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.

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.

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Reference

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.

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source: dcmooresgallery.com

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.

roadside-memorial

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.