Week 2- Forum: Representation or Authentication

Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida wrote “From a phenomenological standpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.”  (Barthes 1981: 89)

The questions posed for this week’s forum were:

  • What Roland Barthes means and whether or not you agree.
  • The difference between ‘authentication’ and ‘representation’.
  • How the context in which we view photographs potentially impacts upon notions of authentication and representation.
  • How this impacts your own practice.

Last week I wrote a fairly lengthy post on Barthes’ Camera Lucida  which can be found at https://chasingthewildlife.blog/2019/02/01/key-writers-roland-barthes-camera-lucida/

I agree with Barthes on this point.  First, Barthes explains;

“I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, and without which there would be no photograph.” “…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography. What I intentionalize in a photograph is neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference, which is the founding order of Photography.” “The name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been,’ or again: the Intractable.” (Barthes 1981: 76-77)

 

I believe Barthes notion of ‘intractability’ refers to the authentication of the existence of what was once in front of the lens.  Whether it communicates or is judged to be artistic is in the power of the viewer not the photographer and that is the element of representation.

Flusser speaks of distribution channels and how they affect interpretation (representation).

“The essential thing is that the photograph, with each switch-over to another channel, takes on a new significance…  The distribution apparatuses impregnate the photograph with the decisive significance for its reception.” (Flusser, 1983: 54)

Sontag likewise points out that photographs are mere fragments, and the context in which they are viewed changes them. Each context “…suggests a different use for the photograph but none can secure their meaning- the meaning is the use…”  (Sontag: 1979: 106)

Szarkowski discusses the idea that photography is not successful at narrative and then goes on to refer to Matthew Brady’s work during the Civil War by saying: “The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, it was to make it real.” (Szarkowski, 1966: 9)  I think this relates to the discussion arguing that these photographs authenticated the horrors of the war; they were in front of the lens and the photographs brought that validation to those who viewed them.  However, how those photos were interpreted, that is what did they represent, would likely be quite different depending on whether one was from the North or the South, whether one fought in the war, or whether someone close was killed in the conflict.

Each of these suggest that representation is conditional upon who is looking and where they are looking.  However, authentication, existence at one time of what was photographed does not change even though interpretations on the significance and meaning of what was photographed will vary with every viewer.

Again Barthes; “…it is not impossible to perceive the photographic signifier, but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection.” (Barthes, 1981: 5) and “…the Photograph’s essence is to ratify what it represents. … No writing can give me this certainty.  It is the misfortune…of language not to be able to authenticate itself. …but the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself;…” (Barthes 1981: 85-87)

I have come to terms with the reality that I cannot control how my photographs are ultimately interpreted or judged, especially any single photograph.  I can influence a reading of a body of work to a small degree by how I choose to edit and curate a collection of work and where it is shown, but again the ultimate power to determine what that work represents lies in the hands of each and every consumer.

I am in control of what I photograph and when I photograph.  I am in control over the choices I make during that process and I can only hope that what I think and feel when taking that photograph is somehow revealed in the product in a way that it elicits a similar reaction in a viewer, but those reactions are beyond my control and therefore beyond the bounds of that which I can or should worry over.

References:

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

Key Writers – Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida

I have heard some of fellow students ask; “What relevance does Barthes have?” and I confess to feeling the same way when I first began to read him during Positions and Practice.  It is easy to be put off by his esoteric language and the occasional diversionary tactic and to get hung up on a couple of his ideas that in the end, in my opinion, have nothing really to do with essential relevance of Barthes. I have just finished carefully and thoughtfully re-reading Camera Lucida, taking lots of notes and trying to sift through Barthes’ philosophical, rambling musings and to distil to the essence what was most important and relevant to me as a photographer.

I think it is important first to understand the question Barthes sets out to answer, and the perspective from which Barthes approaches the question.  Barthes intent is to identify what about Photography is its distinguishing feature, and he, as a non-photographer, can only approach the problem from the perspective of the consumer, or in his term the Spectator’s point of view.  The virtual entirety of his treatise and exploration is based on peeling back the layers to determine what is it about a photograph that in Walter Benjamin’s term “stirs a tiny spark of contingency” (Benjamin 1931: 510) and why.

It is easy to get distracted by Barthes’ regular referrals to Death.  Death seems to me a red herring as there are other places where he seems to offer counter arguments.  “Every photograph is a certificate of presence” (1981: 87) “…it is still mortal, like a living organism.” (Barthes 1981: 93)    It would be just as easy to argue the photograph is proof of life.  In the end the discussion of death doesn’t make or break what is important about ­Camera Lucida.

The majority of photographs in the world are banal and they pass before our eyes as if we never saw them, ephemeral enough so as to appear non-existent.  “I see photographs everywhere, like everyone else, nowadays; they come from the world to me, without my asking; they are only ‘images, their mode of appearance is heterogeneous. Yet, among those which have been selected, evaluated, approved, collected in albums or magazines and which had thereby passed through the filter of culture, I realized that some provoked tiny jubilations, as if they referred to a still center, and erotic or lacerating value buried in myself; …and that others, on the contrary, were so indifferent to me that by dint of seeing them multiply, …I felt a kind of aversion toward them…” (Barthes 1981: 16)  ’“The principle of adventure allows me to make Photography exist. Conversely, without adventure, no photograph.” (Barthes 1981: 19) “Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze.” (Barthes 1981: 27) We are subjected to an ever-increasing amount of visual media and I think few would disagree with the idea that much of what is produced remains unseen to any individual and much of what is seen by that individual passes by quite unnoticed.  Barthes asks what is it that causes a photograph to be noticed?

A small number of the world’s photographs catch the interest of some viewers, enough to hold their gaze and perhaps to even remember something about the photo.  “…in these photographs I can, of course, take a kind of general interest, one that is even stirred sometimes, but in regard to them my emotion requires the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture.  …it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least immediately, ‘study,’ but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, without special acuity.” (Barthes 1981: 26) “…for culture, (from which the studium derives) is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers.” (Barthes 1981: 28)  Studium, is the characteristic of the photo that cause one’s gaze to linger and to engage with the photograph.  This, by the way, will be a completely different set of photographs from one individual to the next.

