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.

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Assignment 4 – first thoughts

This is a ‘naive first thoughts’ posting on assignment 4, in advance of reading any of the course notes for part 4. For the first time, an assignment is not expecting images as its ‘deliverable’ but a written piece.

It is good to see that OCA are sticking with the traditional exchange rate (1 picture = 1000 words). How tricky will that be? My ‘day job’ building survey reports run to 4000-5000 words and are based on a form of research; my survey is a fact-gathering exercise and the report requires me to organise my thoughts and express them in a concise and clear way. The differences are that when looking at a building, I am dealing with very familiar territory and I have evolved a template for reporting in a logical sequence.

In my previous journeys through the groves of academe, I have encountered coursework exercises requiring 1000-3000 words. However, these have typically been in answer to a set question. The present exercise is very broad and it appears that the first task will be to identify the questions that I will eventually answer.

Actually, the first task will be to identify a photograph to work with. An easy option is to use one of the ‘standards’, such as HCB’s Behind the Gare St. Lazare or Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl, both of which have had thousands of words written already; the downside is the difficulty of coming up with anything new to say about either. I have a favourite photograph, by Sergio Larrain, of a girl standing on a lion at the base of Nelson’s Column which may offer the opposite problem, a difficulty in finding enough words at all.

I have personal reading list, in addition to the course notes. I read Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisments and Richard Salkeld’s Reading Photographs when I started C&N, and will now revisit them. I also want to re-read Terry Barrett’s Criticising Photographs, which I first read eight years ago and didn’t ‘get’ (because I had a different motivation at the time). I also have Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing about Art, but that seems to be more about writing style than about photography.

 

Self-absented portraiture (examples)

The course notes give four examples of photographers who are said to be using self-absented portraiture to ‘tell the viewer something of who they are’ (p83). I find myself disagreeing with this assessment in all but one case. I also suggest that these are not the best examples that could have been chosen.

Maria Kapajeva’s series Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman can be seen on her website. It is a set of environmental portraits of young women (probably Kapajeva’s contemporaries) who, with one exception (the woman in the garden appears nervous), appear strong, self-confident and challenging the camera. This is borne out by the artist’s notes (course notes p84, a drop-down box on her website, and in several other places) which make it clear that she is interested in portraying the women as themselves. However, I do not see them as saying anything about Kapajeva herself (or at least no more than any photograph says about its photographer).

Anna Fox’s Cockroach Diary appears to fit better into Part 2 Project 2 (Image and Text) rather than this section. It is an example of narrative and describes a situation Fox has lived through, but I did not get any sense of a ‘portrait’ of her.

Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of Yourself’ has been discussed in a previous posting, also under the Image and Text heading, where it is a better fit.

Another photographer, and body of work, discussed earlier (Part 2 Project 3, Photographing the Unseen) is Peter Mansell. His series ‘Paralysis’ and ‘Check Up’, and the image ‘My Space’ deserve to be placed in this Self-Absented Portraiture section because of how much they tell about Mansell, his injuries and the detail of his daily life, coping with them.

Nigel Shafran (website here) is a British photographer, engaged on fashion and architecture work in the 1990s when he started on personal projects, collecting and sequencing photographs of daily life and his partner, Ruth. These became home-made books, then a calendar, and are the starting point for his current fine-art work (Jobey, 2008). ‘Washing Up, 2000‘, featured in the C&N course notes, stands alongside series on bookshelves, shopping on supermarket checkouts, and random people on the escalators at Paddington, among others.

Unfortunately, Shafran’s website does not caption or title any of the individual images, which is a pity. The Washing Up example image in the course notes is titled ‘Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants‘, presumably a description of the meals recently eaten which generated the washing up. This gives a glimpse of the mundane details of his daily life (most of the images feature  the same sink), and I am intrigued about the titles of the others. This is particularly so when there is a quirky extra detail, like tinsel around an electric flex, or a paintbrush.

Course-note questions

You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.

• Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?

I believe that there is a difference between men’s and women’s photography but I would be hard-pushed to define it in any way. I am intrigued as to why the author of the course-notes found it necessary to mention it or raise the question. Is there some gender-agenda about who does the washing up who or notices it more? (In our home, the rule is that the washing-up is done by the one who didn’t cook the meal)

We get a clue by considering Washing Up alongside some of Shafran’s other series, such as Bookshelves or Packages. These are typologies of the mundane – which put me in mind of the works of Ed Ruscha or Eric Tabuchi, which I looked at during EYV. (Unfortunately, Tabuchi’s website has lapsed in the interim). Typologies do appear to be a male preserve (notable exception, Hille Becher), probably driven by a male need to systematise.

I regard Washing Up as a typology series which tells me something about the Shafran household.

• In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?

