Burning with Desire – The Conception of Photography

I bought this book, Geoffrey Batchen’s 1997 alternative take on the history of photography, based on a footnote in the EYV course notes which promised ‘a fascinating account of the origins of photography’. I eventually read it as part of my procrastination over assignment 2 of C&N.

The central part of the book is a post-modern take on what could be thought of as the pre-history of photography. Taking as his thesis the notion that Daguerre and Fox Talbot did not come up with the idea (of fixing the image of a camera obscura) from thin air, he looks back at philosophical thought and art in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to see the notions evolve. This is not something that started in one mind or one place; Batchen tracks down 24 people, who he dubs the ‘photo-photographers’, from eight countries, who expressed ‘the desire to photograph’ (although not in those words) before 1839. Beyond that, there is a cast of characters who have influenced or documented them.

The account is scholarly, picked-up in a lot of detail, well-referenced and difficult to summarise in review. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 carry the story and are worth reading. Chapters 1 and 5 are mainly postmodern theorist-speak and can be ignored if one is only after the history.

A final section, ‘Epitath’ (Batchen 1997: 204-216) echoes Delaroche’s ‘From today, painting is dead” with a prediction that digital imaging would be the death of photography as practiced for the previous 150 years. Like Mark Twain’s obituary, it was premature. While the popular use of film has fallen dramatically, it is enjoying a hipster revival. Of more concern is Batchen’s thesis that, with computer-generated imagery indistinguishable from in-camera digital imaging, photography would lose its privileged status as evidence of the real. With ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ very much to the fore at present, watch this space …

Reference

Batchen, G. (1997) Burning with Desire : The Conception of Photography. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Don McCullin – Unreasonable Behaviour

Sir Donald McCullin CBE HonFRPS is probably Britain’s greatest living documentary photographer. Known mainly as a war photographer, he has also covered poverty in Britain and abroad and the famines in Biafra (man-made) and Ethiopia (natural). In recent decades, he has reinvented himself as a landscape photographer, but that postdates this autobiography, first published in 1992. I read the 2002 edition, unchanged apart from a single-page preface.

The writing style is very direct and unflinching in its detail. This is not the work of a man showing off his education and erudition (McCullin is dyslexic and left school aged 15, on the death of his father) but one who has seen the worst that mankind can dish out and is trying to make sense of it for the general reader.

The early chapters cover his childhood in Finsbury Park, one of the poorer and rougher areas of London at the time, as a war child and occasional evacuee. He speaks first-hand of poverty and street gangs. He buys a camera during National Service, and afterward photographs Finsbury Park life and the street gangs. In 1959 a member of one of the gangs was arrested for killing a policeman and the Observer used one of McCullin’s photographs of the gang. An illustrious  career is started, with commissions to record poverty and street life elsewhere in Britain.

The main part of the book, however, deals with McCullin’s documentary work in pretty much every international trouble spot from the raising of the Berlin Wall, up to but not including the Falklands (McCullin is bitter about being excluded – too independent to toe the official propaganda line), in the Middle East, Vietnam, Africa and South America. He spent time in Idi Amin’s jail and has been wounded and caught malaria, in the course of pursuing his  stories.

In the context of this course (Context and Narrative) it is interesting to see how McCullin builds up his philosophy of what photojournalism and documentary mean to him. He pursues an individual course, even when on a commission, independently and honestly showing us what he sees. He deals with the question of voyeurism by concentrating on the ‘ordinary people’, civilians caught up in the horror, ‘other ranks’ soldiers etc. and bringing their story to the fore, and to the attention of readers (starvation in Biafra, for instance)

In the latter part of the book, it is clear that the work is taking its toll, and McCullin also charts the changing attitudes of newspaper owners and editors, looking for softer ‘lifestyle’ stories rather than the uncomfortable dramas he is used to recording. In the final chapters, he is obviously at a low ebb with rejection from the Falklands and the death of his first wife. The book was originally written as a form of therapy and ends on a low note. The 2002 preface tells us of a general upturn and his taking up landscape work.

I see that there has been a 2015 update, written to celebrate McCullin’s 80th birthday. It is on my Amazon wish-list.

Reference

McCullin, D. (2002) Unreasonable Behaviour London: Random House

 

Diary project – initial thoughts

This is my ‘naive response’ posting for assignment three, prepared before working through the research and exercises of Part 3 ‘Putting yourself in the picture’, which is about self-portraits in reality or in absentia.

