Assignment 6: Pre-Assessment Review

As this ‘assignment’ is comprised of reworking Assignments 1 to 5 and reviewing the overall submission for assessment with my tutor, the substantive output is presented under the categories of those five assignments.

However, it is useful to capture the inputs, processes and outputs of the rework phase, and to take this opportunity to make some observations about the overall learning journey, and the similarities and differences across the series of assignments.

Tutor feedback | Response to feedback


Assignment 1: Fun in the Sun

misc

This was a fairly standard ‘fly on the wall’ documentary photography project about the local pub, and I hadn’t tried to do anything particularly experimental in the original version or the rework.

This is the assignment that underwent the most significant re-edit. The main feedback from my tutor was that the image selection wasn’t the optimal version for getting across the message I wanted to (about the wide variety of community activities the pub organises in order to keep its customers in a declining market). He suggested replacing over half of the images with alternatives from the contact sheet.

In the rework I did swap out six out of the ten images, though a slightly different six than the tutor suggested – I took the general advice on narrative flow and honing the message and applied that to a re-edit. I’m happier with the reworked version, it has a little more humour and communicates the character (and characters) of the place better than the original.

I added a short sentence to the introduction reflecting on the assignment and why I’d reworked what I did from the vantage point of the end of the course.


Assignment 2: A Hole in the World

of livelihood

This was a more expressive assignment and less traditional documentary brief where I was asked to produce eight single images on a shared theme – I used loss.

I didn’t change any of the images, though the sequence was tweaked slightly on tutor advice, in terms of the visual flow.

The main challenge in rework was to better address the inclusion of the one image that was discordant with the rest, from a visual style and creative approach point of view – the ‘Bowie’ image below.

of someone you think you know

I had included an explanation of the rationale in the notes but it was perhaps a little buried, or at least detached out of context from the image itself. On other assignments I’d included a brief comment per image as part of an ‘Additional notes’ section, and so I adopted the same format for the reworked assignment here.

Other than that the assignment was unchanged.


Assignment 3: Fracktivism

Fracktivism-4

This photo essay on the growth of the local anti-fracking movement has some aspects in common with Assignment 1 in as much as it is pretty straightforward ‘traditional’ documentary style (whereas I see Assignments 2 and 5 following a more expressive and conceptual approach). It is very much in the reportage tradition of photo essays, and I intentionally adopted this approach as I was still trying out different ways of working as I progressed through the course.

However, from the vantage point of the end of the course, this is the least inventive (and therefore to me, least interesting) of my assignments, and it doesn’t really strike me as being an example of my developing personal voice. My tutor suggested I make this clear as part of the submission so I added words to this effect in the introduction to the reworked version.

In rework I considered going back to the contact sheet and retooling the entire thing in a more visually innovative way – but ultimately decided against this as it felt like it wouldn’t be true to the story; it would have been somewhat contrived to try to reengineer the narrative in a different visual style from the photos that I’d taken with a straight reportage project in mind (and the transient nature of the subject matter makes reshooting impossible).

So in the end the selection and sequence of photographs remained the same. The only significant change I made was the cover of the book dummy version. In the original, the cover image was also the first inside image, and my tutor quite rightly pointed out that such a sequence came across as unnecessarily repetitive.

On the tutor’s advice I am not planning to get an actual hardback book produced as I don’t feel that this format adds to or particularly suits this project. I have however embedded and linked to the PDF dummy in the assignment post.


Assignment 4: The Unphotographable

A4 page 1The critical review essay originally had a more dry and descriptive title “Comparing the use of metaphor and metonymy in documentary photography” but for the revised version I preferred the more evocative title “The Unphotographable” (a phrase I use in the essay) and moved the previous title to a subtitle.

Some of the changes were visual: I added sub-headings to better demarcate the building blocks of my line of argument, and introduced more example images – in the original version it was over halfway into the essay before I illustrated any of the points I was making.

In the final version there is a pair of images on all bar one of the pages. This spacing of images, along with the subheadings, made the essay both more visually interesting and easier to follow.

I also included a few of my own images, something I didn’t necessarily have the confidence to do in the original version but it feels right now, and I had more to choose from having completed Assignment 5.

In terms of the important content – the text itself – there were a few key edits, over and above general wording tweaks throughout.

First of all I changed the introductory examples of metaphor and metonymy to align both around flowers – it made sense to me to demonstrate that a similar subject can be used as symbolism in the two different ways.

Secondly, I added a paragraph about Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) as one of the lightbulb moments of working on Assignment 5 was discovering the theory (Edwards 2012: 106) that the two eponymous systems are metaphor and metonym (rather than specifically photographs and text).

Finally, I felt that the conclusion needed a more robust ending. Given that the essay is a comparison of the two forms of signifier and that I’d summarised their respective strengths and weaknesses, I decided to answer the hypothetical question of which I would choose if I had to only ever use one: “In the hypothetical situation of being forced to choose, I choose metaphor.”


Assignment 5: Two Kinds of People?

Middlesbrough 1This assignment is definitely the most experimental and conceptual of all my work on this course (probably the whole degree so far) and the difference between it and the previous assignments might stand out a lot to an assessor.

