This blog was originally created as my MA Critical Research Journal in conjunction with an accredited educational programme – MA Photography with Falmouth University. It is being continued as resource for discussing photography and projects in which I am interested and engaged.
I am not yet a professional photographer when measured by the remuneration criteria and yet I do create images that are on par with many professional nature photographers. I think in general, compact cameras and Smartphone cameras have had little impact on my genre of photography, in particular bird photography, because of the limitations of the lenses. On the other side of the coin, the quality of professional camera equipment has also continued to evolve and given me the opportunity to shoot high speed sequences with mind boggling quality. I have never used filters and find the idea antithetical to the realism I am trying to capture.
The other area of discussion this week was about what/ who are photographers and professionals. The answers lie in the definition of both those terms and the subsequent frame of reference that offers for discussion. I expressed an opinion that the evolution of the technology and the medium perhaps warrant a different set of definitions than the classic one in the Oxford dictionary and most certainly have come to require some qualifiers or further refinement of the concept of each. In the end though it is impossible to draw a definitive box around either and there will always be people who blur the boundaries. I think that is a good thing.
Where does my work fit and who will care? Who is and who could be my “consumer”? One of the weeks presentations discussed Barthes (1982) concepts of “studium”, which describes that which has polite, general interest and can be assessed in primarily objective terms, and “punctum” which is defined as the prick or wound, as the element that pierces the viewer like an arrow and can be assessed in primarily subjective terms. I suspect it is punctum that is the difference between a good photograph and great photograph. That is to take nothing away from a photo with great studium as they are quite likely technically and aesthetically beautiful and popular. But it is unlikely those photos would be described as powerful or piercing as those with punctum. A photo of a dolphin entrapped in a fishing net would likely be viewed by most as having punctum. I think most of my photos have significant studium, they generally lack punctum. It seems to me that punctum derives often from images that evoke emotion. Photos that make people feel the pain or joy, anger or despair depicted may be viewed as more powerful. Photos with humans involved are probably easier for people to relate to than photos of animals or plants alone. Photos of animals suffering in some way, particularly as a result of human actions, often evoke emotion, but I am not inclined to seek out those relatively rare situations. Sometimes a photo of a species so rare or a circumstance so rarely seen as to create a sense of wonderment can carry punctum. Not as powerful a punctum as reportage photos of a warzone’s’ impacts on people there, but punctum nonetheless.
I have yet to clearly identify my audience, though I think people in general like seeing images of the natural world that surrounds us. How to package my images to reach an audience is perhaps the tougher question that needs to be answered, along with the question of what would interest people in my photographs rather than the thousands upon thousands of other photographs of similar subjects?
I have the kernel of an idea that I would like to have my photographs bring to people that which they would not normally see; photos that inspire and evoke their sense of wonderment both in terms of what they see on the image and in how it was captured.
Still some things to be worked out and it will evolve throughout the course, but is early days in the journey and it would be surprising if I had all the answers.
In this week’s activity I chose to briefly explore the questions of time and motion and their relation to photography. Still photographers images record historical events; i.e. since they are not viewed in real time as they are happening they are consequently historical records. Physics and specifically astrophysics demonstrates most clearly the time lag in an image’s recording of events. Similarly the physics of light transmission and camera design dictate a the limits of our abilities to create the perception of stopped motion when in fact virtually every subject is actually in motion (if only at the atomic level) that is beyond our level of perception.
NGC 248 in the Small Magellanic Cloud
About this image
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured two festive-looking nebulas, situated so as to appear as one. They reside in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that is a satellite of our Milky Way galaxy. Intense radiation from the brilliant central stars is heating hydrogen in each of the nebulas, causing them to glow red.
The nebulas, together, are called NGC 248. They were discovered in 1834 by the astronomer Sir John Herschel. NGC 248 is about 60 light-years long and 20 light-years wide. It is among a number of glowing hydrogen nebulas in the dwarf satellite galaxy, which is located approximately 200,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Tucana.
The image is part of a study called Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Gas Evolution (SMIDGE). Astronomers are using Hubble to probe the Milky Way satellite to understand how dust is different in galaxies that have a far lower supply of heavy elements needed to create dust. The Small Magellanic Cloud has between a fifth and a tenth of the amount of heavy elements that the Milky Way does. Because it is so close, astronomers can study its dust in great detail, and learn about what dust was like earlier in the history of the universe. “It is important for understanding the history of our own galaxy, too,” explained the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Karin Sandstrom of the University of California, San Diego. Most of the star formation happened earlier in the universe, at a time where there was a much lower percentage of heavy elements than there is now. “Dust is a really critical part of how a galaxy works, how it forms stars,” said Sandstrom.
The data used in this image were taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys in September 2015.
