Assignment 5 – starting to mind map

This is an exercise in using mind-mapping to explore and explain the creative process. Here is the mind-map so far.

Constructed Image mindmap 1

The bad news is that I have no idea branches for ‘subject’ yet.

Equipment choices should become clearer once the subject and general treatment emerge. The one decision made is the use of digital rather than film cameras. I enjoy film and have used it for both OCA and camera club work (and some images in my LRPS panel were made with a 1934-vintage Ikonta) but I will be going digital for radical reasons – the facility for immediate review, amendment and re-shooting will be vital.

The technique branch is sketchy. I should also draw a sub-branch for location shooting, but I am unlikely to adopt it because of the lack of control of pictorial elements and lighting. The alternatives are ‘stage set’ (constructing the contextual background in front of the camera) or montage (constructing it in post-production). I am happier with my Photoshop skills than my large-scale construction skills, so I will probably go for montage.

In the context branch, I am torn between a realistic setting or an imaginary one. Imaginary will be more fun’ realistic will be easier.


Assignment 3 – camera club epilogue

So far, I have kept my OCA work and my camera club (Invicta PC) images separate. It is a bit like introducing your friends to your family, or vice versa, and hoping each set doesn’t embarass you in front of the other. The two worlds are very different, and I have noticed a bit of scorn poured in both directions.

Camera club image judging is very much about the aesthetics and the formal and technical elements of the image, almost entirely ignoring context. However, in my opinion, the best of club work is better composed and of higher technical quality than I have seen in some ‘art world’ exhibitions. They are different and I hope to learn from the best of both.

With that in mind, I entered five of my assignment 3 images in Invicta’s ‘panel of prints’ competition last night. I left out ‘the camera collector’ because it is too similar to ‘the photographer’. They were displayed in a single row of five prints.

Hanging plan selfies

In addition to the expected ‘he looks like a dodgy character’ comments, I had several members telling me how much they liked the set (and one on Facebook telling me I had missed out the police mugshot).

The judge’s comments were interesting. He started with the assumption that the panel was entered as humour. This could be a rare example of external context entering the judging – I was present and well known to everybody. He also picked up on the overall narrative of the set, that we all play many parts, and liked that I had put ‘the day job’ in the centre of the panel (which was pure happenstance). His treatment of formal elements went much beyond my intentions, commenting on things like the similarity of hand positions in images 2 and 4, and 1 and 5.

Altogether a positive experience and something I will do again. I’m not sure how my ‘roadside memorial’ set (assignment 2) would go down, though.

Assignment 5 – Initial thoughts

Gosh, I thought the brief for assignment 3 was open! This one is simply to construct a stand-alone image (or a series if I fancy it) of my choice.

On the one hand, this is a tremendously freeing brief (if it can be considered a brief at all). On the other, it is similar to the primary school English exercise of “Write a story – anything you like”, which used to fill me with dread and immediately drain my imagination.

OK, let’s look closer. The operative word is ‘construct’ and I note, in flicking through the pages of part 5 to get to the assignment brief, that I will be looking at the works of Crewdson, Wall and Sherman (among others) which sets up an expectation of producing a highly-controlled narrative in visual form.

“If the narrative is to be set in a different era…” means that we are not necessarily expected to produce something that looks modern or contemporary, so all of history together with science fiction and fantasy are available as backdrops. Pros and cons; a fantasy image would be fun to do but there is more work involved in getting costumes and settings right.

We are not told that the final image has to result from a single capture, so montage or composite images are fair game. I feel an attack of surrealism coming on, but won’t be making final decisions until part-way through studying part 5

Assignment 4 – submission and reflection

My assignment 4 essay is now complete and submitted to my tutor for comment.

Download a copy here

Reflection against assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills

I’m not sure to what extent this criterion can be applied to an essay. I believe my command of the language is pretty good. I hope my comments indicate an appropriate level of observational skills.

Quality of outcome

Again, this is a written rather than a visual piece of work. I believe I have applied knowledge gleaned from McCullin’s autobiography, other published sources and my own reading of the image, and communicated it in good, clear English.


Is it possible to be creative in a review piece? I believe I have expressed myself with more flair in the first half (historic background and the formal elements of the image) than the second half (placing it in its contemporary context)


I should be at the C (good/average) level, and it would be nice to think that a friendly assessor would rate it B (good)

Assignment 4 – Mind map

I have occasionally attempted mind-mapping for essay planning, although always hand-drawn so far. I have used this exercise as an opportunity to test-drive  a piece of commercial mind-map software. This diagram is my mind-map for a critical essay on Don McCullin’s 1958 ‘Guv’nors’ image.

