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.

Photographing the Unseen – ‘invisible rays’ and vulpine calling-cards

‘Invisible rays’

Objects are ‘seen’ by the action of visible light reflecting from them and into the eye or the camera lens. In October 1910, the RPS Journal published, for the first time photographs taken with ‘invisible rays’, radiation from other parts of the spectrum. (Finney 2010). In principle, what these images show are invisible aspects of their subjects. I have photographed in the near-infrared on film and written about it in the RPS Analogue Group journal (vol2, members subscription only). A problem is the modern ‘infra-red’  films are better described as ‘extended red sensitivity’ as they extend only a short distance into the infrared and are used with a dark red (R72) filter, rather than the totally opaque filter of the discontinued Kodak HIE film. Therefore, photographs taken with these films partly show ‘seen’ as well as unseen aspects of the subject.

Better results can be made with a converted digital camera. Digital sensors are sensitive further into the near-infrared than current films, and cameras typically have a built-in infrared-blocking filter. Several companies offer conversion services, removing the blocking filter and replacing it with some form of IR-passing filter, at a cost in the region of £300 to convert a typical DSLR. As a proof-of-concept exercise, I have bought an IR-converted point-and-shoot compact (£120 from ‘infraready’ trading on eBay), and am pleased with the results. The camera has an 850nm cut-off filter, which means that its range starts some way from where current ‘infrared’ films peter out, and is similar to that of HIE.

The basic shapes ‘seen’ by the camera are the same as we see by visible light, but there are some tonal shifts (in addition to the obvious two) as surface finishes respond differently. The two major effects are the darkening of skies (Rayleigh-scattered blue light has very little IR) and the lightening of foliage due to the Wood effect (internal reflections and scattering of IR in plant cells is similar to visible light in ice crystals, so foliage ‘sparkles’ under infrared (Finney 2010)).

To make this work as a response to the assignment would require some special aspect of the ‘unseen’, rather than simply photographing ordinary scenes and exploiting a cool look. IR is useful in identifying diseased plants, because healthy cells respond differently from diseased cells, but I am unlikely to find sufficient practical examples.

Vulpine calling-cards

Our garden is regularly visited by foxes, but seeing them is rare (and having the opportunity to photograph them is rarer). However, they often leave evidence of their presence as they attack birds and scavenge dustbins, and visit the sheltered verandah on rainy nights.

A set of images of the debris they leave would say something about the (unseen) animals and their habits.



Finney, A. (2010). A Century of Infrared Photography. In: R. Reynolds, ed., Portfolio Two, 1st ed. Bath: Royal Photographic Society, pp.110-115.

Photographing the Unseen – a couple of random jottings.

The first topic is one that I have mused on often, and occasionally tried to explain to non-photographers.

A human and a camera ‘see’ things in entirely different ways, which explains why holiday snaps are often disappointing. It is not possible to draw a direct parallel between the human eye and a camera lens.

It is not simply the eye that sees the scene in front of us; it is both eyes, connected to the 30 giganeuron parallel-processing device that we carry between our ears. The eyes scan the scene and the brain maintains in real-time a 360 degree, 3-D, moving, fully-focused, colour HDR model of our visible environment. Of course, the eyes are not the only input to the model; it is augmented by sounds, smells and sensations (temperature, wind, vertigo etc.)

In contrast, the camera produces a 2-D still image with limited depth-of-field. The images it produces are necessarily limited compared with the full experience because they are detached from all of the non-visual sensations. The Moroccan souk no longer has the sounds, buffeting and aromas. The Grand Canyon no longer has the 3-D input and sense of vertigo. It is part of the skill of the photographer that we find devices (differential focus, foreground interest, motion blur etc.) to compensate and add interest.

I was reminded of this by one of Duane Michals’ images that I came across while researching for a previous posting.


The text is Michals’ way of introducing the ‘unseen’, those elements of the scene that do not make it into the photographic image.

The second topic is a further idea for a response to the assignment brief.

For reasons that aren’t obvious (even to me), I have been more aware than usual of roadside ‘shrines’ or memorials to people who have died in road accidents. These things are all individual, sometimes just flowers, often adding personal memorabilia, photographs and cards. These shrines are metaphors for absence, memory, mourning and (perhaps) some anger. Rather than a headstone (which marks where a funeral took place, the shrines mark the place where a person was last alive.


There is controversy about these memorials. Some say that they have a positive effect on road safety, as drivers slow down; others say they are a distraction. Local authorities, and highways authorities, have had to develop policies about how to deal with them, linking sensitivity to considerations of safety. Some that I have found will allow memorials to stay in place for 13 months, to allow the family to mark the anniversary of the tragedy, before removing them.

If I pick up on this theme as the basis of Assignment Two, it will have to be more than simply a set of photographs. I envisage a ‘Sectarian Murders’ approach, with accompanying text saying something about the person and/or the circumstances of the death. That will mean reading cards and notes, and trawling contemporary news reports for information.

