Week 6 Reflections – Truth: Photographic and Otherwise

In his book, On Being a Photographer, Bill Jay recalled being told by philosopher-poet-artist Michel Butor, one of his teachers, that “truth was like a photograph in which thousands of shades from black to white, and including both extremes, were necessary for full revelation. But of course, most people in this day and age insist the truth is black, or white, and deny the beauty of the whole.”

I began to think about the realities of that statement, and its applicability to my photographic practice and more broadly to the current every day world.  I find the assertion that many people want only to think in terms of truth being black or white to be quite true in the United States and particularly in the part of South Carolina where I spend some of the year.  When considered in photographic terms the absurdities of that notion are quite evident.

What follows is a series of four images; all the identical image as the starting point.  The first is overexposed to render the result pure white.

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The second image is underexposed so that it renders in pure black.

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The third image properly exposed in monochrome begins to reveal some of the “truth’ that was absent in the prior two photos. In this photo we begin to see the complexities and intricacies of the scene in the subtle shades of grey and the small bits of pure black and white.

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And finally, as originally captured in full colour we find “truth” that was not apparent in any of the prior rendering of this image. The full complexities of the scene are revealed when considered in colour.

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Here it is possible to see the scene of people lining the Champs Elysees in Paris in the rain for the commemoration of the Centenary of the Armistice ending World War I on 11 November 2018.

Is it the total “truth”?  No, because the image cannot reveal the sound of the guns falling silent and the bells beginning to chime and depth of emotion felt in that crowd as that happened, but it is far more truthful than any of the white, black or even shades of gray photographs.

My photographic practice is fundamentally documentary in character so the reality of the “thing itself” or the “truth” of the image is very important to me.  Can an image ever reveal the total truth?  I am not convinced a single image alone can ever do that.  Perhaps a series or images with associated text can come as close as possible, but truth is an elusive animal.  Very few truths are absolute.  One though is that wee live in a world filled with colour.  To ignore that and attempt to see it only in black or white is to deny truth entirely.  Truth is intricate, complex and inseparable from its whole.  It can only exist in the context of the full range of colour of which it is comprised.

We all, and especially our leaders, be they political, religious, or otherwise would do well to remember this.

Hurn, D., & Jay, B. (2009). On Being a Photographer (Third). Anacortes, WA: LensWork Publishing.

Unseen Amsterdam and Nederlands Fotomuseum

I attended Unseen Amsterdam last Friday and the visited the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam on Saturday.

From the Unseen Amsterdam programme:

“Welcome to the seventh edition of  Unseen Amsterdam, the leading annual event for contemporary photography showcasing artist, both emerging and established, who are pushing the boundaries of the medium.”

Perhaps I am a philistine, but I must admit to finding much of what I saw on exhibit unintelligible and frankly trope ridden.  If this was meant to be artists pushing the boundaries of the medium there were certainly many pushing in the same directions.  There were a number of different photographers that obscured the faces of their subjects with masks, others that photographed the backs of people’s heads, several who put things over the heads of their subjects, super unnaturally coloured photos, and the last trope, drawing random lines over the photo for no apparent reason.  While the quality of the work was of a very high standard and some of it visually pleasing, a great deal of it struck me as people trying to be different by resorting to gimmicks.  I found that work to be unappealing to my eye and tiresome after seeing the same tropes over and over.

If I were to make a generalised statement of my impression of Unseen it would be that it was a good art show, but not so good a photography exhibit.  Yes there were photographic elements in all the work, but there seemed to be such a focus on the artistic that the fundamental beauty and nature of photography is lost.  Bill Jay in Occam’s Razor wrote “I am sure you will agree the contemporary photographer is easily seduced, even obsessed, by the love of Art, which emphasizes personal glorification at the expense of artisan functionalism.  The logical conclusion is a hierarchical structure even within the photographic community – fine artist at the apex of the pyramid, artisans at the base.  In such an atmosphere festers neurotic insecurity and false pride, as well as an alienation from the medium’s intrinsic characteristics that have made it the most relevant social art of our age.  I view with concern the empty genuflections associated with Art’s blessing.”