NASA, ESA, STScI, K. Sandstrom (University of California, San Diego), and the SMIDGE team
While this image relates to my practice in the general sense that is scientific, it is of course in a completely different field of science. I chose this image because it made me think about the points raised in the presentations, specifically about the relationship of time and motion, history and current affairs. This image, and any of the thousands of others taken by the Hubble Telescope are particularly intriguing I think because while they have all been recorded and published contemporaneously they are in fact images of extraordinarily old events. This image for instance records not what NGC 248 looks like today, but rather what it looked like 200,000 light years ago. So it is the extreme example illustrating that all still photos are at the same time contemporaneous and historical. We are much closer to our subjects even with the longest telephoto lenses, but the principle applies in that we recorded something that happened a split second ago transmitted to our camera sensors or film by reflected light moving at 186,000 miles per second or almost 671 million miles per hour. For the time our shutters are open we are in fact capturing a composite image of all that occurred in that time. We perceive we have stopped action at 1/500, but we just can’t perceive the motion that occurred in most cases. For an example that relates to my practice, the photo below of the hummingbird illustrates the point that even though taken at a very high shutter speed able to stop the perceived motion of the bird’s position, the wings beating at about 80 beats per second appear as a blur.
One could argue philosophically, that every still photo captures not just one moment in time, but moments in time as represented by the speed of the photons that create our image relative to the time the shutter was open. I often shoot multiple images at high speed in order to capture a particular movement. When reviewed quickly they are identical to viewing single frames in sequence of a motion picture and are reminiscent of the little “flip books” we probably all saw or created as children. So while a carefully planned and staged studio portrait may seem to unrelated to a video, the distinction is blurred considerably in wildlife or sports action photography.
For the week’s Webinar we were asked to discuss how our practices related to other disciplines. As primarily a wildlife and nature photographer, my practice is rather inextricably linked to Biology and its sub-disciplines, but also relates to Environmental Science, and I aspire to have my images have artistic value. Here are some of my images and my thoughts on how they relate to other disciplines.
Intimate, close up portraits of animals has distinct value in the fields of Taxonomy and Morphology. That is what are they and what are their characteristics. The Carolina Wren on the left and Red Shouldered Hawk on the right illustrate the point well. Aside from the obvious of being able to identify the species, their morphology tells us much about the species. The bill of the wren is slender and adapted to eating insects while the bill of the hawk is much more powerful in its construction and adapted to tearing the flesh from its prey. Similarly the powerful talons of the hawk and shear size show how it is able to grab and hold prey while the diminutive feet on the wren are useful only to moving along the ground and perching on branches of trees.
Photos of species within their habitat are useful in the field of Ecology and tell us something about the environments species require to survive. The Kittiwakes on the left are nesting in the sea cliffs of Handa Island in NW Scotland, while the Puffin on the left burrows in the ground at the top of the stacks at Handa Island.
Photographs showing species feeding give Ecologists and Physiologists important information on what the eat and how they feed and in that how and why those species live in particular habitats and what other species within those habitats are required to support their existence. The Little Grebe on the left was photographed in Loch Fleet in NE Scotland eating a fish, and the Red Headed Woodpecker on the right is shown pulling an insect larva from the trunk of a snag located in a wetland in South Carolina in the U.S.
Sometimes a wildlife or nature image has value as a piece of art; simply a beautiful image in its own right and nothing more. The flock of Godwits passing a Herring Gull while the Widgeon in the background leave wakes that reflect in the evening sun on the Dornoch Firth in NE Scotland.
I has become very apparent to me that I don’t know very much about other practitioners in the field and while I have seen work done by many of them over the years, I never paid much attention to the photographers or their stories. The National Geographic series “Tales by Light” brought to focus a handful of well known practitioners. I have upgraded equipment and have been working diligently to improve my skills with great success. Watching Tales by Light again I was able to appreciate it on an entirely different level. Now undertaking the MA programme I find it necessary to be more rigorous and “academic” in developing my research.
I have complied a list of photographers to investigate further. As I look more closely at their work, technique, and presentation I will compile additional notes on things I feel are relevant to my practice and the field of nature photography in general that will contribute to my research.
For the week’s forum discussion we were asked find a piece of work other than a photograph that had some kind of link to our own practice or research interests, and explain why we chose it and how it relates to our own work. I chose the items below because the relate closely to my interests and the direction I wish to pursue in my research, while at the same time serving as a bit of inspiration and explanation of why I am part of this programme.
The following paragraphs were excepted from a 19 Dec 2017 article in the online magazine Good Nature Travel; The Official Travel Blog of Natural Habitat Adventures and the WWF written by Candice Gaukel Andrews. In it she quotes author Terry Tempest Williams 2012 book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice.