Exercise – responding to a poem

Choose a poem that resonates with you then interpret it through photographs. Don’t attempt to describe the poem but instead give a sense of the feeling of the poem and the essence it exudes.  (C&N course notes p60)

Time for another admission of philistinism; poetry does not feature particularly large in my life or upbringing. I tend to prefer comic verse and doggerel to more ‘serious’ poetry. One exception, and the only poem ever to make me cry on reading it is Spike Milligan’s The Children of Aberfan, from the 1972 collection, Small Dreams of a Scorpion. I was a primary school child in 1966, the same age of many of those that died, and the news reports gave me nightmares which may explain my reaction when I first came across the poem.

And now they will go wandering
Away from coal black earth,
The clean white children,
holy as the Easter rose,
Away from the empty sludge-filled desks,
Away from the imprisoned spring
that opened its mouth
To breathe air
and moved a black mountain to find it.


Away they shall go – the children,
wandering – wondering
more loved
more wanted
than ever.


I don’t burn coal any more.

A literal interpretation would not be possible without a logistical exercise on a Gregory Crewdson scale (which would be tasteless) but it occurs to me that, in a more general sense, this is a poem about loss of children and the loss of childhood.

My wife has kept the first pair of ‘proper shoes’ that each of our children (now aged 27 to 33) wore; I feel that the empty shoes make a good metaphor for lost or nostalgically-remembered childhood. I tried a series of still-life set-ups in the house and the garden, with varying degrees of success. Here are the contact sheets.


Most of the images in sheets 8 and 9 were intended for a planned composite image involving a fireplace, footprints and shoes but I didn’t follow it up because the footprint images were unsatisfactory and I was very pleased with the still-lifes.

I applied the same post-processing treatment to all the images in an attempt to give a faded, nostalgic feel (white vignette, vaguely high-key processing, warmed-up colour balance and slight desaturation) with a degree of success. This exercise is also a basis for a possible response to Assignment Two (Photographing the Unseen)



My favourite image from the set is below, one of a series with shoes placed in a bed of forget-me-nots (themselves a metaphor for nostalgia and remembrance) and one which I believe captures the essence of Milligan’s second stanza.



Milligan, S. (1972). Small Dreams of a Scorpion. 1st ed. Penguin.

Combining text and image

The course notes introduce three more photographers whose projects intertwine text and image. In these cases, image and text are not inseparable but there is a clear symbiotic relationship – the text effects the reading of the image, and the image gives meaning to the text.

Kaylynn Deveney

The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings is a collaboration between Deveney and her octogenarian neighbour, Bert Hastings. Bert, living alone, had developed a routine and rhythm in life.

In the best Ronseal tradition, this series ‘does what it says on the tin’ and pictures the routine and banality of Bert’s everyday life, but Deveney would then give prints to Bert and he would write a note or a sentence to accompany it: sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes whimsical.  It could be said that many of the texts are anchorage (“My inevitable cuppa char”) but taken across the entire series, the effect is mainly relay.

Text and image form the context for each other and overall I feel that I know Bert.

Karen Knorr

Gentlemen, in common with Knorr’s other 1980s series Belgravia (encountered early in EYV) and Country Life, is presented as a series of high-quality monochrome prints with accompanying text. Knorr’s text style is unusual, with unconventional capitalisation and a deliberate splitting of the text into short lines giving the appearance of blank verse.



Gentlemen presents a caricature of life in the gentlemen’s clubs of St James’ in central London. The text gives a first impression of anchorage but on closer reading is almost pure relay. The series reminded me of the cartoons  of Glen Baxter; although the subject matter is different, the sense of humour and dislocation is very similar.

Duane Michals

Many of Duane Michals’ individual images and short series have the artist’s handwritten text on the face of the image. Mostly, these are rather quirky relay comments (I particularly enjoyed the 1998 series Madam Schrödinger’s Cat, but perhaps that is the Physics A-level speaking) but the two reproduced below show an element of anchorage. Both are rather long texts, in the context of Michals’ other work and both are self-referential – in both cases, they are comments about the nature of the photograph itself and only indirectly about its subject.





References (n.d.). Duane Michals – Artists – DC Moore Gallery. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Deveney, K. (n.d.). The Day to Day Life of Albert Hastings. [online] KayLynn Deveney Photographer. Available at: [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Knorr, K. (2014). Gentlemen | Karen Knorr. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Strecker, A. (n.d.). Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals – Photographs by Duane Michals | LensCulture. [online] LensCulture. Available at: [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Soph-istry (research point)

This posting considers works by two Sophies, or one Sophie (Calle) and one Sophy (Rickett). Although the context of the research point is the relationship between image and text, both works are multimedia installations including other material and other forms of expression.

The moral of ‘Take Care of Yourself’ by Sophie Calle (Chrisafis 2007, Fisher 2009) is that, if you are in a relationship with a conceptual artist, don’t end it with dumping her by email. The title comes from he final sentence of X’s email and the exhibition as a whole represents the infernal ire of the proverbial woman scorned.

