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Reflection: Closing thoughts

I’ve completed all the assignment rework, had my final tutorial, and all that remains is printing and posting the submission. I’ve signed up to Level 3 and started reading the Body of Work and Contextual Studies course handbooks, but before really getting my teeth into those I want to close off Level 2 with some final reflections on the overall Documentary course.

It was more cohesive than my other L2 course

I completed Documentary some months after Gesture & Meaning, and I generally found this to be the more focused of the two, with G&M being rather fragmented (I can see why that has subsequently been replaced if I’m honest; that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it or get something out of it, rather it’s simply a comparison of their respective structures and contents).

Documentary seems more designed to build up your understanding gradually, adding layers of insight and deepening your appreciation of the genre by accretion.

I realised that documentary isn’t really my genre

I came into Level 2 thinking that documentary photography was something that I was quite interested in, but the irony is that the more I learned about documentary photography, the more I felt like I was moving away from it – BUT! this is not a criticism of the course by any means. In fact, it opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the world. Let me explain…

Authorship, authorship, authorship

The mind-expanding learning on this course was the notion of authorship. I’d always thought of documentary photography as truthful, accurate, objective – until I did this course. It opened my eyes to the realisation that everyone has an angle, all ‘truth’ is partial, nothing is truly objective and the documentary photographer is as much an author as any kind of artist, albeit working with actuality as raw material. This lightbulb moment changed my outlook and had me wrestling with my own strengths, weaknesses and intentions.

I prefer speaking for myself than on behalf of others

Once the realisation had sunk in that as a documentary photographer I am – intentionally or not – an author (a narrator, a spokesperson, a manipulator), I began to feel uneasy about telling stories on behalf of others – which is pretty much the definition of a documentary photographer! I realised that I had started intentionally leaving people out of my projects for fear of misrepresenting them.

This came to a head on my Assignment 5 (the personal project), where intentional, overt stereotyping was a significant part of the concept – and I just couldn’t ethically defend making people stand in for extreme stereotypes to help me make a point. This is perhaps a negative/defensive way of looking at things, so I will now talk about the more positive aspect of this…

I prefer to transmit ideas than to tell stories

Closely related to the last point: after my Assignment 5 I made a survey of my OCA work for the last four years – which assignments I was proud of, which I still felt a connection with, which I was unmoved by, which I was ill-at-ease with. Generally speaking I feel better about the ones where I was investigating an idea. On this course in particular, I distinguish between the assignments where I was telling stories about the activities of others (1 and 3) and those where I was presenting an idea for the viewer to think about (2 and 5).

Even on Assignment 5, which originally was planned as a straight social documentary project on Brexit, I moved towards a position where I was examining a specific aspect of the situation that I felt wasn’t being discussed. I started to consider the overused phrase ‘thought-provoking‘ in a literal sense – I want my images to make people think, not to tell them about something. It seems more difficult but also more rewarding.

I’ve become more interested in producing visually arresting work

My own taste in photographic art is definitely moving towards more distinctive, visually interesting work. I think I’ve started to find most ‘straight’ documentary photography a little repetitive. This may be a product of my 21st century attention span! Things need to look new and different to catch my eye. Now, I’m still very sure that good – really, really good – documentary photographers can produce work that grabs the attention, I’m just no longer sure that I want to be (or am good enough to be) one of them.

My interest in more visually unusual work was definitely piqued by my Assignment 5, where I felt that deciding on the particular presentation format (pie charts) was the real lightbulb moment. I am increasingly drawn to more conceptual (often abstract) photographic projects, and want to see if this is an area in which I can work.

Photography is a language

Specifically, I became fascinated in the opportunities to use photography as a visual language to get messages across – by way of tools of rhetoric such as metaphor and metonymy. I find an almost puzzle-solving-like satisfaction in determining the best way to get a particular message across. It does sometimes feel like an act of translation more than creation.