These assignment briefs are getting more and more open (is that a good or bad thing? – discuss). This one asked us to keep a diary/journal for a period of two weeks or more, then find something in it to turn into a project. No restriction on number or format of images.

I suspect that the most challenging part of the exercise will be keeping the diary and writing 2-3 pages per day over any period (I’ve managed Day 1 today, BTW). I am not a diarist; I record appointments in a diary – which has been in electronic form for the past 10 years – and that’s it. Do I keep it mundane or, like Cicely in ‘The Importance …’ do I make it something sensational to read on the train? I suspect mundane. Certainly, the first few days will be all about the events of the day, rather than opening-up my thoughts about them.

I am tolerably comfortable about being on the ‘wrong’ side of the camera, but being on both sides of it might become a challenge. And that sparks the first possible project. I have to produce a self-portrait mugshot for my Rotary Club members’ directory (actually, I don’t; I could ask somebody to take it for me), so I could do something self-referential, a self-centred project, looking at the process of taking a self-portrait. (Three hyphenated self-s in the same sentence there; maybe I’m onto something)

Otherwise, the strands of my life that could yield a project are work, sailing, saxophone and photography. During the two weeks I will be doing some dinghy instructing, practicing my sax, continuing my back-garden macro project and, maybe, photographing a pub-gig or two.

 

Photographing the Unseen – submission and reflection

Assignment 2 is now printed and ready to go off to my tutor for formative feedback. This is the final set of images with text.

I have moved on from floral tributes to ‘roadside memorials’ in general. ‘Jade’s Crossing’ is more than a floral tribute, and the 1986 schoolgirls’ plaque has lost its flowers over time. I consider the final image to be an important epilogue; there were flowers which have been cleared away, leaving traces of sticky tape only.

The combined contact sheets for all eight images are here. Some of the earlier images (Mick Whalley, Philip Baker) have only one or two contacts. I found that I was considering viewpoint, composition and context more as I grew into the project.

I already have half an eye on rework. These are the only eight examples that I have and I do not like the process of actively hunting-down road deaths. However, if I see more memorials on my travels I will record and research them so I may present a different set at assessment time.

Reflection against assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills

I am generally happy with my technical and visual skills. I used appropriate camera techniques and all images are correctly exposed and well composed. Many were taken in harsh sunshine (yes, we had a summer in 2017!) but I have used Lightroom selective exposure and contrast sliders to control overall contrast and dynamic range.

Quality of outcome

The images fulfil the brief, showing an ‘unseen’, how the dead have been remembered. The combination of images and text is not one that I have used before, but I believe they communicate my ideas well (although leaving open questions for the viewer) in a coherent and consistent way.

When presenting work for assessment, I will consider making a Blurb (or similar) book, with images on right-hand pages, captions in a smaller type on the facing page, and a short essay on the topic of memory.

Creativity

I deliberately picked a project that would push me outside my comfort zone, in terms of subject matter and the need to express things beyond the image. I think I have succeeded; I was certainly uncomfortable for much of the research/collecting process.

As always, the question of ‘personal voice’ is one for the viewer. By the end of the project I felt that I had something to say, and I have said it.

Context

I am reasonably happy with my level of self-reflection and research. I considered alternative responses to the brief before settling on my chosen project. I found some appropriate and relevant work for inspiration and applied critical thinking to determine which parts to take and which to leave. I believe I am developing a degree of confidence with blogging in an academic environment, including putting up a critical case against established views where necessary – challenging as well as being challenged.

Photographing the Unseen – Roadside memorials

Two weeks since my last posting. Partly, I can blame the day job and a holiday but, mostly, it is down to procrastination because I am comprehensively outside my comfort zone in my project for Assignment 2.

I have approached the brief, ‘Photographing the Unseen’ by looking at roadside memorials to accident victims. The memorial becomes a metaphor for the person being remembered. This connects with the concept of photography as memento mori, as advanced by Barthes, Sontag and others. My approach, mixing image and text, is influenced by Karen Knorr, Duane Michals and, especially, Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder series.

Here are the first three:

The technical exercise is interesting, as I am having to pay attention to typography, particularly a choice of typeface appropriate to the subject. I am also finding that researching the local news websites to discover the background to each memorial is giving me a sense of connection, or at least understanding, of my unseen subjects.

