I have taken time to digest the feedback received on the assignments submitted for the Sustainable Prospects module. I confess to being as disappointed with the quality of the feedback as I was with the course material and its presentation during the module.
I recognise that at some point more definitive information on details of exhibitions and books will need to be developed and it is not as though I have given those topics no thought. It is early in my view to begin to make definite plans as there is much yet unknown about the eventual outcome of the project I have been pursuing and furthermore the likelihood of this project being the subject of my FMP is diminishing with every passing day due to the delays on the development decision. The OP was limited to 10 minutes and there were any more topics that also needed to be (and were) covered. This topic could well have consumed a substantial portion of the 10 minutes if it was to be addressed in the detail suggested in the feedback and I took a decision to address all of the requirements with the balance being directed at other areas. Perhaps I should have discussed the topic more thoroughly in my CRJ and I will accept that critique, however, it seems odd then that it should have been raised in the OP feedback. I do not know what to do with a comment like this: We do feel there is still room for exploring a more creative approach to this project as you move forward – do look to expand your ideas and think a little outside the box and see where it takes you. My approach the project has evolved quite significantly since its beginnings as a purely natural history and repeat photography project in its original inception. I think I have shown both a willingness to adapt and take new directions and I certainly see that vector continuing. Cliched comments such as “think out of the box” are neither informative or constructive. Specifically, what box have I been in? How is my thinking limited? Perhaps looking at feedback in the other assignments provides a clue.
I agree the project has potentially greater significance as an example of competing imperatives. I have had that in mind from the outset and have spoken and written of it. It is not yet at that point and I am not willing to compromise my independence at this point to make the case for one side or the other. I have approached the work with an eye toward the ability to tell the story from different perspectives further down the line as the story and its significance develops. But the comment of potentially broader significance is not lost on me. The comment: “Perhaps you may explore more how you might introduce community to your work on landscape and wildlife.” strikes me as a desire to impose the tutor’s version of the story. I have discussed at length how I do not wish to do a different version of Sophie Gerrard’s, The Dunes in the north of Scotland. I am passionate about the place, not the people who may be associated with the story and therefor that is not the story I wish to tell.
And that then leads me to the recommendations made of other photographer’s work. First let me address Burtynsky. I wrote in my CRJ and made direct reference to his work as a key influencer in my OP. To have included him in the list of recommendations implies my OP and CRJ were not read or considered. Sternfeld’s work, rather than exploring the Anthropocene as was suggested, reminded me of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” and I can find no relevance to my work. Bialbowski’s work explored urban environments and while one might argue that as an exploration of the Anthropocene, they were more travel and social documentary in character.
The other three recommendations were photographers whose work was exploring community. I found the work of Pannack, Davey and Mitchell all to be fundamentally environmental portraiture and that of Davey and Mitchell to be oriented predominantly toward family and personal subjects. Pannack’s work explored a few topics, but only the Naturists project even remotely seemed to address community as I understand the term. I could again find little relevance to my work, nor could I take constructive lessons from reviewing their work.
I honestly feel once again this is an attempt to force my work in a particular direction that is consistent with the tastes of the tutors and which suits their sensibilities with regard to contemporary photography. I undertook this course to find my own voice and I certainly recognise I may well need guidance to find that voice, but I object to attempts to homogenise me into someone else’s view of what contemporary photography is or should be.
You also comment on the local nature of your issue and therefore conclude that it will have a rather small audience – we could encourage you to reflect more on the fact that this is a local matter but it reflects a greater one – a global issue of environmental protection, local community, rural landscape and the balance between man and nature, this is far from a local issue when you step back – it’s a fundamental and universal one. We feel with more thought put into contextualising your work and presenting it you may further explore these universal themes and make them prominent in your work. You may enjoy looking at the work of Joel sternfeld, Peter Bialobrezki, Ed Burtynski – who all explore the greater impact of the anthroposcene – and then to look closer to those photographers who explore community – such as Lauara Pannack, Sian Davey, Margaret Mitchell. Perhaps you may explore more how you might introduce community to your work on landscape and wildlife.
You identify your audience and address the concept of a book and also an exhibition. You would benefit from exploring further how the book would be made, how it would be designed, who you would be pitching it to and where it might be published. You might work to expand on this – and explore how you can take this from the local audience you describe to a larger one. Also in terms of presentation in an exhibition – more thought and exploration and research would be beneficial to you here. We do feel there is still room for exploring a more creative approach to this project as you move forward – do look to expand your ideas and think a little outside the box and see where it takes you. Best of luck with this project!
It would be interesting and useful to hear more on your reflections of your own work – you do include it but more would be helpful as you move forward. Your CRJ reflects well on your progress through this module, both in terms of process but also in terms of theoretical approach and metaphorical exploration of your subject.
At the outset of this course of study, I was not sure how to categorise myself as a photographer or where my practice fit. I entered the course on the basis of my wildlife work, which while important to me, didn’t fully represent either who I was nor who I wanted to be as a photographer. After three terms, I can say with confidence that I am a documentary photographer whose practice is based out of doors. My subject matter generally ranges between wildlife and natural history, landscape (natural and cultural), and human activities relating to animals or the outdoors and sport. These all derive from my fundamental intent as a photographer to use my camera as a tool to capture things I see and find of interest, and to be able to share them with others who may not have had the opportunity to see those things, or for whom those things were otherwise unseen or unnoticed.
Below are examples of the range of work I do, have done and will likely continue to do. They all represent examples of things I find of great interest and to which I am drawn as they are representations of a my and others passions for excitement, adventure, and the beauty of the natural world.
While I always endeavour to make visually interesting and aesthetically pleasing photographs, I do not consider myself a ‘fine art’ photographer and instead hope to render what I see as realistically as I can because I believe there is more than enough inherent interest and beauty in the world around us and that additional manipulations and contrivances are not necessary. It is very much for me, first and foremost, about ‘the thing itself’.
My MA Project work is centred on a piece of land on the northeast coast of Scotland called Coul Links. I have chosen this particular project because it encompasses the range of subjects I described above as my primary interests. It is a dynamic natural environment that changes visibly and often dramatically in response to seasons and natural cycles. It is wild, but not pristine. It is protected by national and international designations and is home to some rare species of flora and fauna yet has been unmanaged for years and is being encroached upon by invasive species. It occupies the liminal space between the North Sea and the moorlands and as a low-lying coastal area could well see dramatic effects as result of the current trend of climate change. It has in the past, and in the present, hosted varied human activities and there is a current proposal to construct a golf course on part of the site. The balance between environmental concerns and the economic needs of the Northeast of Scotland have sparked controversy. These tensions, natural and anthropogenic, make this an interesting story. How this story will play out is yet to be determined as the final decision on the development has been delayed by nearly a year and the final stages of the Scottish Government formal enquiry will commence in late February 2019.