A very precious few of the world’s photographs will have something more, a detail generally unintentional and often not on the primary subject itself that expands for that viewer the photograph into something more than its studium reveals.  This is the prick, the wound, the punctum that makes that photograph for that viewer more meaningful and unforgettable. “The studium is always coded, the punctum is not.” “What I can name cannot prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance.” (Barthes 1981: 51) “Very often the Punctum is a ‘detail,” i.e., a partial object.” (Barthes 1981: 43) “However lightning-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion…which makes me add something to the photograph.” (Barthes 1981: 45) “Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful…” (Barthes 1981: 47)

Excellent examples for me of both studium and punctum are pieces from Nick Brandt’s work, Inherit the Dust. There is an immediate tension which the viewer must decode about what is out of place in this photo.  The conclusion will be drawn based on the ethical, political, and cultural proclivities of the viewer.  While this may not ‘wound’ someone else, these are photos that grab me by the heart, photos I can never un-see, photos I will never forget.  The counterpoint of the resting giraffe expelled from this place by the diggers whose profile mimics that of the giraffe to make way for a quarry is undeniably poignant.

Brandt Inherit the Dust
Nick Brandt

And finally, Barthes concludes that what distinguishes Photography from other forms of visual media is the intractability between the photograph and the referent.  “I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, and without which there would be no photograph.” “…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography. What I intentionalize in a photograph is neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference, which is the founding order of Photography.” “The name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been,’ or again: the Intractable.” (Barthes 1981: 76-77) Whether it communicates or is judged to be artistic is in the power of the viewer not the photographer.  And so quite contrary to Barthes earlier assertion that Photography represented Death, he is saying here that instead it represents proof of existence in a way no other form, painting, sculpting, or writing can.  It is the single most unique characteristic of Photography.

The noeme, That-has-been, leads Barthes to one final significant conclusion and it is here again that I think he argues against himself on the idea of the photograph being death. He states: “I now know that there exists another punctum than the detail.  This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (’that-has-been), its pure representation.”  (Barthes 1981: 96) Time is the pure representation of what has been, and in this punctum can lie in the knowledge that something has happened before or will happen in the future. This says to me that Barthes herein abandons the certainty that the photograph is death, because in that model there could be no future that is implied in the punctum.  A particularly effective example of this element of punctum is September 11, 2001 photograph by Richard Drew of the Falling Man.

Richard Drew Falling man
Richard Drew 2001

There is the punctum of the detail in this photograph, the perfect alignment of the axes of the body and the building and the bisection of the light and dark.  There is also the punctum of time, the certainty of the man having come from somewhere above, and the certainty of what will occur at the bottom of his fall.

In conclusion, it is clear that as a photographer, I am not in control of who likes or dislikes, or notices or ignores my work, judges it as art or whether it communicates, as that is in the hands of the viewer.  We photograph and by doing so provide irrefutable evidence that something existed at a point in time, a reference to that which has been. Studium and punctum are not purely concrete but can be loosely translated into that which makes one think and that which makes one feel when looking at a photograph, but neither can be forced into a photograph by the photographer, and a photograph will carry different effects to its viewers depending on their personal and cultural biases.  We can only, as photographers, photograph those things that make us think and feel with the hope the resulting photograph will elicit similar reactions in others.  And, as we edit and curate our work, we can be sensitive to the intended audience’s cultural predispositions and use that knowledge to influence our selections.  These are the things I find as the essence of Barthes Camera Lucida and its universal relevance to photographers.

References:

BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

BENJAMIN, Walter. 1931. Selected Writings 2, Part 2 1931-1934. Edited by G. Eiland, H., Jennings, M.W., and Smith. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press.

John Szarkowski: The Photographer’s Eye

The six pages that make up the introduction to John Szarkowski’s 1966 book, The Photographer’s Eye, are in my opinion the clearest, most concise, most accessible and for me, the most relatable description of the essential elements of photography and why they are significant.  It may not in the end represent the only photographic philosophy I embrace, but it is one for which I am all in.  My work is, has always been predominantly consistent with the Modernist and Formalist school of thought of which Szarkowski is a leading proponent and prominent voice.

Szarkowski ends his introduction with the following:

“The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth.  Its movement has not been linear and consecutive, but centrifugal.  Photography and our understanding of it, has spread from the center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness.  Like and organism, photography was born whole.  It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”

I think this is an interesting and important description.  If one were to put an organism in a centrifuge it would separate into constituent components with the weightiest elements travelling through all the strata and ending up at the bottom of the test tube.  While photography’s origins are rooted in Modernism and Formalism, as the centrifuge spun, and photography grew, many other forms (genres) of photography became visible.  Yet traces of the Modernist origins trailed through those genres and even remained intact today in contemporary photography.  I believe Modernism, the quest for reality and purity in photographic form and function, are the weightiest element of the photographic organism and that is why the principles that define it are still in force today.

The introduction begins with:

“This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and why they look that way.  It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work.”

“The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection.  The difference was a basic one.  Paintings were made – constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes – but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken.”

“The difference raised a creative issue of a new order: how could this mechanical and mindless process be made to produce pictures meaningful in human terms – pictures with clarity and coherence and a point of view?”

He goes on to speak briefly about how quickly photography grew in popularity and how the change from wet to dry plate suddenly made photography accessible to many more people resulting in a deluge of new images many of which were “formless and accidental” and some that were “memorable and seemed significant beyond their limited intention.”  If he could only imagine the world today.

Szarkowski goes on to point out:

“But it was not only the way that photography described things that was new; it was also the things it chose to describe.  Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people. And once made objective and permanent, immortalized in a picture, these trivial things took on importance.

This ‘revolution’ in the visual arts brought the world near and far to the doorstep of nearly everyone.  As the medium was new and the technology evolving, photographers had to learn how to use their tools and materials and to adjust to the limitations of the early equipment and they had to learn from each other’s work.