My difficulty is in the process of locating and photographing the memorials. I feel quite ghoulish photographing an expression of grief, even if it is a form of expression that has been made public. So far, these are examples of memorials that I have seen in the course of my normal travelling, and there are a couple more that I know of but have not yet visited.

The aspect that I do not look forward to is researching to find more examples. This will require me to actively search news websites for reports of fatal accidents, then cold-bloodedly visit the site in the hope of finding flowers there. Ghoulishness squared. Is this how paparazzi feel?

Photographing the Unseen – summary of ideas

Having now worked through to the end of the Part Two course notes, I now have to stop procrastinating and select a subject for Assignment 2. I will start by revisiting the posts made under the ‘Assignment 2’ menu to extract and summarise the ideas that have emerged.

  • The wind: unseen in itself but its effects can be photographed (sailing boat, flags, storm damage, etc) Dismissed thus far on the grounds of being ‘too easy’.
  • Using an empty building as a metaphor for its former occupants.
  • Un-noticed flowers on garden shrubs and trees.
  • Fractal patterns in nature, as a metaphor for the ‘invisible forces’ or rule-sets that shape them.
  • Nostalgia for childhood. This could be an extension of my ‘shoes’ images, perhaps using other children’s clothes or old toys. There is a precedent in Jodie Taylor’s ‘Memories of Childhood’ series; although hers is more apparently realistic than my approach, both are ultimately staged.
  • Snapshot-aesthetic photographs, adding text to describe the things experienced by the senses other than sight. The precedent here is Duane Michals’ ‘There are things here not seen in this photograph’
  • Roadside memorials to accident victims, adopting a Paul Seawright ‘Sectarian Murders’ approach with images, research and text.
  • A series of images taken with an infrared camera. Dismissed as being ‘too easy’ and a bit gimmicky.
  • The mess occasionally left by (unseen) foxes in the garden.

Of the nine possibilities, two (wind and infrared imaging) are already dismissed as ‘too easy’, to which I would also add the ‘below the radar’ small flowers. The empty building suffers from logistical difficulties (finding a building that I can access legally) and the fox calling-cards leave too much to chance.

Of the remaining four, I will start to work-up the childhood nostalgia and the roadside memorials ideas. The roadside memorials is the stronger idea but, on a personal level, I am worried about appearing ghoulish while photographing, particularly those that are in urban areas with people around. The childhood nostalgia is going to need some props as well as locations – sources will be the attic and eBay.

 

 

Photographing the Unseen – Exercise (three OCA alumni)

All references are to the OCA course notes, Context and Narrative, pp 62-68, unless otherwise noted.

Peter Mansell

Pete Mansell is paraplegic from a spinal cord injury sustained at the age of 20. His projects discussed in the course notes deal with the unseen effects of his injury.

The ‘seen’ effects would be comparatively easy to document, with photographs (selfies or taken by others) of Mansell in his wheelchair or coping with daily life. However, the unseen effects are known only to Mansell himself and given shape by his photography. We are given three examples:

Drug Packaging, seen alone, is a simple macro pattern shot of part of a package of drug capsules, with one apparently popped out. A pleasing image with a strong diagonal composition but one likely to be passed by. However, seen as part of Paralysis, a series showing the medication, equipment, scars and infections that are a part of his life at Maslow’s base ‘physiological needs’ level (Mansell is confused with Herzberg’s hygiene factors) gives the viewer some insight into the sheer ‘guttiness’ of living with his kind of injury.

Examining shows us a corner of a room, apparently in a medical institution, with the end of a hospital bed. On the bed is a transfer blanket with carrying handles; it is a reminder that patients, including Mansell, are unable to get onto the bed by themselves but have to be manhandled onto it. This is part of the series, Check Up, which shows us details of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Mansell is very positive about this place and claims an emotional connection; the staff already know the issues so there is no ned to explain. Again, the individual image is only a part of a much greater sum. Each of the nine images in the set has a one-word, ‘…ing’ title; ‘Inspiring’ shows us a portrait on the wall of a wheelchair athlete.

My Space is a stand-alone (if that is not a tasteless word in the circumstances) image, rather than part of a series. It shows the detail of a room, presumably the lounge at home, with part of a door opening, a standard lamp, coffee table/cabinet and one edge of a sofa or armchair. Their is a chair-width length of blank wall and the coffee table is pulled away from the wall, creating a space into which a wheelchair could fit. This is not a wasted space – it is there to accommodate Pete Mansell’s wheelchair, not there at the moment, because Mansell is sitting in it to take the photograph. We are reminded of the adjustments to daily life that are required to accommodate disability; we assume that other rooms have similar dedicated spaces.