What I did find useful and interesting at Unseen were the different ways photos were mounted and or framed and displayed in the exhibit, and even more interesting and useful the book section of Unseen.  I spent a good bit of time wandering around the book section looking at the different ways artists had their work published  and collecting cards from various publishers and graphic designers.  Although here also I found some trends repeating, such as the accordion book which I thought in some cases was very appropriate to the subject and in some others not so much.  Nevertheless, I was able to see a much broader range of photobooks than anywhere I have ever been and certainly more than I have access to in the remote village of Dornoch in the north of Scotland.

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In contrast, my visit to Nederlands Fotomuseum was brilliant.  A special exhibition of the work of Cas Oorthuys was on exhibit.

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Photo courtesy of Fons Delrue

One of the most renowned 20th century Dutch photographers, Oorthuys’ work was very much influenced by the avant-garde and Bauhaus movements with high and low perspectives and compositions along diagonal lines.

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His wartime work, much of which had to be made covertly with 35mm cameras provided important documentation of the German occupation and the last year of the WWII.

His post war work earned him a reputation as a “reconstructionist photographer” as he documented the rebuilding of Rotterdam and Dutch industry.

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He was the lead photographer in the creation and publication of travel books for over 40 countries and took commissions to capture images of all the different traditional regional dress of Holland in the time before modern influence caused much of it to disappear.

Among his last works was the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam exhibition “mensen people” in 1969 which was a collection of 120 photographs depicting people in all their behaviours and emotions but emphasised laughter and its liberating quality.

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I was struck and inspired first by the the breadth of Oorthuys’ work and then by the quality in every genre in which he worked.  He was able to capture the soul of individuals in his portraiture, the souls of cities and nations in the cultural, architectural and industrial work.  I have in the past never allowed myself to be restricted to a particular genre and in seeing how splendidly versatile Oorthuys was, I have to ask myself why is it necessary to specialise or restrict oneself to a particular genre.

Again Bill Jay from Occam’s Razor; “The crucial question is this: What relationship does a personal life have on an individual’s photographs – and vice versa.” “The answer, …life and art should have everything to do with each other. In practice, as I view the medium of art photography, from my outsider position, art and life have very little connection.”  “A photograph is the end product of someone caring about something ‘out there’.  The best photographs exude this caring attitude in a manner which is not definable but which is very evident.” “If a photographer is communicating a personal passion for something, anything through pictures then the images are also revealing, incidentally, a great deal about the photographer as well as the subject.  His or her attitude to life is evident.”  Cas Oorthuys’ passion for his subjects was evident and his work was in no way diminished by his wide range of subject matter over time.  So it is possible to be versatile and diverse in one’s practise as long as there is true interest, passion and connection with the subjects.

References:

Jay, B. (n.d.). Occam’s Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography (Third). Tucson, AZ: Nazraeli Press.

Note:  Apologies for the quality of some of the photos as they were taken quickly with a mobile phone under less than ideal conditions and primarily as a set of visual notes for me to remember key aspects of the exhibit.

Week 12 – More Thoughts on Surfaces and Strategies’ Influences on My Practise

This module has seemed something of a whirlwind of activity with so much new each week that it has sometimes been difficult to get adequate perspective on what it all means.  Books, Zines, no camera photography, exhibitions, dummy books, workshops, video trailers, project work and trying to continue research proved to hardly be a part-time endeavour.  I read quite a lot this term and though I didn’t write about it as much or as often as I perhaps should have, there were a number of those books that drew me back to places I had bookmarked over and over.

I find myself going back to and re-reading bits of Sontag, Flusser, Berger, Kleon, Bate, Bear and Albers, Tagg, Webb and Muybridge.  Some of those works had bits that struck me straightaway, while others may have gone right over my head at first reading.  What I found though in many cases, those things that may not have resonated at the beginning have managed to find purchase in the dark recesses of my mind and like a jigsaw puzzle are starting to form a picture that I can understand.  It is not that there is anyone definitive bit that unlocked the mystery nor am I sure yet that I can clearly articulate what about any or all of them is most meaningful and relevant to me and my practise.  I do know that I feel far more comfortable with the idea of critical theory and that it has made a difference at how I view my work.

