A Philistine’s progress – on re-reading Terry Barrett

I am currently reading Terry Barrett’s ‘Criticizing Photographs‘ as a prelude to making a serious start on Part Four (Reading Photographs). I will blog a review when I finish it, but I am already finding scope for a bit of personal reflection.

Actually, I am re-reading the book and this is the second copy that I have owned. I originally bought it in 2010 when I had just joined a camera club and was hoping to get some insight into how judges evaluate images on competition nights. I found it useless for that purpose, full of irrelevant and off-topic material and promoting a view of ‘art’ that  I did not recognise, so I disposed of it.

Now, seven years on and two years into the OCA degree course, I have a second copy which I am re-reading with different eyes and finding it quite fascinating. It is dealing with topics that I recognise, and I am now familiar with (or at least have heard of) many of the photographers, critics and photographs that he references.

The point of this post is a realisation that my horizons have broadened since starting this course. I am not knocking camera club judges (and I have seen some snobbish comments about camera clubs on the OCA Facebook and forum pages) but I recognise that there are different ways of looking at photographs. The club approach looks at images in a formal, technical and aesthetic way but does not look behind them at the meaning. Judges will often say that they are only interested in the image as presented, not in the process by which it was made. On the other hand, the technical quality and composition of club competition images is superior to many of the examples that the OCA course promotes. I hope that, by immersing myself into both cultures, I can become a photographer encapsulating the best of both worlds.


Exercise – childhood memory

For this exercise, I am working with ‘found material’ from a family archive (literally). Some years ago I digitised my father’s collection of Kodachrome slides dating between Christmas 1958 and the mid-1970s. My starting point is an image from 1961, taken on my first day at school (despite the passage of 56 years, I can remember the day but not the photograph). It shows my father and his Ford Consul, with me sitting on the bonnet in my new school uniform.

I decided to use this exercise to explore the idea of memory when crystallised into physical form through photography. In particular, I was interested in the various forms it can take. A secondary influence is the ‘Drosté effect‘ where an image is recursively repeated within itself.

I made a print from the scan and photographed my hand holding it. This represents the photograph in its traditional physical form, a ‘hard copy memory’ as it were, such as we can see in countless family albums of the 20th century.

I then re-photographed the resulting image on my laptop computer screen. This represents the 21st century manifestation, where our memories are held in an insubstantial electronic form and viewed on a screen (computer, tablet or smartphone). Effectively, this is a memory of the way memories used to be kept.


Finally, I uploaded the resulting image to this blog. We now have a memory of a memory, distributed via (and discussed on) social media, which pretty much describes the prevailing current use of photography.

Assignment 3 – more first drafts

Today, I shot ‘The Building Surveyor’ and ‘The Sailor’. Same set-up as before. Here are the contact sheets.

As before, the first group of images is about getting the lighting and framing right. After that, I am The Building Surveyor (the day job) with jacket, clipboard, compact camera and damp meter. The final set are The Sailor, wearing a drysuit and buoyancy aid. After the first few, dry, images I went and sprayed myself in the shower for a bit of verisimilitude (then went back and stood in among a lot of mains-powered flash units!)

These are my shortlist.

And here is the updated set of Avedonians

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One more obvious image to add will be ‘The Friday Night Curry Chef’. Beyond that, things become trickier (The Husband and The Father are defined by reference to other people, not by clothing or props) so I might cheat and stop at a set of six.


I put these images forward for peer review on the OCA Discuss forum and on the OCA student Facebook pages, and one of my coursemates, Kate Aston (Kate513940) suggested going in for much closer detail, using only small parts of me and the props, for example this crop from The Saxophonist:


This is an idea with potential, and I am going to have to work something up and then decide whether to make a change of direction. I suspect that all images will either be hand(s) or partial faces. The only one that might work with feet would be The Sailor (wearing wetboots). Also some decisions on presentation – will high-contrast mono still be appropriate, or should I do something softer and in colour?

Watch this space.

Assignment 3 – some first drafts

And one man in his time plays many parts. (As You Like It: 2,VII)

I have made a start on Assignment 3, the self-portrait exercise, with three of my ‘roles’, photographer, camera collector and saxophonist. Lighting, camera position and settings will be held constant over the series, so pretty much the only variables will be clothing and props. My idea is to keep it deadpan and to emulate the Richard Avedon ‘nowhere for the subject to hide’ look, with contrasty mono and a plain background.

I am working in a very tight space with three lights. Main light is slightly high (30˚ or thereabouts above my eyeline, and slightly left of centre). Fill light is a big soft box on the floor at my feet. I found I got some nasty shadows on the background wall, so I also placed an open-tube light behind my shoulders to illuminate the wall.

Here are the contact sheets.

The first group of images are pilots to sort out lighting and framing. Framing, in particular is ‘interesting’ because the K-1 does not have a fully reversible screen, so I was using it on a tripod, with the self-timer, on a trial and error basis. I eventually left the framing a bit ‘loose’ so that there was room to tidy it up in the final crop. (I know Avedon used the full frame and printed the film rebates, but he had the luxury of being able to frame each subject precisely.)