As for other assignments, my tutor recommended including some words upfront to position this in the frame of the overall body of work / learning experience. I aim to articulate in the new introduction how the work was informed by various things since Assignment 3 – my critical review research, the last three assignments on Gesture & Meaning, a lot of critical thinking on the nature of authorship in documentary photography – and, to be honest, the passage of several months while I worked on other things.

My biggest concern in terms of people understanding the whole concept (highlighting the absurdity of extreme generalisation) was that viewers might miss the point and think that I am simply misrepresenting the places in question – I needed to make sure that there was sufficient signposting that the message is intended to be subversive, that I am actually asking the viewer to ‘disagree’ with the simplified stereotyping I have presented.

There was an important text tweak recommended by the tutor that I acted on to help minimise this risk: the title was previously “Two Kinds of People”, and he suggested turning the title into a question. This really helps to encourage the viewer not to take the images at face value. I had already added a ‘?’ to the town names in the captions (implying “Is this really what Town X is like?”) and so with hindsight it seems obvious that I should have applied the same approach to the title of the overall series.

There were three specific images that I changed on tutor advice: two photos of existing imagery, a poster and a sign, that I recropped to show more environmental context (to prevent them looking like purely graphical elements in the construct of the pie chart segment); and an image swap-out for a pairing where the intended ‘positive’ image had contradictory connotations, making the interpretation of the image more prone to a negotiated reading.

The final change I made was to add some explanatory notes per town to help illuminate my choices of image and juxtaposition – an assessor may not know, for example, that Middlesbrough was known for its heavy industry, or that Burnley is a former cotton mill town, or that Dewsbury has a high ethnic minority population.


Overall observations

The whole rework exercise was useful in several ways. Most obviously it gave me an opportunity to improve all five of the preceding assignments. It also allowed me to apply knowledge from the latter parts of the course back to the earlier assignments. Last but definitely not least, it really helped me to see the similarities and differences across the assignments, which in turn is really helping me to find my photographic voice.

The most enlightening and fascinating learning I’ve taken from the whole course is the potential of the documentary photographer to exercise authorship. I can draw a line from Assignment 2 (my practice run on intentionally encoding messages in images), through Assignment 4 (the deep dive into the myriad uses of metaphor and metonymy) to Assignment 5 (where I not only applied authorship but made the application of authorship part of the delivered assignment – introducing an element of postmodernism).

In terms of visual style I’m most pleased with the black and white aesthetic of Assignment 2 and the experimental pie chart framing of Assignment 5.

In this light I now find my Assignments 1 and 3 a little quaint in their traditional look and feel! They were however crucial in helping me to find my voice.


Sources

Baker, S. (ed.) (2014) Conflict Time Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.

Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture

Fiske, J. (1982) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Grierson, J. (1933) ‘The Documentary Producer’, Cinema Quarterly, 2.

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. New York: Aperture.

Hurn, D. and Jay, B.(1997) On Being a Photographer. USA: Lenswork

Lubben, K. (ed.) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Norfolk, S. and Ignatieff, M. (1998) For Most Of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Ohrn, K. B. (1980) Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press

Pardo, A. and Parr, M (eds.) (2016) Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. London: Prestel.

Parr, M. 2012. The Last Resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis

Rosler, M. (2004) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Saussure, F. de (1983) Course in General Linguistics. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court

Soth, A. (2015) Songbook. London: MACK

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. 2nd ed. New York: Phaidon Press.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. New York: Routledge.


 

 

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Assignment 2: A Hole in the World

This is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. The revisions are a small sequencing change and some editing of image notes.

This assignment introduced me to the authorial possibilities of documentary photography, particularly the use of metaphor and metonymy, and influenced my future direction significantly.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback


 About the work

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself
constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.”
(Edna St. Vincent Millay)

The brief asks for “eight images that individually have a narrative and convey a specific idea”. I chose to explore the emotional state of loss.

The intent is to convey variations on the concept of loss rather than eight subtly different views on the same subject matter, although perhaps inevitably many of the executions allude to the loss of a person. Whilst each image is self-contained, the sequencing does broadly build up in terms of the intensity of the loss.

Though differing in visual style, the images share a still, calm approach to composition and framing that aims to convey a contemplative mood and provide space for the viewer to project their own experiences. The nature of photographing something that isn’t there means that the viewer needs to process from incomplete information, so it’s key that the metaphoric and metonymic connotations ‘work’ effectively.

Loss is an emotional state that we are all familiar with – everyone’s lost someone or something important – and I hope that one or more images makes a connection with the viewer.


Submission

Contact sheet and full-size images (26.5MB)

Sample prints have been sent to OCA as part of the submission pack.

Click the first image below to start a full-screen slideshow.

