As I await the feedback on my proposal, I am continuing to explore narrative approaches to the project. Recent political events have, in my mind, cast further doubt on the likelihood that development will be approved and that alters the calculus on a major element of the originally envisioned project. On the other hand, underlying the subtle and not so subtle aspects of the controversy, most of which are not visible, lies the place, Coul Links, which goes on oblivious to the attempts to alter or preserve it.
So, I find myself asking; is the controversy about the potential development even important at this point or is it just noise hovering around the periphery of a more enduring story? Or conversely; is the place only significant and on my radar because of the controversy of the potential development? Would anyone notice or care truly about Coul Links had someone not proposed building a golf course there? After all it has been a designated site for a quarter century, and no one really seemed to care that that the site was not being maintained as it was meant to be. It is perhaps only because of the proposed development that anyone aside from local residents are even aware of the environmental designations assigned to the site.
And here is the crux of the issue with regard to FMP; which perspective to adopt and which chapter of the story to tell. I have begun the process of looking through all of my contact sheets and archives of the work done on the course and I have also started researching the print and on-line sources that addressed the Coul Links development. I can see potential narratives from several perspectives and yet I haven’t enough clarity or conviction to settle on one just yet.
I think perhaps the process of choosing photographs may help a narrative emerge. Additionally, the archival research from the news coverage over the past 3 years will also support the narrative. Time to get on with it.
I found this module intellectually challenging, stimulating and frankly fun. I struggled in the first module with the whole idea of critical theory, but having come to IC as the fourth module, the 15 months of added experience put me in a much better place to both enjoy and learn. The more I read, the more practitioner’s work I reviewed, the more things began to make sense and I felt my confidence increasing with each passing week. I believe I have come away from IC much more informed about photography in general and with a much better understanding of my practice and what I intended to accomplish. It also gives me a clearer understanding of the paths ahead and where I might go in the next phase of my journey.
Technically and creatively I also gained confidence and my work reaped the benefits of both. I began to approach my work with ever increasing mindfulness and purpose. It resulted in fewer, but much better photographs that required far less post processing. I slowed down considerably, and even though shooting with a DSLR, I approached my work much more like I was shooting with film. I became not only more adept at managing the exposure triangle, but more importantly managing the creative triangle; the relationship between me, the photographer, my subjects and potential viewers. For this modules WIPP, I had my viewers in mind when I went out to take photographs. I was shooting in a way that would result in photographs that challenged my viewers imaginations, stimulated their memories, and sparked their emotions. I was looking to create ambiguity, moderate abstraction and to take a time and place that was know to me and make it into a space my viewer could inhabit and populate with their own narratives.
I know the considerable effort I have put into these first 15 months of this course, but I must acknowledge the support of my peers within the Cromarty cohort. The extraordinary give and take have been an invaluable contributor to the quality of learning for all of us. I also particularly valued the interchange with the tutors and module leader in Informing Contexts. I found the discussion and support constructive and stimulating.
Finally, I believe I am in a very good place to move into FMP and am looking forward to the challenges the next six months have to offer.
I began work on my Portfolio and Critical Review several weeks ahead of the deadlines for submissions and as a consequence completed the work well ahead of schedule. These are some of my thoughts now that I have completed and submitted that work.
While I made a lot of work during this module, I had decided early on what type of work I wanted to make and was therefore able to create photographs with a mindfulness and clarity of intention that I had not before achieved. I took many more photos than ultimately ended up in the final edit and I frankly left some very good work out of the final submission. However, one of the things I have learned through the first four modules of this MA is the need to create a visually consistent, coherent body of work for the WIPP submission. I think I did not fully appreciate that fact in prior modules and as a consequence, the work submitted had a bit of a ‘this and that’ character that detracted slightly from the way the work was viewed. I can attribute this failing in part to a lack of clarity in my intentions in the prior modules and the fact the project I was attempting to take on was massive and diverse. It was too big to distil and attempting to ‘cover the waterfront’ I diluted the visual impact of my imagery; good as they were technically.
So for this module, I intentionally reduced the scope of what I was trying to include in the portfolio and was very disciplined in the editing process as I worked to get to a set of photos and videos that were consistent with my intentions and had a sufficiently consistent and harmonious thematic and visual character. It was difficult initially to eliminate good photos and I went through several iterations before arriving at a final decision. I did also choose to incorporate three video clips taken from the same vantage points as stills either before or after the videos in the sequence. I had not done that before, but felt it important to realising my intentions and conveying some key contextual concepts about the dynamic and transient aspects of nature.