My thinking and approach to this project have evolved significantly over the past year. I have, however, remained constant in my attempt to take as neutral an approach as possible to the work and to not take public positions that favour one side or the other. There are fair arguments to be made on both sides and while there have been many instances of hyperbole and even some nastiness in the course of the debate by proponents of each side, the ultimate decision will be made on which side is able to present a more credible scientific argument and how that balances against the economic side of the equation for the communities which stand to benefit.
When I began, I approached the project from a purely natural history perspective and saw it primarily as a repeat photography project that would also document the flora and fauna that inhabited the site. Because of my foreknowledge of possible anthropogenic changes to the site, I also had the opportunity to ultimately present the work in a ‘Before and After’ context if the development did go ahead. The year of delay in approving the development and the remaining uncertainty as to whether that approval will be granted has also resulted in the certainty that the development would not be completed before the end of my MA course. So, while this remains a potential long-term project for me it may not be the subject of my FMP or at least not in the form originally envisioned. Additionally, as I moved through the months, I began to realize the limited appeal a predominantly scientific approach to this project was likely to have.
Coul Links North April 2018
Coul Links North June 2018
Coul Links North October 2018
Coul Links North December 2018
Shifting my editorial perspective to take one side or the other would have been a potential solution to framing a more compelling story, but I am of the opinion there may not be a ‘right’ answer and regardless which way the decision falls there will be costs and consequences, some of which may not be recognized for years. While there was science behind some of the debate, it is fair to say that a lot discussion was emotional especially on the side of those against the development. It began to become more apparent to me that the heart of the controversy about Coul Links was a fundamental difference in opinion about how that land should be used in the future and whether a place that already accommodated centuries of different uses by humans could continue to be used as it is today while accommodating one more new use. Consequently, I began to look more closely at and photograph how the land was currently be used by humans and the non-human species that inhabited Coul Links. I choose to photograph people in the landscape in much the same way I photograph wildlife; from a distance. While I do use very long lenses for much of the wildlife work in order to bring out detail, I decided after some experimentation with closer environmental portraits to maintain my stand off from people and instead try to show their activities in the context of the landscape around them.
Through the course I have experimented with different ways to capture aspects of the story that is evolving. I did some ‘supermacro’ work which is technically superb, but got quite consistently panned by tutors as being ‘out of context’.
I also experimented with ways of conveying how the land at Coul Links might have been used in the past as a means of foreshadowing its possible future and while the desaturated versions did work to a degree the attempts to create a ghost like appearance of the golfer were pretty abject failures.
With the development decision by the Scottish Government due to be made in the next few months, I believe my work will require another incremental evolution. Depending on the decision, the project will either become study of a place over time and how it moves through the seasons and years in response to the forces of nature or will set about to document what impacts the building of a golf course have on the place and how it adapts to anthropogenic alterations. The former, could be comparatively shorter term and could be packaged to suit an FMP, while the latter would fall outside the MA timeframe and would necessarily be a longer-term project not suited to an FMP.
Evolution as a Photographer
The technical and artistic aspects of my work have evolved, and both qualities have improved markedly. I find I am shooting fewer frames, getting a higher keep rate from those frames and doing less post processing. In my landscape work I have been doing more work with ND filters and using longer exposures. I am taking more control of my process, being more deliberate in the way I approach my work, and I am taking more control of the camera by shooting much more in manual mode instead of Aperture or Shutter priority modes. Because my project’s intent was principally about a place over time, almost all the landscape work was shot with a clear sense of place evident in every frame. Of late I have also found value in photographs that do not necessarily convey an exactness or certainty of place, but rather more of an emotional rendering of place. Eliminating tell-tale landmarks or working in a tighter frame allows the photo to carry more universality at times and convey the simple beauty or the detail within the frame. It complements the more contextualised work on one hand and can stand alone on the other.
Some examples from my work where the place is made more universal by excluding from the frame elements that could identify its actual location.
Rising Mist Nov 2018
Inspirations and Contextualisation
Edward Burtynsky’s work has become a key benchmark for me. He has spent more than 30 years focusing his work on how human activity has impacted the natural environment. What is perhaps most striking about Burtynsky’s work is the aesthetic beauty he achieves in his depictions of scenes of shocking environmental abuse that comes with industrialisation and exploitation of natural resources.
In Burtynsky’s book Manufactured Landscapes, an included essay by Kenneth Baker titled “Form versus Portent” elaborates on this and on Burtynsky’s positioning as a photographer.
“Aesthetics and conscience collide in photography as nowhere else in contemporary art. Edward Burtynsky’s work owes some of its power to his fearless embrace of this fact. More often than not, we find the beauty and the meaning of images to be in conflict. Burtynsky continually celebrates the beauty possible in photographs: richness of detail and colour, amazing chance felicities of framing and natural light, the opportunity to freeze and share moments of ecstatic observation. Yet his subjects, the sites and equipment of heavy industry, are in almost constant connotative conflict with his work’s aesthetic elegance. Is he an apologist for the industrial order and its new face, globalization? Is he a documentarian, a pictorial epicure, an ironist? Burtynsky’s refusal to stand fast in any of these positions explains the improbable emotional authority of his art.”
As I mentioned above, I find it uncomfortable to be too pigeon-holed into one taxonomic category of photography beyond the broad description of documentarian which is more a reference to style than specific content. Also, like Burtynsky, I spoke of trying to capture what I see as faithfully as my equipment and skill as a photographer will allow without excessive post processing manipulations of the images. In the same essay, Baker notes:
“From abstract painting, we have learned to admire the bold, simple surface design we find in Burtynsky’s Nickel Tailings #34. But such enjoyments depend on our not thinking too hard about a bright orange river as a chemical and ecological reality: we know intuitively that in nature a river of this colour must spell trouble. We might suppress this thought momentarily by wondering whether Burtynsky has somehow re-tuned his picture’s colour through some trick of digital or darkroom magic. But in the deep view a retrospective exhibition provides, we can see clearly that he is not given to aesthetic manipulations for their own sake, nor even for emotional effect… Burtynsky wants us to experience the shock of seeing as a fact a bright orange stream flowing through a leafless landscape, and to notice our own resistance to digesting this information… His pictures are unarguably striking and thoughtful enough to warrant description as art. But does appreciating, or merely accepting photographs as art preclude being stirred to action by them for, say, a conservationist cause?”