Sarkowski chose the photos in The Photographer’s Eye, he claimed, not because they fit a particular aesthetic or school, or were made by renowned photographers, “that they shared little in common except their success and a shared vocabulary: these pictures were unmistakeably photographs.”  He believed these photographs shared a vision of photography itself, and that “The character of this vision was discovered by photographers at work, as their awareness of photography’s potentials grew.”

Although Szarkowski claimed not, I find there are precious few photographs in the collection that do not fit into the basic model of Modernism.  There is the odd modestly abstract photograph, but on the whole, they fit very neatly into the form with which Szarkowski was most familiar and most comfortable.  He was in fact reportedly criticised late in his career for having failed to embrace Post-Modernist work.  He continued to his death to champion the idea that the camera was a ‘window’ to the world and he wasn’t keen on those who chose to use the camera as a ‘mirror’.

Since photography was being discovered by photographers, Szarkowski thought the history of the medium could be defined by “photographer’s progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium.”  He posited five issues and said: “These issues do not define discrete categories of work; on the contrary they should be regarded as interdependent aspects of a single problem – as section views through the body of photographic tradition.  As such, it is hoped that they may contribute to the formulation of a vocabulary and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography.”

And it is these five things to which I was referring in my opening paragraphs that seem so clear, concise, relevant and accessible.  With these, I don’t need the obtuse musings of Barthes, or the mad imaginings of a world about to be subsumed by automation of Flusser.  Elements of the thinking of most of the other critical theorists can be incorporated into these five categories, and if they can’t, perhaps they don’t need to be because this a pretty good list and covers more than enough territory to handle a wide swath of the photographic universe.

The five categories are, The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and Vantage Point.  As Szarkowski said, they are not independent, and each element is important to ‘reading, decoding, interpreting, judging’ a photograph, or whatever other term of art you choose for the process of looking at and seeing photographic work.

Each of these categories is supported by several paragraphs of contextual explanation that can be easily read in The Photographer’s Eye so I am not going to quote them wholesale, but rather attempt to draw some of the most salient points associated with each to include as a summary of Szarkowski’s points.

The Thing Itself

  • Photography deals with the actual
  • The world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness and to recognise its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supple.
  • The factuality of pictures is different than reality itself; the subject and the picture were not the same thing even though they might appear so afterward.
  • People believe the photograph cannot lie and that what our eyes saw was illusion and the camera saw truth, but except for the fact that the image would survive the subject and become remembered reality. (Ed. However, as I have written before truth is illusory, the photograph was never and never can be truth in absolute terms.)

 

The Detail

  • Photographers are tied to the facts of things, and it is the photographer’s problem to try to force the facts to tell the truth.
  • Outside the studio, the photographer can only record what was found; fragmented and unexplained elements – not a story, but scattered and suggestive clues.
  • The compelling clarity with which a photograph records the trivial suggested the subject hadn’t been properly seen before and was perhaps not trivial but filled with undiscovered meaning.
  • Photography has never been successful at narrative.
  • If photographs cannot be read as stories, they could be read as symbols.
  • Even the large body of Civil War and WWII photography could not without extensive captioning explain what was happening.
  • The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, but to make it real.
  • He quotes Robert Capra’s comment that expressed both the narrative poverty and symbolic power of photography when he said, “If your pictures aren’t good, you are not close enough.”

 

The Frame

  • A picture is not conceived but selected, therefore the subject is never truly discrete or wholly self-contained.
  • The edges of the frame mark the boundary of what the photographer thought was most important, even though the subject extended beyond inn all directions.
  • Choices create perceived relationships even where they do not actually exist
  • Choosing and eliminating, central acts of photography, forces a concentration on the pictures edge and the shapes that reside within.

 

Time

  • All photographs are time exposures, and each describes a unique parcel of time. (Ed. Derrida – punctum is a duration)
  • Faster lenses and film revealed fascinating details about movement that could not be discerned with the naked eye.
  • Great pleasure and beauty can be derived from fragmenting time to reveal momentary patterns and shapes previously concealed in the flux of movement.
  • He refers to Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, which define HCB’s commitment to this new beauty, but clarified the oft misunderstood phrase by saying ‘the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax, but a visual one; a picture not a story.’

 

Vantage Point

  • Photography has taught is to see from the unexpected vantage point.
  • Pictures can give the sense of the scene while withholding its narrative meaning.
  • Necessity sometimes, and choice others puts the photographer in places providing unfamiliar perspectives.
  • If the photographer cannot move the subject the camera can be moved.
  • Altering vantage points reveals the world is richer and less simple than the mind might have guessed.

 

Aside from Szarkowski’s reference to the camera discovering truth, I find this to be a remarkably relevant text and set of guiding principles for both the photographer and the critic. Just to elaborate briefly on the issue of truth, the camera is not capable of revealing truth.  Truth is at least a four-dimensional phenomenon and a two-dimensional medium cannot render it.  Moving pictures can come closer, but they too at best are only able to work in three dimensions at any given moment.  So, the idea absolute truth, aside from the fact that we will all someday die, can be discovered at all is dubious at best.   Relative truth is somewhat more achievable, but never in a single frame.  The best we as photographers can hope to achieve in my opinion is a reasonably faithful representation of facts and reality, bounded by the limitations of our equipment and our perspectives physically and politically.

 

References

SZARKOWSKI, John. n.d. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

 

Key Writers on Photography – Vilem Flusser

I first read Flusser’s Toward a Philosophy of Photography during the Surfaces and Strategies module and after reading a synopsis in Durden’s book, Fifty Key Writers on Photography, I felt the need to reread Flusser.  A few more months of coursework, much more reading and becoming readjusted to critical thinking in an academic sense has put me in a better position to absorb, understand and challenge Flusser’s hypotheses.