A Hole in the World


Additional notes

This was very much about applying semiotic theory and choosing signifiers that pointed to the appropriate signifieds. Following is a brief note on each image:

of youth
of youth

Receding hairline is intended to signify not only lost hair but lost youth and vitality.

of livelihood
of livelihood

A closed-up shop to connote loss of someone’s livelihood. It was pleasing that the door number is 121 as this added a secondary layer of signification, implying the loss of the ‘1-to-1’ personal service that independent shops provide.

of townsfolk
of townsfolk

A reference to the multiple loss of life in war, where there is both an individual and a community aspect on both sides of the equation.

of love
of love

Though an accident caused by a temperamental photobooth, the black fourth image seemed to me to be a potent metaphor for the sudden end to a relationship.

of someone you think you know
of someone you think you know

Thanks to Les Monaghan for allowing the use of part of one of his images from The Desire Project (2016) for this. I specifically want to address some peer review comments on this image, which some viewers felt was out of place visually and conceptually. My rationale with this one is that it represents a collective, public sense of loss for a public figure, and the image was of someone expressing it in public, and I saw it presented in a public place. It is therefore intentionally discordant with the rest, as it is the most ‘hyperreal‘ (per Baudrillard) of the forms of loss, as the rest are more individually experienced as ‘real’.

of someone you know
of someone you know

A metonym of a common form of memorial to communicate a recent loss of life. I selected this particular version for the leaves on the tree and the flowers almost touching, evoking hands reaching out.

of a loved one - 1
of a loved one (i)

As the overall theme of the set is well established by the seventh image, I wanted here to encourage the viewer to look around the image a little more before alighting on the particular detail.

of a loved one - 2
of a loved one (ii)

This, the most carefully constructed image of the set, is intended to connote loss of a family member, with the photograph standing in. The teardrop shape of the vase is also an intentional signifier.


Self-evaluation

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills:

The set was a mixture of observation (2, 3, 5, 7) and construction (1, 4, 6, 8) and so called up on a combination of visual skills. In terms of expressing my visual awareness I made a conscious decision upfront to do the set in B&W for reasons expanded upon in an earlier prep post

I found that design and compositional skills were more important in this assignment than in previous ones: in contrast to the last assignment where I wanted depth, movement and kinetic energy, for this one I wanted a calm, still, deadpan aesthetic, with use of negative space where possible, to give the viewer ‘space to think’; I also stuck to horizontal ratio for both consistency and to support the calm, static aesthetic.

Quality of outcome

As far as the content of the images goes, I’m pleased that I came up with eight sufficiently different angles on expressing the concept of loss – even if they don’t all ‘hang together’ (less important for this assignment than most, in my opinion).

I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner – as an avowedly eclectic set of self-contained images the sequencing could have been arbitrary; but I did want some kind of connecting logic, so I structured the set broadly in terms of ‘intensity’ of loss (from trivial to tragic). I did swap two images (5 and 6) around in rework on the advice of the tutor.

I consciously applied much of the new knowledge I acquired during section 2, including the strengths of B&W for certain kinds of documentary photography; I also applied semiotics and constructed images theory from other OCA studies.

Discernment played less of a part in this assignment as by its nature most of this was pre-planned. I did however shoot four additional executions that I ended up rejecting as they too closely resembled one of the others other conceptually or visually.

Conceptualisation of thoughts and communication of ideas are the two interlocking factors at the core of this assignment – I tested the images on peer reviewers without telling them the theme and pretty much everyone ‘got it’ – which leads me to believe that my ideas were sound, and I communicated them effectively

Demonstration of creativity

This tested my imagination more than I expected for a ‘Documentary’ assignment, and it moved me out of my ‘traditional documentary photography’ mindset – I think I showed some experimentation in the staged images (1, 4, 6, 8) and in the overall eclectic visual presentation.

Looking at this assignment afresh from the vantage point of the end of the course, it’s become apparent to me how important this assignment has been in the development of my personal voice. It marked the beginning of a gradual realisation that documentary photography could be something more expressive and ambiguous than the traditional didactic social documentary that I previously assumed typified the genre. This is increasingly important to me in my own work, as shown on my approach to the critical review and personal project assignments.

Context:

In terms of reflection, I learnt the valuable lesson that documentarians are able to steer the narrative with their choices of subjects, standpoints, specific shots and subsequent editing. Whether this is intentional or subconscious is not always clear, and in a sense is a moot point – the important point to take away from this is that there is always an authorial hand in any documentary photography. This was a revelation to me.

I researched the work of other photographers who’ve worked on similar thematic projects; as always I also looked at what other OCA students have done for this assignment.

One key influence was Alec Soth’s Songbook (2015), not simply because of the B&W aesthetic but rather that he manages to produce images that evoke quite a vague, nebulous theme: “nostalgia for the past and anxiety for the future and the blending of those two feelings together” (Soth 2015). It helped me understand that documentary subjects don’t need to be particularly concrete.

My previous critical thinking studies around semiotics was a big part of this work, so I returned to my go-to book on the subject, This Means This, This Means That (Hall, 2012); I also did some self-directed research into why B&W is so particularly suited to documentary photography.

Between the first version of the assignment and rework I found Stuart Franklin’s The Documentary Impulse (2016) to be incredibly enlightening in its comparison of didactic and ambiguous documentary, which retrospectively validated some of my own experiences on this assignment.