Mere categorisation as art certainly does not remove a photograph from the possibility of being useful in some greater good. In fact, one might argue that because it garners attention through its inherent beauty it has potentially more power to influence. Burtynsky is a master at achieving that tension that so distinguishes his work. It forces us as viewers to ask the question, ‘How can something so beautiful come from something so horrific, or perhaps how can something so horrific be so beautiful?’. It forces us to face the questions of ‘What costs are acceptable?’ and ‘Is progress truly progress, or is it really the planet’s and civilisation’s death by a thousand cuts?’ While the controversy associated with my project is around a recreational use of a landscape, there are parallels to Burtynsky’s work and the questions that are raised. What are appropriate land uses? Does one group have more rights than another to enjoyment of open space? Is a balance between economic interests of a community or region and environmental concerns possible? Are people clever enough to develop carefully and selectively to preserve and enhance natural heritage while expanding opportunities for people to use the land?
From the same Baker essay, he notes:
“Once we have confronted the foreboding and helplessness that arise from thinking about the reality of a deadly orange river, for example, or the tundra of toxic sludge in Uranium Tailings, or the unstoppable drive tracked in the ‘Railcuts’, we recognize restraint as the true mark of Burtynsky’s art. How easily he could have turned didactic, considering the themes he takes on: humanity’s heedless treatment of the earth, photography’s potential complicity in narcotizing society’s uncomfortable self-awareness, the conflict of irreconcilable values as an inescapable human condition. Yet he trusts his art to work upon us, and us to respond appropriately, without being told what that might mean.”
Baker is suggesting there is power in photography to influence societal behaviour and that it can be achieved without necessarily being overt in its intention. I aspire to explore the questions I posed above and like Burtynsky, perhaps create work that is strong enough to take viewers on that journey of discovery with me.
In an interview with Michael Torosian also published in Manufactured Landscapes, Edward Burtynsky addressed a question about how he came to one of his favourite mantras while studying at university.
“Winogrand stated that he felt an image succeeded when form and content were on an equal footing – one did not dominate the other. In photography if you go too far one way it becomes reportage, too far the other way it just becomes a formalist exercise. I found this dictum to be a really useful tool. It was clear and concise, and it made sense. It gave me an orientation not just for approaching my work, but any work. I started to look at art as a balance. Can the artist put an image together? That is the form side. What is he talking about, what position is he coming from, what are the ideas at work here? That is the content side. And when those things are equally interesting, I find you have a lot more substance in the image. They play off each other.”
It seems to me Burtynsky is saying while what one photographs is important and the overall theme of his work is his departure point, that it is the how that theme is captured that is the artistic element, and when one is able to get the composition to be as strong as the content the photograph has more weight. Achieving the correct composition is a matter of perspective, positioning, but most importantly ‘seeing’; something Burtynsky describes as the
“essential element, something he would see which only occurs from one spot, from one height, with one particular lens. If I walk two paces back, there is nothing there. If I walk two paces forward, there’s nothing there. The essential element is in that one spot. It might be the coincidence of a thousand twigs creating something as simple as a wave pattern or a vortex, a form only discernible at that particular moment, at that particular point of view, under that particular light and time of year.”
Another technique Burtynsky uses to good advantage is elevation. He seeks out high ground and when that is not available, shoots using a tall mast, drones, or helicopters. I have found in my MA project work that generally elevated perspectives are essential to capturing a sense of the landscape. I regularly use the highest points of elevation around the 800 hectare plot and have been using a drone on a fixed 42 waypoint mission profile to survey the site on a monthly basis.
Mark Haworth-Booth in his essay, Edward Burtynsky: Traditions and Affinities, which is also included in Manufactured Landscapes, refers to the 18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke’s views on the differences between the sublime and the beautiful. Burke suggested both the beautiful and the sublime stir emotion, but while beauty stimulates emotion in a pleasant way, the sublime is associated with vastness at the limits of comprehension and terror.
I would argue that Burtynsky’s work strikes the viewer on both these levels. At first glance, Burtynsky’s landscapes are beautiful; well lit, well composed, rich in colour and texture, and because of the frequent use of elevated perspectives and no horizon they often take on a degree of abstraction. Only after being able to work through the abstraction on one’s own, or with the help of a caption or some other explanation of what one is looking at does the sublime of Burke’s definition kick in. The realisation of the vastness of the environmental impact caused by humans and the effluent and scars that result is indeed terrifying. It should stir strong emotional reactions and make us realise the price being paid for the “progress” mankind has achieved in the past two centuries.
The Anthropocene Project
The second body of visual work I intend to discuss is The Anthropocene Project which is another project led by Edward Burtynsky and in collaboration with film makers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. It is a massive 5 year project that covered the globe to look for evidence in support of a theory put forth by geologists that we have left the 11,700 year old Holocene epoch which began when the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded and entered an age where human activity is now the defining geological force on the planet, the Anthropocene epoch. “Terraforming of the earth through mining, urbanization, industrialization and agriculture; the proliferation of dams and diverting of waterways; CO2 and acidification of oceans due to climate change; the pervasive presence around the globe of plastics, concrete, and other technofossils; unprecedented rates of deforestation and extinction: these human incursions, they argue, are so massive in scope that they have already entered, and will endure in, geological time.”
Murray Whyte, Visual Arts Critic for the Toronto Star, in a 30 September 2018 review writes:
“That built-in sense of feeling tiny and insignificant in the face of nature’s grandeur has been turned thoroughly upside-down. As the scene makes clear, the dominant force shaping the planet at is most colossal scale is now us… For some 30 years, Burtynsky’s images of the ravages of industry, taken from afar, have highlighted the dizzying disconnect of our industrious species’ ability to transform things far beyond our own scale, like a colony of ants gnawing an ancient tree to dust…Burtynsky’s pictures have always held a terrible beauty. His compositions veer close to the abstract in their capturing of horrendous damage: the shimmering purple-blue of an oil-slicked tailing pond, pooled in the golden earth of an Arizona mine, or the silvery plume of phosphor tailings ballooning into bronze-coloured water in Florida. They’re gorgeous first, horrendous later, and that’s surely the point.”
Burtynsky’s work over the past 30 years has always attempted to walk the fine line of making a visual impact without being overtly didactic or polemic. He wanted the viewer to come to their own conclusions. This is a choice I made at the outset of my Coul Links project and one which I have maintained despite strong urgings by some tutors to force me to a point of view. I believe complex issues rarely have clear black or white, right or wrong answers. They are inevitably shrouded in shades of grey and which shade of grey, which view of right or wrong is largely a matter of the viewer’s perspective. In Burtynsky’s work, a viewer with an environmentalist’s perspective will see the work one way while someone with an industrialist’s perspective would likely see it another way. It is in the end not necessarily a question of right or wrong, but one of delicate balance. It is the same in my project and I believe the longer I can maintain the neutral perspective, showing as much as possible an objective perspective, the more weight my work can carry. This not an easy task however, as Whyte notes in his interview with de Pencier and Baichwal having observed that it was in the inclusion of moving images in addition to Burtynsky’s still images that the view may have changed.
“In motion, the balance can fall the other way.