I know I have further to go in this journey and I expect ultimately it will have been and evolution and not a revolution.  The quality of my work has improved even though the focus of this course is not on the technical aspects of making photographs.  It has improved in part because of more disciplined regular practise, in part because I have obtained or improved upon technical skills, in part because I now have an eye toward what will become of my work once it completes post-processing, and in part due to a better appreciation for and understanding of what photography has been, is and could be through my research and readings of critical theory.

I am still searching for my voice in the photographic world.  While I came into the programme as a natural history photographer, and it is something I quite enjoy I am not convinced it is where (or rather the only place) my future practise will reside.  My past photographic work has been as eclectic as the rest of my life which has included several different successful careers.  I have broad interests and it comes as no surprise then that my photographic work might reflect that.  I believe there will be touchstones that will tie together work in different genres as they are the same things that sit at the core of my value system and worldview.  My natural history work is borne from those perspectives, but so too is the sports and action photography work I have done and do.

The first two modules of this course have forced me to think about my practise as I have never had to before, and has begun to give me the tools to analyse and vocabulary to better articulate it.  The framework is starting to take form, but the details are yet to be resolved.

I have for sometime been researching photographers who work in golf.  There are those that work in the more journalistic end and photograph tournaments, and there are those who work more in the advertising and public relations end of the spectrum doing landscape work that in many cases falls into the fine art category.  And there are a few that cross those indistinct boundaries as well.

Why have I been researching this?  Coul Links, where I have been doing my project work, is proposed to have a golf course of world class stature built within and adjacent to environmentally designated and protected land.   I have also been working on a personal/ commercial project at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club which is situated 3 miles to the south of Coul Links and of which I am a member.  Golf has been a not unimportant part of my life for 60 years.  I have been highly ranked internationally as a competitor and I derive great pleasure from the game itself, the ground on which it is played and the people who are part of it.  Why wouldn’t it be natural that my passions should intersect?

Kevin Murray is among the best in the business and while his work is largely in the advertising and PR category, he does fine work also photographing professional golfers and events.  His work can be seen at http://kevinmurraygolfphotography.com/ .  Paul Severn is another well respected golf photographer whose work covers an even broader spectrum of the game.  His work can be found at https://www.severnimages.com/index.  There quite a number of other excellent practitioners whose work I have reviewed, but these two serve to illustrate some key points about the genre.

What makes a good golf course photograph and is it different from normal landscape photography?  To answer the second part it isn’t that different from good landscape photography in that it requires attention to the lighting and choice of angles to reveal aspects to render the scene in a way that draws out the most interesting elements.  There are additional aspects that seem common to the best work such as the inclusion of the flagstick somewhere in the scene.  A certain amount of elevation adds dimensionality revealing contours and features such as bunkers.  The best courses in the world, and hence the most photographed, have holes or cultural attributes that make them iconic and instantly recognisable to followers of the game.  Augusta National during the Masters with all the azaleas in bloom or the clubhouse at the end of Magnolia Lane; views of Ailsa Rock from Turnberry; the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse behind the 18th green on the Old Course at St. Andrews.  Inclusion of these iconic elements is standard practise.

How does photographing golfers fit within the practises of environmental portraiture or street photography?  I would argue that it is not that different at all.  Photographing at a tournament or just golfers playing a casual round is very much like street photography in that you are looking to capture a particular moment that will be fleeting because it is either based on getting a specific action sequence or emotion and while it requires anticipation and planning to be in the right position, the actual moment isn’t always controllable or predictable.  Getting a photo of a golfer in his or her environment with purely natural lighting is again in my opinion just a variation on environmental portrait work.  The photographer is attempting to see the subject in their environment and capture some attribute of personality or emotion that is distinctive and recognisable.

