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.


Advertisements

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: 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: 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

Research point: Contemporary street photography

The course notes ask us to do some independent research into contemporary street photography.

Just over a year ago I was given the same exercise on the Level 1 course Context & Narrative, and having re-read it I will link to it here as my observations and opinions still stand.

https://robtownsendcn.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/research-point-contemporary-street-photography/

Colour dominates

One point to bring out in the context of this section being about B&W photography – my findings were that a lot more street photography is being done in colour these days. B&W is a little more niche, a nostalgic throwback or an artistic choice (as it is for the likes of Anders Petersen et al).

trente-park-inpublic-gallery-2-image-10.jpg
Sydney, 2001 – Trent Parke

I had another look through Street Photography Now (2010) for this research point and noted only a handful of B&W practitioners: notably Trent Parke, Ying Tang and Mumen Wasif. A B&W street photographer I discovered a couple of years ago and really like is Craig Semetko, whose Unposed book (2010) acknowledges something of a stylistic debt to the great Elliott Erwitt who provided its foreword.

EyeballPeople.jpg
Eyeball People, Edinburgh 2005 – Craig Semetko

Street surrealism

The only other thing I can add to the earlier appraisal is the extra layer of understanding I have regarding how good street photographs happen: the inherent surrealism in much of the best street photography – the instantaneous and unconscious recognition of an interesting and unusual scene, the synaptic spark from brain to shutter button, bypassing conscious thought. It’s this ‘tapping into the dreamlike state’ that I believe marks out the best street work.

Looking at it again this week, I’ve realised that Street Photography Now is the most surreal photobook I own.

Sources

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

Semetko, C. (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeus Verlag

Exercise: a Japanese connection

Brief

Read Miranda Gavin’s reviews of Anders Petersen’s French Kiss and Jacob Aue Sobol’s I, Tokyo for Hotshoe magazine.

Read the article ‘Bye Bye Photography’ (AG magazine #38) and research the work of Daido Moriyama.

Write a short reflective commentary about the connections between the styles of Moriyama, Petersen and Sobol.

Response

Moriyama

I’ll start with the ‘old master’ (although I could have maybe gone further back to William Klein, a key Moriyama influence).

dm-phaidon-55-page-16
Riot, Tokyo, Japan, 1969 – Daido Moriyama

Though vaguely aware of Moriyama as a purveyor of grainy, blurry B&W street images I knew little else about his work or approach until today. A few snippets in the 2004 Badger article really piqued my interest though, as they articulated (several years ago) some realisations I had about B&W surrealist photography in the last few days:

“The most valid subject for the author therefore was one’s own experience, set down as immediately, directly and spontaneously as one could make it. Provoke photographers epitomised this ‘stream of consciousness’ approach to an extreme degree. Technique, even using the viewfinder, was sacrificed for raw spontaneity, the feeling that the camera itself was dragging the image out of the photographer’s subconscious.” (Badger 2004)

Surrealism par excellence! As Badger described Bye Bye Photography (1972), Moriyama had a “desire to be led to the edge of photography’s coherence” (ibid).

Shooting on a simple compact camera, Moriyama pioneered the so-called ‘snapshot’ aesthetic, although most snapshots might actually be of technically superior quality. It seems to be a later eastern equivalent of Robert Frank’s throwing out of the photography rulebook in the late 1950s, only more extreme.

Moriyama’s visual style: gritty, grim, dark, raw, unfocused, grainy, skewed angles, high contrast.

Petersen and Sobol

I’ll cover these together as they are like two peas in a pod, as noted in the course handbook. Indeed, they have even collaborated on a photobook, Veins (2013).