‘Someone called us the three horsemen of the apocalypse,’ said de Pencier, a little glumly. ‘I really hope that’s not the case. But we can’t claim neutrality anymore. We used to say this is not a polemic, and you can draw your own conclusions—’
‘It’s still not a polemic,’ says Baichwal, interrupting, maybe a little defensive. Baichwal and de Pencier had made a first film about Burtynsky, not with him, in 2006. It was called Manufactured Landscapes, after the artist’s National Gallery show, and it adopted his ambivalent approach.
“Because (the film) was so non-didactic and experiential, it had this enormous impact around the world — it surprised all of us. We realized that experiential approach had a place — especially in an environmentalist’s world which is often polemic and preaches to a choir.”
This, I believe make an interesting and quite relevant point. Photography, like diplomacy, has the power to influence, to change hearts and minds. It is perhaps less likely to be successful if it is so overtly in the viewer’s face so as to scream, ‘your current point of view is wrong’ because most will become defensive and further retrench in their already held positions. So, like effective diplomacy, a more measured and subtle approach that looks for common ground and moves people to come to their own conclusions maybe is more effective in the end.
In the Dec 2018-Feb 2019 issue of Photo Review magazine, Nicholas de Pencier is quoted supporting this point;
“We all believe that this is the important issue of our day. It’s actually a crisis. If you engage in the environmental rant, I think people turn off. But if you open up a place for discourse, for understanding – through photographs, through things that are open to a personal interpretation, hopefully that’s a more profound transformative experience.”
In an article in Hyperallergenic on December 4, 2018 author Lev Feigin wrote:
“If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end,” wrote the novelist W.G. Sebald in Rings of Saturn. From the window of a plane above an urban sprawl, we witness among geometries of rooftops, factories, and highways “infinite networks of complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine.”
“Photographing such complex, large-scale networks from the air has been the career-spanning pursuit of the Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky. For more than three decades, his work has focused on the impact of human activity on the environment from a God’s-eye view, prompting us to think about our species, our purpose, and our end.”
Burtynsky uses drones, camera masts, and helicopters to achieve the bird’s eye perspectives that make his work so striking and at to a lesser extent somewhat abstract initially. I have also found in my work that a drone is invaluable for its ability to cover the large site on which I am working and for the massive advantage the elevated perspective provides in depicting the character of the land as it changes through both the seasons and in response to anthropogenic activity.
Feigin also comments on the scale of Burtynsky’s photos in exhibition and how in contrast to Cartier-Bresson’s notion of a decisive moment Burtynsky’s are different.
“These immense image composites are not about “decisive moments” — split-seconds when the universe arranges itself into a perfect shot. The “now” of each photograph is not about the captured instant, since humankind’s destructive activity never pauses. Instead, it’s about intuiting the future from our present gaze: the landscape’s inevitable demise promised by our inaction.
Burtynsky’s photographs are glimpses into the vastness of industrial and technological systems of global capitalism that elicit both awe and unease; they can feel like encounters with the postmodern sublime. The Anthropocene Project — with its encyclopaedic reach and factual rigor — transmutes the unsettling, otherworldly appeal of his aesthetic into ecological conscience and a grave call for change.”
The type of work Burtynsky produces requires great planning and patience, and technical expertise and excellence. I understood the need for planning, patience and persistence explicitly from my wildlife work, but I don’t think I fully appreciated how true those same factors are for landscape photography as well. This past year has taught me much and these are among the most important lessons.
In the 26 September 2018 issue of Now Magazine, author Keven Ritchie’s article ‘Anthropocene reveals the scale of Earth’s existential crisis’ he makes a very relevant observation that bears also on my project.
“Getting audiences to grasp the existential implications of climate change – one of the topics covered in the film, along with technofossils (congealed human-made materials), terraforming (altering the atmosphere)* and species extinction – is a challenge many documentary filmmakers have taken up. It’s often dismissed as a “ratings killer,” but environmental journalists have countered it’s not the topic that’s unpopular but the way it is presented.”*[should be altering the Earth’s surface]
“We are trying to take people to places they are connected to but would never normally see,” says Baichwal. “To convey the scale of [human] impact by going to these places and witnessing rather than preaching.”
I will need to continue to be mindful about how my work will ultimately be presented and that requires considering what and how I capture work along the way. It reinforces my belief that I should continue with the ‘objective’ neutral observer approach and not adopt a pro or con point of view. That may become necessary after the fact when the true outcomes of the development (if it occurs) are known, but that is a matter for editing and curation and my capture plan should support a variety of outcomes. In my project, Coul Links is a place to which many people are connected, but which few have really seen other than from the margins. My work has already begun to show people Coul Links in ways they never had seen before. Even one woman who with her husband lived on and managed Coul Farm for 25 years was quite astounded when she saw the aerial videos of Coul Links.
The third body of work I wish to discuss is that of German photographer Axel Hütte. As with Burtynsky, I have found Hütte’s work inspirational and instructive despite how different the work they each create is. In an interview with Camilla Boemio titled ‘A Dynamically Sublime’ and published in Landscape Stories, Hütte talks about his work. When asked why he focuses on a particular topic he responded;
“To focus on a topic is a method of working to avoid the kaleidoscopic idea that everything is possible, and everything works as an image. This is only correct if you are working on the topic of banality. Working on a topic means that you look sometimes up to 500 possibilities, but you only choose one or two views for a photo. Selection is only possible by experience – learning by doing- but sometimes you fail, and the image is not as good as you have thought as your eyes look different than the camera lens.”
I have to agree with the point that practice is essential and can note with certainty that the quality of my work has improved in the past year as I have mentioned earlier in this essay. Hütte also speaks to what I think David Hurn was referring to when Hurn said “too many photographers look but do not see.” Hütte’s comment about one’s eyes looking differently than the camera lens strikes me as part of what distinguishes a really good photographer from a mediocre one; the ability to see a scene as the camera will see it and this is not an easy thing. Our eyes are extraordinary instruments that see like a fish-eye lens and telephoto simultaneously. To control the at vision and imagine how the completely different field of view afforded by the camera and lens selection is key to getting consistently good photographs.
When asked about what characterises his landscape work, Hütte replied;
“In my landscape work I am working with the emptiness, avoiding any signs of civilisation or narrative indication, so in best case you are lost in time and space. It is always difficult to reconstruct the point of view, where precisely the camera had been placed and sometimes like in the water reflection even the landscape seems to be drowned. Irritation of the perception and awakening the fantasy or imagination of the beholder is my aim, as whatever you see is not produced by digital technique and It is not leading into a virtual world but the fantasmi- phantasm of reality you can discover yourself.”
In this aspect, Hütte’s work is in stark contrast to Burtynsky’s. While much of Burtynsky’s work is also absent humans, the marks of their activity are unmistakeable and very much the focus of Burtynsky’s work. Where Burtynsky is seeking the sublime, Hütte is seeking the beautiful. Interestingly, Hütte was asked about his interpretation of the sublime.