I realise though Flusser is regarded as one of the key critical theorists on photography, he interestingly and by his own admission, just made it all up.  His thoughts didn’t derive from someone else’s prior work and he make no references and has no bibliography.  So, while it is a fine piece of original thinking and easy at first to buy into the logical train of thought he establishes, on further examination there are, in my opinion, some fatal flaws that derail his train.

His initial premise in the introduction about how the written word and then the photograph are significant events that altered who and how information is shared among societies is certainly worthy of recognition and supportable based on a review of history and current events.  I believe Flusser is also spot on in his assertion that images are ambiguous and open to interpretation, but he starts to get sketchy when he begins his discussion on decoding images.  He claims images are needed to make the world comprehensible because the world is not accessible to human beings.  I find this premise completely off target.  Human beings exist as an integral part of the world and that which surrounds each of us is not only directly accessible, but also comprehensible without need of images if one takes the time to look and understand what surrounds us.  Images can help with communicating to others things with which they are not in direct contact, but those images are unlikely to be able to stand alone.  I quite agree, however, that humans can be lazy or malign by malappropriating or misappropriating images and sending them out into the world.  One need only look at the spate of social media platforms and the millions of memes that are taken by the gullible or naïve to be representations of reality.  There is a necessary relationship between images and text.

To suggest as Flusser does that there are distinct breaks between idolatry, textolatry, and technical images is to ignore they are a continuum unique to humans and completely dependent on each other.  We as humans see, we ascribe labels to the things we see either as pictorial representations or words that conjure the pictorial representation or the actual thing.  When we read we visualise the meaning of the words.  We read the “the large grey stone house set at the edge of the wood” and our mind’s eye conjures a picture.  My picture will look different than the next person’s but there will be an image nonetheless that holds significance for that individual.  When we are first presented with an image, our ‘decoding’ begins with assigning words to what we see.  Our attempt to decipher a technical image is not really any different than our need to decipher what we see in real time with our eyes except that the image is static, and we are afforded more time with which to undertake that decoding.  And just as when we read, that decoding will be unique to each person doing the decoding.

I cannot find the distinction Flusser makes in his notion that traditional “prehistoric” images represent phenomena and technical “post-historic” images represent concepts.  Both periods are rife with examples that represent phenomenological and conceptual images.  It is a distinction without a difference in my view.  In fact a stronger argument might be made for the opposite and that most Renaissance art was based in religion and far more conceptual than phenomenological, while Impressionist, Pointillist, Dada are equally so conceptual. Technical images on the other hand are more likely to show what is (was) or what happened at a particular time and place and therefore are not representing concepts but rather phenomena.

The lack of criticism of technical images is not an inherent characteristic, but rather an indictment of human laziness, education systems which have stopped emphasising critical thinking and perhaps also the relentless onslaught of imagery that now perhaps even exceeds that which can be experienced by a human in real time with their own eyes.  Just as we process what we see around us quickly to avoid danger and find our way we often haven’t time to linger over the significance of any particular instant.  The inundation of images we face in modern society leaves most with inadequate time to process and therefore criticise those images.   It is too easy to accept the images at their superficial face value or just disregard them and move on.

Flusser argues in first order images the painter puts themselves between the significance and the image and that to understand the image we must decode the encoding that took place in the painter’s head.  I ask is that not an even more mysterious ‘black box’ than an apparatus?  The painter makes choices of which they may or may not be aware to include or exclude or enhance aspects of the subject seen or imagined.  This is abstraction of the highest order and a product of the imagination of the artist.

The technical image Flusser asserts is encoded in a ‘black box’, but I would argue the ‘black box’is far more easily decoded than the human brain of the painter.  We can look with complete objectivity at the capabilities and limitations of an optical sensor (film or digital) and wee can understand how the photons that stimulate that sensor are subsequently translated into an image chemically or digitally.  It is far less magical, and more predictable than the brain.  Furthermore, the unaltered technical image cannot exclude anything from the image that was within the technical limitations of the device, so it is in every sense a purer representation of its significance.

The consequence realised, to which Flusser alludes, is that humans have allowed images to displace text (a picture is worth thousand words) thereby believing the necessity of conceptual thinking has been eliminated, or perhaps more correctly as an excuse for the lazy to avoid conceptual thinking.  Flusser stretches way too far when he states technical images were invented to prevent culture from breaking up as a code valid for all of society.  This may have been a consequence, just as the printing press ultimately increased literacy among the masses, but neither was an intent of the invention.

Flusser is consistently anthropomorphic and ascribes to inanimate objects, images, apparatuses, etc attributes of power and action they do not inherently hold.  He tries to bestow up a thing, the technical image, powers only held by the makers and the viewers (users).  How and why images are made and used are not inherent in the image, but in the humans make choices in what to make and how to use them.  Photographs are a tool and a fool with a tool is still a fool.  A photograph has no more or less significance than a screwdriver which can be used to poke out someone’s eye or used to remove a fastener as intended.  Both are choices made by the user of the tool.  A photograph can reintroduce traditional images to daily life and make hermetic text comprehensible or not.

I think Flusser is quite cynical and that he must have loved the Star Trek Next Generation portrayal of the Borg as they intoned ‘resistance is futile’ as that seems to represent the essence of his fears with regards to modern technology in general and photography in particular.  His notion that we are all embroiled in a heated battle against various apparatuses, programs and metaprograms seems to me a pretty pessimistic view on the future of humanity, but then again perhaps we are all going to hell in the proverbial handbasket and his concern about humans abdicating their role in the world to technology is warranted.

My worldview developed in large measure from my education as a scientist and my work in engineering and technology is based in the concept of systems and systems of systems.  It is in some ways analogous to Flusser’s ideas of programs and metaprograms. But unlike Flusser I think humans are still very much engaged and that what he goes to great length to describe as apparatuses are in fact nothing more than tools.  At one point he declares the intention of the camera as a tool to produce a photograph.  The camera tears the light from the world to bring a photo that humans can see and use.  His comparison to an apple or a shoe is in my opinion is specious because whether it informs a little or a lot is entirely dependent on the viewer and is not fixed.  To a hungry man the apple may inform far more than the shoe.