Another important decision in the editing process came when I realised the normal landscape format was not conveying the feeling I was trying to achieve with this body of work. I have been resisting cropping in post-production for some time now and on the rare occasions that I did, I always retained the aspect ratio that I shot originally. However, the landscape format was not constraining the image enough to evoke the response from a viewer I wanting to elicit. As I experimented with cropping to square, the photos suddenly had much more impact. Making them smaller, more constrained actually made them spatially bigger; more universal and more timeless. It amplified the integrity of what was visible in the frame and in some cases created more ambiguity, but also added more mystery and intrigue as to what was just beyond the frame. It was these things that I believe will result in the viewer becoming more engaged with the photographs.
I wrote the initial two drafts before I had really narrowed my portfolio selections sufficiently. While not a waste of time by any means, the first drafts were not as focused as they needed to be. It was only after bringing my WIPP to the near final edit state, that it became a much more straightforward process to write my Critical Review. With the clarity of what I had chosen I was able to zero in on the clearest way to convey my intentions and determine which of my contextual references were indeed most relevant to the work I had completed. I wanted the CR to be clear, concise, cogent, and coherent and most importantly to convey without any question that I had made this work with, and from, a critically informed position. As I was finalising the CR I was able in parallel to make the final cuts for the WIPP so the two submissions were completely in sync and mutually supportive.
I read a great deal during this module and I had to be as discerning about contextual references as I was about photo selection. I took much better notes as I was reading this term and, that proved helpful when recalling references, particularly on things I read early on in the module. I intentionally did not read CRJs or CR submissions from students further on in the programme. I felt quite confident that I could properly interpret the requirements of the assignments and the LOCs to create a document that met or exceeded the standards. I wanted to do it on my own and not be tempted to follow someone else’s path, particularly not knowing whether their work was really good or just okay.
I also completed work early enough to seek input from trusted peers and tutors and I am appreciative of both groups. While I didn’t get any huge redirects out of any of the reviews, the combination of little things and my own desire to write a very tight and focused CR that supported the choices I made in the WIPP drove me to a series of revisions that I am very satisfied result in a solid submission.
The guest lectures were especially good this week. I found it really interesting and informative to here Liz and Addie from Elliot Halls talk about how they decide what to display, who to represent and how to strategically approach building a relationship with a gallery. I was not surprised to hear how competitive the marketplace is, but I was a bit surprised at how patient one might need to be to attract the attention of the gallery world and how many years Elliot Halls had taken before deciding to bring someone in. Not sure I have enough years left to hope to find my way in to a gallery.
I was also very intrigued by the work of Lewis Bush. I was familiar with some of his work, but it was really good to hear him talk about it and the incredible depth of research he went to on each project. It was also fascinating to see how far afield from photography he went to do research and stimulate inspiration. While the subject matter he deals with is quite different than mine, what I found of interest was the similarity in the idea of revealing things “hidden in plain sight”. This was true to a degree in Metropole, but even more so in Shadows of the State. Many people go through life not seeing, really seeing, things that surround them every day. My work on this course has focused on showing places to people in ways they had not been shown or in ways people had not seen for themselves.
I managed to despite still running a fever to get out for a couple hours of shooting on Friday. It completely exhausted me, but I came back with a range of good and not so good work. My approach to work has definitely changed since the beginning of the course. I now work virtually exclusively in Manual settings and there is a much more deliberate attempt to get the framing and exposure completely right in the camera. I also go out with specific intentions of what I want to shoot. I had been wanting to get better images of some of the dune slacks as well as some additional video in the glades and slacks to show the movement. I was successful yesterday with the video as it was very windy, and the results were very dynamic in contrast to the stills. I was not satisfied with the still images in the slacks between the wind disrupting the stillness of the water and the time of day, I felt the photos were soulless and uninteresting visually and they did not evoke any emotion. A few of the detail shots did work out as did the glade work.
On this week’s coursework and whether photography is art. As I have written in a prior post, I think it is a something of a ridiculous question when it is phrased that way. Is all photography art? Of course it is not. As Merry Foresta noted in the foreword to Photography Changes Everything, “most of the billions of pictures that are taken with cameras every year are made for purposes that have nothing to do with art. They are made for quite specific reasons, some exalted and some mundane, and their value is dependent on how well they serve a purpose that, more often than not, has nothing to do with photography itself.” (Heiferman, 2012: 7)
Can photography be art? Again of course it can, though that judgement lies in the hands of the consumers and promoters, rather than with the photographer. I cite as a relevant current example the documentary work of Don McCullin who never considered himself an artist, nor was his work made with the thought of it being viewed as art, and yet it sits today on the walls of the Tate Modern. The art world and art buyers are fickle. Sometimes its trendy, sometimes its rare, and sometimes there is just no accounting for taste.
HEIFERMAN, Marvin. 2012. Photography Changes Everything. First. New York: Aperture.
I have been enjoying the journey of this MA course and how it has helped me to discover a new language for thinking about and talking about the world around me. I have spent many hours reading the luminaries of photographic critical theory and trying to find relevance to my world and my work. I have found myself far better able to examine others’ images and articulate something more than whether I liked it or not.