So – the irony is that studying documentary photography for 18 months gave me a taste for a kind of photography that is quite far removed from traditional documentary ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Onwards to Level 3!

Assignment 6: tutor feedback

I had one last video tutorial with my tutor Derek and we collaborated on the notes to produce the final feedback report.

The first half of the report discusses my rework on each individual assignment and is covered in more detail in the main Assignment 6 post.

The additional tutor comments were pretty positive, thankfully. A couple of extracts:

“The coursework has been consistently well thought out throughout the module. There have been many exercises in which you’ve tried something new and learnt from it, which in turn has developed your own voice. It is good to see clear causal links between exercises and the ideas developed for assignments.”

“Research has been a real strength of this module: there has been a clear correlation shown between your research, the direction chosen for assignments and the development of new understandings. This in turn has shown step changes in the assignments, where each one builds on the last, but also progresses your personal practice. The practice has become more personal, and all the stronger for it.”

There is of course always room for improvement as I head towards Level 3:

“We’ve discussed making your reflections – looking back at modules from the position you’re in now – a clearer part of your texts, i.e. in the log, and at the start of assignment commentaries (as well as in the reflective notes later on). If the significant part of the assignment is a real shift in your understanding, then that should be front and centre, as it’s the most important point to make.”

In all, I’m very happy with both my rework and Derek’s feedback on it.

Onwards!


 

 

Assignment 5: tutor feedback

Having completed the assignment less than a week ago, thanks to a very prompt tutor response I’ve already had the video tutorial to discuss it and we’ve collaboratively produced the feedback report.

It was generally positive, thankfully. I was unsure whether I had gone too ambitious / obscure with the concept but it seems that I got the message over reasonably well, albeit with some recommendations for fine-tuning it before submission for assessment.

The ‘Overall comments’ section was encouraging:

“A strong idea and a unique and inspired presentation makes this assignment stand out. There are a few areas that were discussed that could lead to a slight strengthening of the content, particularly subject choices and cropping. As there are plenty of images to choose from this shouldn’t pose any problems for a simple re-edit. The project was worthy of a larger-scale choice for level three; as such it has taken a lot longer than Rob’s usual turnaround. The experiences gained during this process will serve him well at the next level.”

The key points of the more detailed feedback are summarised below:

Assignment submission

  • The work is topical, contentious, provocative and engaging
  • Being ‘brave’ enough to try something more experimental is to be applauded
  • Pie chart format is visually engaging and attracts the viewer’s attention
  • Need to make sure however that content within images is also strong and the work doesn’t just rely on the visual concept – some images are not as strong as others:
    • Use of appropriated imagery needs to be be made clearer (through re-cropping / choosing alternative versions of the shots)
    • Potential ambiguity in subject matter leading to weaker juxtapositions, could confuse the viewer if not sufficiently ‘polarised’
    • Don’t need to be so ‘neat’ about making subjects fit into the obscure shapes as they are deliberately fragments of the scenes
  • Sequencing: currently the sequence is mixed across the five towns arbitrarily, but it would be more effective with some logic behind it
    • Suggestion to try in rework: sequence images in chronological order by my own period of residence, as this represents a personal journey
  • Some concern that the overall message (highlighting/subverting stereotyping) is potentially open to misinterpretation and a subtle change to the title may help provoke the viewer into more thought on the content
    • Suggestion is to highlight the ambiguity by turning the title into a question, e.g. “Two Kinds of People?”

Coursework

  • The coursework looks good and up to date – steered towards researching and gaining the experience required for the assignment

Research

  • Research is wide-ranging and critically aware – some recent references are missing: an update would better illustrate the depth of contextualisation

Learning Log

  • Reflections are mature, objective and reasonably concise

Onwards to rework and preparation for assessment! The final stretch…

Research point: Crowdfunding

It’s interesting how quickly things move these days; the 2011 BJP link in the course notes doesn’t connect to a live web page, and a search of the site for ‘crowdfunding’ brings up as the first result the news that Emphas.is, the specialist photojournalism crowd-funding platform covered in the OCA article, went into liquidation in 2013 (and WeFund seems to have similarly disappeared).

