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.