Sources

The Desire Project http://lesmonaghan.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-desire-project-at-frenchgate-centre.html (accessed 22/05/2016)

http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2015/02/06/alec_soth_photographs_american_community_life_in_his_exhibition_songbook.html (accessed 14/10/2015)

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Soth, A. (2015) Songbook. London: MACK

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.


Assignment 2: tutor feedback

I got the Assignment 2 report back from Derek my tutor at the end of last week. It was generally good :-)

Key comments extracted below, with my response as appropriate.

Technical and visual skills

  • “You have translated ideas for the concept into practical constructions (or found images) that convey very different aspects of the word/state of ‘loss’. The variety of subjects, and the various techniques employed, shows a broad set of skills, each communicating the idea well, despite the changing circumstances. It is a disparate set, yet that’s what is asked for in the brief.”
    • Pleased with that – the fragmented nature of the set is an intentional part of both the brief and my submission so I’m glad I didn’t get comments along the lines of it not ‘hanging together’

Quality of outcome

  • “Each image stands up as a metaphor for loss. […] Some individual works are weaker for being simple reproductions; e.g. the two picture shots with white space, yet these do provide punctuation to the rhythm of the sequence. We see them all as a sequence, as they’re viewed as a whole: I’d therefore suggest swapping the flowers and Bowie, placing the flowers before the dog’s grave.”
    • Whilst I do understand his visual rhythm point, the sequencing was really more determined by the content, more specifically the captions: the flowers pic has to come before the Bowie pic due to the coupling of “of someone you know” and “of someone that you think you know” – it doesn’t make as much sense the other way round
  • “I thought that the ‘flowers on the lane’ image was particularly well executed.”
    • Interesting… I felt that the flowers one stuck out a little stylistically – more perspective, less deadpan, more obviously emotive – so it wasn’t one of my particular favourites
  • “I also like the minimalist cropping of the shop front, with the addition of the swirls of whitewash.”
    • Good – I was very drawn to the formal aspects of this one, glad to see it went over well
  • The ‘out-takes’ are revealing in that you have focused fairly keenly on a few ideas from the outset, with very few rejected and only shot a handful shot of each scenario. This shows a high hit-rate of results per shot.”
    • This is very different to my Assignment 1, where I shot hundreds and selection was my big problem – I found this to be similar to my most recent assignment for G&M – that also involved a lot of planning and pre-conceptualisation, and very little shooting – it’s been interesting to work at both extremes of approach over a short space of time!

Demonstration of creativity

  • “Your creativity has also been stretched: From the last assignment that was ‘traditional’ reportage/documentary, this one is quite a departure. I think it has opened your eyes to what you are capable of, which should give you a lot more confidence to be experimental in the future.”
    • It has opened my eyes – I have a wider understanding of the types of work that can come under the category of ‘documentary photography’; the potential degree of authorial intent is the major insight for me… I understood it in theory before but it really came home to me in practice

Coursework and learning log

  • “I find the log to be a great source of ideas mixed with your research. There is clearly a passion that you feel for exploring the subject matter that motivates further research and reflection. The blog isn’t merely passive: you interrogate the sources and compare with others, critiquing and making connections. Each of these bode well for future research and reflection where the research interacts with your own practice.”
    • I’m very pleased with this feedback, maybe even more so than the specific assignment report – research and reflection gets increasingly important over L2 and L3 so I’m pleased to get good feedback on how this is developing

Suggested reading/viewing

  • The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore
    • Ordered – another tome for my heaving bookshelf…
  • Photographers and projects:
    • Stuart Roy Clarke’s long term project about football

Assignment 2: A Hole in the World [original]

NOTE: this is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.


About the work

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.” (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

The brief asks for “eight images that, individually, have a narrative and convey a specific idea”. I chose to explore the emotional state of Loss.

I aim to convey variations on loss rather than eight subtly different views on the same subject matter, although perhaps inevitably many of the executions allude to the loss of a person. Whilst each image is self-contained, the sequencing does broadly build up in terms of the intensity of the loss.

Though differing in visual style, the images share a still, calm approach to composition and framing that aims to convey a contemplative mood and provide space for the viewer to project their own experiences. The nature of photographing something that isn’t there means that the viewer needs to process from incomplete information, so it’s key that the connotations ‘work’ effectively.

Loss is an emotional state that we are all familiar with – everyone’s lost someone or something important – and I hope that one or more images makes a connection with the viewer.

Submission

Click on the first image for a high resolution slideshow.

A contact sheet of the ‘longlist’ (first pass) selection is available here.

(with thanks to Les Monaghan for allowing the use of part of one of his images from The Desire Project (2016) for photo 6, “of someone you think you know”)

Semiotics

This was very much about applying semiotics and choosing signifiers that pointed to the appropriate signifieds:

  • receding hairline (denotation) = lost youth, vitality (connotation)
  • closed-up shop = someone has lost their livelihood
  • names on a memorial = war
  • blank final photo = end of a relationship
  • flowers in public = tragic accident
  • [Bowie one is the exception – it uses simple anchoring text]
  • dog tag on makeshift gravestone = lost pet
  • empty place setting = missing family member

Visual styles

I am aware that the set uses different styles to a degree: a viewer could make a case of one or two of them ‘sticking out’ as inconsistent visually. I am comfortable with this, as the brief is for standalone single images with internal narrative. I’d have been more concerned if they all looked too similar. So the eclectic presentation is a conscious decision.