However, that seems to me to say more about how specific platforms were operated than anything about crowdfunding as a general phenomenon, which appears to be gaining ground.

For the contributor

I’ve personally had experience as a sponsor of a crowdfunded project, Les Monaghan’s Relative Poverty, and it made me think about the benefits from an contributor point of view. In some cases I presume the expected audience is the contributor – “I’d like to see that”.

For me it was more about wanting the project to go ahead because I felt its messages needed to be heard than it was about wanting to see the results myself; I acted as more of a (small percentage!) patron than as a potential viewer.

Most photography crowdfunding involves some kind of contributor ‘reward’, such as a book, an exhibition invitation, a print etc. Particularly for projects with a social documentary photography focus, the notion of getting ‘rewards’ for contribution struck me as potentially problematic – for the Relative Poverty project I contributed at a level that got me a couple of key rewards: a portfolio review (extremely helpful, and the main reason I contributed at the level that I did), and a copy of my choice of image from the exhibition – this latter reward sat oddly with me: much as I want to support the project, I can’t see myself wanting to display an image of abject poverty in my home (sorry, Les!).

Relative Poverty.jpg
from Dave’s Story, Relative Poverty, 2017 by Les Monaghan

For the photographer

The benefits of crowdfunding from the photographer point of view are self-evident: one can confirm a level of interest and – more practically – money before committing to a project.

More specifically, spreading the funding across multiple small patrons could potentially alleviate the risk (or perception) that there has been some invisible editorial or curatorial hand influencing the message. Crowdfunding actually strengthens the photographer’s authorial hand.

The flipside is this though: what happens to the potentially fascinating, imaginative and enlightening projects that don’t get made because a crowdfunding target isn’t met? The success of a crowdfunding campaign relies not only on the strength of the idea but also the marketing skills of the creator – the Prison Photography case study reaffirms this, with its focus on the sophisticated promotional skills of its founder Pete Brook.

The fact that crowdfunding platforms exist and have produced success stories is clearly a good thing, and as per the OCA article it does help to ‘democratise’ documentary photography. I’m not averse to the idea of using such a method in future.

Sources

Crowdfunding http://www.weareoca.com/photography/crowd-funding/ (accessed 26/06/2017)

Relative Poverty http://www.relativepoverty.org (accessed 26/06/2017)

Prison Photography https://prisonphotography.org (accessed 26/06/2017)

Emphas.is story http://www.bjp-online.com/2013/10/crowdfunding-platform-emphas-is-goes-insolvent-amid-internal-conflicts/ (accessed 26/06/2017)

Assignment 5: (another) alternative title

I’m still thinking about the advice I was given to make the project title link to the content (and concept) more clearly.

For today anyway, I’m falling out with the last title idea I’ve been working with – Two Kinds of People – as the project deliberately doesn’t include people, and depicts whole towns using stereotypes.

I’ve already acknowledged a inspirational debt to Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1972-74), and I’m currently pondering whether to go one step further and make the title an homage to it:

Northern England in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems

… but I might change my mind tomorrow!

Assignment 5: portraying people without people

No people

One of the decisions I made early on in Assignment 5 planning was to exclude people. This in itself is making the whole thing more of a challenge, as it’s generally accepted that including people as subject matter is more successful that not doing – the viewing eye is drawn to human subjects, and documentary photography tends to be about issues that involve and affect people. So to exclude people seems to be a perverse limitation I’m putting on myself! But I can explain…

The whole concept underpinning the work is concerned with the dangers of over-simplification, manifesting here as deliberate stereotyping of people who live in a particular town (based on EU referendum voting data). However, I am morally opposed to using actual people to portray deliberate stereotypes, as I strongly believe that to do so is disrespectful to the individuals in question.