I have enjoyed the deconstruction of my own practice as I search for what things are essential to me and my work, though I have found this aspect perhaps the most difficult part of the course. And I think it is more difficult in part because it is a moving target and hopefully always will be to a degree. Humans are transient beings in an ever-changing world. I am an unfinished project that I hope is only completed when I take my last breath. I seek to know myself and my place in the world well enough to recognise, appreciate and enjoy the subtle evolution and variations in myself and the world around me and greet them with joy.
I have been struck how these new tools in my kit bag have found their way in and out of other aspects of my life. For example, I have written before and speak frequently about my aversion to labels. The following scene from Season 2 Episode 2 of the Netflix production Sense8 seemed a perfect example. I have edited it slightly for clarity.
“I just want to understand.”
“No, you’re not trying to understand anything because labels are the opposite of understanding.
What does courage have to do with the colour of a man’s skin”
“Who are you?“
“Who am I? – Do you mean – where I’m from? What I one day might become? What I do? What I’ve done? What I dream? Do you mean what you see? What I’ve seen? What I fear What I one day might become? Do you mean who I love? What I’ve lost? – Do you mean what I’ve lost? “
“Who am I? I guess who I am is, exactly the same as who you are; not better than, not less than. Because there is no one who has been or will ever be exactly the same as either you or me.”
“Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. (ed. Or as someone else has labelled it) All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.” (Sontag, 1977: 23)
When we choose to, or allow someone else to label a person, a photograph or a photographer using a broad brush we abdicate our responsibility to consider the worth of the person as an individual or the work on the specific merits of each piece. There are not hard and fast lines and we cannot come to any real understanding if we continue to draw them or accept someone else’s drawing of them.
In another Sense8 scene from Season 2 Episode 1 illustrates the point that the reading of an image is not only largely in the hands (mind) of the viewer but serves as a window into the psyche of the viewer as his or her reading is greatly influenced by the filters, biases and cultural setting that viewer brings to the reading.
“Art is material.
It is wed intractably to the real world, – bound by matter and matters.
– [phones beeping] – Art is political.
– [phone vibrates] Never more so than when insisting it is not.
Art is dialectic.
It is enriched when shared and impoverished by ownership and commodification.
It is a language of seeing and being seen.[low chuckles, murmurs]
Uh, would someone care to fill me in on the joke here?
Yes.Totally.[laughter] Is this art, Mr. Fuentes? [low chuckles]
Is it art, Mr. Valles? What do you think? Why don’t you tell us what you see?
Looks like shit-packer porn.[low murmurs, chuckles]
“Shit-packer porn.” That is; That is very interesting. Yeah, because this is where the relationship between subject and object reverses. The proverbial shoe shifting to the other foot. And what was seen now reveals the seer. Because the eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want, but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, prejudice. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see, suggesting that what you, Mr. Valles, want to see is in fact shit-packer porn. [class chuckling] Whereas someone else, someone with a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions, beyond their defining biases, such a beholder might see an image of two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure, but also vulnerable. Neither aware of the camera. Both of them connected to the moment, to each other. To love. And as I have suggested before in this class art is love made public.”
While I have been unable to find the one definitive reference that I feel reasonably sure I have seen or heard somewhere, it is safe to say that before this course this scene would have passed me by with not a second thought. There are elements of Foucault, Berger, Brazin, Lacan, Silverman’s Screen Theory and others that are alluded to in the prior scene.
I do subscribe to the concept of the triangle of between the Subject – Photographer – Viewer, but I also believe the balance of power dynamic between them shifts during the life cycle of a photograph and is greatly influenced by contextual clues found in accompanying text, or in where the work is seen. I also believe the power shifts predominantly to the viewer once the photograph leaves the direct control of the photographer and that regardless of the context most viewers will see only what their cultural and personal conditioning will allow them to see.
SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.
I quite understand the use of advertising images to illustrate the points in this week’s material. However, despite the fact that we are surrounded by these images daily, I found this rather difficult because for many years I have ignored them completely. They have become noise to me. I rarely watch them on the TV as I don’t watch much broadcast programming and it is only when I am in the market for something particular will I look for info on the product, and even then, I bypass the advert to look at the product itself in more detail. I cannot say I am never swayed to look at something when I happen to see a clever ad, but it is quite rare.
Ads rarely capture my attention, but photos in an editorial context often do. An example from the 21 February 2019 edition of the Wall Street Journal is below. Self-admitted gearhead and former racing driver that I am and despite not generally being all that fond of Ferrari, this one stopped me in my tracks.