The photos below are some of my work in this genre.  Why?  It bears on my project work if, and I believe it will, Coul Links development is approved.

 

 

Referenced Books:

Bate, D. (2016). Photography; The Key Concepts. The Key Concepts (2nd ed.). London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Bear, J., & Albers, K. P. (2017). Before-and-After Photography; Histories and Contexts (1st ed.). London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Flusser, V. (1983). Towards a philosophy of photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0031-9406(10)62747-2

Kleon, A. (2012). Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative. Steal Like an Artist (Vol. 53). New York: Workman Publishing Company. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Kleon, A. (2014). Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered. New York: Workman Publishing Company.

Muybridge, E. (1979). Muybridge’s Complete Human and Animal Locomotion, Volume III. New York: Dover Publications.

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Penguin Books. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13398-014-0173-7.2

Tagg, J. (1988). The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Webb, R., Boyer, D., & Turner, R. (2010). Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Referenced Web Pages:

Kevin Murray Golf Photography | Golf Photos | Top Golf Photographer. (n.d.). Retrieved August 22, 2018, from http://kevinmurraygolfphotography.com/

Paul Severn Golf Photographer /Golf Course Images/Golf Tournaments/Golf Picture Library. (n.d.). Retrieved August 22, 2018, from https://www.severnimages.com/index

Week 11 – Breakthrough

During last week’s webinar with Cemre Yesil, she noted how the photos I showed her as part of my WIP portfolio that included people were more powerful.  Now several days later after working through the selections for my portfolio and exhibitions and trying to find the story, it suddenly occurred to me that I may have been approaching this story from the wrong angle entirely.  I started this journey thinking of the Coul Links project as principally a natural history project and that I would observe and document how the landscape and its inhabitants changed due to natural and in response to anthropogenic changes.  And there is some merit in that yet, but that approach doesn’t speak to the root of the controversy that has dogged the site and the planning application for development over the course of the last three years.

As I thought about Cemre’s comments and looked at hundreds of photos, I realised the crux of the controversy is a difference in opinion about how the land should be used and by whom it should be used.  This land has seen many uses over time.  It was home to the Dornoch Light Railway for many years.

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Until 1989 it was a fully working farm when the displenishment sale relegated it to grazing land and haylage harvest.

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It had a tree plantation which was harvested many years ago and the remnants of which can still be seen today.

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It has been used by the landowners to hunt deer and waterfowl, though under the proposed development that will cease.  The abandoned light railway bed is a walking path, and myraid path and trails from the village of Embo are frequented by walkers and their dogs.  The beach ahead of the foredune is spectacular and draws locals and the many visitors who stay in the caravan park just to the south of Coul Links. The northern end of the property along the Loch Fleet estuary is home to tens of thousands of wintering birds.

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So it is clear that this land has seen many uses over the centuries.  Now there are many who would see the landscape altered slightly to allow yet another use as a golf course without denying the current uses, except for the hunting.  The developers intend to preserve and enhance access for walkers and nature enthusiasts.  The wintering bird populations will not be impacted as the golf course will close in October and not reopen until April each year and the majority of the birds are not actually on Coul Links proper in any case.  Grazing will continue.  The opposition groups however fear the introduction of a golf course on a small fraction of the total acreage will irreparably harm the site and I believe they are also afraid non-golfers will be excluded from the site as they have been at the Trump golf course in Aberdeenshire.

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So, though I am somewhat surprised to admit, the heart of this story is actually about people and their interactions with this land.    Yes the landscape will change with the seasons, the weather, climate change and inevitably with some form of man-made change.  Wildlife, flora and fauna, will be affected by natural and anthropogenic change in any case and it is only a matter of degree as to when and how much, but they will adapt in almost all cases.  Natural succession is evident across the landscape and land ungrazed quickly returns to wild and overgrown state.  There will still be those interested in seeing the bird populations that will use the land.  At the end of the day though, who uses it and how will it be used in the future is where the broader interest in the story lies.

So while it is a bit too late to alter what I have done for this module, I will be shifting my approach somewhat going forward to capture more of the aspects of how people are currently using the land and how that changes along with the landscape in the future.

