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.

Week 4 – Hands Off

The week’s presentations centered around strategies that are outside the conventional approaches to photography; at least the ones that I use in my practise.  I am not comfortable in general using work I have not created so I found many of the strategies discussed this week quite strange.  Although I have to admit projects such as Jenny Odell’s Travel by Approximation were extremely innovative and clever.

The week’s work has certainly challenged some of my well ingrained notions of what photography is and can be.  The idea of not using a camera was particularly difficult to embrace, especially when trying to find a way to relate it to my project. But that was the crux of this week’s activity.

This task asks you to reconsider your relationship with your preferred apparatus by NOT using it.  You have 24 hours to produce a mini-series of five images relating to your research project, without using apparatus that is familiar to you.  All images must be produced on Wednesday 27th June between 00:00am and 23:59 (local time).  Understandably, many of you will have other commitments during this period. If so, you are encouraged to see these as a challenge and incorporate them into the task somehow. After all, it is possible to be a lot less conspicuous without a camera.

I thought about using my mobile phone camera because for the type of photography I do it is not a preferred apparatus, but it is one with which I am familiar.  I don’t have access to 35mm film or medium format cameras here.  Google Earth has satellite views of my project area which I have already used, and there are other photos on the web of Coul Links taken by developers and eco-tourists, but not much that seemed interesting to co-opt.  So in the end I decided to try using cyanotype paper using a Sunprint kit I obtained through Amazon.  I collected bits of plants feathers and shells and made a series of prints.  I also made one using golf tees as a symbol of what is likely to happen on the site.  Here are the results.

Wildflowers-7233
Wildflowers
Broom Flowers and Leaves-7248
Broom Blossoms and Leaves
Feathers-7241
Feathers
Feathers-7244
Feathers
Gastropod and Bivalve Mollusc Shells-7230
Gastropod and Bivalve Mollusc Shells
Golf Tees-7238
Golf Tees

 

 

 

 

While I didn’t find this exercise particularly useful in terms of applicability to my project, I did rather enjoy to process of creating these images.  First, trying to figure out what I might be able to accomplish with what I could get my hands on on short notice, and that had some relevance to my project was interesting and challenging, and forced me to look at possibilities I would have never otherwise considered.  Second, once deciding to do the cyanotypes, what materials could I find that would lend themselves to this particular media and could I compose them in an aesthetically pleasing way?  And lastly, the process of exposing the image itself yielded pleasantly surprising results.  The sun was quite strong and the exposures were about 1 1/2 minutes.  I was particularly surprised at the dimensionality of the golf tees and the delicacy of the feather images.  The texture in the wildflower print caused by the relative difference in transparency between the wild poppy and the other flower was another surprise.  So while I cannot see a practical use for this particular strategy and surface in my project, that is not to say there is not a place for something like this in another project someday.  And if it is not this surface, I have been awakened to the fact there are other ways than a DSLR to create images.

 

 

 

 

 

Critical Research

I have spent a great deal of time these past months reading and trying to understand what I have done, what I am doing and what I want to do as a photographer.  I at first found reading the paragons of photographic theory both difficult and cumbersome, and I struggled to find the relevance.  I have also been researching sources on techniques such as repeat photography and related scientific fields that have employed repeat photography as an aid to understanding.  I have looked at more works of other photographers in the field of natural history photography and other genres than ever before in my life to see if and how their work is different from mine and what I might learn from those who are considered among the best in the field.  I have allowed myself the freedom to pursue personal projects that are not related to my MA project proposal, because I enjoy other genres and because those each teach me something about photographic technique and story telling; the area which I considered a great weakness entering the MA course.

What I have not been doing heretofore is adequately documenting this research in my CRJ and now I must begin to rectify that shortcoming.

Week 3 – Making a Zine, Collaboratively

Among this week’s tasks was an assignment to form a group, crowdsource images and create a Zine.  I must admit to not really knowing what a Zine was before this so of course I was the perfect choice to lead our group.  The group of seven came together quickly and coalesced around one of the two ideas I proposed.  With Father’s Day being last Sunday we collectively agreed it was a timely topic and that we would ask people to take a photograph of something or someplace that evoked a memory of their father and then to write a few words on why that particular image was significant.  While everyone liked and embraced the concept we chose, I think to a person we were all pleasantly surprised by the response we received and moved by many of the images and stories.  There was something powerful in the combination of the images and their accompanying stories; something unique in each, but relatable to all.