“To follow the track of the sublime one should have in mind the statement of Lawrence Weiner “Turned as the world turns.” Edmund Burke wrote his “Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” 1757, (and) only seven years Immanuel Kant wrote “Kritik der Urteilskraft.” For Burke the sublime is linked to fear and fright caused by darkness, obscurity, vastness, gigantic, eternity or certain colours as e.g. black. Sometimes this horror is tamed e.g. in art, and then he speaks of “delightful horror.” Kant also describes the sublime as a feeling caused by the encounter and confrontation of large and over powerful nature. Limitless ocean, huge mountains, lightning flashes, drums of thunder, all this natural phenomena appear beyond all measure and the synthesizing power of imagination is led to its limitations. But thanks to “reason” human beings have a tool to encounter those phenomena. Barnett Newmans essay “The sublime is now” brings up a new frame of reference to the sublime. It is not linked to the experience of overwhelming nature, but to the confrontation standing in front of a large monochrome painting, that leads to a breakdown of form synthesis. Thus creating the experience of something “unrepresentable / inconsummatable.” This short summary indicates the change of meaning, as the references have changed.”
As this interview was originally in Italian and the photographer is German, there are some issues with the translation in the above. But Hütte does correctly take us through the evolution of the understanding of the term ‘sublime’ and in the end argues in favour of his work falling into that category by the latest definitions. I think though that this interpretation of sublime does not stand against the prior statements by Hütte in which he claimed to seeking emptiness, pure beauty, and ambiguity that must be resolved by the viewer and which is intended to stimulate the imagination. I don’t see Hütte attempting to capture the unrepresentable, but rather he captures scenes to which most of us can relate in some way through our own experiences and he thereby creates a universality that is independent of the actual place and time the photo was taken. He creates scenes, whether urban or rural, which are absent people and into which we can each place ourselves. It is very much like the guidance estate agents in the U.S. give their clients when preparing a house for sale. They ask the client to remove clutter and all personal artefacts so that when a potential buyer visits the property, they imagine their own things in that space.
In the introduction and biographical section of works by Axel Hütte for an exhibition at the Deutsche Bourse Photography Foundation the following paragraphs were written. I find quite interesting the distinction they make between nature and landscape, and as importantly how the perceptions of humans have altered over the centuries and what motivates humans to seek unspoiled places. It is perhaps here where the essential difference between Hütte’s landscapes and Burtynsky’s are most evident. Burtynsky’s leave room for the viewer to become aware of the destruction mankind leaves in the wake of progress while Hütte provides the escape for those who have already come to the realisation or those who refuse to see acknowledge it.
“Heaven, earth, water, and forests are the natural ingredients in Axel Hütte’s landscapes. The photographs stage a subtle play on the difference between nature and landscape. Here, ‘nature’ is the physical world which surrounds us while ‘landscape’ is nature as it appears to the observer.
Nature has always been the subject of participatory interest, and man’s view of it is as ever subjective. Arcadia, for example, is a region in Greece you could visit – and likewise a spiritual landscape in which the earth is more fertile, the sky brighter, and life full of milk and honey. How nature appears to man – be it georgic, heroic, pleasant or fearful – depends on his own sorrow or yearning informing his gaze. As civilization advances, our vision has become more sentimental. As inner harmony became lost, people have sought an environment that was intact. A wider horizon and a view of unspoiled places which manifest no evidence of the destructive hand of man promise flight from urban claustrophobia.
Axel Hütte’s photographs are void of people: man has no place in these barren landscapes. They follow the concept of ‘soulscapes’ – an integral notion in European culture. But the artist’s vision is not satisfied with the level of the figurative, for he elects to show us geometrical structures: a dune formation that dissolves into horizontal lines, a bamboo forest in which the vertical thrust predominates, treetops that appear as abstract surfaces. Axel Hütte’s landscapes are not snapshots, but meticulous compositions and their beauty, too, lies in the eye of the beholder.”
I have often said and continue to hold firm to the idea that every photograph is uniquely viewed. It is impossible to divorce the experiences and education of any individual that form the bases for their personal versions of objectivity and subjectivity. Every photograph is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder.
In a 1996 review by Katerina Gregos published in Zing Magazine of a series of photographs taken in Greece and exhibited at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery in Athens, the author provides yet more insight into the work of Axel Hütte. There is a great deal to unpack in this review.
“Hütte’s work is based on a strict visual language which is optically accurate and evidently neutral. Devoid of narrative and overt sentimentality, it seems to adhere to an ideal of photographic “objectivity” and veracity. His series of photographs of the untamed Greek landscape are not prone to “artistic” editing, but rendered in a sincere straightforward manner that perfectly capture the precise physicality of the location depicted. Hütte’s vision is one of precision and clarity. He approaches his subjects with a disciplined restraint that truthfulness of representation is never prone to doubt. In addition, he responds to the landscape with an unflinching respect for its morphological identity.
Hütte’s is a sober reconstruction of the world based on rigorous organizing principles and a systematic approach to image-making, that transcends questions of taste. All details in the picture space are rendered with alarming equality meaning that no part of it appears more important than another, even features that recede and gradually dissolve into the background.
Hütte comes from a country with an influential tradition in radical naturalism. Similar to much of German romantic landscape painting, his photographs rely on the use of compositional and structural devices to create an intense atmosphere that evokes feelings such as solitude and loneliness. His vast expanses of space in the natural environment possess the meditative quality and air of detachment so typical of 19th century German landscape painting, and recall the concerns of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. Yet at the same time, Hütte’s unmediated observation is reminiscent of the quasi-scientific objectivity that also characterizes the German naturalist tradition. His direct rendering of the landscape avoids the trappings of emotional excess and entirely refutes the self-conscious pathos of the romantic tradition. Furthermore, the absence of anecdote and narration creates a neutral pictorial space that encourages a sense of individual empathy. One may have never actually visited any of his locations, but they do appear peculiarly familiar.
Within the landscape, itself, however, it is the point of view chosen that is of primary importance, as it is that through which the viewer is prompted to “enter” the scene. Because there is no story told, there is no directed way of receiving the photographs; people can wander freely in the landscape and interpret it according to their own sensibility. By choosing uncomplicated yet dramatic vistas, Hütte also places an emphasis on the sublime value of the landscape, itself, and its inherent ability to stir the emotions and evoke feelings of awe.
Moreover, what is most remarkable in Hütte’s work is that despite the lack of photographic effects, the systematic composition of each picture, and the sparseness and economy of his language, his landscapes manage to transcend the mundane. Despite his matter-of-fact pragmatism, Hütte’s images possess that sense of metaphysical realism that overwhelms the viewer. This is also emphasized by the fact that he abstains from including people, and, thus, not only avoids the trappings of overt narrative, but also manages to eliminate any sense of time and any sense of decay.