GIMME A BRAKE The flashy Pista can go from 0-62 mph in 2.85 seconds and return to a dead stop in 93.5 feet. Photo: Ferrari
And I find it an interesting photograph to try to analyse as part of this week’s exercise. The denoted (signified) image is quite simple to discern. The bright red image of a $450,000 super car with extraordinarily beautiful lines is rather impossible to miss on the tarmac. Judging by the tire marks on the tarmac the car was repositioned at least a couple of times to get the angle of the light reflecting off the bodywork just right; the car was carefully posed. There is nothing to distract from this signifier and its placement along the diagonal further clarifies its dominance.
The connoted image is surprising more complex for such a visually simple and uncluttered image. In concert with the caption it is clear this is very high-performance automobile borrowing aerodynamics and other design elements from F1 and GTP racing platforms. There is surface beauty to be sure, but it is more than skin deep as this car is loaded with performance technology. I suspect that the principal, though not exclusive, demographic Ferrari appeal to are men 30-55 with plenty of discretionary spending power. This is a wealthy person’s toy, perhaps a symbol of status, and something that screams ‘look at me’ for the owner that wants to be noticed everywhere they go.
An oppositional view might be something along the lines of who needs a $450,000 car that can do 211 mph that hasn’t room in the boot for hardly an overnight bag. It might be the red colour or the racing stripe that seem pretentious, or that Ferrari are notoriously difficult and expensive to maintain. Or it might be that a car such as this must use a tremendous amount of fuel and is therefore environmentally irresponsible. It is absolutely not the car for someone who does not wish to advertise their wealth or someone in need of practical transportation.
I am a bit fuzzier on the negotiated view. Perhaps it is along the lines of; it is a well-executed photograph of a beautiful, but altogether impractical and for most unattainable car. In other words, wow that is nice, but…
Since the beginning of the MA course, the Cromarty Cohort has had a very active and useful WhatsApp group that has been a great source of support and discussion. I have learned perhaps as much from the interactions with my cohort as I have from the formal coursework. It has been a place of inspiration, mutual support, friendship and quite often sanity preserving humour. I truly treasure these relationships.
Quite often, we have had extraordinary debates on wide ranging topics and just as often we lean on each other for advice, critique and the knowledge that comes with experience. I have not been particularly good yet at critiquing my own work and I attribute that in part to not yet being entirely certain of what I want to do. But the course, my independent reading, and the interactions with my peers has given me a new base of knowledge, a new vocabulary, and a basis for applying the critical thinking skills honed over 40 + years of working to begin better contextualising photographic work.
What follows is a discussion with Mick Yates about his work currently underway in Cambodia. We had talked a length before the trip about his goals and concerns. After his second day of shooting he posted a couple of photos from the day’s work on our WhatsApp forum. With Mick’s permission I am posting the main bits of our ‘conversation’ which proved useful for us both I think. I find it easier to have this discussion about someone else’s work than my own, but I know when it is time to talk about mine, I know my cohort will be there for me. In the meantime, it was enlightening to talk about Mick’s challenges all the while realising I needed to be thinking, not the same things, but in the same way.
At the very outset there were a few comments by others in the cohort, and there were a few asides that were not directly relevant to the thread that have been edited to enhance clarity. What follows though is the main conversation between Mick and me in its entirety. The photographs are all Mick’s work taken with an infrared camera today in Cambodia.
[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: May they rest peacefully
[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Cheoung Ek, the Killing Fields
[06:42, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Too pretty?
[08:42, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It depends on whether your story is about the genocide or really about the people who survived it and what Cambodia is today. Are the Killing Fields sources of hope that horror can be overcome, or are they an ever present pall of death that no one in Cambodia can ever escape? These may not be the right questions, and they are certainly not the only questions, but I believe they may be the kind of questions you need to be asking before you exhaust yourself physically and emotionally taking photos that you that either do not meet your needs or actually work against them.
[08:43, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Very fair
[08:44, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think it does depend on the audience. In Cambodia, it must be about hope. But in the West, whilst it is hope, it’s also fundamental education, with all the horror that entails
[08:54, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It is hard to see horror in any of the landscapes you have taken. Nature has taken it back, covered it up and erased it from the possibility of discovery by anyone who hasn’t been through what happened there. There is horror inn the museums. You would perhaps have to go Jo Hedwig Teeuwisseor or Sergey Larenkov to convey what happened there to Western audiences
[08:54, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I don’t know them – will look. Thanks
[08:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I really don’t like the Museum stuff
[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Boring ..