We in total received close to 50 submissions, many of which were very poignant, some whimsical, some happy and some sad.  We each posted the photos and stories we received to our space on Canvas, and then had a group webinar to curate the collection and agree on what format we liked for the Zine as well as making assignments to complete the production.

The group worked very well together throughout the process and we were able to use both the Canvas discussion space and a WhatsApp thread to discuss progress, communicate assignments and decisions contributing to the efficiency in which we were able to complete the assignment.  While the old adage of “too many cooks spoil the broth” could come in to play in a collaborative effort, it was not the case here.  A few of the group had produced Zines or at least experienced Zines before and that was helpful in assembling and publishing the final product.  Everyone of our group participated, cooperated, and collaborated to collectively create our Zine, the link to which is below.

Dad. A Curated Look at Fathers – FINAL – PRINT RESOLUTION

How does this relate to my practice and what can I take away from this exercise that might influence my practice in the future?

My practice has historically been rather solitary and since I rarely photograph people, quite absent collaboration other than with my husband who often accompanies me on shoots and assists me in carrying kit and ensuring we do things safely.  Many of my thousands of photographs were never seen by anyone but a few close friends or family.  So it is only relatively recently as I make my work more public and contextual that I have come to appreciate that while I may not collaborate much in the making of my images, there is value in having others involved in the process of getting my images into public view.

My years in the corporate and consulting worlds taught me the value of “cold eyes” reviews as we are often too close to what we create to be able to understand how someone seeing something for the first time might see it.  It is difficult to be completely objective about something we create and we often see what we want to see, or what we thought we were creating.  The more familiar we are with a subject the more likely we are to have made assumptions and logical leaps that are not possible for someone coming to the topic for the first time.  I valued the varying perspectives of my colleagues during the Zine exercise and have also on other bits of work in this course.  The range of experience and the range of perspectives born out of their respective practice specialties has proven interesting, educational, and useful in helping me understand what other people see (or don’t see) in work I have created.

Furthermore, I really enjoyed working with others and as my practice matures, I will look for ways to do more of that in the future.  A couple of my projects are going to involve a lot more coordination and planning and therefore collaboration in order to achieve the end result.  I look forward to it.

I also am glad to have introduced to the Zine concept.  In many ways Ed Ruscha’s 26 Gas Stations was a Zine; soft cover, inexpensively produced on less than high quality medium.  I can see a possibility of using the Zine approach in the future for my work, either as an advertisement for my work or as an end product.  My eyes continue to open to the expanse of possibilities available to me.

Week 2 – Project Trailer

As part of the week’s activities we were to create a video “teaser” trailer about our project according to the following instructions.

“Making a trailer may initially seem an unusual activity in a photography course, but trailers have become a useful tool for blockbuster exhibitions in recent years, with varying approaches and budgets. Furthermore, making a trailer is a great way to step outside your comfort zone and refine your sense of storytelling, as well as being a good way to explore the fundamental time-based relationship between images and words.  Think about which images of yours (or others’) can help express / reveal key parts of your project. Think about how to get your audience interested in the images, how to build tension (or not) and how to release that tension.”

Suffice to say this task did push up against the boundaries of my comfort zone, but not as severely as creating the Positions and Practice Oral Presentation.  Having scaled the steepest part of the learning curve then made this time seem much less overwhelming.  During P&P, I tried to use Adobe Premier, but just couldn’t seem to make it do what I wanted it to do in the time frame I had  for the OP.  I ended up using PowerPoint and converting the presentation to video, but I did gain a bit of experience with Premier that made jumping back in for this exercise much less about “which buttons control which functions?” and more about turning a concept into a reality that met the brief within the prescribed limit of 2 minutes.

It also is clear that I am becoming more comfortable with the idea of using my images to tell a story; an aspect of my photographic practice that was always noticeably absent.  There has in fact been a distinct shift in the approach to my practice and while I will still  photograph something because it appeals to my eye, the majority of my work now is far more purposeful.  I start a shoot with a much clearer intention and sense of what I will need to tell the story I have in mind.