Hütte’s capacity for understatement is what enables him to capture the essence of his subjects. His strength lies in his refusal to impose a forced aesthetic, or to provide a comforting sense of the picturesque. Above all, he never denies the landscape its integrity. Refraining from nostalgic cliche or sentimental narrative, he is prone neither to idealizing, nor to romanticizing the landscape. He does not allow himself any excesses except that which the character of the landscape allows. Yet his images possess a discreet meditative charm and, at the same time, retain that quality which Kant has termed the ‘dynamically sublime’.”
Gregos described Hütte’s work as “optically accurate and evidently neutral. Devoid of narrative and overt sentimentality, it seems to adhere to an ideal of photographic “objectivity” and veracity.” This is a place where there is perfect convergence between the works of Burtynsky and Hütte and it is this space I wish to occupy. Another striking similarity between the two is reflected in this observation: “All details in the picture space are rendered with alarming equality meaning that no part of it appears more important than another, even features that recede and gradually dissolve into the background.”
However, distinctions between Burtynsky and Hütte are evident in the following: “… the absence of anecdote and narration creates a neutral pictorial space that encourages a sense of individual empathy. One may have never actually visited any of his locations, but they do appear peculiarly familiar. Hütte’s work has that universality inherent in the sense of déjà vu he creates, while Burtynsky depicts places that few have been, and which are shockingly unfamiliar. Both are effective though and I believe there is a place for both approaches in my work. Another interesting point is illustrated by Gregos with this observation about Hütte: “Within the landscape, itself, however, it is the point of view chosen that is of primary importance, as it is that through which the viewer is prompted to “enter” the scene.” Here again I see a distinction and a similarity because Hütte varies his point of view markedly from photograph to photograph and he uses high, low and mid perspectives as the situation dictates while Burtynsky is very consistent in his use of elevated perspectives with minimal to no horizon, yet both leave the viewer with no ambiguity as to where they are to enter the scene.
Axel Hütte High Perspective
Axel Hütte Low Perspective
Above are three examples of how Hütte chooses very different perspectives and how the scenes depicted are not only absent people, but also any reference to where these photos were taken and as a consequence anyone who has been to the mountains in the winter could feel they have been there.
Further Development and the Road Ahead
Through the course of this next module, I intend to continue pursing my project work at Coul Links. Since there is no chance that the development approval will be granted in time to see any work begin, I will be continuing to look at how the landscape changes in response to seasons and weather, and observe the interactions of people and wildlife with the place as I have in the past three modules.
I will continue to experiment with perspectives and points of view to capture the unique aspects of this place over time and continue the vector of pushing my skills to new levels. At the same time, I need to be looking for alternatives for the FMP. I am confident the work I have done and will do in the coming module will have informed my practice sufficiently well to allow me to transfer the acquired skills to another project which is realistically achievable in the time frame allotted to FMP. I will use some of the time during the PH702 module to investigate possibilities, do some practice shoots to help judge the viability of those possibilities, a narrow the range of possibilities to one or two viable options.
There are many landscape photographers in Scotland and there are thousands of photographs of all the iconic places. I would like to pursue subjects less well recognised and taking inspiration from both the likes of Burtynsky and Hütte find a way to capture those subjects in both the beautiful and the sublime.
BURTYNSKY, Edward, Jennifer BAICHWAL and Nicholas DE PENCIER. 2018. Anthropocene. Gottingen: Steidl.
PAULI, Lori. 2003. Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. 7th (2014. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada.
My Work in Progress (WIP) portfolio is a result of my work on the Coul Links project. The project has evolved over the last two modules and will continue to be refined as I move toward Final Major Project (FMP). A short explanation of what the project entails and where it stands now is a necessary preface to the discussion on the WIP.
Coul Links is a place in NE Scotland which the forces of nature have created over thousands of years. Like many of the links lands in the UK these forces have also described the essential elements of a golf course. Developers wish, like sculptors, to reveal the golf course that lies within Coul Links. Environmentalists have moved to block the development because of Coul Links protected status and concerns over the impacts of development on the ecology of the site. The majority of locals support the development, believing they will be able to continue to use the land as they have in the past and present and that the economic benefit the golf course will bring is essential to the surrounding area. People and wildlife have co-existed in this place for thousands of years. There is a rhythm to the place and all its inhabitants that ebbs and flows with the seasons. This project explores these relationships between place, people and wildlife as they exist now and how they might exist in the future.
For my WIP portfolio I have chosen to pursue this theme of interactions between place, people and wildlife and have selected photos accordingly. My past work was largely absent people. In this module, I experimented some this term with tighter environmental portrait work (as shown in my Oral Presentation), but in the end decided that photographing people as I would photograph wildlife, from a distance, to give context to the activity and the place was where I wanted to take the project.
The portfolio is organised into essentially three chapters with the first depicting the place and the traces of human interactions. Some are obvious, like the bench overlooking Loch Fleet and the steading at Coul Farm, while others are more subtle, like the remnants of the felled tree plantation and grazing sheep, or the power pylons in the distance. The second chapter is more explicit showing people in various activities around Coul Links that range from dog walking and bird watching, to fishing and surfing along the beach that fronts Coul Links. The third chapter shows some of the birds that are beginning to gather for the winter along the the northern perimeter of Coul Links and in Loch Fleet.
I considered initially trying to overlay thumbnails of the photos on a map or an all-encompassing panorama of Coul Links to show how, despite the expansiveness of the overall site, the bulk of the human interactions and a good deal of the wildlife encounters are at the perimeters of the site whereas the interior sees much less activity. I decided this approach might be useful in an exhibition but wasn’t as well suited to a portfolio.
The portfolio can be found in an Adobe Spark format at Ashley Rose SP_Work in Progress. Selecting any photo in each section will start a slide show with larger versions of the photos.
A PDF version of the document is also attached here, but it will only depict the groups of photos. SP WIP
Social Media: I have used Facebook for a long time mainly to keep in touch with friends and family and occasionally to feature photographic work I’d done, but as had no aspirations to making it a proper business, I never pushed that on FB. I have had an Instagram account for some time as well, but had rarely posted anything there. Despite that, I had over 50 followers when I began posting current work this week. I don’t see Instagram necessarily as the vehicle that will bring me work, but I know the added exposure and distribution of my work is a generally good thing.
I was not keen on the Viral Image task either as an on or off line exercise. I live in a very small Scottish burgh and the idea of plastering an image around town even on the few proper boards let alone across the breadth of the conservation district seemed to me to be an act of defacement that I couldn’t bring myself to, particularly since I am already well known within the town and I think it would raise more issues than benefit.