Week 9 – Guest Lecture with Welby Ings

I have attended or listened to the majority of the guest lectures during the MA to date and I have to say I found Welby’s lecture to be the most relevant, informative and practically useful one to date.  His discourse on methodology and methods backed up with tangible examples in his work made for a very well spent hour that helped me make more sense of what I am doing and how to proceed with further enquiry.  Some of my notes follow.

What is a thesis?

  • To position an idea.
  • A practice led thesis could be non-written work.
    • It cannot be objective because we are central to it and it is therefore subjective

Method vs Methodology

  • Research Methodology
    • Must show basis for moving knowledge beyond current state of your practice
      • Task completion vs. real research
      • Quality of research
    • Research Methods are merely your tools while methodology is the toolbox and how you use the tools
    • Practice led research is qualitative (action) research
      • Histiography
      • Narrative inquiry
      • Ethnography
      • Auto-Enthnography
      • Heuristic inquiry
        • Discover/ find using accrued knowledge to find your way through uncharted territory through trial and error. Relies on tacit knowledge. *Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (1967) and work by Clark Moustakas
        • Methods of heuristic inquiry
          • Observation and notation
          • Experimentation in materials and processes
          • Reflection in and on action
          • Critical feedback
          • Organizational and analytical matrices from the social sciences

In the end he encouraged us each to find the inherent research potential in ourselves.  It was an inspiring lecture and one I am very pleased I did not miss.

 

 

Week 8 – Reflections

This week was given to more experimentation and to finalising a venue for my exhibition in August.  While I feel strongly that the longer-term story based on my project is on solid footing and will be able to be told, it will take some time to get there.  So, I have been trying to find ways to make work in the interim that is more contemporaneously interesting as well as being a potential element in the ultimate story of Coul Links.

I also continued my reading after finishing Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography with two short books by Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work, and I am reading Berger’s Ways of Seeing.  The more critical theory I read it seems that everyone has their own view on the topic and there isn’t any universality of thought.  Nonetheless, I am finding these reading somewhat thought provoking and they are providing me with a different vocabulary for thinking about and discussing my work.

Case in point, I asked two tutors for thoughts on some of the experimental work I had done this week.  While both were encouraging and supportive of my efforts to push myself, I got diametrically opposed opinions about the work itself and which of the test cases was most interesting and effective.  Fortunately, my own thoughts aligned reasonably well with one of the tutors.  On a related note, after a few weeks of working with tutors in Surfaces and Strategies I find myself looking at my photos during post processing wondering what I can take out of them.  While some of that can be done with cropping, some of it requires me to use Photoshop and I am seeing my skills and confidence with that tool improving as well, though there is still much room for improvement.

I revisited Sergey Larenkov’s work this week and was directed towards work by Richard Barnes in which he photographed Civil War re-enactments, and work by Deborah Baker.

Nothing in what I have done or read is changing my core methodology with respect to my project, but I believe aspects of the macro work I have been testing and the experiments this week with a model “playing” the course routing in its current natural state and repeat photographing the same perspectives when the new course is finished.

I am working somewhat in parallel in curating my WIP Portfolio, my Landings exhibition, my local exhibition(s) and a September one day speaking engagement where I have been asked to show my work.  I need to get this decided quite soon for the exhibitions so I can get on to the elements of this term that are graded. I have also been asked to leave some of my work on display for sale in the venue that will host my primary exhibit.  It is an entirely new thing to think about how to value my work.

 

Richard Barnes: http://www.richardbarnes.net/projects/#/civil-war-1/

Deborah Baker: https://www.crafts.org.uk/Makers-Directory/Baker,-Deborah.aspx

Berger, J. (1972).  Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Flusser, V. (1983). Towards a philosophy of photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Kleon, A. (2012). Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative. New York: Workman Publishing Company.

Kleon, A. (2014). Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered. New York: Workman Publishing Company.