I wasn’t consciously aware of the precedent at the time of making that decision, but I was reassured to see that Martha Rosler held a similar moral stance in her seminal work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1973-75), which I have retrospectively realised was an inspiration to my own work here. She depicted empty street scenes so that the drinkers that were the nominal subject of the work would not be “twice victimised: first by society, and then by the photographer who presumes the right to speak on their behalf” (Owens 1985: 69) – a damning but valid criticism of most documentary photography.

Symbolism

To communicate the notions of various pairs of opposing stereotypes circling around the cliché of ‘there are two kinds of people in the world…’ I need to apply the theories of semiotics and create signifiers to stand in for signified hypothetical people.

This means working with metaphors (signifiers that evoke similarity) and metonyms (signifiers that evoke association) to stand in for that which I am not depicting visually. I am increasingly fascinated with the notion of authorship in documentary photography and the deliberate embedding of messages that are not always immediately obvious. I wrote my critical review essay on this topic.

Of the two, it seems to me that metonyms are more useful (certainly easier to find and less obscure) for this assignment. In a recent post I brainstormed a list of potential subjects against the shortlist of caption pairings. It was a long list, with 30 signifier/signified combinations, and except where noted below are all the connotations I had chosen were metonyms (associations) rather than metaphors (comparisons):

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building

Research

Last month I went on a very interesting study visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition of photographs of Britain by international photographers, and subsequently bought the accompanying book. I was particularly interested in looking for images of British communities that didn’t include people yet still managed to evoke a sense of the presence of people. I also reviewed a number of photography pamphlets I’ve acquired from Cafe Royal Books who specialise in British documentary photography, notably from the 1960s-1980s.

A few summary takeaways:

  • Lots of examples of formal graphical elements in the composition
    • Lines, shapes, repetition etc
    • So a visually appealing image and use of leading lines to manage the viewer’s focus are important when there are no people to look at
  • International photographers leaned on metonym more
    • I presume the objects themselves held some novelty, and using them to make an association with the people not in the frame would be more attractive to the outsider, maybe?
  • British photographers in the CRB series made more use of metaphor
    • e.g. decaying buildings = deprived communities, long road = isolation, empty room = loneliness, etc

Learning

I need to lean less on metonymy and find more metaphors!

Sources

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

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Owens, C. (1985) ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernists’, in Foster H. (ed) Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press

Assignment 5: research/inspiration: Rosler’s The Bowery…

This assignment has been going glacially slowly recently but this week I had a huge lightbulb moment.

I’ve discovered that it’s possible to be inspired by something without consciously realising it at the time. A seed of an idea planted long ago in my mind seems to be belatedly bearing fruit, and it’s helping me to refine my Assignment 5 approach and to place it in the context of the documentary photography canon.

Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

The trigger was reading Ine Gevers’ essay on post-documentary photography, a text that I found equal parts enlightening and infuriating. The essay used Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) as an example of using documentary photography in one’s work rather than being a documentary photographer. This distinction, and some of Gevers’ analysis of Rosler’s work from her post-documentary angle, struck me as worthy of further examination.

bowery_NCRstewed.jpg
from The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75 by Martha Rosler

I had first come across the Bowery work a couple of years ago on an earlier OCA course, in the context of Rosler’s 1981 essay In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) where she refers to her own project. The concept of using documentary photography to critique itself wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time but has become more apparent as my subsequent studies have deepened my knowledge.

I’ve been struggling to articulate what I’m trying to achieve with my Assignment 5, which has morphed from being a ‘straight’ documentary photography project on social inequality into a critique of the tendency to over-simplification that is prevalent across politics, media and photography.

Much has been written about Rosler’s Bowery project, including a whole book by Steve Edwards (2012) and reading the critical appraisals of the work has been hugely enlightening for me – I found myself thinking, ‘Yes! that’s what I’m trying to do!’

By way of example, the Whitney Museum of American Art described the work using the following phrases (my emphasis):

“In her work, Martha Rosler has often employed—and deconstructed—photographic conventions in ways that examine the authenticity associated with documentary photography and the unbalanced relationship between disenfranchised communities and their visual representations.

