Banality

Things are not going well with the diary. Before my gap in blog postings (day job getting in the way, then procrastination delaying a restart) I managed 11 days worth (at 2-3 pages per day) before abandoning it. Having picked it up to re-read, I am confirmed in my first opinion – bloody hell, it is boring. About two-thirds of it relates to work or weather. Mostly a list of event and not a lot of ‘deep innermost thoughts’.

It was, therefore, a relief and a bit of an eye-opener to get this from my tutor:

“As for ‘boring’ that’s a good thing in my opinion. Most of the best photos come through refection on the Everyday mundanity of life. A look at a certain strategy (and some critical readings) should make you aware that representing the mundane is a way of counteracting the idea of photographs of ‘spectacular’ and eye catching things – which soon become cliches and don’t stand the test of time.”

He also sent an article (Shinkle, 2004) which will take two or three more readings to get my head around. I have always regarded ‘banal’ as a bad thing in photography. Seeing it presented as a good thing or a valid strategy is interesting – if that is not an oxymoron.

Reference

Shinkle, E. (2004) ‘Boredom, Repetition, Inertia: Contemporary Photography and the Aesthetics of the Banal’. Mosaic 37 (4), pp.165-183.

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Photographing the Unseen – tutor feedback and response

I have now received formative feedback from Garry, my tutor.  Full document here. Edited feedback and responses below. Garry’s notes in blue, my responses in black.

Overall Comments

Very well presented work on the unseen Roadside Memorials (and inclusion of prints is a plus). Responded well to the ‘unseen’ effect and context of public remembering and private ‘memorials’. A subject that has been done before in the aftermath theme by many others (Simon Norfolk, Richard Misrach, Joel Sternfeld and as you highlight Paul Seawright ) but you approached in a more constructed way.

Thank you. I was aware of the Paul Seawright and Richard Misrach works, and I know of other work by Joel Sternfeld – worth researching further. I suppose I ‘do’ constructed work; it is part of my science/engineering background and Garry has made similar comments before.

Your inclusion of text and the subtle ways text and image can interact and play off each other is well formed. Particularly noteworthy is the presentation: prints on a kind of parchment type paper which (whether intentionally or not) has associations of an archival document – presented in a presentation box for viewing. This has all the hallmarks of a classifying system and you should delve deeper into this idea – from the nineteenth century onwards which creates a tension between the personal and familial memories of the loved ones left behind as memorial and the larger ‘collective memory’ of public reminders of tragedy viewed by anonymous mourners.

Interesting. I made a point of using a matt ‘art paper’ (Permajet Portrait White) because that seems to be what is expected (and I like the finish) but the ‘presentation box’ is actually just an A4 paper box, which I used to protect the prints for posting. I will take this as a cue and, at assessment time, I will make up either a box or a folder cover.

I’m not sure about ‘classifying’ but I can understand that producing a dedicated container give the impression of a ‘set’ in a way that a bunch of loose prints doesn’t. Is this the appeal of the family photograph album, compared with the shoebox full of Boots envelopes?

Text is well expressed but could do with some defining of terms earlier on, centred around aftermath and memory themes. Don’t presume you are talking to the same knowledgable viewer so signal your intent, as well as a more visual ‘showing what you are showing’ in regards particularly in regard to the contact prints. Show the process of decision making visually and reflect on it in the blog / leaning log.

Hmmm… maybe a bit of inconsistency within OCA here. My target audience is knowledgeable (tutor and assessors) so I did not feel the need to define terms that have been presented to me in the course materials. If writing or presenting to a different audience (for instance, if describing an OCA course to camera club members) I would use different language and start from a lower level of presumed knowledge.

“Show your working” is something that Garry has fed back before, and something that I must try harder to do.

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity

• Introduce this notion of ‘unseen’ as being central to questioning one of the basic tenets of photography (its ‘indexicality’) and the difference between objective documentary ‘realism’ and how artists using photography might ‘express’ themselves. How do we photograph things that are essentially invisible (like feelings, memory etc).

Noted for the assessment rework. There will be an introductory paragraph.

• Would be useful to summarise your ‘examples of the unseen’ with the theme and approach that they use – for example your comments on ‘snapshot aesthetic’ of senses. You could apply the same method of description to empty buildings (aftermath theme) and roadside memories (personal / collective memory and aftermath theme)

Noted for the assessment rework. My first blog posting was an attempt at classification, although subsequent postings and the printed assignment notes became simply a list of ideas. Worth grouping and classifying again.

Technical and visual

Well executed. Excellent print quality (love the matt document effect). You could consider perhaps:

• was that time of day appropriate (direction of sun falling on flowers and given depth of field to the scene – a preliminary recce with an iPhone is good idea for this as is using web sites such as weather underground or apps such as photographers’ ephemeris to plan ahead (see – Readings)

OK, I confess. I only made one visit to each site, and dealt with whatever conditions I found there. I was uncomfortable about being there at all and wanted to get ‘in and out’ without being challenged. I then relied on software to produce useable images.

I know and have used The Photographers’ Ephemeris before, usually on holiday when planning a revisit to a scene.

Shutter speed. A personal preference but don’t pictures taken at a fairly high shutter speed of passing cars make them look like they are parked? Perhaps a little blur – experimenting with shutter from 8th to 60th to see the extent would have been stronger. It would also imply the ‘compassion fatigue’ of general public as cars pass by the memorial of a tragedy that is once removed from their own lives.