 

Week 8 – Pushing Boundaries

After reading Vilem Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography and considering many of the comments from my tutor about my work being somewhat predictable and expected, I have been pushing myself to find photographs that have not been taken and that are unexpected, and to find my own unique voice as a photographer.

Since my entire project was fundamentally “predictable” in that it was focused on repeat photography and wildlife photography, two areas where it is exceedingly difficult to be particularly unique, I thought I might have to consider ways to be more creative in my approach.  One of the interesting aspects about the planned golf course at Coul Links is that it is already largely there and while different grasses will be planted in specific areas, the topography of the land will not change dramatically.  The teeing grounds, bunkers and greens along with most of the fairway contouring have been formed by nature over centuries.  In fact it is entirely possible that people have already played golf on this links land just as they have been doing on the Dornoch Links 3 miles to the south for over 400 years.  What if the ghosts of golfers past are lurking and just waiting for their links to re-emerge and be again uncovered from the overgrowth that has occurred in recent decades?

In a radical departure from my normal “indexical” (Sontag, 1977) and ontological approach to my work, I wondered “What if a ghost of a golfer were wandering this ground today along the proposed routing of the new course?”  An idea for a variation on repeat photography formed in my mind; “Could I photograph a golfer in traditional garb with hickory clubs of 100 years ago on the Coul Links proposed routing today, before any changes are made and then come back after the changes are made to take the same perspective with a golfer in contemporary kit?”

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The First Tee

In this first photograph I desaturated the colour about 70% to give the photo a feeling of being in the past.

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The First Tee

In this and the following photo, I left the colour levels as shot and dissolved portions of the golfer’s image to  create a ghost-like effect, but left the feet and hands in the present as if the ghost were enjoying walking and playing a game on once familiar ground.

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The Second Tee

 

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The Second Green

In this photo I used a combination of the dissolved golfer’s image, again keeping the hands and club in real time and desaturated the image slightly.

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The Tenth Tee

In this last image, I used the desaturation technique again to a slightly lesser degree to preserve a better feeling of the landscape while conveying the aesthetic of an older photograph.

I am not certain yet which of these techniques carries the most impact, though the surrealism of the dissolved images feels perhaps too much a departure from my practise.  The desaturated images when paired with the future images on the completed course will convey a lovely sense of the Links (the sand based stretches of ground that serve as the link between the sea and the arable land beyond) then and now, as well as the links to the history of golf in Scotland which has been played on this type of land for more than 500 years.  It is a departure from the strict natural history dimension my project has had, but I believe it has merit in the ability to show the landscape in a some way other than the “postcard” photograph and convey the story of the transformation of this place in a different way.

 

Flusser, V. (1983). Towards a philosophy of photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0031-9406(10)62747-2
Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Penguin Books. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13398-014-0173-7.2

 

Week 6 – Inspiration

In trying to ascertain the species of some of the insects I had photographed with a macro lens, I stumbled across the work of John Hallmen and was utterly awestruck.  I couldn’t understand how it was possible to obtain such clarity across the entire depth of field without diffraction.  As I read an interview with him and subsequently visited his website I learned he uses photo stacking and uses sometimes over 50 images to obtain one.   The image below is an example of extraordinary work Hallmen does in the field and in studio uses both natural and augmented light sources.  He then uses Zerene Stacker to process the series of images.

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Completely fascinated by this process and the prospects for my practice I obtained Zerene Stacker and set about experimenting.  As luck would have it on this rainy day, I found a dead moth on one of my window sills and it was a perfect subject for experimentation as it was not about to move.  Tripod, flash, cable release and a 100mm f2.8 lens on my Canon 5D MkIV and off we went.  A total of 18 images in minutely different focal planes were taken at a slightly oblique angle of this moth which is about 2cm in length.  Results of my first attempt are below and quite impressive.

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My experiments continued with flowers and a fly.

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This is definitely a valuable technique to employ along with macro photography.  I am looking forward to experimenting with it in landscape work as well.  There might be some interesting effects possible with ND filters and longer exposures at various focal depths and then stacking.