The resulting disjunction—between words that refer to an all-too-human state and images devoid of people—suggests the inherent limitations of both photography and language as “descriptive systems” to address a complex social problem.” (Whitney Museum)

The Gevers essay had the following extracts that caught my attention:

“Her projects are aimed at calling into question numerous media-related presuppositions within film, video, documentary photography, text, exhibition. She manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word.” (Gevers 2005)

All of this is helping me to place my own objectives in a wider context of art and documentary photography. It’s reassured me that I’m not entirely making stuff up here! I am, I belatedly realise, trying to work within a post-documentary tradition talked about Gevers and practiced by Rosler.

Similarities and differences

The more closely I examine the Rosler work, and (hopefully) better understand the communication intent, the more I can see some similarities with what I am aiming to achieve.

  • Using documentary photography to make a comment on documentary photography as a representative medium
    • The limitations of using simple images to depict complex situations
    • Rosler herself opened the second paragraph of In, around and afterthoughts with this: “How can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photo- graphic practice? What remains of it?” (Rosler 1981)
  • Avoiding depicting individuals
  • Juxtaposing imagery and text
  • Using colloquial or pejorative labels
Burnley test round
test image for Assignment 5

There are however a couple of key differences:

  • Rosler’s work was more concerned with the political context of how traditional documentary photography encourages a social inequality between viewer and subject
    • My target is less overtly political/class-based and more aimed at critiquing the human tendency to over-simplify – not just in political discourse but in mass media and more personalised, social media platforms
  • Rosler’s work was targeted at the representational inadequacy of photographs and words
    • My angle is more on the representational inadequacy of photographs and data

Rather than being disheartened that my idea isn’t quite as original as I first thought, I am actually really enthused that I have found a ‘touchstone’ for this assignment. I feel like I’m on slightly more solid ground now that I am more consciously working ‘in the tradition of…’ someone or something. Such a reference point gives me somewhere to come back to if I am unsure, to consider my work in the context of (but not measure or judge myself against) known work.

Sources

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

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Gevers, I. (2005) ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ in Documentary Now!

http://collection.whitney.org/object/8304 (accessed 13/04/2017)

Exhibition: Strange and Familiar (study visit)

Manchester Art Gallery, 08/04/17
Tutor: Derek Trillo

I was looking forward to this exhibition for its subject matter and curatorial approach: in a nutshell, it is Britain as seen by non-British photographers. It was curated by Martin Parr and much of the content is from his own collection. I was curious to find out how much one would be able to discern the curatorial hand of someone with such a distinctive style (in the end: not much – it came across as the work of Parr the photography enthusiast more than Parr the photographer).

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Study visit group

My particular interest at this point in time is how the exhibition could inform my current (slowly progressing) Assignment 5. I could do with some inspiration on how to see familiar places in a different light, so seeing work on Britain by other nationalities could be just the ticket.

I was curious as to the intent of the photographers at the time of shooting; were they:

  • deliberately aiming to capture their vision of a country foreign to them?
  • shooting for a more specific project that happened to be placed in Britain?
  • just shooting what they liked the look of, unaware of the context in which the work would later be placed?

Spoiler: it’s a mix of all of the above.

It’s a pretty big exhibition and I won’t comment on all the participants. Instead I will pick out some themes and photographers that resonated with me.

Strangeness is subjective

The exhibition’s full name is Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographer. It’s easy to play semantics but I did find myself checking my reactions to images against the nominal scope of the exhibition, and found the title to be more ambiguous and nuanced the more I thought about it.

On the face of it the exhibition concept can be interpreted as: subject matter that is strange to the (non-British) photographer but familiar to the British viewer. However, some of the content is inherently strange, even to most Brits. Some of it is either strange or familiar depending on exactly where you live (Paul Strand’s series on the Outer Hebrides would be alien to a Londoner but familiar to a Cornwall farmer) – Britain is incredibly diverse for a relatively small landmass. Perhaps this is Parr’s overriding message.