[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Nature never gave it up so reclaiming is easy. Humans are just a temporary thing
[08:57, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Agree and it has all been seen before. Larenkov and Teeuwisseor both did Ghosts of WWII series superimposing old images on modern scenes to show what happened there
[08:57, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Though interesting how IR takes out shades and details
[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think there may be more horror in the negatives
[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The problem of aftermath
[09:07, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Even Sophie Ristelhueber, who I love and who ‘invented’ aftermath is almost forensic. No emotion
[09:11, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Yes, and that begs the question, where is Cambodia now, and where does what happened factor into today. Every day people who were there are dying. More and more of the population knows of it only second hand. Is the point to get past it or is the point to hang on to it or is the point that there are forces that want to shackle the younger generations to their inescapable past? Is there something in the Cambodian psyche that suggests this could happen again at any moment or is this something that people think can never happen again? Is there a shift in mindset between Sarath’s generation and his grandchildren’s? Is this an aftermath story that is far enough removed from the event that the horror can be treated lightly, almost in passing as you focus on Cambodia today, or are there dark forces still at work to whom the past is closely tied that are getting in the way of the current generations progress and escape from the past? So many questions, but all key to framing the story and guiding your shooting.
[09:11, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: All good Qs, Ash. Very good
[09:14, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I guess a similar logic might apply to the Holocaust. Maybe we should all just forget it?
[09:27, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: I did not mean to suggest the past should be forgotten, but in fact many have. It begs the question of where is the balance between remembering the past and how it affected where we are today and dwelling in it? Does that balance shift over time? I am not naïve enough to think genocide can’t happen again, but I would like also to think that it couldn’t go on for the length of time the Nazis did without the world knowing and reacting.
[09:28, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Ironically, as I have discovered in reading, the world actually did know, but the UK and US governments chose not to believe the Soviet/Polish propaganda. Another story
[09:29, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Your point stands, though
[09:30, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: One of the Cambodian challenges is that there was no ‘other’ so it was like the Chinese Cultural Revolution
[09:31, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Self-Genocide in fact
[09:35, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And I can’t imagine that isn’t a bit frightening at least to the older folk who experienced it. The thought that your neighbour was involved in slaughtering thousands for no good reason. Zealots and ideologues are scary people. And that undercurrent is resurfacing in many places in the world. Does this suggest a cautionary tale? Does the current flavour of KR harbour any allusions of the past?
[09:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Agree. The vast majority just want to move on. But as I have discovered time and again, a simple conversation leads to all kinds of memories and questions. Every day I am here
[09:38, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Maybe I am the one that needs to let this go
[09:43, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is there an element of outsider gaze tied to your history that affects your current perceptions and has the fact that you had a wee break from the heavy involvement meant that you missed a subtle shift in where Cambodia is today compared to say 15 years ago? Not meant to be in any way disrespectful, just a question.
[09:48, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: It’s a great question. I think that when we started this, 20 years ago, there was def an outsider gaze. I mean, we paid for schools that the country couldn’t afford. Imperial, what? But we never saw it that way ofc. We did try to learn and be part of the whole, though it was hard.
Now, I find myself deeper. When the people I am working with no longer know all the answers – and in fact find new things because of this activity, it’s become even more personal.
Is there a shift here? Sadly, no. This is all buried and has been for a long time. The closest parallel is China I think
[09:52, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is that parallel to China in some way an angle from which to approach the story? And if so, why does that similarity exist? Is it political, deeper cultural similarities, etc? Sorry if I am droning on too long. I am sure you must be exhausted, and my day is only beginning. Lots to do before I get on a plane Monday morning.
[09:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The parallel is the Cultural Revolution – The KR executed it on steroids. The disconnect is that Deng Xiaoping saw that prosperity for all was key – and consigned the Gang of Four to the trash can of history. Neither have really happened here, so no release
[09:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: No closure and a very uncertain future in other words
[09:59, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And that perhaps is the heart of the story and how today is affected by the past. That comparison to China may be useful as a foil to show how Cambodia has become mired.
[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Well, yes, though this is an MA not a PhD
[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Not making light of your comment – it’s totally right
[10:37, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And it is a practical degree not a dissertation project.
[10:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Also true
Thank you to Mick for the conversation, and for permission to post it and his work to my CRJ. This is merely one example in a year’s worth of great conversations, debates, and discussion between us that has made my experience on the MA all the richer.
I honestly do not know why I feel the need to argue this point. Perhaps it is because I do not view myself as an “Art Photographer” and that I work very hard to capture the world around me as accurately and faithfully as I can minimising behind the camera manipulations. Do I take the image (Sontag) or do I make the image? It is possible to do both with photography and I think there is a difference. A painter clearly makes their image and Cindy Sherman, Cecil Beaton elaborately create and stage the scene they are to photograph and so in that regard are much closer to a painter than a strict documentary photographer. Martha Rosler begins with indexical photographs and then behind the camera heavily manipulates the original image to “construct” the political statement she wishes to convey. She too is more like a painter. These photographers create tableaus.