John Hallmén. (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2018, from http://www.johnhallmen.se/2016/4/25/morning-stretch

Week 5 – Reflections on One to One Tutorial

I found this a productive session and frankly altogether too short to really discuss all I might have liked to discuss.  Nevertheless, Michelle provided a lot of encouragement and offered some insights and opinions about some of the work I showed.  I was a bit surprised by some and would at some point like to delve further into the “whys” behind the comments.

I can take a technically good photograph, but my usual subject matter is one in which it is somewhat difficult to distinguish one’s self from the other many fine professional and amateur natural history photographers in the world without resorting to gimmicks or excessive manipulations, both of which strike me as antithetical to whole point of natural history photography.  So we return to the question of what makes my work unique and identifiable?  I do not yet have the definitive answer to that question.  My work is becoming more focused on outcomes; that is to say I take fewer photos just to take a photo of something that catches my eye or interests me and consider what will I do with the photo and how does it fit or support an output in some form.  I am much more aware of the need to tell a story with my work.  In some of my projects I begin with with a clear idea of the story line and am able to capture images to support that narrative.  In my research project though, it is impossible to determine how the story will end at this time, and it may be many years in fact before we know the true outcome.  So while there are clear elements to the plot, it is somewhat of a mystery story: who is the villain and who is the hero, do either exist, can nature and man work together in harmony in this instance?

Michelle suggested I look at the work of Stephen Gill and Susan Derges.  I found Gill’s work unappealing, uninspiring and largely uninteresting, both in subject matter and technique.  He is an experimental photographer and he does unconventional things to make his art, for which he is to be commended, and he obviously has attracted an audience, but his art does not resonate with me.

On the other hand, I was fascinated by the work of Susan Derges.  I didn’t realize at first that she specializes in cameraless photography and I found myself wondering how she managed the perspective in many of her photos.  Her work dances along the border between realism and abstraction, and contains just enough of each to capture and hold my attention.  When I then learned that much of her work is constructed in a darkroom I was completely gobsmacked.  Michelle has urged me to consider whether there is a place in my project for something along the lines of the photograms I did in last week’s activity.  Derges work is far more sophisticated than my simple cyanotypes, but it has shown me there are perhaps possibilities of which I was not aware and had therefore not considered.

So the search for Ashley Rose’s unique perspective continues.  Under every rock and leaf there seems another possibility.  Perhaps this is another journey with no final destination, but rather one of exploration, discovery, experimentation and reflection.  Yet another story with an uncertain ending.  Stay tuned for future episodes.

 

Derges, S. (n.d.). Susan Derges. Retrieved July 6, 2018, from http://susanderges.co.uk/
Gill, S. (n.d.). Stephen Gill Portfolio. Retrieved July 6, 2018, from https://www.stephengill.co.uk/portfolio/portfolio

 

Making sense of multiple photographs over time

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I just finished reading most of this book and found it quite thought provoking.  There seems a great muddle even amongst the “experts” in the epistemology and ontology of photographic practise that includes more than one photograph taken of the same subject.  Is it “before and after”, rephotography, repeat photography, a series, or “then-and-now” photography?  Depending on which source one might choose to use, it could be any one, all, or none of these labels.

Albers and Bear write in their opening chapter:

“Among the most significant orthodoxies in the recent historiography of photography is a shared conviction that a single, authoritative account of the medium is both impossible and undesirable.  A tenet of much of the most innovative scholarship since the 1970’s, this commitment to a plurality of histories is summed up in the scholar John Tagg’s haunting disavowal: “Photography as such has no identity…its history has no unity.  It is a flickering across a field of institutional spaces. It is this field we must study, not photography itself” 

And precisely because of photography’s lack of identity outside of specific discursive and institutional contexts, the art historian, the climatologist and the sociologist have no common idiom for discussing their photographic research.

As such, we focus on before-and-after photographs as a strategy so commonplace that virtually every disparate photographic discourse has enlisted it.” 