Some of the subject matter is universal and has no inherent Britishness (Bruce Gilden’s grotesque close-ups happen to have been taken here but could have been from anywhere in the world).

At least some of the strangeness is down to the temporal distance: the past is a foreign country. In a sense the combination of where and when may be more significant than the where and who, and I occasionally found myself wondering whether a British photographer could have taken a particular picture and retained the sense of otherness to a contemporary viewer. I considered whether cultural differences between nations were more pronounced in the past, and the relative isolation of an island nation meant that shooting in the UK was much more novel to the international eye in previous decades (up to the 1960s/70s?) than in the more homogenous, globalised now.

The notion of strangeness also made me think of the Solomon-Godeau essay “Inside/Out” and its debate on the relative merits of being an insider or an outsider. The insider can be too close to the situation to be objective, while the outsider can lack the depth of local knowledge to interpret situations appropriately. It’s interesting that a few of these projects were book or magazine commissions where the outsider status was seen as an advantage (the shadow of Robert Frank, the outsider who nailed America, looms over much of the 60s work). From reading the potted biographies it came across that some of the best work came from ‘semi-outsiders’ that had settled in British communities for long enough to absorb some of the local culture whilst retaining their eye for ‘otherness’.

Photographers and themes

I mention Henri Cartier-Bresson mainly to document a rare disappointment with his work, both from a content and an aesthetic point of view. He covers royal events from the 1930s and 1970s, which came across as shallow, touristic subject matter, and the 1977 work was (whisper it) unremarkable – he looks like he had lost his keen eye for compositional geometry in his later years.

Edith Tudor-Hart, Gian Butterini, Raymond Depardon are presented as social documentarians. Perhaps it’s trying to say that it’s easier – less awkward? – for an outsider to starkly capture social deprivation. Whilst this works as a theory within the construct of this exhibition, it is diluted somewhat when one considers the number of British photographers who captured such conditions equally well (Nick Hedges, Chris Killip, Chris Steele-Perkins et al).

Cas Oorthuys, Evelyn Hofer and Bruce Davidson were displayed close to each other, and they had in common that they took photos for books or magazines with a specific brief of showing representative visions of Britain, or particular cities. Each did inject their own personal voice into their work, especially Davidson, but I found most of these interesting only as historic documents rather than great photographs.

By contrast the same room devoted a wall to much more experimental, expressive work by Sergio Larrain, a new name to me but the star of the show. His work had a Frank/Americans vibe (though broadly contemporary so possibly coincidentally) in terms of disregarding technical and compositional norms and capturing random fleeting moments of visual beauty. The fragmentary presentation matched the style, with the images framed small and hung haphazardly.

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Sergio Larrain

Similar but different was Shinro Ohtake, whose snapshot aesthetic really appealed to me. Ohtake took the idea of stream-of-consciousness photography to the streets of Britain and managed to simultaneously remind me of Martin Parr and Daido Moriyama. Another student on the study visit commented that Ohtake’s work was the first set where the aesthetics of the output was identifiable to the nationality of the photographer, in terms of the use of light and shade in particular images being reminiscent of traditional Japanese art. Again the presentation complemented the visual style – some pinned unframed to the wall, some as tiny snapshots in vitrines.

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Shinro Ohtake

In the same way that Ohtake often managed to make suburban England resemble Japan, Garry Winogrand replicates his US street style so well that he makes London look like New York. These two are probably the most successful examples of photographers bringing their home country aesthetic to the UK – in a spin on the exhibition concept, they appeared to be (subconsciously?) making the strange more familiar to themselves, rather than emphasise the strangeness. If that makes sense…

Whilst most of the content is from mainland Britain, some of the most interesting images are from Northern Ireland, documenting the Troubles. Gilles Peress and Akihiko Okamura captured strikingly strange scenes that show, especially with the passage of time, just how other-worldly Northern Ireland could seem to British eyes. Peress used black and white which gives many of his images a timeless quality, while Okamura displays a keen eye for rapidly-captured surreal detail. Both created memorable images that accentuated what an unusual time and place they documented.