Every photographer makes choices, selections of what, where, how and when to photograph, but those selections are first and foremost from real things that are in front of the photographer’s camera. One cannot photograph what is not there, or as Barthes put it “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph.” (Barthes, 1981: 76) Certainly this is equally true for all photographers whether they come to the scene accepting it as it is, or if they choose to rearrange “what was there” before taking the photograph. And this is where I feel the need to challenge the assertion that every photograph is a construction, or at least challenge the way the term is used.
Every photograph involves choice and selection, but I argue that is different than construction. Just because I cast my gaze and that of my camera in a particular direction, I did not “construct” what is in front of me. Only when I purposefully rearrange the scene by moving objects or posing people have I constructed the scene that will become my image.
To argue that the “camera” coverts the light from the four-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional representation of that scene and therefore the image is made, and while true, it is not something over which the photographer has direct control and is in my view a lazy argument. By painting all photographs with that unnecessarily broad brush it fails to recognise the spectrum or continuum of photographic practice and creates a false equivalency between a Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman and Edward Burtynsky or Lynsey Addario. While this spectrum has no distinct boundaries at any given point on the continuum, I think it useful to acknowledge that there are differences in practice without having to necessarily assign a label or pigeonhole any photographer.
I do believe it is valuable to consider the spectrum of photographies in more nuanced way. Obviously, the grey areas in between are what create the difficulty and there are no hard and fast rules of distinction with regard to how much constitutes a truly constructed image versus one that is intended to be indexical. It is usually the case that the most highly constructed images and studio portraits for example make no pretentions of being anything other than constructed and it is fairly obvious to even the most casual of observers. With the advent of digital imaging, it is less obvious on the documentary end of the spectrum and there are plenty of documented cases of photographers and publications surreptitiously altering or intentionally choosing an out of context moment or vantage point to support a particular political or editorial point of view.
With the majority of my work out of doors and either landscape, wildlife, or action shots, I can with absolute certainty tell you the scenes in front of my camera that comprise my images are not constructed. I acknowledge the argument that because the light that enters the cameras lens is transformed and ultimately results in something made there are those that would consider that a construction. As well, any post processing is fundamentally an action that in some way alters that which the film or sensor captured and could be argued as constructive in nature. But I continue to hold that, as long as I am trying to remain faithful to that which was in front of my camera and not alter it in any substantive or significant way I am not constructing. I am taking, with the tools at my disposal and all their inherent capabilities and limitations, a representation of what I saw, not making something that did not exist before I arrived or a representation of something that was not there. This to me is the essential distinction in what constitutes a truly “constructed” photograph.
The following image for instance involved me carrying 20kg kit several miles and sitting in the same place for about 5 hours observing the tens of thousands of nesting seabirds as well as predators like the ravens. I took over 500 photos with 600mm and 840mm focal lengths. I didn’t direct the pair of ravens to the Razorbill nest they raided, but my knowledge of bird behaviour and observational acuity allowed me to see the situation developing and record it in its entirety. This is only one shot in a sequence. Now I suppose one could argue the final product, since it was cropped slightly and minor adjustments to the tonal quality were made in Lightroom, was constructed, but again I don’t find that distinction nuanced enough, and it creates a false equivalency with staged or posed images.
Raven Burglar – Ashley Rose
Another example would be the following photograph of a 9-day old colt out for its first run around the arena with its mother. This photo required knowledge of how horses move and what positions are most telling about a horse’s innate ability and potential as a world class dressage horse. This is an extraordinary example of an “uphill canter” and shows how well this young colt gets his rear legs under him and how light he is in the front. Once again other than some minor cropping and tonal adjustment, nothing about this photo was constructed in my view. Like the previous photo, planning, patience and a bit of luck were involved.
Falcon Caledonia at 9 days old – Ashley Rose
I know this notion of constructed versus not constructed is one that will continue to spark debate, probably for as long as photography exists. It is complicated further by the ease in which digital photography can be manipulated and frankly weaponised. And perhaps in the end the discussion is moot because photography has gone from the paragon of “objectivity”, to the perhaps the most suspect and mistrusted of the visual media. Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons taints the broader world of Photography. It is an unfortunate reality of our time.
This week’s activity asked us to consider the following:
Post a short response below that outlines your own position regarding the nature of the photograph as ‘really real’.
Reflect on whether photographs are so unlike other sorts of pictures that they require unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation.
Identify and respond to key ideas raised by Snyder and Allen (1975) and in the presentations.
Refer to writers, theorists, and practitioners to support your views.
Provide visual examples to illustrate your points.
Reflect on any aspects of the ‘peculiar’ nature of the photograph that are important for your work.
Is a photograph real? This is of course a loaded question, perfect fodder for purely academic debate (and forgive the cynic in me that thinks it in the end so moot as to be of dubious import), and which must, as with most complex questions, be answered with the response, “it depends.” It depends on what is actually being asked. It depends whether beneath the veil of “real” are really questions of tangibility, accuracy (factual), reality (vs. fantasy), or truth. These terms are easily and often conflated. It is obvious even before beginning this discussion that there can be no one universal answer that covers the breadth of photographic genres and indeed the range of photographs with any genre.