Calle showed the letter to 107 women (or 106 women and a parrot), asked each to respond to it according to her own profession and recorded, filmed or displayed the results. The parrot ate it, a sharpshooter shot out the word ‘love’ in the three places it appeared, an actor and a clown gave their own readings, a graphic artist turned it into origami, a copy editor deconstructed the grammar and spelling , and so forth… The exhibition is a mix of photos and text, together with video screens and physical objects (such as the sharpshooters target, with the holes illuminated by LEDs).

One reviewer (Fisher 2009) tells us: ‘Wittgenstein once proposed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” If that is the case, then Calle’s work translates the broader feminine experience into a formalized world of possibilities. The “answers” are less important than the forms of engagement and investigation, the invitation to construct meaning.’

Sophy Rickett’s ‘Objects in the Field’, by contrast, tackles a seemingly more objective subject – her time as Artist Associate to the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. In particular, there is interaction between Rickett and Dr Roderick Willstrop, a retired astronomer and designer of one of the telescopes in use at the Institute.

The exhibition was a mix of photographs and text, displayed in an environment including historic and ancient astronomical equipment which provides a context. The text, reproduced in full by Johnston (2014) drifts in and out of relevance to the images. The early part deals with Rickett’s childhood experience with optical equipment having her eyes tested and being fitted with glasses; the central part tells of her encounters with Dr Willstrop; the final section is distinctly tangential, describing something seen from a train window.

The images include a set called ‘Observations’, which are prints from a set of negatives produced in Dr Willstrop’s telescope. From an interview with Sharon Boothroyd (2013) Rickett I get the impression that there was a mutual regard and also a mutual im=ncomprehension between the two, “So the work came to be about a kind of symbiosis on the one hand, but on the other there is a real tension, a sense of us resisting one another.  The material in the middle stays the same, but it’s kind of contested, fought over.”  Willstrop saw the photographs as scientific research (albeit out of date) and Rickett saw them as art objects (although checking with Willstrop to ensure that she did not misrepresent them)

The reviews that I found are surprisingly similar, even to sharing the same imprecision about the title. To quote Franchi (2014), although others use almost identical wording, ‘The name of “Objects in the Field” comes from the lexicon used by astronomers and astrophysicists that refers to stars as ‘objects’ and to the sky as ‘the field’.’ Rather than plagiarising each other, I suspect they were all quoting from a press release. In an astronomical context ‘objects’ are not only stars, but also planets, nebulae and comets (all of which feature in the ‘Observations’ series) and ‘the field’ is the field of view of the telescope.

We are asked to comment on how these two bodies of work reflect post modern approaches to narrative. This, of course, means first attempting to understand what is meant by a ‘postmodern approach’. I am assisted by Andy Grundberg’s essay ‘The Crisis of the Real’ as summarised by Ashley la Grange (la Grange 2005). Grundberg notes that ‘post-modernism’ means different things in different artistic media, having originated in architecture.

‘Post-modern’ is an odd term to understand because ‘Modern’ describing a particular period in various arts including photography (roughly the first three-quarters of the 20th century) means something different from ‘modern’ in everyday speech (meaning ‘up to date’ or ‘state-of-the-art’). when modern modes fell out of vogue, it was necessary to invent a term meaning ‘more modern than modern’, hence ‘post-modern’.

Post-modernism, according to Grundberg is a reaction against the certainties implied by Modernism in the various arts (my analogy is the TV programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’ as presented by Judith Hahn, compared with the Raymond Baxter era – but perhaps I am showing my age). Critics argued that post-modernism must debunk or ‘deconstruct’ the myths of the autonomous individual and the individual subject, but they disagree on how to do it. Approaches include mixed media or a feeling that the media do not matter so long as the work is defined in cultural terms (Grundberg, in la Grange 2005, 151).

My impression is that, while post-modernism has manifold forms, the common approach appears to be to look for underlying assumptions or certainties, then to challenge or subvert them. This seems to be what both Calle and Rickett are doing in their own way. Both exhibitions used text (and other media) in a relay relationship with the images, rather than the anchorage that was the norm in earlier times. Both are self-indulgent to some extent (Calle more than Rickett). Both appear to demand that the viewer does some work to extract [his/her own version of] the full meaning.


Boothroyd, S. (2013). Sophy Rickett. [online] photoparley. Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].

Chrisafis, A. (2007). Interview: Sophie Calle. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 26 Apr. 2017].

Fisher, C. (2009). Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Apr. 2017].

Franchi, D. (2014). Exhibition Object in the Field by Sophy Rickett at the Grimaldi Gallery, London.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].

Johnston, S. (2014). Sophy Rickett: Objects in the Field. [online] Inside MHS Oxford. Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].

la Grange, A. (2005). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. 1st ed. Oxford: Focal Press.

The Photographers’ Gallery. (2014). Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].