I specifically want to address some peer review comments on photo 6: ‘of someone you think you know‘ – which some people felt was out of place visually and conceptually. My rationale with this one is that it represents a collective, public sense of loss, and the image was of someone expressing it in public, and I saw it presented in a public place. It is intentionally discordant with the rest, as it is the most ‘hyperreal’ (per Baudrillard) of the forms of loss, as the rest are more individually experienced as ‘real’.

Relevance to documentary photography

I covered this in a preparation post but to summarise here: I was initially concerned on how the level of pre-conceptualisation on this assignment fits with the notion of documentary, which I simplistically saw as ‘capturing what’s happening’ rather than “translating concepts into visual products” (course notes: 58).

I have however learnt a valuable lesson on this assignment: that documentarians are able to steer the narrative with their choices of subjects, standpoints, specific shots and subsequent editing. Whether this is intentional or subconscious is not always clear, and in a sense is a moot point – the important point to take away from this is that there is always an authorial hand in any documentary photography.

Self-evaluation

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:

  • Materials: unlike Assignment 1, this didn’t specify sticking to one single camera and lens so I used different equipment and focal lengths as appropriate for each execution
  • Techniques: there are not really any specific photographic techniques used here other than those covered below under observational skills and design and compositional skills
  • Observational skills: the set was a mixture of observed and constructed – for the ones I observed (2, 3, 6, 7) I believe I found a good variety of scenes that fit my brief
  • Visual awareness: I made a conscious decision upfront to do the set in B&W for reasons expanded upon in an earlier prep post
  • Design and compositional skills: in contrast to the last assignment where I wanted depth, movement and kinetic energy, for this one I wanted a calm, still, deadpan aesthetic, with use of negative space where possible, to give the viewer ‘space to think’; I also stuck to horizontal ratio for both consistency and to support the calm, static aesthetic

Quality of outcome:

  • Content: I’m pleased that I came up with eight sufficiently different angles on expressing the concept of loss – even if they don’t all ‘hang together’ (less important for this assignment than most, in my opinion)
  • Application of knowledge: I applied much of the new knowledge I acquired during section 2, including the strengths of B&W for certain kinds of documentary photography; I also applied semiotics and constructed images theory from other OCA studies
  • Presentation in a coherent manner: I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner – as a set of intentionally self-contained images the sequencing could have been arbitrary but I did want some kind of connecting logic, so I structured the set broadly in terms of ‘intensity’ of loss (from trivial to tragic)
  • Discernment: by its nature most of this was pre-planned and so selection wasn’t anywhere near as big a job as it was on Assignment 1; I did however shoot four additional executions that I ended up rejecting as they too closely resembled one of the others other conceptually or visually
  • Conceptualisation of thoughts: this, and communication of ideas below, are the two interlocking factors at the core of this assignment – I tested the images on peer reviewers without telling them the theme and pretty much everyone ‘got it’ – which leads me to believe that my ideas were sound, and I communicated them effectively
  • Communication of ideas: see notes on conceptualisation above

Demonstration of creativity:

  • Imagination: this tested my imagination more than I expected for a ‘Documentary’ assignment, and it moved me out of my ‘traditional documentary photography’ mindset – I think I showed some imagination in the staged images (1, 4, 5, 8)
  • Experimentation: I did experiment a little outside of my normal shooting approach and visual style (e.g. the appropriated image in photo 6) – and as noted above the eclectic visual presentation is intentional
  • Invention: not sure I invented anything on this one…
  • Development of personal voice: an interesting one, this… one of the dilemmas I wrestle with on an ongoing basis on both my Level 2 courses is the balance of ‘captured’ vs ‘constructed’ – the amount of previsualisation vs organic idea development through a shooting-refining-shooting cycle – and it’s very interesting that I ended up (inadvertently) delivering an assignment with a 50:50 split of captured vs constructed

Context:

  • Reflection: this assignment has opened my eyes to the opportunities and risks of making documentary work with an authorial intent – whether conscious or subconscious – and the ability to steer the narrative; I am increasingly curious about this ‘hidden subjectivity’ in the work of others as well
  • Research: I looked at the work of other photographers who’ve worked on similar projects; as always I also looked at what other OCA students have done for this assignment
  • Critical thinking: semiotics was a big part of it so I returned to my go-to book on the subject, This Means This, This Means That (Hall, 2012); I also did some self-directed research into why B&W is so particularly suited to documentary photography

Sources

The Desire Project http://lesmonaghan.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-desire-project-at-frenchgate-centre.html (accessed 22/05/2016)

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Assignment 2: research

As my Assignment 2 is dealing with Loss, I’ve been looking for examples of other photographers taking on similar projects.

Unsurprisingly, all the projects I found dealt with one particular kind of loss rather than the ‘single image narrative’ construct that this assignment requires, and so each one goes narrow but deep. It’s still been a very useful research exercise though, as it has given me some pointers on the types of scene I could use as part of my own project.