It seems to me the ubiquity of photography and its employment across virtually every social, scientific and artistic discipline renders photography in some ways a tool of the discipline in which it is being employed rather than an end unto itself.  I think this is the point Tagg was trying to make and the argument Bear and Albers put forth that there may be strategies employed across those disciplines that provide a basis for a common framework.  However, the distinctions they make between the related tropes that share in common the employment of more than one photograph are less than clear cut as evidenced by the essays that comprise the remainder of the book.

In the afterword, James Elkins writes:

“Because I am not sure how to distinguish rephotography from before-and-after photography, or before-and-after photography from individual photographs, I prefer to think of those odd experiences as extreme cases of the sorts of seeing that are provoked, unexpectedly and in general, by photographs of many kinds. If seeing photographs involves self-indulgent, myopic, or even anascopic seeing, and if it elicits subjunctive, reparative mediations on what was, what came between, and what came after, then before-and-after photography may be more an extreme kind of photography, a limit or test case, than a separable genre or mode or practise.  It may be a kind of photography that helps us to understand what some photography can be.”

Bear and Albers try to distinguish before-and-after photography as two photos punctuated by a singular unseen event that causes the change observed in the photographs, and which requires the viewer to imagine the nature of that event.  Rephotography, such as practised by Mark Klett and others, is likewise two photographs temporarily separated by an undefined period of time in which the viewer is still required to discern the changes and imagine what cause or causes effected the changes.  Both before-and-after photography begin from a single photograph and often with no intent to necessarily take a second photograph of the same place in a different time.  Occasionally, one might have foreknowledge of an impending event that would lend itself to a before-and-after trope.  The only way I can distinguish then-and-now photography from rephotography in either method or intent is rephotography necessitates taking the photos from the same place with as close as possible replication of the original perspectives.  Jem Southam’s work The Painter’s Pool is more of a then and now piece of work giving a feel of a place over a period of time without trying to recreate an original photograph.

Repeat photography, on the other hand, begins with intent to observe changes in a place over time by taking two or more photographs from the same place over some again undefined span of time.  It begins also with a belief that observable changes will occur by known or unknown single or multiple causal factors.  And herein comes the rub.

If I know that a hurricane is about to hit or a volcano about to erupt and I take photographs of the area to be affected by the event with the intent to return and photograph the aftermath, am I engaging in before-and-after or repeat photography?  Does it matter? If I stay and take photographs during the event it is no longer unseen and therefore does not fit the definition of before-and-after photography, but is it repeat photography with a relatively short temporal displacement or is it a series?  Again, does it matter?  If I take a series of photographs that captures the full sequence of an event, but then choose to only show the first and last in the series and leave the event unseen, is that before-and-after photography, or have I just made an editorial or curatorial choice?

Aren’t all of these distinctions somewhat arbitrary and vague?  Are they not in fact a continuum of sorts with boundaries that overlap as a function in part of the epistemological perspective of the project?  Perhaps what matters is that all the photographs provide some level of information imbued by the apparatus and the choices of the photographer that remain to be decoded by the viewer.  Furthermore, what seems common among virtually all of the examples described in the book, regardless of which trope one might assign, is none seem be approached by the photographers with an agenda, and rather are largely indexical in character.  The assignment or interpretation of significance seems to come in part from the editorial and curatorial choices made by the photographer, and from the viewer and whatever perspectives and biases they bring to viewing.

What relevance does this have to my project?  I am in large part observing a place over time.  I entered the project with the idea this was a classic repeat photography project in which I would observe and record both natural and anthropogenic changes on a landscape over a period of approximately two years.  However, I have foreknowledge that a major anthropogenic event will occur that will cause dramatic changes in the landscape.  Has this become a before-and-after project or because I will photograph the changes as the event occurs does it become a series?  Does the trope to which it is assigned depend on what and how I choose to show the results?  Can it be everything and none of these things depending on those choices?  And, does it matter?  Can it not just be what it is? Can I not just use photography as epistemological and ontological tool to understand my world?

I think I can.

Tagg, J. (1988). The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bear, J., & Albers, K. P. (2017). Before-and-After Photography; Histories and Contexts (1st ed.). London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.