As noted above, I believe there is a difference. This is something I first consciously noticed after a magazine ‘reader workshop’ that I took part in, in 2012 (Roberts and Clinch, 2012) at Dungeness. This is a rugged place that oozes testosterone (fishing, large power tools and stuff discarded and left lying around when it becomes redundant). The two male participants went ‘gritty’ and emphasised those features, while the woman found softer and more beautiful images. I see some of the same differences between male and female members of my camera club on competition nights.

• What does this series achieve by not including people?

To have included people, whether actively washing up or as ‘innocent bystanders’ would tell an entirely different story. The person would automatically become the point of interest. Presented as they are, we concentrate on what is around the sink, and what might have happened (cooking, decorating) to cause it to be there.

• Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

At one level, yes. However, as Jobey points out, Shafran does not consciously arrange his subject matter, but finds the image in what is in front of him. The phrase ‘still life composition’ suggests deliberate arrangement.

References

Jobey, L. (2008) Photographer Nigel Shafran: domestic harmony [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/oct/23/nigel-shafran&gt; [Accessed 1/12/2017].

Roberts, E., and Clinch, T. (2012) ‘A day at Dungeness’. Black+White Photography  (134), pp.40-43.

Joel Meyerowitz at B+H

The Beetles+Huxley exhibition Joel Meyerowitz: Towards Colour 1962-1978 presented a very different view of Meyerowitz’ work from the large-format Ground Zero images discussed previously. Unsurprisingly, given that the exhibition was mounted in conjunction with Leica, it deals with his 35mm early work before he bought his 8×10 in 1976.meyerowitzBH

Meyerowitz’ photography is largely self-taught having been inspired to pick up a camera when, as a junior art director, he was briefed to ‘supervise’ Robert Frank on a photoshoot. Being self-taught, and therefore unladen with the baggage of art-world received wisdom, he was attracted to colour from the start. As a matter of practicality, however, he carried a camera loaded with monochrome film as well as one loaded with colour, and much of his early published work is in mono.

There seem to be two threads as we look at the work chronologically. First, the move from predominantly monochrome into exclusively colour work. Meyerowitz regarded a European road trip in 1966 as his coming-of-age as an artist, and had excluded mono from his work by 1972.

Colour describes more things – more radiance, more wavelengths, more sensation. (Meyerowitz, concatenation of two quotes from the exhibition catalogue)

Second, there is a move away from the traditional ‘decisive moment’ images (epitomised by the ‘Kiss Me Stupid’ image above) to something more decentralised or non-hierarchical in which everything, including the colours, contributed equally to the image.

I was trying to unlock photography from the aesthetic of ‘the decisive moment’ – a difficult thing to give up – and to bring the photograph closer to the experience itself, which is inchoate and unresolved in ways that I had been reluctant to deal with before. (Meyerowitz, exhibition catalogue)

Although I have enjoyed Meyerowitz’ later large-format colour work, I found that my preferences in this exhibition were towards the earlier work, mono and colour. Analysing my own reaction, I believe it is because I am reluctant to let go of the concept of the decisive moment.

As always with B+H exhibitions, they make good use of a fairly small space – the photographs are close together but never feel crowded – and the catalogue is excellent value at £10.

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 – 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.

Exercise – a comparison

We are asked to compare W Eugene Smith’s ‘Country Doctor’ with Briony Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project’. I have described each series in my past two blog postings, so this posting can be relatively short.

I believe there are two distinctions to be made: the difference between a photo-story and a photo-essay, and the difference between and insider and outsider view.

Both a photo-essay and a photo-story are what David Hurn (quoted in course notes p52) describes as ‘a group of images in which each picture is supporting and strengthening all the others’. The difference seems to be that a story has a distinct narrative flow but an essay is more free-form, but I suspect that the best projects have elements of both. The Dad Project is primarily a story (charting the progress of Dad’s illness, decline and death) but with non-linear elements. Country Doctor is primarily an essay but has four mini-stories embedded in it.

Abigail Solomon-Godeau (1994) discusses the difference between documentary shot by an outsider (more objective but less ‘involved’) and an insider (probably more detailed knowledge, but a more subjective approach). Campbell was pretty much the ultimate ‘insider’ to the extent that she was, herself, part of the story she is telling. Smith was mostly an outsider; his essay appears more objective – although he clearly has an admiration for his subject.

The other difference between the two series is their historical context. Country Doctor appeared in the late 1940s, shortly after the Second World War and with the Depression well within living memory. Many of his readers will have lived through hardship and approached it with the kind of stoicism and sense of duty projected by Dr Ceriani. The Dad Project is very much a product of the early 21st century, when it is OK to be open about emotions in public.

References

Campbell, B. (n.d.). The Dad Project. [online] Brionycampbell.com. Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/ [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

Cosgrove, B. (2012). W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’. [online] Time.com. Available at: http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ [Accessed 3 Apr. 2017].

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994). Inside Out. [online] Available at: http://www.photopedagogy.com/uploads/5/0/0/9/50097419/week_5_abigail_solomon-godeau_inside_out.pdf [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].