I think Flusser again gets overly anthropomorphic when he states “if an apparatus is neither a tool or a machine and its purpose is to change the meaning of the world by creating symbols, their intention is symbolic.”  The apparatus has no inherent ability to act on its own.  Yes its ‘program’ which is both known and knowable may do something with the confines of a ‘black box’, but it carries no independent inherent intention merely by virtue of its existence.  I maintain that it is still a tool in the hands of a human who must convey intention with its use.

Flusser agrues each photograph is a realisation of one possibility resident within the program of the apparatus, and that photographers are trying to exhaust the full range of possibilities in search of information.  He says any photograph that does not achieve a new possibility is not informative and therefore redundant.  On the contrary, every photograph is unique.  It occupies a unique temporal space.  The differences may be beyond human perception but that makes them no less unique.  And as to what is informative, that too is unique, but totally in the purview of the viewer.  What is informative to me may be old hat to someone else.  Furthermore, all the possible photographs are not resident in the program, they are resident in the world which is undergoing constant and inevitable change and in time, and they require a photographer with a tool to realise them.

Flusser says no photographer can understand the black box.  While most don’t bother, it is in fact completely explicable.  It is far more transparent and discoverable than the brain of the painter or a photographer’s artistic choices for that matter.  I completely disagree with Flusser’s position that a photographer is a functionary controlling a game over which they have no competence and I will return to this in a moment.

Quite ironically, Flusser asserts photographers, after the statement in paragraph above, have power over those who look at their photographs and that the camera has power over the photographer.  Misplaced assignation again.  I don’t think the photographer actually has any influence let alone power over the viewer.  How a photograph is interpreted is totally and uniquely in the realm of each viewer.  And I don’t buy into the notion the camera is a complex apparatus, particularly in the context of 1983 when this treatise was first published.  There is little mystery to the analogue camera; the mystery if there is any is in the chemistry of the film.  In a digital camera, the camera is no more complex in its basic function than the analogue and it is the sensor and the subsequent processing that replaces the mystery of the film, but which is entirely comprehensible if one wished to take the time to understand the physics and programming logic.  But that is no more necessary to a photographer than was understanding film chemistry.

Flusser then says the starting point for any consideration of the act of photography is that the apparatuses play and function better than the human beings that operate them.  Szarkowski is spinning in his grave!  The camera cannot take itself to a particular place at a particular time and it cannot imagine an output associated with a particular perspective or compositional choice, nor can it choose the precise moment to open and close the shutter.  The ‘power’ remains with the photographer always and the camera remains a tool; albeit one with limitation that must be recognised.  Flusser is correct in saying the camera can only photograph what can be photographed with a particular tool, but neither can I screw a fastener with a saw.  Also true is that the photograph is a representation of states of things.  The camera cannot photograph emotion, but it can discern representations or evidence of emotion.

Flusser claims the camera has more imagination than all the photographers in the world combined.  Once again Flusser is anthropomorphising.  The camera has no more imagination than a chisel.  Put a chisel in front of a block of marble and it will never in a million years imagine or create as statue of David until it is in the hands of a Michelangelo.

I take exception again to the Flusser assertion that the traditional distinction between realism and idealism is overturned in the case of photography and that neither the world or the camera’s program is real; only the photograph is real.  The world is always real, and a photograph is real only in the sense it is a tangible physical entity.  The image it contains is not real but rather a two-dimensional representation of a reality that occurred in some specific time and place that is limited further in its ability to represent reality by the capabilities of the film or sensor.

Then in what almost seems a turnabout, Flusser summarises: “The act of photography is like going on a hunt in which the photographer and camera merge into one indivisible function.  This is a hunt for new states of things, situations never seen before, for the improbable, for information.  The structure of the act of photography is a quantum one: a doubt made up of points of hesitation and points of decision-making.  We are dealing here with a typically post-industrial act: It is post-ideological and programmed, and acct for which reality is information, not the significance of this information.”

So where heretofore I find Flusser’s thinking frequently flawed, he starts to get interesting when he begins discussing the photograph. His proposal that black and white photographs are more conceptual as they are less real is intriguing.  I confess to becoming lost again though when he claims that the more genuine the colours are, the less truthful they become.  He makes this point in the context of black and white being closer to the theoretical origins of optics and yet farther away from reality while colour is closer to reality but farther from the theoretical origins.  I cannot see the point of this line of enquiry and in doing so it seems he obfuscates the concept of decoding unnecessarily. This is especially so when he concludes that to follow this path leads down a bottomless rabbit hole and the whole thing can be avoided by not going there.  He says in essence that a photograph is decoded when one has determined how the cooperation and conflict between the photographer and the camera have been resolved.  Has the photographer succeeded in achieving his/her intentions and overcoming the limitations of the camera?  He goes on to argue the camera is imposing its intentions on the photographer and here again I take issue with the idea the camera can have intentions.  It has technical limitations, but not intentions which in my mind implies a sentience the camera does not possess.  In any case he concludes this thought with the notion the best photographs are when the photographer’s intentions win out over the (my words) the limitations of the tool used to capture the image.  I believe herein lies a significant part of the photographer’s skill; knowing the tools at hand and their capabilities and limitations so that the correct set of tools can be pulled from the kit bag to compliment the planning, positioning, light and other compositional considerations.

Flusser continues to be interesting in his discussion on distribution of photographs and of particular significance is his discourse on how the distribution channel has an impact on the meaning of a photograph and how that meaning is altered each time it enters a new channel.  I believe this further supports my earlier contention that each viewing of a photograph is unique and in the hands of the viewer who is also influenced by where the photograph is viewed.

His observation that we are so overly exposed to photographs that we have come to regard them as fixtures and fittings in our lives and as a result hardly take notice of most of them.  This helps to explain why most are not looked at in any critical way or attempt to decode them.  And the truth is that to do so with most would be a waste of time.  Unfortunately, that introduces the very real risk that photographs that deserve attention will go unnoticed.  It also presents an additional challenge for the photographer who produces, in Flussers terms, “informative” work, work that breaks the program and is new and unique, because it will be even more difficult to be ‘heard’ amidst the noise of the millions of less worthy photographs being produced every day around the world.