Dewald Botha

Dewald Botha is, with Mansell, a member of [6], a group of OCA alumni who started collaborating as undergraduates. Ring Road is a set that, at one level, is of a subject very much ‘seen’. It shows the concrete structures of a raised roadway around the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, China. However, Botha tells us (in a brief website caption) that he is using the road as a metaphor for boundaries and limitations. Boundaries are usually visible, limitations often are not. One distinction is that a boundary is a physical constraint, whereas a limitation is a mental one.

I have more difficulty extracting meaning from this set than from Mansell’s work. For instance, if he is ‘searching for pockets of calm and quiet’, why do several of the images show the road surface itself, near junctions (one with oncoming traffic stopped at a signal on the top-left third-point of the image). Other images show greenery (apparently tended) around and below the road structures, indicating that these are spaces that somebody cares for. I can also get the sense of ‘boundary’ or ‘limitation’, from the view that any ring-road (even the M25) necessarily separates inside from outside of itself and imposes a restriction on growth of the urban centre. I suppose, in the context of the present exercise, I am having trouble seeing the unseen.

Jodie Taylor

Jodie Taylor’s series Memories of Childhood was also referenced in Expressing Your Vision, Assignment 1 (Square Mile). Unfortunately, her learning blog no longer exists and a Google search reveals that there are several Jodie Taylors with a web presence as photographers (plus an Arsenal footballer), so it has not been possible to find the full set and I must rely on the description and three images presented in the weareoca blog posting.

The premise can be simply stated. Photography represents the past as soon as the shutter is clicked (Barthes, Berger, Sontag and others have made similar points) and we become nostalgic about it. Taylor’s series is about that nostalgia, provoked by moving back into a house that she grew up into. The surviving images are of rather scruffy, intimate areas (two paths/alleys and a row of domestic galleries). These are the sort of places that evoke memories of school summer holidays and teenagers simply ‘hanging out’. I have memories of attempting to ride a friend’s motorcycle outside just such a set of garages and, doubtless, other viewers will recall a first cigarette or a first kiss (I’m keeping it clean here). Reading the weareoca posting, I see that it has evoked similar memories in Sharon, the reviewer.

Taylor tells us that this is to be a ‘fine art-based project’ but presented it as a set of machine-prints from 35mm in a cheap plastic album with ‘warts and all’ scratches an blemishes. I am unable to reconcile ‘fine art’ (or at least my vision of it) with the scruffy approach, but I have to admit that it will work on a conceptual level as further context to evoke nostalgia – which was the point of the exercise. This comes back to the question of the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ that my tutor has referred to, and which will have to be the subject of a future posting. However, I wonder about the artificiality or contrivance of the approach. If a set old old prints were found in a shoebox in the attic it would invoke genuine nostalgia; is that a different thing from deliberately trying to manufacture it?

Coursework questions

Which of these projects resonates most with you, and why?

It is easy to pick out the ‘third place’. I had difficulty engaging with Botha’s Ring Road, for reasons noted above.

Jodie Taylor’s and Pete Mansell’s work resonated in different ways and for different reasons. Taylor evoked direct memories; Mansell gives me a vision of an alternative past and present. We have probably all had traffic accident near-misses; is this how life would be if something had been only a few inches or a few seconds different? If deciding between them, I would go for Mansell because I have been able to find more of his work online and, therefore, to engage better.

How do you feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images you have created?

Some years before starting the degree course, I read Terry Barrett’s Criticising Photographs and was annoyed at his statement that the photographer’s interpretation of an image was no more nor less valid than the viewer’s [reference to be added when I find it on re-reading]. I assume that this is what the questioner means by loss of authorial control. While studying over the past 16 months, I have come to revise that opinion. The viewer is an integral part of the subject/photographer/image/viewer sequence and will extract his/her own meaning from the image. However, the viewer can only react to what is in front of him/her; it is the photographer who places it there.

My nearest experience of this loss of authorial control must be competition nights at my camera club when the judge comments on my entered images. Sometimes, the judge will interpret the image very differently from me and I might seethe ‘he’s missed the bloody point’. In many cases, mature reflection shows me an alternative or deeper meaning that I did not fully appreciate at the time of taking. I don’t have to like it, but it is often instructive.