Some of the artists positioned their theme as ‘absence’ rather than ‘loss’, and there is a difference – loss implies a person feeling the emotional state of loss, which is I believe an additional layer on top of ‘absence’, which just means something or someone is not there. Maybe ‘loss’ is ‘absence felt’? In any case, as a concept absence is a close enough cousin of loss that I included these projects too.

Glenna Gordon

Abducted Nigerian School Girls (2014)

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Glenna Gordon

Gordon looked at the much-publicised kidnapping of nearly 300 girls by the Islamic militants Boko Haram in 2014 from their school in Chibok, a remote village in Northern Nigeria. She conveyed the sense of loss by photographing the possessions they left behind – clothes, jewellery, school books.

This taught me that one way of depicting a loss is by traces that are left behind.

Michael Schmidt

Berlin Nach 45 (2005)

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Michael Schmidt

Schmidt took street scenes of Berlin in the 1980s, focusing on the gaps and half-remaining buildings left by bombing, catching a city that hadn’t yet made an effort to rebuild after the war, and wouldn’t until reunification late in the decade. The images are devoid of people, which lends them a calm, contemplative feel, as in so-called ‘aftermath photography’. The overall mood is cold, empty, desolate.

What I took from this is how much the vantage point, focal length and composition can support the intended atmosphere of an image. Schmidt’s images are in the main quite wide shots that carry an almost tangible stillness, allowing the viewer to really soak up the emptiness. I shot my assignment photos as medium distance or quite close shots, but I did try for very straight-on, deadpan composition and framing to keep the images static and calm.  And as a bonus connection, one of my assignment images includes photos taken in Berlin.

Taryn Simon

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters (2011)

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Taryn Simon

Simon’s is an epic work in 18 ‘chapters’, each dealing with a ‘bloodline’ – the living ascendants and descendants of the subject of a particular human story. What I found particularly interesting was its treatment of missing participants in the bloodline – it’s as simple as it is striking, as the ‘family portraits’ section of each story simply has a blank space for people who were not available to photograph (imprisonment, military service, illness etc) – so it’s ‘absence’ more than ‘loss’ but I still found it useful.

The aspect of this that informed my work was to use blank space or emptiness as a signifier for something that isn’t there. It’s the gap where there should be something that conveys the essence of loss. I use this idea in an image where I leave a dining table setting empty to denote a missing family member.

Phil Toledano

When I Was Six (2015)

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Phil Toledano

Toledano made a project about the sister who had died when he was six and she was nine. He had virtually no memories of her, and the family had hardly ever discussed her – then after his parents died he found boxes of photos and belongings, which led to the project. What’s particularly fascinating to me about this is that the subject that he has ‘lost’ isn’t necessarily the obvious one: he didn’t remember his sister, so he’s mourning (or at least analysing the loss of) something else – the absence of her, even as a shared family memory while he was growing up? the loss of a part of his childhood that never happened in real life? is it really about the loss of his parents?

In a – very trite and incomparable – way I am including in my assignment an image that has a literal (denotative) meaning and a more subtle (connotative) meaning: I photographed my receding hairline, so the obvious reading is ‘loss of hair’, but what I really want to get across is what it signifies, which to me is ‘loss of youth / loss of vitality’.

Laura Stevens

Another November (2014)

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Laura Stevens

Stevens used other women to create a semi-autobiographical series depicting the aftermath of a relationship breakup – in her own words, it’s “a photographic narrative based on the experience of losing love” (LensCulture 2014). She chose Parisian women of about her age to act as proxies and staged scenes that conveyed the feelings of having been rejected by a partner.

I had remembered this project from a year or so ago and sought it out again for inspiration. However, I’d decided early on that I didn’t really want people in my images (barring the forehead selfie), as I wanted them to be empty, cool and still. So staging images like Stevens’ didn’t really fit my approach. Interestingly, the one idea that I did like, of a woman dining alone, partly resembles the dining table scene I had already staged when I rediscovered this project – so maybe I was subconsciously thinking of it from my first viewing last year.

There are potentially dozens of others – lots of photographers have dealt with loss as in bereavement in many different ways, and there are a number of projects dealing with the aftermath of wars that could be classed as examinations of loss (the 2014 Tate exhibition and book Conflict-Time-Photography is full of them) – but I wanted to pick out a handful that had some inspirational value, or at least a connection to the kind of thing I already had in mind for my assignment.

Sources

Abducted Nigerian School Girls http://www.glennagordon.com/abducted-nigerian-school-girls/ (accessed 19/05/2016)

Berlin Nach 45 http://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=DP185&i=3865210902&i2= (accessed 19/05/2016)

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters http://tarynsimon.com/works/almdd/ (accessed 20/05/2016)

When I Was Six http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/03/phil-toledano-when-i-was-six/ (accessed 20/05/2016)

Another November http://www.laurastevens.co.uk/another-november (accessed 20/05/2016)

Baker, S and Mavlian, S (eds.) (2014) Conflict – Time – Photography. London: Tate.

Assignment 2: visual style

Just a short post on a couple of decisions I’ve made on the visual style for Assignment 2: Loss.