McCullin Guv'nors mindmap

The software is fairly easy to use – this was my first attempt and there were not many false starts – but not as flexible as I would like. It forces a hierarchical tree, with no obvious way of exploring links between ‘twigs’ attached to different ‘branches’ (my terminology). Where the software scores over paper thought-collection is that it is possible to build-up the diagram over a period of days, slotting-in semi-random thoughts as they occur and modifying the diagram to make everything fit.

Now that the free trial period is over, I will be purchasing the full version and hope to make better use of it over the remainder of my OCA studies.

Assignment 4 – a bit of structure

Having selected an image (McCullin’s street gang) that should easily sustain a 1000-word essay, it is time to think about the essay structure. Available guidance is not actually contradictory – there is common ground and a broad consensus – but every prospective mentor has a different approach and (apparently) a different set of priorities.

Barrett (2006) gives the most complete overview, with his note that all criticism does one or more of the following:

  • Description: This includes statements about the photograph’s subject matter and formal construction, and also its external context and ‘causal environment’ (although I would suggest that this latter category shades into interpretation). In the absence of the image itself, accurate description is an essential basis for any kind of meaningful criticism.
  • Interpretation: To interpret something is to give it meaning, or (taking my more cynical view) to explain and advocate the reviewer’s understanding of its meaning. There are numerous approaches to interpretation: Barrett himself (1986 and 2006, 65-105) suggests categorising the photograph as a starting point. Salkeld (2014) and the OCA course notes promote a semiotic approach. Others consider the historical context in which the photograph was made, or the photographer’s intent (although Barrett warns against what he calls ‘the intentionalist fallacy’)
  • Evaluation: To evaluate a photograph is to make statements about its worth or value. In order to do so, one needs first to establish the criteria for evaluation and, second, to offer objective reasons why (in the reviewer’s opinion) the image succeeds or fails against those criteria.
  • Theorising: Theorising looks beyond the image notionally under discussion and uses it as a starting point to consider what Barrett calls the ‘big questions’

There is a useful guide to understanding photographs, produced by my tutor, Garry Clarkson (unreferenced), which divides into four categories, mainly covered by Barrett’s functions of description and interpretation.

  • Visual: deals with the formal elements and composition
  • Technical: the techniques used by the photographer, camera format, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, lighting etc. whether stated by the photographer (e.g. in a caption  in a photobook) or assessed/guesstimated by the reviewer.
  • Contextual: historical context, biographical background, psychological effect
  • Conceptual: relationship with other images, connections with reviewer’s own knowledge, ideas communicated.

Salkeld (2014, 45-67) and others introduce the study of semiotics as a guide to interpretation. (I choose Salkeld as my example because he manages to explain the concepts in accessible language, unlike the originators, Derrida and Barthes).

A photographic image contains a set of ‘signs’ which can be ‘decoded’ or interpreted. A ‘sign’ is a link between a ‘signifier’ (what we see in the image) and the ‘signified’ (what we interpret it to mean). Semiotic signs can be arbitrary (e.g. the colour red in road-signs indicates danger or prohibition; text is a set of symbols with meaning in a given language), iconic (the signifier is similar in appearance to the signified) and/or indexical (the signifier is caused by the signified, e.g. smoke caused by fire).

Meaning may be denoted (a literal view of what the signified is) or connoted (ideas suggested by the image but not explicitly denoted. My simplistic interpretation is that ‘denotation tells us what it is, connotation tells us what it means’)

My view at this stage, before mind-mapping in preparation for the essay, is that it will major on description and interpretation. Evaluation would be presumptuous, but might be attempted. I doubt that I will attempt any theorising.


Barrett, T. (1986) ‘A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs’. Studies in Art Education 27, no.2 (Winter 1986), pp.52-60.

Barrett, T.M. (2006) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.

Assignment 4 – another candidate

I have another candidate as the subject for the 1000-word essay. I first saw Don McCullin’s image of a Teddy-boy gang in a bombed-out house some decades ago, when he had a regular column in on of the photographic hobby magazines (I believe it was Amateur Photographer) when it struck a chord as a parallel with my father’s (a direct contemporary of McCullin) stories of growing up in and after the London Blitz. I encountered it more recently when reading his autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour (McCullin 2002), which tells the circumstances of making the image and of its becoming his first published photograph.

This is an image that has not been ‘analysed to death’ but has scope for extended comment under the Barrett (2006) headings of description, interpretation, evaluation and (to a lesser extent) theorising. 1000 words should be possible.


Barrett, T.M. (2006) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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