They both acknowledge a clear debt to Moriyama.

frenchkiss2_2b.gif
From French Kiss, 2008 – Anders Petersen

What they have in common with each other (and most of it with Moriyama):

  • Gritty, grimy, dark, raw subject matter
  • Lo-fi technique – blur, grain, high contrast etc
  • Expressive, emotive, intuitive approach to subject matter
  • Mysterious, generate more questions than answers
  • Outsiders: Andersen’s French Kiss was by a Swede in France; Sobol’s I, Tokyo was by a Dane in Japan
JAPAN. Tokyo. 2007
Tokyo, 2007 – Jacob Aue Sobol

Some specific points on each:

  • Andersen’s people shots often obscure faces – anonymity, or using people as blank canvases? – while Sobol uses a more straightforward portraiture approach
  • Andersen’s use of nudity comes across as more about taboo/transgression than sexuality; Sobol’s nudes, like many of Moriyama’s, are more erotically charged
  • Sobol went in for a lot of close-ups, often obfuscating the subject

As an aside, Petersen came up with a fantastic justification for using B&W that I will add to my earlier post about why B&W is used for documentary photography:

“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)

I read this as you (the viewer) bring your own experiences to the image to ‘add the colour’. It’s a marvellous way of describing the more engaging, thoughtful experience of ‘processing’ B&W images.

Summary

There is clearly a triangulation between the work of these three photographers, with Moriyama at the top. I find the aesthetic visually appealing but am not entirely sure to what extent it can be an influence on my own work without becoming pastiche.

Beyond the aesthetic, what I like about all three of these is the highly intuitive way of shooting. Truly surreal art in the real sense of the word – bypassing cognition.

Sources

http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/frenchkiss (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://www.anderspetersen.se (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/tokiosobol (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://auesobol.dk (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/gbadgersayonara (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://www.moriyamadaido.com/english/ (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://fkmagazine.lv/2012/01/30/interview-with-anders-petersen/ (accessed 12/05/2016)

Higgins, J. (2013). Why it Does Not Have to be in Focus. Modern Photography Explained. Farnborough: Thames & Hudson.

Exercise: Street photography

Brief

Choose one of the weekly instructions given to contributors to the Street Photography Now Project in 2011 and build a small portfolio of B&W images on your chosen brief.

Publish a selection of five images from your portfolio on your blog.

Response

I chose this one:

IMG_2107

Note: I was in Nice when I took these photos so the streets might look a bit different to my usual North Yorkshire output.

Pair
Pair
Two Pairs
Two Pairs
Three of a Kind
Three of a Kind
Four of a Kind
Four of a Kind
Full House
Full House

Sources

https://streetphotographynowproject.wordpress.com (accessed 03/05/2016)

Research point: B&W and surrealism

We’re asked to read the essay ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and to review the work of some suggested surrealist photographers (Graciela Iturbide, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, George Brassaï, Man Ray, Eugène Atget, Paolo Pellegrin, Tony Ray-Jones), then write a bullet list of key visual and conceptual characteristics that their work has in common.

Finally understanding surrealism

First, a little reflection. I wrote a draft of about half of this post then deleted it as I had a sudden epiphany about surrealism.

My understanding of ‘surrealism’ for the last few decades has been rooted in the visual style of certain notable surrealist artists (notably Salvador Dali and René Magritte). I associated ‘surreal’ with weird, abstract, unreal – melting clocks and floating apples. Most of all I associated it with painting.

My limited understanding of surrealism until now

My limited understanding of surrealist photography was that it co-opted similarly unreal imagery in a highly constructed way (Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Philippe Halsman etc). My misunderstanding was that surrealism is a self-consciously ‘unreal’ visual style. I struggled to associate it with documentary photography.

In this context I first thought that in the photographers suggested by the course notes, the bar for ‘surrealism’ had been set strangely low. Most of the images I surveyed would struggle to be meet my definition of surrealism.

The lightbulb moment came when I revisited – and finally understood – some key definitions of surrealism. The OED has surrealism as meaning: “art purporting to express the subconscious mind by phenomena of dreams etc” (OED 1982). Wells (2009) expands with:

“Surrealism took the idea of the individual psyche as its theoretical starting point […] Surrealism emphasised artistic processes whereby the imaginary can be recorded through automatic writing or drawing which could thus offer insights into the world of ‘thought’ and therefore disrupt taken-for-granted perceptions and frames of reference. For the surrealist, the artist was the starting point or material source of what was to  be expressed” (Wells 2009: 281-282)

So surrealism is not so much defined by its (visual) output as by its (subconscious) input.

Wells also quotes Bate as arguing that “the surreal refers not to a type of picture but a type of meaning, an enigma” (Wells 2009, quoting Bate 2004).