So while I find it hard to agree with many aspects of Flusser’s essays, in large part because of the semantics and his sometimes fatalistic and pessimistic view of the world, in the end he comes nearly full circle and very early disavows the whole train of thought that preceded by saying: “The time is therefore not far off when one will have to concentrate one’s criticism of the apparatuses on the human intention that willed and created them.  Such a critical approach is enticing for two reasons.  First, it absolves the critics f the necessity of delving into the interior of the black boxes:  they can concentrate on their output, human intention.  And second, it absolves critics of the necessity of developing new categories of criticism:  Human intention can be criticized using traditional criteria.”

He also sounds a warning that we are at risk of being automated out of existence and that it is necessary to fight against that automation to regain freedom of intention.  And there are indicators that Flusser isn’t too far from the mark.  One needs only to walk down the street to see how enslaved people have become to their mobile phones.

Flusser his treatise to conclusion with some profound thoughts. “The task of the philosophy of photography is to question photographers about freedom, to probe their practice in the pursuit of freedom.  This was the intention of the foregoing study, and in the course of it a few answers have come to light.  First, one can outwit the camera’s rigidity.  Second, one can smuggle human intentions into its program that are not predicted by it. Third, one can force the camera to create the unpredictable, the improbable, the informative.  Fourth, one can show contempt for the camera and its creations and turn one’s interest away from the thing in general in order to concentrate on information.  In short:  Freedom is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention.  Freedom is playing against the camera.”  “A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of the automated, programmed and programming apparatuses, in order to finally show a way in which it is nevertheless possible to open up a space for freedom.”

Towards a Philosophy of Photography is an important text and while I found the train of logic Flusser followed to be full of twists and turns, a few sidings and a couple of derailments, the end of the journey led to a destination I generally find quite agreeable.  More importantly the journey through this book provoked thought, made me question and challenge my own beliefs and in the writing of my essay take positions even if they were contrary to the popular accepted thought of photography’s academic world.  It was well worth reading this book a second and third time, and I think it can really only be appreciated in its entirety.

 

References

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

 

 

 

Key Writers on Photography – Jacques Derrida

Derrida, a post-structuralist philosopher, most famously known as a ‘deconstructionist’ who challenged the notions of ideal and primary as actually being secondary and real.  In his writings on photography he is perhaps most noted for the idea that Barthes ‘punctum’ is actually a duration and therefore makes room for time/difference and that any ‘instant’ contains a relation to past and future.

If one considers merely the laws of physics these ideas make perfect sense.  While we refer to photographs as ‘stills’, they are in fact only still because the movement in them is beyond our ability to perceive it.  A photograph, even one at very high shutter speeds contains many ‘instants’.  Light travels at 299,792,458 m/s and in 1/500 of a second light will have travelled 14,989,623 m.  Every atom in everything in front of the lens is travelling at that speed constantly so there is movement in every photograph.  So, to Derrida’s point of there being room in any ‘instant’ for difference, he is saying we as photographers have and make choices when to release the shutter and that a few nanoseconds one way or another doesn’t necessarily change the ‘punctum’ or miss a ‘decisive moment’ but is a different place in real time.  As I noted in an earlier post about Deleuze, he believed our ability to grasp the thing itself was rooted in our ability to see the differences from all the things it is not.

Derrida asserts, “if punctum is a duration, then the artifice and techne are part of photography.”  I think this relates closely to his idea that each photo bears a relation of the present to an immediate past and future. I again find this quite intuitively obvious in large part because of the type of work I make. Much of my work involved action, whether it be wildlife or sport.  In trying to capture complex movement and ‘freeze’ a period of time that pauses the action for the benefit of the viewer, there is a great deal of choice on the part of the photographer.  This concept is less obvious perhaps for a portrait photographer, though while there clearly is an immediate past and future, it may be more difficult to discern, but I think it remains an important concept.  For my work, to capture a bird taking flight just at the moment it breaks its bond with the earth requires knowledge of behaviour, preparation, anticipation and quick reflexes.  While a wildlife photo may be more dynamic and far more obvious in its connection to past and future, the portraitist is looking for a particular expression, or just the right tilt of a head to capture something important about the subject and that moment may be equally as transitory as that which the nature, street or documentary photographer faces.  Similarly, in landscape photography, my other main focus, it is a matter of just the right light, the position of a cloud or some other aspect of the composition that is not necessarily permanently fixed that makes the photo stand out.  These are all choices a photographer makes; what to photograph and how to photograph, the artifice and techne.

I will discuss Flusser more in a subsequent post, but I will say here that the basis of my disagreements with his concepts of the programme and the apparatus subsuming the role of the photographer are rooted in Derrida’s ideas.  But neither are Derrida’s ideas definitive; just another piece of the critical theory jigsaw puzzle for which no one has the boxtop.

 

REFERENCES:

DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

DELEUZE, Gilles. 2002. Desert Islands: And Other Texts, 1953-1974. Los Angeles: Semiotexte.

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Unseen Amsterdam and Nederlands Fotomuseum

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

From the Unseen Amsterdam programme:

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo courtesy of Fons Delrue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

Publications – Closing out Surfaces & Strategies and transitioning to Sustainable Prospects

While not directly related to my Coul Links project work, I had been working on project in support of a charity function that would result in a book that would be a very limited edition and which could be auctioned at the event as part of the fundraising activities.  The work involved photographing Dornoch Cathedral and all of the holes of Royal Dornoch Golf Club as well.  I then need to write the copy, edit and publish the commemorative book.  So while not directly project related, it did provide valuable experience in photographing golf course landscapes and using the drone to capture perspectives of the course and cultural structures that would not otherwise be possible.  It also provided another valuable opportunity to produce a publication.