A handful of photographers’ work seemed a poor fit with the concept and the content of the rest of the exhibition: Bruce Gilden’s aforementioned grotesque close-up portraits are not distinctively British (having seen them online previously I had projected US nationality onto them, oddly), Tina Barney’s aristocracy shots look overly glossy and glamorous, and the Rineke Dijstra work is surprisingly small-scale (three portraits) that are nominally about Liverpool nightclub customers but are devoid of contextual cues. These may have been shot in Britain but say little or nothing about the nation. Interestingly there was one Gilden image I did appreciate as it did exude Britishness in a meaningful way: the dirty tattooed worker’s arm. I just didn’t see his portraits as successful in this context.

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Bruce Gilden

For me the photographers whose work best fit the construct of the exhibition were those who found a view on idiosyncratic British scenes that made them look simultaneously strange and familiar – those who identified the quirk and held it up for examination in quite a deliberate way. Two in particular were Jim Dow, who found mesmeric patterns in the repetition of sweet shop jars and tower block stairwell tiles, and Hans van der Meer, whose wide shots of local football games in unlikely environments made me smile, and said more to me (as a non-fan) about the peculiarly British appeal of football than the usual shot of a premier league stadium.

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Study visit group discussing Hans van der Meer

Summary

I found this to be a fascinating and insightful exhibition, with thoughtful curation and sequencing that subtly accentuated themes and connections, with only a couple of exceptions (forgivable of course, as it’s all so subjective and a show as diverse as this can’t please all the people all the time). A few exclusions struck me as odd – no Bill Brandt, for example – but I’m sure there’s good reason for that.

I came away with the sense that the diversity of the photographers and the imagery is analogous to the diversity of the United Kingdom itself. The message seemed to be that Britain is – or has been – all of these places, as seen by these ‘outsiders’. Can anyone really ‘reveal’ Britain? Only in parts, and even the amalgamation of the ‘Britains’ revealed in this exhibition is just one version of the bigger picture.

But to revert to an earlier point: is it really the non-British status of the photographers that enabled a particular eye for the strangeness? Val Williams and Susan Bright edited How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present (2007) which is full of idiosyncratic images of Britain, and the vast majority of photographers were British. My take is that it doesn’t specifically take an outsider to nail the distinctly British, although they may have a natural advantage; the British insider can also capture such imagery as long as they possess an enquiring mind and an observant eye.

Finally, as ever I really appreciated the study visit format as it gives me an opportunity to discuss what I’m seeing with like-minded people, and to bounce ideas and interpretations off each other. It’s a really enriching part of the study experience, and I should do more of it.

Takeaways

For my own assignment research this was a useful reference and inspiration source. There are some specific pointers I took away:

Firstly it reinforced the increasingly strong sense I have (and wish to communicate with the assignment) that documentary photography is just so inherently subjective. That a couple of dozen photographers can take the same subject matter (albeit as broad as a country) and find such a diversity of imagery is testament to the individual reflexivity brought to the task. The overriding lesson I’ve learned on the entire Documentary course is that there is no such thing as a single truth. This exhibition was a good reminder.

The main new point of inspiration is to look to isolate small details more than I have been doing. Often a close-up of a small part of a scene can intensify the significance. I need to look more closely for the details that can communicate my message. the Ohtake and Larrain work was particularly inspirational in this regard.

Sources

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Manchester Art Gallery. Friday 25 November 2016–Monday 29 May 2017

Solomon-Godeau, A. “Inside/Out” in La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Bright, S. and Williams, V. (2007). How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present. London: Tate Publishing.