Colour palette

Although this assignment is at the end of the ‘B&W Document’ section it does say that it can be delivered in B&W or colour.

I’m going to do it in B&W, for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s an inherently negative and potential dark subject and B&W lends itself to the prevailing mood
  • I really like Anders Petersen’s rationale for using B&W:
    • “In black and white you are not caught by the colours, you have your own fantasy and experiences and they are all in colours. So unintentionally you add colours to the black and white photograph.” (FK Magazine, 2012)
    • What he was referring to is the viewing rather than the photographing experience – that the viewer finds a B&W image ‘incomplete’ and is therefore more likely to use imagination and memory to ‘fill in the gaps’
    • Whether this is scientifically true or not :-) I think it sounds plausible
    • It suits my intent here – to tap into universal emotions

Composition

In the last assignment (and assignments on other OCA courses) I have made a particular effort to use diagonals and depth of field to evoke a sensation of movement and three dimensions.

However, for this set I want the images to be very still, calm, contemplative. So I am planning on shooting everything as straight-on as I can. I want to minimise the feeling of depth and try to make the images as ‘still’ as possible, visually.

Along similar lines, I plan to shoot everything in landscape ratio – more static, calm, balanced.

 

Assignment 2: theme decision – Loss

As at the end of last week I was trying to decide between two alternative themes, Loss and Danger.

I did a couple of dummy shots of each idea, and also spent some time thinking ahead to (a) whether I could come up with eight different executions for each idea, and (b) how the overall set might hang together.

I also spent some time working through my nagging concern about the extent to which I might need to stage rather than find these executions.

With all of this in mind, I have made my decision, and it is the first idea I had right back at the start of this section: Loss.

A word on Danger and why it was rejected: the extent to which these images would need to be staged would be great, potentially onerous and most importantly, maybe too easy to call out as faked. I am not, nor ever will be, a thrill-seeker – so the degree to which I am prepared to put myself in any kind of danger for a photograph is quite minimal…

Loss is however an emotion that I believe we can all tap into. We’ve all experienced loss in some form or other.

Defining loss

Just to clarify my own wording above, in the interests of better articulating my intent: loss is not an ’emotion’ as such, rather a situation to which one can have an emotional response. Loss can be felt, and that can make one sad, lonely, angry or some other emotion on the more negative end of the continuum.

The third listed definition in the OED is the one I’m aiming for:

“the feeling of grief after losing someone or something of value” (OED)

What I am looking to depict here is not the ‘losing’ of something, nor is it the ‘thing lost’ – it is the sensation of ‘having lost‘ (something or someone). Peter Wollen’s excellent essay Fire and Ice (1984) puts well a categorisation of three aspects of narrativity (credited to Bernard Comrie) that can be applied to photography:

  • Process (how something happens/changes – generally typified by documentary photography)
  • Event (the moment of happening/change – generally typified by news photography)
  • State (the stable, unchanging situation – generally typified by art photography)

(Wollen 1984)

Through this lens I could clarify what I want to depict: I want to show the state of loss.

Some more notes to hone in on my intent:

  • More than ‘absence’ or ‘gap’, loss includes the inherent meaning of once having had that which is no longer there; it’s missing something in the emotional sense in addition to it not being present
  • There are different kinds of loss:
    • Temporary vs permanent
    • Tangible (people, objects) vs intangible (e.g. faith, confidence, virginity)
  • There is an inherent difficulty in photographing something that isn’t there! I’ll need to be reasonably creative in coming up with images that can provide the viewer with enough information to determine what is missing

Proposed subjects

With loss as the connecting theme, I still need to deliver eight executions that individually communicate this message.

I have some ideas already. Not all of these have actual executions attached yet. They range from trivial to grave. In sequencing I am already thinking that I might start small/trivial and build up to large/serious.

  • Loss of hair / tooth (to signify loss of youth/vitality?)
  • Loss of hope / dignity /  confidence (hard to depict visually?)
  • Loss of loved one: person
  • Loss of loved one: pet
  • Loss of someone you don’t know personally (public figure?)
  • Loss of relationship (breakup)
  • Loss of job / livelihood
  • Loss of community

There may be more than one execution for some of the more significant ones (e.g. loss of loved one).

Next steps

Before I get too far into shooting I plan to do some research on other photographers who have attempted similar themes. I have been given a few pointers from other students.

Sources

Wollen, P. (1984) ‘Fire and Ice’ in The Photography Reader (2003). New York: Routledge

Assignment 2: “but is it documentary?”

I’ve had a nagging concern at the back of my mind since I started thinking about this assignment.

The brief includes the following pointer:

“This assignment aims to help you develop your ability to conceptualise your thoughts and communicate your ideas visually. The emphasis is on effectively translating concepts into visual products.” (course notes: 58)

My immediate reaction was: this doesn’t sound much like documentary?

In fact, the best (I almost said ‘only’ but that’s not true) way to deliver this assignment is to consciously construct a set of images.

My instinctive understanding of documentary photography is about capturing rather than constructing – observing what’s already there, not imposing a preconceived idea. This is more about starting with a concept and producing an image to match the concept. It seems to be the ‘opposite way round’ to documentary photography…!