I was able to use the process of a dummy book for the initial concept and editorial reviews which proved very useful to me and to the committee for which I was producing the book.  The next stage of review was accomplished with a PDF version of the book created directly from Lightroom.  The need for fresh eyes and plenty of them cannot be overemphasised. I used three separate individuals in series to review the PDF.  I made corrections after the first review so the second reviewer had a “clean” version to review and yet the second and third reviewers each found additional and unique things that needed to be corrected.  Did something slip through the cracks still?  Perhaps, but I will be surprised because my editors were so competent and thorough.  So great thanks go to Jerry Horak, John McMurray and Roger Boyce for their time and efforts.

It was a very short time frame to produce a quality publication and it was a challenge to get all the photos of  both venues with weather and limited time for best light.  I was able to make photos with a combination of  drone and traditional DSLR work.  Fortunately the golf course and Cathedral are frequent and favourite subjects so I did have work in my archives that could be used to augment what I took in that past few months.  Some technical challenges with the drone resulted in at least one day’s work having to to be largely scrapped because the photos were not sufficiently sharp despite having had extraordinary light quality during the shoot of the photos taken that day had to be scrapped.  This put additional pressure on as the deadline loomed.

I began the book design in the Adobe CC InDesign and completed the publication design in Blurb using their proprietary design software.  I did learn a great deal more about publication design than I did with my first book and was able to produce a far more sophisticated layout.  I was able to explore far more features in layout and design that I didn’t even know were there when I did 19 Sutherland Bridges.  In the end the book totalled 60 pages.  If I had another few weeks there might have been an opportunity to get additional photos that may have been even better than the ones I chose to use, but then that process too could be infinite.  At some point one always has to say, it is time to publish.

A PDF version of the book can be viewed via the following link.

Moderators Tourney Commemorative Book_Final

I must say I really enjoy to idea and the process of creating books and I look forward to doing it again soon.

Week 10 – Finalising Exhibitions

There was a bit of wrinkle in the plans for the local exhibition at Grace of Dornoch Deli and Cafe and we have had to delay the opening one week.  There was a misunderstanding on the original dates and there was a conflict with another artist to whom the owner had committed.

So no real bother.  All the work for the exhibit is mounted and ready to hang.  I will be allocated space in three principal areas as previously discussed and it will show along with the other artist’s work that will be installed in the prior week.  The owner’s were very keen on my work when I first approached them and even more so when I brought in the mounted work that would comprise the exhibit.  We are planning an opening reception on 27 August and the exhibit will run for at least a week, though the owners have expressed and interest in having some of my work on a longer term basis.

Social media announcements will go out shortly on the venue’s Facebook page as well as mine.  Word of mouth has also been generating some excitement and I believe the opening and exhibit will be well attended.

My selections and preparation for the Landings online exhibition were completed just in the nick of time as it went live a few days earlier than I had expected.  I found myself wrestling with different ways to order and organise the photos I selected.  Originally I had some of the macro work in the selection for both the Landings exhibition and my WIP portfolio, but last week’s webinar with Cemre and peers strongly suggested that those photos detracted from the rest of the work I selected and was not consistent enough in style to hang together with the rest of the work.  Though I spent a good bit of time this term on the macro work I understood the comments and took them to heart.  It is still solid work and can stand alone, but it didn’t mix well with the bigger landscape and wildlife work.

It is challenging to step back from one’s work and look at it with a dispassionate eye and think about how differently viewers will see the work, and how the selections are both meant to be read and likely to be read by viewers.  I found that the story I hope to tell is both early in its evolution and not fully formed in my own mind.  And at the same time it is a big and complicated story that is not necessarily easy to tell.  “A lot of us go about our work and feel like we have nothing to show at the end of the day. But whatever the nature of your work, there is an art to what you do, and there are people who would be interested in that art, if only you presented it to them in the right way.  In fact, sharing your process might actually be most valuable if the products of your work aren’t easily shared, if you’re still in the apprentice stage of your work, if you can’t just slap up a portfolio and call it a day, or if your process doesn’t necessarily lead to tangible finished products.” (Kleon, 2014)

I believe that not trying to determine the outcome before sufficient data are collected can be in part attributed to my training in science and perhaps personal proclivity, but that adds to the challenge of trying to make a narrative hang together at this point.  I hope I have chosen well enough to give some sense of scale, process and context to the beginning of the story and at least pique the interests of people enough to cause them to look forward as I do to seeing the remainder of the story unfold over time.

I am fortunate to have talented peers in this course and they have been very helpful in the process of choosing what and in what order to show my work.  Despite taking photographs for over 50 years I rarely showed my work and never before exhibited or published until beginning this course.  The feedback from peers and tutors has been invaluable in helping me to begin to understand how others see, often differently, than I do.  I have much to learn yet about editing, curating and presenting my work, but it is a path down which I have begun to journey and one I look forward to continuing.

I have a third opportunity coming up as I have been asked by the local chapter of the Scottish Women’s Institute to come speak and display my work on 18 September.  They are expecting me to speak for about 45 minutes so there will need to be some extensive curation to fill that amount of time.  That push will have to wait until after the assignments for this term are complete.

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

 

Week 10 – Overall Reflections on the Surfaces and Strategies Module and Critical Analysis of My Progress in the MA

To my few devoted readers, I apologize in advance for the length of this post.  It is one I have been contemplating and working on for some time now, and it reflects the integration of much of my research to date and how that research has influenced my thinking about my practice.  It also is intended to provide context to my Work in Progress portfolio and the choices I have made and additional background and context for my Oral Presentation.

When I began the MA programme, I would have characterised (had I even been aware of her writings) in “Sontagian” terms as indexical  (Sontag, 1977), and that I was most concerned with depicting reality.  As I have progressed through the first two modules of the MA, I have come to realise my work is only my interpretation of reality within the limitations of the camera program’s ability to capture a moment is time and space, and my rendering of that image in post-processing.