Assignment 5: framework and presentation questions

My last post on Assignment 5 from a few weeks ago was optimistically titled ‘The clouds part‘, but I’ve spent most of the time since being dissatisfied with my work to date and struggling to ‘find a way back in’ to this assignment… so the clouds hadn’t so much parted as shifted around slightly. However, I am finally starting to see real chinks of daylight.

My concerns

There have been two related obstacles:

  • Dissatisfaction with the content of the photos so far
  • Concerns that my concept may not be clearly communicated

Unhappy with my photographs

My basic problem over the last few weeks has been dissatisfaction with my photos taken so far.   I’ve taken over 500 photos in four locations over five shooting days since November last year. Very few of them are standing out as good photos individually, and almost no pairs of images to juxtapose are making themselves apparent to me. I have a strong sense of how I want these images to end up looking like, but am not yet being successful in finding subjects that match my visualisations.

Part of it is down to an ongoing debate I’m having with myself on whether to include people in the project or not (I will do a separate blog post on this particular point). Part of this is related to the conceptual communication point I come onto next.

Lacking confidence in the communication of the concept

As mentioned in several recent posts (a fact in itself that reveals how unsure I am about its clarity) my overarching communication intent is about the perils of oversimplification, and the conceptual approach I am taking is to juxtapose binary stereotypes (which happen to be based around the EU Referendum vote).

My fear is that using stereotypes to draw attention to stereotyping as a phenomenon is inherently risky, as there is a danger that the viewer simply sees the stereotyping… :-/

I needed to find a way of making the use of stereotypes more self-evidently deliberate and therefore significant.

My ideas

I have been wrapping my head around these two interrelated dilemmas and am gradually evolving my approach in a way that I think might – might – resolve both concerns.

Framework

First, I came to the conclusion that to improve the success rate of the photos themselves I needed some kind of framework to the images I want to capture – a shooting list. I’ve been shooting with two sets of keywords in my mind but it’s still been a little too vague to be useful. I need to really hone my visualisations down to a subject matter level.

In order to do this I also started thinking of ways of making the underpinning ‘stereotypes’ concept more obviously deliberate. I started thinking of how supporting text can be extremely useful, and so how to work stereotypes into the captions. To this end I enlisted some OCA Facebook buddies to brainstorm Remain and Leave stereotypes with me, and between us we came up with the following list:

  • Rich / Poor
  • Have / Have Not
  • Posh / Plebs
  • Experts / Man in the Street
  • Multicultural Middle Class / White Working Class
  • Metropolitan Elite / Left Behind
  • The Establishment / The Workers
  • Enemies of the People / The People
  • Thrivers & Strivers / Skivers & Survivors
  • Smug Liberals / Angry Bigots
  • Swots / Uneducated
  • Fat Cats / The Great Unwashed
  • White Collar / Blue Collar
  • Upwardly Mobile / Down & Out
  • Globalist / Nationalist
  • Unpatriotic / Patriotic
  • Losers / Winners

A subset of these, or something similar, could become briefs for specific image pairings, and in turn appear as captions of some kind.

Presentation format

I’ve been trying to think creatively about how to visually communicate the message about binary oversimplification by using the exact Leave/Remain vote percentages from the specific towns and cities as the ratio of the two parts of the composite image.

My initial approach to this was quite straightforward, juxtaposing the pairs of images as two appropriately scaled rectangles:

However, I wasn’t sure whether this really drove home the binary categorisation that I was looking to project. I started thinking about infographics and data visualisation, and hit upon the idea of using a pie chart (it was National Pie Week…) with the segments labeled to form the captions:

Please note that I am not sure about these specific images – these are just mockups to test the concept.

My current feeling is that the visual concept does broadly work in terms of data visualisation, but it’s not necessarily easy (depending on the specific images) to visually decipher the two component parts due to the irregular frame shapes.

Hmmmmm…

Next steps

  • Review existing images (again) against the ‘stereotype pairings’ discussed above
  • Shoot new images with stereotype pairings as image briefs
  • Consider the pie chart visual treatment more, and potentially gather some peer feedback