In her 2012 book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
So while our birds still sing, I hope we will all join in the celebration of 2018 as the Year of the Bird. But, while we’re doing that, let’s remember that those tuneful voices that lift us in our darkest hours are the ones that we humans are actively working to silence once again, possibly for forever.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
Terry Tempest Williams in the same book also wrote the following:
“To be read. To be heard. To be seen. I want to be read. I want to be heard. I don’t need to be seen. To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones. Words have a weight to them. How you chose to present them and to whom is a matter of style and choice.”
The way the artists and the entire community in upper Harlem have come together around the murals (and have spread the word about the threats to birds) has been inspiring, but it really shouldn’t be seen as surprising. Not, at this point, to me anyway. In the nearly five years I’ve served as the editor-in-chief of Audubon, I’ve seen a zillion amazing and wide-ranging examples of people coming together and rallying around birds, from volunteers with New York City Audubon monitoring (and, when necessary, shutting down) the memorial 9/11 spotlights to save migrating birds, to people recreating habitats and even entire islands for their benefit, to using them as aids for bringing struggling veterans back from the brink.
I find great pleasure in birds; observing them, listening to them and photographing them. Their presence reassures me that things are right in my little piece of the world at that moment in time. Birds are present across the globe from pole to pole and everywhere in between. Some have adapted to the harshest places on the planet while others have found a way to live in close proximity to humans in the most urbanized and industrialized places on Earth. Yet for many humans, birds are nearly invisible. There are 574 recognized species in the UK (RSPB) and 810 in North America (Sibley), and I would venture most people would not recognize more than a few species.
2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and 2018 has been designated by National Geographic and the Audubon Society as the Year of the Bird. Birds are a bellwether of our environment. Thomas Lovejoy, Biologist and founder of the idea of Biodiversity said “If you take care of the birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems of the world.” Recent legislative changes in the US have served to once again put birds at risk, and the unchecked impacts of plastic pollution and climate change caused by humans is putting additional stress on bird populations. Audubon research indicates 314 species are endangered due to climate change alone.
The focus of my work is intertwined with biology (ornithology specifically), ecology and the environment, and could conceivably contribute to discourse on the importance of preserving biodiversity and the impacts of human actions on it. For me this represents a closing of the circle that began with my secondary school and undergraduate work as a biologist and ornithologist.
Mrs. Williams paragraph about writers can equally apply to photographers. Photos also carry weight and great photographers share that same aching desire for discovery with writers. I am in this course in large measure to find my voice as a photographer, and to find a way to have my work merit being seen and “heard”, to matter. Birds are still singing, but I fear too many people are not listening. I hope in finding my photographers voice, I will be able to use it to get a few more people to listen.
I grew up wanting to fly and I have had the privilege (albeit with some mechanical assistance) to experience the freedom of flight; to dive, to soar, to dance among the clouds and race across the treetops. I have been a bird and wish everyone could know that joy.
It has been a revelatory week in many regards. First, in just getting into the mechanics of how the course is structured and how the learning process will be undertaken. Second, realizing how much I enjoy the stimulation of being back in a “formal” learning environment and having a focus instead of the “Brownian motion” approach to learning my everyday life has taken for a number of years. Third, by how impressive the talents of my fellow classmates are, and the interesting and diverse backgrounds they possess. I am really looking forward to the next two years of learning with them and from them as we collectively make our way through the course of study. Fourth and lastly for this post, how even this first week’s studies have prompted me to think about my practice in a very different way. I knew coming in to the program that I felt my worked lacked context and purpose other than producing technically and aesthetically beautiful images of things I found interesting. Finding a way to add context and more purpose was what I needed to discover both about myself and about the potential my practice holds.
When the concept of global images was introduced I found myself a bit skeptical. I thought about it in terms of my current work and much of my past work which largely excludes people from my images and could not see much universality. I still hold to the idea that something in addition the photograph is required to convey context and intention, and to evoke action in most all cases. However, I was struck by the power of the images my fellow classmates produced to evoke emotion and visceral response. All of their images included people, and I think, even though I may have come to a different conclusion about the subject or point of the image than was ultimately explained by the photographer, I reacted based on my own human experience and related to those photos through my own filters and biases. I do not think my work generally evokes that sort of response.
There is a certain element of detachment in my work in that I shoot mostly with very long lenses, and my subject matter does not convey emotion in a human context. My work is usually about trying to bring close things that most people cannot see. The clarity of a catchlight in the eye of a soaring raptor, the intricacies of the pattern and structure of the feathers of a small bird, or seeing a woodpecker extracting an insect larvae from the trunk of tree shows in a level of detail something generally not seen. It certainly can evoke a “wow” response, and it can inform and add to the body of knowledge of individuals or society, but is that enough? I don’t know yet.
