to press the shutter and what to include in the frame. If he took several photographs, he would have edited to arrive at a final selection, making another choice. His choice of camera, lens and film (if not digital) would have affected the rendering of the images. As would his approach to post production.

There is always a chain of decisions leading to the making of an image, which perhaps make absolute objective depiction an impossibility. It is debatable whether there can be complete objectivity in any field and the question has been researched, for example, in Douglas Heather’s The Irreductable Complexity of Objectivity . But does it matter this matter when making art works? In art the subjective perspective of the photographer is expected, along with a voice and style that make that perspective interesting. In contrast, when viewing a forensic photograph of a crime scene, one would expect strict conventions to be followed.

I suggest that the lack of objectivity does not matter and perhaps it is even completely irrelevant in the context of art.