Webinar with Sophie: I had the luxury of a one on one with Sophie this week as I was the only person signed up in that slot. I sent a link to some of my current work to Sophie so we could discuss where I was and where I needed to be going. I was a very helpful discussion.
First Sophie was encouraged by the non-project specific work as she sees it as useful to training my eye as a photographer and keeping the fun in the work. She asked if I find it easier or more difficult to do project work and my reply was qualified. I have diverse interests photographically as I mentioned in an earlier post. I also find it quite easy to turn those interests, whether on an afternoon’s shoot or across a longer span of time into projects. That is something that has changed dramatically with this course. Previously I rarely saw my photographic work as anything other than the individual photographs I made. Now with almost every photograph I make I can see an outcome; how it fits or might fit into a larger body of work or end product. Each photo inspires me to bigger ideas because I always if there is one scene that captures my attention and my camera, there are more to be found.
The qualification was with respect to my MA project work which has been a bit more difficult due the circumstances associated with the planning application. I am a bit stalled on the repeat photography elements of the project since little is happening after the project was called in by the Scottish Government for additional review. On the wildlife side however, it is the beginning of the “Highland Gathering” of birds that winter on Loch Fleet and the north end of Coul Links. While it is early in the migration and only a small fraction of the birds have arrived, I have had some really successful shoots already.
Sophie then asked how I feel about photographing people and I replied that I have always been a bit uncomfortable with it, but that I had been making an effort, with some good results, at doing more; particularly outdoor environmental portraits. Sophie challenged me to set a target of 8 or 10 portraits as part of my work and as we were talking I realised how many people use the north end of Coul Links and the perimeters of Loch Fleet every day their dogs, enjoy the outdoors, or watch the birds and marine mammals that inhabit that patch of land and sea. In fact, I missed an amazing opportunity last Wednesday because right where I set up to photograph birds, a gentleman and his wife were encamped behind their estate vehicle with two chairs a wee tea table and a spotting scope. When I arrived the gent was intent on birding while the lady sat comfortably in her chair reading her Kindle. It would have been a perfect photo and because I just do not think about photographing people I missed it. At least four other people came up to me for a chat about what was out on Loch Fleet and likewise never thought about asking if I could take their photo. So lesson learned and in response to Sophie’s challenge I will be looking for those opportunities over the coming weeks.
I am re-energised about my project and really appreciated Sophie’s encouragement and advise.
For this week’s forum activity we were asked to discuss project work produced during the break by:
Introducing the topic of your project
Introducing the area of concern or your angle
Summarising work made in previous modules
Describing the intentions you had for the break
Sharing work produced during the break: three – five images is enough
The topic of my project is a unique piece of land in northeast Scotland; how it changes over time in response to both natural and human influences, and how that land is used by humans and other species. Coul Links has served many purposes over the centuries and it borders one of the most important wintering sites for a number of species of birds. It is a designated site under Scottish, UK and International law and there is a pending proposal to use relatively small portions of the land to build a golf course.
In the prior modules I began the repeat photography survey work to establish baselines and watch how the land changed through the seasons using both a drone and terrestrial methods. I have also been observing and photographing flora and fauna to get a sense what is there and how it changes through the year. Most recently I have also begun to pay more attention to the current limited human use of the land and traces of past human use.
There has been some controversy about the use of a designated site for a golf course and environmentalists have mounted campaigns (mostly based on out of area support), but the golf course project has strong local support and was approved by the Highland Council over the objections of the Planning Department. At the beginning of August just before the final approval would have been granted the project was “called in” by the Scottish Government for additional review delaying the project decision by anywhere from 6 to 18 months. As a consequence, I scaled back my direct project work during the break and used the time to work on some commissioned work some of which has direct relevance to the Coul Links project. Royal Dornoch Golf Club (full disclosure – of which I am a member) and the burgh of Dornoch lie 3 miles to the south of Coul Links. RDGC is ranked as the 4th best golf course in the entire world and number 1 in Scotland and serves as part of the reason the developers wish to build the course at Coul Links. I was asked to create a limited edition book in support of a charity event hosted by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland at RDGC in support of the Dornoch Cathedral building fund. So much of the break time involved getting the final images needed for the book and completing the design, layouts, text and publication of the book.
Below are examples of the images I made during the break.
I have no plans at this point to necessarily start a “traditional” photography business, however, I recognise that if I sell my work I am a professional photographer and I am running a business. While those statements may seem at odds, and perhaps they are to a degree, I think they are clear enough to articulate my intentions. I am 65 years old and in the enviable position of not needing to use my photographic practise to pay the bills. I have managed large organisations with multi-million $ budgets in the past and have started and owned two businesses, so I am familiar with the requirements of running a going concern.
I plan to photograph when I want to and what I want to, and I reserve to right to photograph something some one else asks me to photograph if I have the time and the interest in pursuing that work. For my personal work, I will pursue subjects and projects that interest me, and I expect the output to take the form of books and work for sale locally. I will always endeavour to produce a high standard of work, whether for personal projects or clients, that is technically and aesthetically worthy of the time and effort I invest. I will always approach my work ethically and with sensitivity towards my subjects and will never intentionally create work that is harmful or demeaning to individuals or the environment. I will use photography as a tool to express my creativity and interests, and to show others the world through my eyes if they wish to see it.
I produce photographs and books for my personal projects, and for my client work will deliver aerial or terrestrial photographic work in the format they need for their specific project. My personal project work has mostly local interest though it appeals to tourists visiting the area as well. My wildlife work, birds and macro work in particular, is strong and my North of Scotland country life regularly generates interest.
I have already one shop/gallery that is exhibiting my work for sale and have had several sales resulting from my August exhibition. Books are available online and in local shops. My market is at this point is predominantly local, however, when I move toward monetising my website I believe there will be an opportunity to sell prints further afield. Word of mouth has resulted in several new commissions.
As part of Surfaces and Strategies we were meant to put on a physical exhibition. Due to timing issues with the exhibition space, I was unable to do my exhibition until the week after assignments were submitted. Nonetheless, I did hold a physical exhibition at a local cafe where the owner was very pleased to have my work and asked that it stay on beyond the original week that was planned, and has asked to have some of my work permanently available for display and sale.
I selected work in three categories and organised the work accordingly. I chose the groupings because I wanted to not only show some of the project work on Coul Links which is a topic of interest locally, but also to show work that I suspected would appeal to the people who might view the exhibition. The section on the left showed elements of my repeat photography work and how noticeably the landscape changed with the seasons, while the section on the right introduced elements of how Coul Links is used today. The centre section was devoted primarily to macro and super macro work because I thought it would capture the interest of the viewers.
