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 ‘proto-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 …


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.


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 Gwendoline 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.


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.


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?