With this realisation, I finally understood Sontag’s Melancholy Objects essay, which had bewildered me for years with its assertion that “photography is the only art that is natively surreal” (Sontag 1979: 51). This now makes sense: the very nature of photography means that the instantaneous, automatic creation of an image based on seeing something and pressing a button is indeed the closest thing to pure and direct connection between the subconscious and the artwork.

With this in mind, ‘surrealism’ in photography can mean two things:

  • Intentionally surreal: imagery that is constructed to recreate or represent a subconscious state of mind (subsequently recalled, e.g. a dream) through constructed scenes (Man Ray et al)
  • Intuitively surreal: imagery that is captured as the result of a subconscious state of mind – this latter definition is truer to Sontag’s argument

B&W surrealist photographers

Which brings us on to the examples we’re asked to research.

Some of these photographers can be considered to use surrealist techniques when they have taken an image that includes an interesting, unusual or incongruous juxtaposition in the frame that they saw, interpreted in a particular way and committed into a photograph.

The short cognitive distance between seeing something and clicking the shutter – bypassing conscious thought, maybe not knowing precisely why they pressed the shutter until afterwards – is what makes the pictures surreal. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment is, in effect, recognising when the confluence of objects in front of the camera make for the most visually interesting split-second.

This definition of surrealism allows me to reconcile the movement with documentary photography practice, a connection that had previously eluded me.

The names given can be divided into the two categories of surrealism I offered above.

More intentionally surreal (constructed): André Kertész, Man Ray.

More intuitively surreal (observed): Graciela Iturbide, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Eugène Atget, Paolo Pellegrin, Tony Ray-Jones.

Partial list of surrealist characteristics

  • Visual
    • Incongruous juxtapositions
    • Unusual angles, vantage points, perspective
    • Objects that mimic other objects
    • Pattern, repetition, rhythm
    • Partial objects
  • Conceptual
    • Disorienting, confusing – need ‘deciphering’
    • Dreamlike
    • Sense of humour
    • Invite you to consider different ways of seeing the world – the extraordinary in the ordinary

One point worth noting is that a scene isn’t inherently or universally surreal; it is a function of the context in which it is seen, most notably the time and the place. Many images from decades ago can now seem surreal simply because the events depicted no longer take place. Similarly, images of everyday events in exotic foreign cultures could be considered surreal to westerners.

Canon Fodder

This was heavy going, and only tangentially relevant to the point of this section in my opinion. Sifting this for enlightening nuggets regarding surrealism in B&W photography was like panning for gold. But not totally fruitless…

As far as I can summarise it, Solomon-Godeau’s basic premise is that the deification of Eugène Atget in the 1970s/80s says more about the notion and practice of the ‘artistic canon’ than it does about the work of Atget itself (the course notes and many other OCA students missed the wordplay in the title and referred to it erroneously as ‘Cannon Fodder’…).

Solomon-Godeau points to five commentators from various backgrounds over the 20th century attempting to use Atget as an exemplar of… various different things, as it happens. Whilst she concurs that what they agree on is that Atget was not merely a photographer or even an artist but an author (which implies a deliberate intent, a message to be transmitted, so one must decide if Atget was an author at all, or simply a cataloguer who photographed Old Paris for posterity). What they fail to agree on is what kind of author – what he represented, and why he is an important part of the photographic canon.

Berenice Abbott thought Atget represented “realism unadorned“, (Solomon-Godeau 1991: 31) while Walter Benjamin claimed his pictures as “the forerunners of surrealist photography” (ibid: 28). John Szarkowski co-opted Atget as a founding father of modernism, drawing a line that leads to Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand (ibid: 48). Margaret Nesbit and Maria Morris Hamburg devised further variations of Atget whose specificities eluded me.

The underlying fact that helps to explain this plurality of canonisation is that Atget left 10,000 images behind. With that much to work with, one could feasibly produce a set of images that could align Atget to practically any genre or movement. As Solomon-Goudeau puts it, the size of the archive “allow[s] the Atgetian deck to be shuffled” (ibid: 48).