Organising how the the pieces of work were to be displayed was accomplished on the floor of a spare bedroom where I laid out and kept shifting the work until I thought it was thematically and visually cohesive and coherent. In order to facilitate the hanging, as we had a fairly small time window to get everything on the wall, I made spacing templates out of mounting board that would allow consistent spacing between the photos in each group. I also made caption placards and descriptive placards for the the sections that explained in more detail what was being shown. We used a string and a level to get the top line established and from there used the spacing templates to efficiently and quickly mount the photos on the wall.
Additionally, on the evening of the opening reception I had a video set to music of aerial drone footage running on loop and that drew a great deal of interest. The video provided views of Coul Links that even those who were familiar with the land had never seen. The opening reception on 27 September 2018 was a great success. It was attended by about 30 people before the evening was out. I sold two copies of my 19 Sutherland Bridges book and had several expressions of interest in purchasing photos that were being displayed.
I found it interesting how different images resonated with different people. Some people really liked the landscapes, while others loved the sheep, but the greatest share of strong positive reactions were for various images in the super macro work. I had initially resisted the idea of doing the physical exhibition, but in the end was very glad that I did even if it didn’t happen until the assessment period. I am indebted to Donald Goldsmith, the owner of Grace of Dornoch Cafe and Deli for making his establishment available and catering the opening reception all at no cost to me.
On 24 September I was invited by the Dornoch Chapter of the Scottish Women’s Institute to give a 45 minute talk and exhibition of my landscape and wildlife work. While I brought some of the photos used in the prior exhibition, this event was primarily and slideshow of 90 pieces of work and accompanying commentary. This evening also went exceptionally well and the attendees were interested and engaged throughout. I received a large number of positive comments and lovely letter after the event.
I am looking forward to the next opportunity to display my work and hope to be able to have even larger prints than the A3 and A4 sizes I used in these events. I do need to sort out how to properly value my work so I can set prices prior to beginning an exhibit.
As I have said in prior posts this module has helped me to evolve in a number of ways. It has definitely helped my confidence soar in my ability to create work and show my work. It has deepened my understanding of photography overall, and is beginning to help me understand my place in the world of photographers. I have miles to go on the journey, but I am well down the road and on the right path I think. More time to read and more exposure to other practitioners is part of what has been building the foundation of understanding. Being pushed to make work in ways I have never done, or in ways I had not been comfortable has taught more about my craft and open my eyes to other possibilities for work and ways of accomplishing that work.
I have in the past looked upon my work as quite solitary as I had been making work for years, but never sharing it. I now find myself interacting with others on a daily basis about my work whether it is sharing it with friends or strangers, or interacting in mutual support with my wonderful cohort mates. They have been an invaluable source of advice, support, humour, fun and without them this would have been a very different experience and not nearly so rich and rewarding. So thank you in particular to Mick, Gem, Danny, but also to the other in Cromarty who frequent our chat group.
It feels quite good to have the assignments done and dusted. I feel as though I made a pretty good job of it on the whole, though the assessors may not agree. I know I have made progress and I know I will continue to do so. I know too there are some areas that need additional focus and effort. I am getting more attuned to research, but I need to be more disciplined about documenting it as it occurs. I tend to take a while to integrate what I have read and then don’t always get back t write about it. It is there informing my work, but isn’t always adequately documented.
The parting shot from the module leader was one last assignment to create a self portrait that was reflective of the time spent in the Surfaces and Strategies module. I have to say I enjoyed this module far more than the first for a number of reasons. It seems only fitting that as the final task in Surfaces and Strategies that I should do something unconventional and completely different from my normal work.. At first glance you may miss it, but trust me, my image is there on a surface and in a way you might not expect to find me. Truth is I am something of a motorhead and I had an unfortunately brief opportunity to photograph some pretty cool classics last Saturday. This particular Austin had been once owned by King Farouk.
Perhaps the same is true with tutors, or not. I have simmered this stew for a couple of weeks now as when I initially conceived it I was reeling from all the completely different flavours that had seemingly been dumped into my pot. It seemed everyone had a different view of my work and not always did I get a clear understanding of how it might be made better; only that it wasn’t right. There were exceptions thankfully, like when Cemre took several of my proposed WIP photos and arranged them in a particular sequence in a horizontal grid and then explained why she thought that worked. In other cases, one tutor would like a particular photo while the next thought it was rubbish, and in other cases, I was told what I was trying to communicate wasn’t clear but without much more in the way of explanation of why or what sort of things might make it better, other than try arranging them differently.
To be honest I felt confused and lost, and even at moments a bit angry. It was clear something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to fix it. With advise sometimes so diametrically opposed, I didn’t know which direction to go. I had to in the end, step back, lose the emotional attachment to my work and reaction to the criticism and figure out how to sort through the various comments to determine if there were any common elements among them, discard the outlying and off the wall remarks (there were some doozies) and integrate what was left to something I felt I could action in curating and editing my portfolio.
The first insight I was able to distill was that what I was showing was too diverse and divergent in theme and aesthetic. It was said in different ways and it took some time to understand that “I can’t read your visual language” was similar in meaning to “the macro work is distracting and disconnected from the larger scale work”, or “photos in this series have a very different feeling.” I had to admit, I didn’t really know what I was trying to “say” with my photos. My project is big, maybe too big, and it contains a number of different aspects at this point. I have so much to say that I ended up saying nothing because the breadth of this story from a final project perspective (and yes, we are a long way from that point) cannot be told in 18 photographs that I have now. At the end of the FMP, it may be possible to tell this story in a relatively small number of carefully curated photographs.
I also had been “hung up” by the fact that I got into this programme as a natural history photographer, even though it has never been the only thing I have done, and it is not the only thing I want to do. It was clouding my judgement in curating my portfolio. It is somewhat ironic, because I have always hated labels and I have spent my life defying norms and expectations. Why should I allow myself to be pigeon-holed now? So once again something else to let go of.
I did finally work it out on my own I think. At least I took a decision, cut away a lot to arrive at a portfolio that is I hope worthy of submission. It is a few paragraphs in a chapter of what might eventually become a novel or perhaps a short poem, but it seems to be coherent and cogent. That I got there is a testament to the progress I have made thus far in the course. I couldn’t have even had this discussion several months ago. When I felt I had the pot on with no recipe, thankfully Cemre slipped me a couple of key ingredients that allowed me to decipher the rest. Photography, like cooking after all is art and the flavor combinations are limited only by one’s imagination. Baking is science and there isn’t much latitude in the recipe. I didn’t want tutors to hand me a recipe after all.
Do too many tutors spoil the broth? At first, I thought so, but each was bringing their favourite spice to the kitchen and in the end it was up to me to understand the implications of using that particular spice and make a decision whether or not it belonged in my stew. There were times when they made it tough to get around the kitchen to be sure, but once I cleared them out, and some of the inappropriate spices in my cupboard, I was able to put together a pretty tasty offering.