A photograph whether as a print in hand or on the screen is indeed real on a physical level in the case of a print, and a virtual level in the case of on-screen. It exists, but it is not in fact the thing depicted, merely a 2-dimensional representation.
If the question is instead,” Is what is depicted in the photograph real?” Again, by virtue of the definition of a photograph, the image authenticates the presence of something that was in front of the lens from which light reflected and was subsequently captured on the film or sensor. But, further parsing of the question is required. Are we asking about the reality of the subject? The photographer’s intent and distribution channel will need to be considered. If it was an image of a news event published by a generally respected news outlet, there would be both an expectation and assumption that the image was a depiction of a real event. If it is a highly constructed set with elements we know to be unlikely to have been in the same place at the same time and seen in an art publication or on a gallery wall, we are likely to correctly conclude that while the objects did stand in front of the lens, the scene is not ‘real’, that is not naturally occurring. This question gets somewhat more complex when one asks, “Even if the scene is substantially ‘real’ (naturally occurring), has it been manipulated or altered?”
With analogue photography, this is somewhat less problematic because, while it is possible and certainly has been done, it is much more difficult to manipulate the image to add or subtract something from that which was present in the photographed scene. Digital photography makes it far easier and more likely that something might be different than was actually in the scene photographed and then the question arises; “Was the alteration substantive?” It makes a difference if someone cloned out a gravy stain on the tablecloth or replaced the Christmas turkey with a hippopotamus. The latter would lead most people to conclude the photo was altered and represented some form of fantasy.
Then arises the question of accuracy. To extend the example of Christmas dinner, if Grandma was in hospital and I put her in this year’s photo by using an image of her from the prior year at the table it is real, in that she sat at that table with the others albeit at a different time, but it is not accurate. Another example arises with scene compression from a telephoto lens. Consider the following photograph of the town of Dornoch taken with a long lens from a vantage point that suggests the statue of the Duke of Sutherland which sits atop Ben Bhraggie looms directly above the town when in fact it is at least 10 miles away. Metaphorically, it was (and perhaps is) accurate. This Duke was largely responsible for the Highland Clearances which reshaped the population of the Scottish Highlands and whose effect is still felt today.
Dornoch Cathedral with Ben Bhraggie – Ashley Rose
Lastly comes the question of truth. No photograph can ever represent truth. Firstly, the camera with all the limitations of its lens, film/sensor, program and looking at a smaller segment of a scene than that available to the eye is trying to capture a 4-dimensional event which it then translates into a 2- dimensional entity. I believe it is clear the photograph cannot be truth. Furthermore, aside from a very few absolute truths, e.g. we are all going to die, all other truths are conditional. They are subject to the limits of knowledge, personal and cultural perspectives none of which can be represented in a photograph. Even “scientific truths” are conditional as we only know what we know. For example, humans once believed truth was that the Sun revolved around the Earth and now, we accept as truth the opposite. Each major religion holds its own version of truth. So, truth in a photograph even in relative terms is always going to be a matter of perspective and therefore not really truth.
I have noticed some others referring to digitally created images as photographs. While they may appear to be photographs and may even be printed as a photograph might be, they are not photographs. They are Computer Generated Images. They were not created by the interaction of light with a photosensitive medium and they are therefore not by definition, photographs.
I am not convinced that in general photographs are so different that they require some completely unique form of criticism. Of course, photographs bear traits which make them inherently different than paintings or CGI, principally that they carry a degree of indexicality that is a physical manifestation of the prerequisite of a photograph; captured reflected light. Aside from that, they are of something, they contain some intent at meaning, they have a frame that includes and excludes, they include or represent a point in time, and they have a vantage point, so it seems Szarkowski’s five elements could be applied to virtually any form of visual representation.
“Even in the realm of serious and inventive photography there is no clear-cut break with older traditions of representation.” (Snyder and Allen, 1975: 165)
The seemingly endless quest for the silver-bullet of photographic uniqueness or critique is perhaps interesting to debate (for a while), but as it is ultimately moot, does it really do anything to advance photography? As I wrote in a prior CRJ post, does it really matter whether Photography as an entirety is considered an art or not? Are these distinctions important? To find anything close to a unifying theory would require a common language and commonality of culture and experience. At the denotive level photography in many cases can overcome the language and cultural barriers to arrive at a somewhat common (but not universal) visual language. However, at the connotative level, the meaning of any photograph is intractably bound to the language and cultural perspectives of the viewer and is therefore unresolvable in the universal. As I sit writing this, I see out my window (in my language) a snow flurry. If an Inuit were to see this (or a photograph of it) I have no doubt one of their 50 words for snow would be used to provide a far more nuanced description and meaning to the event I am witnessing. I would likely have no idea what their version meant, and they would think my version to be crude and uninformed, yet we are looking at the same denoted scene. A photograph of Daesh beheading someone is to me a horrifying and unspeakable act of human cruelty, while to them it is a triumph over an infidel enemy and worthy of celebration.