However, I am getting over this.

For a start, I appreciate that not all assignments on a documentary photography course need to be delivered using a documentary photography approach; it can be, as in this case, about developing or honing a particular skill that is useful for documentary photography.

Secondly, it reassured me that the response from other students has been wholeheartedly to construct images – so either the dilemma didn’t occur to them or they got over it.

Most importantly, I was exposed to interesting ideas about the necessary veracity of ‘documentary photography’ images in the essay ‘Some Truths Cannot be Told Except as Fiction’ in Street Photography Now (Howarth & McLaren 2010). It uses historic examples such as Brassaï and Robert Doisneau, as well as contemporary practitioners like Jeff Wall and Mirko Martin, who staged images to varying degrees. Wall’s Mimic (1982), for example, is a recreation of a scene that he had witnessed previously.

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Mimic, 1982 – Jeff Wall

Some photographers are therefore happy to blur fact and fiction in the name of communicating a ‘wider truth’.

The essay quotes Garry Winogrand going one step further than recreation: “If one could imagine it, one could set it up” (Howarth & McLaren 2010: 183).

The French-Algerian photographer Mohamed Bourouissa, mentioned early on in the course, works like this, in projects such as Périphérique (2009).

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La Rencontre, 2008 – Mohamed Bourouissa

Bourouissa has said: “What I am after is that very fleeting tenth of a second when the tension is at its most extreme.” (Prix Pictet 2012), and he doesn’t worry about missing it as he believes it’s valid to construct it – others may disagree.

Summary

In the end, my concern has been allayed. It has however been very useful to think through these issues in advance of any further work on the assignment.

Sources

Howarth, S and McClaren, S (eds.) (2010) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mohamed Bourouissa http://www.prixpictet.com/portfolios/power-shortlist/mohamed-bourouissa/ (accessed 13/05/2016)

Assignment 2: brainstorming themes

Ideas so far

My early thinking on this assignment only produced a few theme ideas:

  • Loss
  • Bravery
  • Loyalty

With hindsight the latter two only sprang to mind after I’d seen a bunch of war medals in a charity shop window, and I’m not at all clear whether I could come up with another seven executions!

I did consider some other concepts, a mixture of positive, negative and neutral:

  • Danger, Fear
  • Love, Connection
  • Waiting

Inspirations

I also looked at examples from other students:

  • Silence, Legacy, Memory, Hope, Isolation, Abuse, Depression, Absence

At one point I remembered that an abandoned concept for one of my Level 1 assignments was the Seven Deadly Sins!

  • Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, Sloth

This in turn led to looking at their lesser-known counterparts, the Seven Virtues:

  • Humility, Charity, Chastity, Kindness, Temperance, Patience, Diligence

In the end I decided that neither the Vices nor the Virtues were really connecting with me in any meaningful way right now so I put them on the back burner.

Shortlist

After much thought I have narrowed it down to two potential themes: Loss and Danger. They are both at the negative end of the emotional scale but I think that (a) gives scope for more interesting shots and (b) fits better with doing the assignment in B&W, which is my preference.

Loss

  • The first idea I had, and the one that I have most execution concepts for
  • Could be very serious or could be a broader blend of darker and lighter (or at least darkly humorous) executions
  • Overall mood would be calm, still, contemplative

Danger

  • A recent idea, so I have fewer specific execution concepts!
  • Inspired, I think, by the Moriyama/Petersen/Sobol work I’ve been looking at recently
  • I envisage close-ups of dangerous scenes/situations
  • Overall mood would be foreboding, visceral
  • I’m less sure that I can produce eight such images – without actually putting myself in real danger! (something I don’t intend to do)

Next steps

I’m going to:

  • Try some dummy shots for both Loss and Danger over the weekend
  • Brainstorm more execution ideas for each
  • Then make up my mind

Assignment 2: early thoughts

The course notes suggest reading ahead to the Assignment 2 brief and making preliminary planning notes. I’ll update this page as I work through the coursework before moving onto the more detailed preparation.

Brief

Produce eight images that, individually, have a narrative and convey a specific idea. You needn’t limit yourself to your immediate surroundings as you did in the previous assignment.

Rather than focusing on a theme or activity, work on a concept. The more abstract the concept the better. Abstract concepts name ideas, feelings, qualities or characteristics that are not directly perceived by the senses, e.g. hope, love, exploitation, sadness, freedom and greed.

You can do this assignment in B&W or colour. Discuss with your tutor which medium is most appropriate for your chosen concept.

Provide a short commentary (200 words) explaining your ethos and rationale along with your images.

Initial response

I like the look of this one. I’m drawn to projects where I can depict internal thoughts, sensations, emotions, states of mind etc. The assignments I enjoyed most on Level 1 were a little like this, especially on Context & Narrative – and this is a little similar to C&N Assignment 2: Photographing the Unseen. I did that on the subject of photographer’s block.

On the first day of thinking about potential subjects I came up with:

  • Loss
  • Bravery
  • Loyalty

I will add to the ideas list as I go along.

I’m currently thinking that I will work in B&W for this one, but that’s not set in stone.

More to follow…