In Ways of Seeing, (Berger, 1972) Berger writes, “Photographs are not…a mechanical record.  Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, …of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.”  In Towards a Philosophy of Photography (Flusser, 2000), Flusser writes “The possibilities in the camera’s program are practically inexhaustible…The imagination of the camera is greater than that of every single photographer and that of all the photographers put together: This is precisely the challenge to the photographer…pursuit of the informative, improbable images that have not been seen before.”  This is indeed a daunting challenge particularly in light of the billions of photographs being taken every day around the world and the ubiquitous distribution systems enabled by the internet.

As a photographer, I and my practise are evolving, but I am not yet evolved and mature as a practitioner.  In Steal Like an Artist (Kleon, 2012) Austin Kleon posits “Nobody is born with a style or voice…We learn by copying.  We are talking about practice here, not plagiarism – plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own.  Copying is about reverse engineering…First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second you have to figure out what to copy.  Who to copy is easy.  You copy your heroes…What to copy is trickier.  Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” I have endeavoured to embrace this philosophy.

This term has afforded me opportunities to explore new photographic techniques, different approaches in post-processing, and new ways to display my works from books, zines, social media, and physical exhibitions in addition to enhancing my on-line galleries. I have also stretched myself by photographing subjects out of my comfort zone in some cases and in others subjects I had not photographed before within the genre I typically work.  I have also begun to appreciate that what happens to be in front of my lens sometimes contains elements that detract from the real intent behind the photograph.  Whereas in the past I might have left something in the photo because it was really there, I am now making efforts to crop more artfully or remove specific distractors from my photos in post-processing.  Sometimes, less is more.

The Ed Ruscha challenge proved to be inspiring, motivating and confidence building.  It required conceptual development, planning, execution, editing and curation and resulted in a published book, 19 Sutherland Bridges, of which I am proud, and which sits for sale in the Bookshop below the flat in which I live.  It was the first time in all my years of photography my work was contextualized in a way that resulted in a tangible, physical product; and it was thrilling.

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Creating and publishing 19 Sutherland Bridges had a significant impact on my thinking going forward causing me to be more purposeful about when, where and what I photograph, and to plan how I want to use what I capture.

I used this term also to learn and experiment with additional methods of capture and post-processing, and with added subjects sets than had been my norm. While using and investigating macro photography and how it could potentially complement and add additional dimension to my project, I encountered the work of John Hallmen and the technique of focus stacking. I was stunned by the detail and clarity he was able to achieve which far and away beyond anything that is possible with mere depth of field management and I felt compelled to learn more about his process.

 

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Photo: John Hallmen

It is quite exacting and difficult to achieve in situ if the environmental conditions are anything but quite still air and reasonably stationary subject because between 20 and 50 frames with minute focal plane changes are required.  I was able to manage a few good results from the field, but I had even better success bring the subjects into a more controlled environment.

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Given the subtleties of the natural changes in the short time in which I have been photographing Coul Links, I was looking for away to represent a sense of time in the place that could be contrasted with the anthropogenic changes that are anticipated.  In addition to the “standard” natural history repeat photography techniques I have been employing and having the foreknowledge of a significant event to come, I sought to also approach the project from a Before and After Photography (Bear and Albers, 2017) perspective.  I captured images along the planned routing of the golf course with and without a model dressed as and using equipment from 100 years ago.  I then desaturated the images to imply a sense of age to the photos.  Richard Barnes in his Civil War series took contemporaneous photos of Civil War re-enactments in monochrome and deformed the edges of the negatives to create a sense the photos were taken during the war and to achieve a Matthew Brady type aesthetic.  Barnes work, however, is often cheekily betrayed by the presence of anachronisms such as power pylons or observers of the re-enactments in clearly modern attire.

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Photos: Richard Barnes – Civil War

 

 

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In anticipation of the possibility that my Coul Links story might not be able to be told without the inclusion of the human elements of the story, I took opportunities to do some environmental portraits and documentary photography.  The inshore lifeboat crew on which I serve proved to be an excellent subject, because I am also responsible for managing most of the team’s social media presence, internet fund raising and for photographs provided to print publications for news reporting and promotion.  Photographing people, something with which I have always been a bit uncomfortable, and publishing to social media and newspapers has been a good, practise expanding experience and shown me how much reach and influence social media can have on the organisation.

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In these genres, I am actually inspired by two of my peers; Danny North and Mick Yates.  Danny’s portraiture has a soul penetrating quality and yet conveys a deep and abiding empathy for his subjects.  There is never a hint of exploitation, but rather a real sense of emotional connection and care for his subjects and their feelings.  I find much of Danny’s non-commissioned work very intimate and intensely personal.

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Photo: Danny North – Jenna

Mick Yates work also shows great respect for his subjects but conveys something more in a sense of time and place than soul penetrating.  There is often a slight distance and detachment that puts the person and place in perspective giving it more of a documentary and formal character than an emotional and very personal one.

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Photos:  Mick Yates – Cambodia

Lastly, I continued working to improve and refine my wildlife photography skills.  I went even bigger, working with focal lengths up to 840mm, which presents challenges with dynamic subjects, but the results when I got it right are extraordinary and I was able to record some very special images.  It gave me the reach necessary to get the kind of detail on subjects that were often quite far away, but to which I could not physically approach any closer.

Fulmar-5661Puffin leaping-5830

 

I encountered some technical challenges in my aerial repeat photography work which I have not fully resolved.  I have been very successful in using a mission management application that allows me to fly the exact route and take photographs of the Coul Links from identical perspectives each time I fly.  However, since it is a third-party application, it appears to not be as good at controlling the camera as the manufacturer’s proprietary application.  The resolution is adequate to detect change, but it is not at the standard I would like to show detail.  The proprietary application cannot do the multi-waypoint mission profile around the perimeter of the nearly 800-acre plot of land, so I am faced with something of a dilemma to resolve.  I am continuing to explore means of improving resolution in the third-party application.

 

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

John Hallmén. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2018, from http://www.johnhallmen.se/2016/12/8/emus-hirtus-1

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

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

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

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