Why do I photograph wildlife and nature? In reflection, I suppose there are at least a couple of answers. There is an honesty and unambiguity that is not possible in photographing people. Because we share a human experience, albeit perhaps a quite different one, we make inferences and judgements based on our own experiences, and they may be quite far from the actual reality. I do not think that happens in looking at nature photography. The interpretation is generally unburdened by our own experiences and can therefore be viewed accurately as simple truth. The second answer probably has to do with the window and mirror analogy, and I suppose I am more comfortable as a window to the world. Photographing people seems to reveal quite a lot about the photographer and I have lived most of my life not revealing much about myself to very many people. It is not that I fear revealing myself, at this stage of life anyway, but more that I felt my work is not meant to be about me, but rather what I could produce. And maybe that is the most revealing thing of all.
In closing, I will reiterate what a good week it has been and state for the record how excited I am to be on this journey. There remains much to be discovered about me, my work, and our place in the world.
I wrote the first post after watching and reading the module presentations from notes I made, but before I had read the Talis Reading list material. Having now finished those I find my initial notions largely reinforced and am drawn to the conclusion that it is highly unlikely there is such a thing as a true “Global Image.” While some photographs may have broader and therefore more global appeal than others is undeniable, but to paraphrase P.T. Barnum; you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can not please all of the people all of the time.
I have the luxury in some regards of having 64 + years of life experience, and while as 20 ungraduated student I found it difficult to form and articulate my own opinions, I find no such difficulty now. My diverse experiences as a scientist and biologist by education, a career Naval Officer and Naval Aviator by opportunity, an Aerospace Engineer and Program Manager almost by accident, a management consultant by choice, a world ranked internationally competitive amateur golfer by determination and love of the game, and lifelong passionate photographer by avocation have taught me many lessons.
Among the most important of those lessons is that there are very few absolutes in this world, and that the proper answer to nearly every question (certainly those questions of any weight) is “it depends.” What does this have to do with “The Global Image” and my photography practice? It seems to me while a photographer may have had an intention in capturing an image, it is quite possible those intentions may be missed in part or entirely by the consumers of the image and people in the middle of the consumption chain can entirely distort the original intention simply by where and how the image is published and around what it is portrayed. Once images leave our hands, we as photographers have little control over how they will viewed. And so, it seems that the idea of a global image “depends” not only on the subject and the way in which it was captured, but in who is looking at it and where it is being viewed. So as not to put too fine a point on it I offer an example in the extreme. A photo of the internees of the Nazi Death Camps would be viewed as evidence of a horrific injustice and time in history by most people who possess even a modest amount of humanity. However, put that identical photo on the wall of a White Nationalist meeting house and it likely is celebrated and viewed as evidence of a great period of dominance to which they would like to return. Thus we find ourselves at the precipice of the proverbial slippery slope when we try to make objective judgements on a topic that is largely subjective. Beauty or ugliness is ultimately inn the eye of the beholder.
What does this do to inform my own practice? It is of course early days and I reserve the right to change my opinion as time goes on and I continue to learn more about myself and my craft as a photographer. Nevertheless, I believe it will require that I approach my practice as I have come to approach the other aspects of my life. I intend to pursue my practice, as much as possible, with kindness, consideration, compassion, and honesty about and for my subjects and my surroundings, and perhaps most importantly, that the results of my work please me technically and aesthetically. If I am able to achieve these things I will consider my work a success, and if it happens that others derive some pleasure or useful information from my work it will be a bonus.
The following questions were posed at the end of the introductory presentation:
Do you see any parallels between the historic spread of photography and the transmission of digital imagery today ? Can you think of any problems associated with the speed at which the photograph moves?
The French government’s licensing of the Daguerre Type, which facilitated its spread around the world, is somewhat analogous to the spread of mobile phones today. Photography has become truly ubiquitous and virtually everyone in the world is a producer and consumer of photographic images. We are inherently a visual species and, therefore, perhaps quite inclined to accept images not created by our own eyes as credible substitutes. The internet, television and other mobile technologies which have proliferated around the world in a seemingly ever increasing pace provide a non-stop stream of visual imagery to all corners of the planet.
So while we may be inclined as a species to “believe” what our eyes see, the facts are not all photographic images tell the truth or at least the whole truth. A snapshot of a mere fraction of a second may have no context or can be easily taken out of proper context, and can lead to grossly misleading conclusions. Add to the modern dilemma our ability to digitally manipulate a photographic image and one could call into question the veracity of any photograph. Like any technology, photography carries with it a spectrum of uses and abuses. As consumers, we are called upon to be ever more discriminating under the onslaught of constant imagery, not all of which is being produced responsibly or ethically. It is a powerful medium and perhaps more powerful now than it has ever been because of the speed and reach that digital transmission has permitted.