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.

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.


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: 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.