The result was successful overall, though I wish I could have gone a wee bit longer to allow for a better ending on a natural break in the music track.  I believe I used images and music to convey a dramatic tension and the overall sense of the project.  The result can be viewed in the link below using the password Falmouth.

Week 2 – Appropriation and Context

This week’s forum was a discussion centered around the controversy over “The Rights of the Molotov Man” and the case known as Joywar.  In 2003 Joy Garnett used an image taken in 1979 by Susan Meiselas of a Sandanista rebel in Nicaragua as inspiration for a painting in a collection called Riot.  Garnett did not acknowledge the original author which was in my opinion an ethical breach.  While Meiselas claimed copyright infringement, Garnett in fact created a unique, derivative work based on Meiselas’ photo.  Meiselas later stated her principal objection was the loss of context of the original photo and the appropriation of its subject for a different purpose.

Sontag wrote “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” (Sontag, 1977) She goes on further to say “The photograph a thin slice of space as well as time.” “Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else, all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.” “Any photograph has multiple meanings: indeed, to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination.” “Photographs, which cannot by themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.” (Sontag, 1977)

While Garnett should have acknowledged Meiselas’ photo as her inspiration, I find Meiselas’ argument about Garnett having stolen the context of the original photo to be specious and frivolous.  Someone standing next to Meiselas taking a photo of the same original event might have had a very different interpretation of the event if they had been on the other side politically and may have seen a riot instead of a rebellion.  As soon as a photo is published its author’s context is lost to that of the viewer.  Garnett simply chose to accept the invitation to deduce, speculate and fantasize about the image to create her new version.  I can see Meiselas’ point about the subject, Pablo Arauz, having his story misappropriated as he had a specific history, a piece of which that was captured in Meiselas’ photo, but that image was also appropriated by the Sandanista government and showed up on walls and matchbooks with intent to use it in a different context than when it was originally taken.

Context is a tricky business and as Sontag says photos do not stand alone.  We each view the world through the filters and biases resulting from our unique life experiences and those are applied to one degree or another to every image we see, to every word we read, and to every story we hear.  How then as photographers can we ever hope to control the context we saw when we made a photograph?  Sontag again wrote ” 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.  All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.  Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.”  (Sontag, 1977) Our cameras can provide evidence of something existing or having existed, but understanding requires more than can be captured in a single photograph.  Perhaps only through a collection of photographs or with words of explanation we can hope to convey to a viewer that which we originally intended when we chose to record an image.  And even then, there will remain those who are unconvinced.

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Penguin Books.

 

Week 1 Reflections

The break between terms served as a wonderful time to take a break from the academics and pursue some personal photo projects.  The optional task to create an Ed Ruscha inspired piece of work resulted in a book in which I am quite pleased, and which is now on sale in my local bookshop.  I enjoyed that project so much that I hope to continue adding to that body of work and produce a follow-on edition as time permits. That task also inspired several other ideas which I intend to pursue as personal projects.

During the break I also embarked on an additional personal project that could in fact become my FMP topic.  I am working with a friend who has breeding world class dressage horses for the last 11 years.  Some of her first foals are now beginning to compete at the international level and the quality of her foal crop has been improving with each passing year.  We discussed my following and photographing the entire process from insemination and birth of new foals to visiting the horses previously bred which are training and competing at various stages according to their ages.  The end product would be a book about the breeding program and its international success.

At the same time, I have been working on the Coul Links project by taking baseline photos from the air and the fixed locations.  I have added locations in order to provide a more complete view of the future development activities which appear to be headed toward approval.  It is quite interesting to note how dramatically different the land looks in the two months since I arrived back in Scotland.  What was one of the wettest (and snowiest) winters in many years had inundated much of the site with water and the ephemeral dunes slacks were extensive.  However, six weeks of unusually dry weather has caused nearly all of the dunes slacks to dry up and the land has turned from brown to green with bright clumps of yellow gorse and broom mixed in among the stands of heath on the dunes and adjacent pasture land.