So to draw the threads of this eclectic post together: can Atget be considered a surrealist photographer? Yes, if you look at certain of his pictures. Look at a different set and you may conclude that he was a typologer, or a documentary photographer, or an art photographer, or or an early modernist, or an architectural photographer, or… whatever it is that you’re trying to use him as an example of. He truly is all things to all men :-)

Sources

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder’ in Photography at the Dock. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press

Sontag, S. (1979) ‘Melancholy Objects’ in On Photography. London: Penguin.

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

Exercise: Making Sense of Documentary Photography

Brief

Read the article ‘Making Sense of Documentary Photography’ by James Curtis.

Curtis contextualises the work of the FSA photographers within a tradition of early twentieth-century social documentary photography and touches on the issue of the FSA photographers’ methods and intentions. What is your view on this? Is there any sense in which the FSA photographers exploited their subjects?

Response

I recently wrote a research piece on the Farm Securities Administration for another OCA course, and this covers the overarching project and its objectives and principles.

In summary, what I found most interesting about the FSA project was the interplay of editorial and authorial intent – there was an evolving set of ‘messages’ expected by the FSA, complicated by photographers with their own strong feelings on the subject matter – which puts it in direct contrast to the nominally comparable but ultimately much more neutral Mass Observation project in the UK.

The question of whether the FSA photographs were exploitative can be examined across the two dimensions in the brief: the methods and the intentions. I have looked at these in reverse order.

Intentions

For the purposes of attempting to answer the question broadly, applied to the FSA project as a whole, my view is: generally no, they were not intending to exploit their subjects. The best interests of the subjects was at the heart of the project, and the photographers (especially Lange and Evans) have a reputation of being committed to representing their subjects with dignity (this is not like the Avedon and Oestervang projects I recently researched, where the preconceptions and agendas of the photographers came first, and accusations of exploitation are more clear-cut).

So overall I believe that the ‘greater good’ argument wins out when judging the FSA photographs on charges of exploitation.

However, does this mean that no individuals felt legitimately exploited, or at the very least manipulated? The devil is in the details…

Methods

This is where the thrust of Curtis’s argument comes into play. The FSA photographers were, in many cases, guilty of a level of manipulation and stage management that many viewers of so-called documentary photography would find surprising.

Rather than thinking of exploitation in a general, vague sense it’s more useful to put oneself in the shoes of the subjects and consider what would constitute exploitation.

Two examples of exploitation of individuals would be:

  • Changing or falsifying a scene to depict people as suffering greater hardships than they really are
  • Promising something to the subjects in return for the photograph/s that is not delivered

To the first point, Curtis gives examples of FSA images (by Walker Evans and Russell Lee) where there are signs of the scenes having been carefully constructed – a family is seen to be motherless by excluding her from the shot; a table is cleared of possessions to emphasise sparseness; a healthy child is made to look sick; etc). The outtakes are a matter of public record, so piecing together the wider context of each shoot is easier than it might have been for other documentary photography projects.

While it’s unclear what the photographers told or asked the individual subjects, the drive for such stage management is assumed to be to match a pre-configured message. The individuals become actors in a scene that the photographer had pre-visualised, or at the very least wanted to present in a particular way. The ‘truth’ of each scene is subservient to the wider point that the FSA photographer wished to make.

To the second point, Florence Thompson was the subject of the most famous FSA image, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936), and years later complained that she had not benefitted from the photograph in any way that she had been led to believe at the time (Wells 2009: 42).

Looking at Lange’s presumed thought process at the time rather than forecasting the image’s subsequent fame (which may distort feelings of exploitation), one can imagine that she did indeed persuade or even coerce Thompson into posing in the way that she did with implied promises of short-term assistance – even if Lange truthfully meant that the photos would benefit her subsection of society generally rather than bring financial relief to Thompson specifically.

So the ethical question turns on the point: is it acceptable to manipulate an individual and/or stage a scene to create a photograph (methods) to communicate a message that is for the greater good (intentions)?

This is where accusations of exploitation may legitimately rest – with manipulated individuals. But to side with the FSA for a moment: their project needed subjects; someone had to represent the hardships that the project was intending to not just highlight but resolve. The level of stage management is questionable, admittedly, but in the final analysis the photographers did it for the right reason – to get across the social reform message.

Sources

Making Sense of Documentary Photography http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/makingsense (accessed 09/05/2016)

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