After that, I have two sets as ‘the photographer’ (with and without the leather jacket) holding the RB67 as naturally as possible. Although some are posed as if taking a photograph, I eventually did not use them because it looks contrived and may be confused with having taken a mirror selfie. I picked up two other cameras for ‘the camera collector but only took two frames. Finally, I was ‘the saxophonist’. I decided against an ‘action shot’ in favour of holding the instrument in a relaxed way – partly, this was instinct and partly a knowledge (from my pub gig photography) that blowing a wind instrument can distort faces.

I selected these images as a shortlist, all cropped to 5×4 proportions and all similarly framed (belt and upwards). The only Lightroom manipulation has been to open up the shadows (move shadows slider well to the right).

Finally, I made my selections, one for each role and made a contrasty mono conversion in Lightroom (increased clarity and contrast, increased luminance in the flesh tones, general tweaking) which I have saved as a user preset titled “Avedon”

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An idea at last – the diary abandoned

Assignment three is about self-portraits; it says so in the opening sentence, “Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit.” The diary, which I have been agonising over and is probably my main reason for procrastinating over getting back to blogging, is just a tool to identify a way in.

My 11 day’s worth of diary was pretty much a chronicle of events, mostly pretty routine, and with no ‘deep innermost thoughts’. However, on re-reading it, I find that although much of life is routine (banal, to pick up on Garry, my tutor’s, comments) I do play several different roles, depending on where I am and who I am with. Of course, I should have been thinking about this all the time – after all, I introduce myself in the right-hand column of this blog (also on Facebook and elsewhere) as

I am a building surveyor, sailor and photographer, but not necessarily in that order.

To that list, I can add, father, husband, occasional saxophone player, Friday night curry chef …

My way forward into this assignment, with approval from my tutor, is to produce a series of self-portraits showing some of the different roles I play. I see this as a deadpan, if not totally banal (I still find that a pejorative word) series. My face will be the constant, with my roles signified by clothing and props. This might look derivative of Keith Greenhough’s ‘Iron Man‘ images on p73 of the course notes, but I plan to strip it back further. My first thought is to take inspiration from Richard Avedon’s approach to his ‘The Family‘ and ‘In the American West‘ series, contrasty monochrome against a plain white background, with frontal lighting, leaving his subjects nowhere to hide. It will be a digital effort, not large-format (I have the LF camera but focusing and actuation become a problem with selfies).

I had considered making this a self-absented series, still-lifes of the clothing and props but I think that would be a gimmick too far. Similarly with mirror selfies, which are already clichéd and the gimmick would detract from the meaning of the image.

Potential roles, identified from the diary (in order of appearance, not importance) are:

  • Building surveyor (‘the day job’)
  • Photographer
  • Photography student (assuming I can differentiate it from ‘photographer’)
  • Video/DVD watcher (is that a role?)
  • Rotarian (really unsure how to show that)
  • Reader of books (again, is it a role?)
  • Saxophone player (well, I make noises that I like)
  • Cryptic crossword solver
  • Occasional cook (top of cooker only, not oven)
  • Sailor and basic dinghy instructor
  • Wrapping wife’s birthday presents (on the day!)

No guidance or prescription on how many images are wanted in the set. I think 5-6 would be plenty. I will try some test shots during next week.

… but is it Art?

This is one of a series of occasional self-reflective posts; in this case, a stranger’s-eye view of this ‘art world’ that I have thrust myself into. I started on the degree course a year ago, in February 2016, having never studied an ‘arts’ subject at any level (even O-level) but with an educational background in science/engineering subjects and a day job in building construction problem-solving. I knew it would be a challenge and push me out of my comfort zone – that is one of the reasons I am doing it.

I have now completed EYV, read a lot, visited exhibitions and lurked (and occasionally contributed to) the OCA forums and other social media outlets, so I have more than my toe dipped in the water. However, I still have a problem with the question, “… but is it Art?” especially when viewing some of the more conceptual ‘works’. I was, therefore interested to come across the following passage in Salkeld (2014,152). The context is a discussion that anything can be a work of art but it does not follow that everything is a work of art.

What these examples have in common is that the institutions and discourses that constitute the art world have validated them.


The problem with this line of reasoning is that it might suggest that a self-serving and elitist clique has defined art in its own terms and is sharing an expensive joke at the expense of the general public. This would be an understandable, but nevertheless very cynical, view!

At present, I do take this ‘understandable’ view, and I do not consider it invalidated because a member of that same clique has described it as ‘cynical. I came to this degree course with a view of ‘art’ similar to the first part of the definition in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “Skill, esp human skill as opposed to nature; skilful execution as an object in itself; skill applied to imitation & design, as in painting etc.;  thing in which skill may be exercised”. Essentially, I have seen art as a supreme expression of a craft or crafts – which explains my impatience with ‘artworks’ that appear to lack or deride the underlying craft skills.

During EYV, as a result of the course notes, tutor feedback and social media interactions, I have come to understand that OCA are working to a different definition, probably related to the next part of the COED definition, ” (pl.) certain branches of learning serving as intellectual instruments for more advanced studies…”. I have started a process of adjustment but suspect that, while adding to my understanding of ‘art’, I will not let go of my view that a level of craft skill is involved.

This post is intended as a sort of benchmark, a record of where I am at the start of C&N. I intend to review it at the end of the course to see if I have made what the art world would consider to be progress.

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