I am using repeat photography techniques as described in Repeat Photography (Webb, 2010) plus the addition of aerial photography also using repeatable fixed locations, to record naturally occurring changes associated with seasonal rhythms and as a comparative baseline in preparation for recording and evaluating the manmade changes that are occur on the site.

The feedback from the week’s webinar was somewhat confusing and, given the unfamiliarity of the commentators on the nature and scale of my project, need to be taken with a grain of salt.  It is very early stages and there is not a lot of comparative data that can be shown with the 3 prescribed photographs.  I attempted to show the three categories of photographs I am taking, aerial, fixed terrestrial location, and species collection and was criticized on everything from “Why are you taking photos of insects” to “The sky is oversaturated in the drone photo” to “The shadows should be more prominent to articulate my visual language that the development is a bad thing.”  I will pay attention to the visual language as I progress and begin to edit and curate final products in accordance with the story as it reveals itself over time.  I refuse to enter the project with an a priori judgement of the consequences of the development and prefer to be as much as possible a neutral observer documenting the changes over time.  There are questions to be answered that can only be answered by carefully observing and assessing over a period of months and years.

Liz Wells writes in her book Land Matters (Wells, 2011) “Landscape is a social product; particular landscapes tell us something about cultural histories and attitudes.  Landscape results from human intervention to shape or transform natural phenomena, of which we are simultaneously a part.  A basic useful definition of landscape thus would be vistas encompassing both nature and the changes that humans have effected on the natural world. But in considering human agency in relation to land and landscape we also need to bear in mind that, biologically we are integral within the ecosystem”.  “Suffice it to note that our relation to the environment in which we find ourselves, and of which we form a part, is multiply constituted: the real, perceptions of the real, the imaginary, the symbolic, memory and experience, form a complex tapestry at the heart of our response to our environment, and, by extension, to landscape imagery”.

My plan, and hope, is to impartially observe and document the “landscaping” of this particular environment and to both parse and weave the multiple constituents described above into a meaningful set of imagery.

 

WEBB, R., BOYER, D. and TURNER, R., 2010. Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences. Washington, DC: Island Press.

WELLS, L., 2011. Land matters: landscape photography, culture and identity. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris.

19 Sutherland Bridges: A nod to Ed Ruscha

As an optional project prior to beginning the Surfaces and Strategies module we were invited to examine the works of Ed Ruscha and create a project inspired by his body of work.  I chose Ruscha’s  26 Gas Stations as my inspiration and while Ruscha stated neither his photography or his subject matter were very interesting, this work, considered the first artist’s book (Drucker, 2004), had a profound influence on the future of photographic presentation.  So while I maintained Ruscha’s minimalist approach to my book, I wanted my photographs and subject matter to be interesting.  Whether I have succeeded or not is a matter for the reader to decide.

There are other comparisons that can be made between 26 Gas Stations and 19 Sutherland Bridges.  In Ruscha’s case the photographs would have been familiar to anyone who traveled Route 66 in the late 1950s and early 1960s and might have inspired a sense of nostalgia or even a bit of “hey, I have been there” sort of pride at seeing familiar places in a book.  For residents and some visitors to the Highlands of Scotland many of the bridges I have chosen are iconic in their own way and are thoroughfares on which many have passed in their day to day or holiday travels.  At the same time they are photographed from a viewpoint that may not be familiar to those only travelling over the bridges and so may reveal something new to a location that is otherwise so familiar.  Like Ruscha, there is a single photograph that spans two pages; his the Union gas station in Needles, California and mine the Dornoch Firth Bridge, the longest in Sutherland. Like Ruscha, my work is absent people in the photographs and contains only names and locations in the captions.

I have sent the book off to be printed and it has yet to arrive.  Below is the link to the PDF version of the book.  It is best viewed in the 2 page view in Adobe Acrobat or Reader so when viewing it on the web page, realize the photos are meant to be on the left hand page and the captions on the right after the first photo inside which spans 2 pages as it will display as individual pages after the front and rear cover.  It takes a wee while to load so please be patient.

19 Sutherland Bridges

 

References:

The Century of Artist’s Books, Drucker, Granary, 2004 p11