ISIS Propaganda photo
These connotations will never be resolved no matter how many critical theory books are written or read except by saying the photographer does not have much control over how a photograph is viewed or judged. What is trash to one person is treasure to the next. So we as photographers are left to do the best we can to satisfy ourselves that we have achieved the intent we set out to achieve and then we can hope that someone appreciates it for what it was meant to be while at the same time hoping that it is not at the same time taken so out of context that it is used in a harmful or nefarious way.
Snyder and Allen’s writing seems to support these ideas.
“Thus, to formulate a set of critical principles for photography based on what is purely or uniquely or essentially photographic is as absurd and unprofitable as would be the adoption in its place of standards taken from a mummified canon of nineteenth-century painting.” (p 165)
“The poverty of photographic criticism is well known. It stands out against the richness of photographic production and invention, the widespread use and enjoyment of photographs, and even the popularity of photography as a hobby. To end this poverty we do not need more philosophizing about photographs and reality, or yet another (this time definitive) definition of “photographic seeing,” or yet another distillation of photography’s essence or nature. The tools for making sense of photographs lie at hand, and we can invent more if and when we really need them.” (p 169)
Photography has the ability to be uniquely indexical even if it is not always used as such. My practice, and I suppose my worldview are largely rooted in this approach. I honestly believe there is enough wonder, horror, and interest in what exists around me that I feel no need in my practice to invent or construct something that does not exist. I don’t use my photography to illustrate or overcome personal issues and while I know it is impossible to completely mask insights into me as a person, I want my camera to be far more of a window than a mirror. I also generally don’t want to “look into the souls” of other humans because frankly, I am not very interested and often find myself at loss to read people the way an accomplished portrait photographer often can. If my work is viewed, I want people to be focusing on the work and not on me.
SNYDER, Joel and Neil Walsh ALLEN. n.d. ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 141–169.
BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image Music Text. New York: Hill and Wang.
BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.
SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
I have not often written much about work I was doing this early in the term. Partly because I quite often take on other projects or personal work that was unrelated to the MA project I had been pursuing. However, since I needed to be away from Scotland and the site where my project is based, I have been using this time to explore a different aspect of my landscape work, expand on a project that has been underway for about 12 years, and to push my skills even further.
I have talked in the past about the inspiration Axel Hutte provides, in particular his landscapes which betray no sense of place or time. Jem Southam is another photographer whose work is similar in the sense that it often belies place and time and yet, like Hutte, conveys a mood and often an intimacy of perspective.
Since I was only going to be back in the US for about six weeks, I also decided to travel lightly and only packed one camera body, Canon 5D MkIV and two lenses, 24-105mm f4 and 135mm f2 along with ND filters and a 1.4 extender. This choice has the added benefit of limiting the type of photographs I could reasonably take to the more intimate landscapes I intended.
My South Carolina house sits in the middle of a heavily wooded 8.5 acres and over looks a 5 acre pond on the lot adjacent. I designed the house in 2006 in a style that merged a Japanese and Frank Lloyd Wright aesthetic with some Western sensibilities, but the essence of the house was open flexible space with views in every direction and a clear intent to blur distinctions between space to space within the walls and between the inside and outside.
I have always loved and photographed the views from the house and enjoyed watching how they changed from day to day, season to season and year to year. My photographic skills have improved significantly over the past year and it seemed a good time to see what I could make of this very familiar place. Here are a few examples.
While I certainly know where these photos were taken and the place holds special significance to me, to any other viewer these photograph can represent anywhere and therefore contain a universality that allows a viewer to imagine or believe these are places they know or have been. I am pleased with these photos and believe they offer a line of enquiry for my practice in the future.
I took an opportunity during a short stay in New Jersey just after my return to the US in January to photograph a lovely waterfall I encountered. I had seen it the prior day, but the light was poor and so when the weather and light became more conducive I returned to the site.
I choose lengthy exposures and acute angles to capture the nuances of the light and shadows and the differences in the way the water came over the spillway on to the rocks below. The middle frame explores the varied textures of the stones of the dam as well as those in the river below the dam. Once again the intimacy of the framing does nothing to reveal its actual location and as such again make it familiar to any viewer who seen a waterfall somewhere. These too I feel are successful photographs.
I do believe have room to continue to grow and explore this type of photography and can certainly explore the moods that would result from different lighting conditions. I enjoy this type of work and it sits well as an element within the direction my practice is taking.