Looking back at the EXIF data, I see that all images were taken in aperture-priority automatic on a compact (Canon G-1X) with a smallish sensor. Shutter speeds were between 1/60 and 1/800. This is my ‘snapshot default’ setting and it may be that the images would have benefitted from something more considered.

Depth of Field/focus

As last assignment feedback: outline your process here and in the blog. Could you do some tests and include them?

• This kind of work probably needs maximum depth of field on most of them (Christopher Wakeman, Stuart Wikens, Philip Baker, Lenne sad Marie, Jane Hobbs, Leane Culver) less so for Mark Whalley (which is kind of abstracted) and Osvaldas Mimsa (where you show the attention to the written scrawls on the post).

My inclination is in the other direction. The photograph used in my blog posting introducing the idea has a very shallow depth of field, and isolates the memorial from the surrounding scene and traffic that way.

• Of course you can adopt a variety of approaches and understand that some of these you are drawing attention to the flowers as memorials but they can be done by making the viewer work and slowing down the viewer’s gaze (which maximum d.o.f does – as the viewer tends to consider the whole internal context of the image rather than being led by the imposition of the photographer. This is the difference between gaze and glance and the strategies employed – in differing ways by Frank and Evans (see Papageorge in – assignment 1 – Readings)

Hmmm…. I quite like leading the viewer’s gaze (which I do using contrast and exposure tricks in this set). Is this a ‘camera club influence’ that needs exorcising? Certainly, it is a dominant theme of camera club judges’ comments. “Gaze versus glance” is a topic for a future blog posting.

Creativity

Justify your approach. So for example “Many were taken in harsh sunshine” say why. Forensic Gaze? As you could have chosen a different time of day to firstly avoid post production as well as link with the ‘metaphor’. This is why recce first shoot research and notation on contacts is a good move for this kind of work (its not an ‘event’ that you can’t come back to the following day and revise.

Valid point. Personal discomfort/unease triumphing over due consideration.

Contact Sheets

The contact sheet again lacks notation. Difficult to do I understand. You have shown in some sense a variety of approaches (IMG_8653) as a contextual view then (IMG-8654) as a more ‘illustrative’ strait document. This conceptual thinking is proving useful, although the main body of exploration presents alternatives of essentially the same composition and visual stance. Could have in this process (as I think response in the blog by peers suggests) offered yourself alternative visual stances (such as the views of memorials you have decided on and a more front facing ‘forensic’ view whilst you are on the same location. I think your response works (you justify it) but seem to have made those decisions a priori before exploring them with your camera. At this stage use the idea of contact prints as a visual recce (which may include having to re-shoot one you have mulled over the edit). Its leaning the visual approaches and documenting them through process.

In my film/darkroom days, I did use contact sheets a lot more, and marked them up with ‘select’ and rough crops. However, that is not the way that I work in digital; I make decisions based on on-screen grids of images (grid views in Lightroom and Bridge) which are the electronic, and ephemeral, analogues of contact sheets. Producing marked-up printouts seems artificial; not so much “show your working” as “construct a post-hoc version of your working”.

‘Exploring with the camera’ is pretty much standard practice (it is embarrassing to see the image count sometimes) but I do like to do some editing before pressing the button (Garry’s ‘a priori decisions’)

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

Context

Well written proposal on memorials, metaphor and ‘the nature of remembrance and its tokens’

Thank you.

• When describing this work in text do define key terms (such as Anchorage and Relay) briefly. I understand its a response to the course material but see the write up or ‘statement of intent’ that you would send to an editor or curator as separate document where key theoretical terms should be defined first.

I’m probably influenced here by the EYV course notes, which set maximum word-counts, therefore requiring some economy in writing. If I am assuming a more ‘lay’ reader than hitherto, and if there is no strict word limit (apart from a personal preference not to be prolix) then I will define key terms.

• The ‘open’ text is strong as it leave the viewer to make interpretations without illustration. As you say in the blog: “The viewer is an integral part of the subject/ photographer/image/viewer sequence and will extract his/her own meaning from the image”

• As above, the blog needs a little reworking to show the summary of your research. Such ‘insights’ as your re-addressing of Terry Barrett could possibly be summarised at the top (or in a separate ‘learning log’ menu. In other words use the blog as a ‘repository’ off found material research and responses to eh exercises then summarise. This means reviewing what you have found and making judgments on it which are used to ‘inspire’ or contextualise your practice work. That’s reflective leaning. Many students see ‘research’ as simply collating information without the analysis. Its on it sway but could do with ‘signalling’ so that assessors can quickly see your ‘journey’.

I assume this means short-form write-ups under the ‘Research & Reflection’ menu heading, possibly sub-dividing the ‘Other notes’ sub-heading.

Valid suggestion. I tend to read something, say “OK, that was interesting” and then move on. A bit of retrospection would be valuable.

• Peer review in OCA forums is good. Take what you need from this but of course use your own judgment and justify your approach (which you have done). I agree that a front facing ‘forensic’ gas might have been useful. Do not however negate the approach you have taken. Try both and make judgements in the contact editing stage with a view to revising and updating. This kind of work should be re-visited as you progress.

My standard approach to feedback, whether peer review, camera club judge or tutor, is to spend a bit of time with it, try out the suggestions, then make my own decisions.

Suggested reading/viewing

Edited out of this posting, but added to my reading list.

Pointers for the next assignment

• Make more of the developmental and critical choices you make when working with a ‘contact sheet’ study examples (above). Make the contact sheet show the process of decision making and mark making from the different viewpoints

Artificial, but I will try.

Critical analysis of images (as above).

Important. I do try it with individual images in blog postings, but I need to do it more.

 

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.