Assignment 3 – tutor feedback and response

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

Overall, there is some rework required. Minor tweaks and reprinting of the images, but a fairly major rewrite of the assignment notes.

Overall Comments

Really well presented assignment with organised self-reflection (including student number and brief ) as well URL for log etc and also sent as prints (always good towards the final assignments). Showing the decision and technical process of selection through ‘contact sheets’ with annotations is always a big plus point.

The diary preliminary work is useful. You should say why exactly you found it difficult (unfamiliar? You may consider the chronicle of events banal?) – but that could reveal some ideas on how you project an ‘identity formation’ as opposed to the presumed innate identity that most students believe photography can reveal (which it is mute in that respect).

I believe I  found the diary difficult for the same reason that self-portraiture is difficult – it is self indulgent and also requires facing up to some uncomfortable self-truths (in this case, that much of life is routine and banal.) I’m not sure that I want to ‘project an identity formation’; I am interested in discovering my innate identity.

The self evaluation has some great expressive statements in it (“as an individual, I play many roles depending on what I am doing or whom I am with”) you could have used the diary in a creative way drawing out key phrases or even cutting it up and creating random narratives (i’m thinking here of how David Bowie wrote songs to then create an ‘image’ of himself which was a fictionalised formation.

Frankly, having realised that I could abandon the diary, I was pleased to do so. It served a purpose in allowing me to see an approach to the exercise, but I do not see it as part of the exercise itself.

 

Feedback on assignment

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

Great images. Well executed ‘Avedonian’ Portraits which seek to show the ‘identity formation’ roles you perform.

‘Fill’ rather than ‘perform’, which has overtones of fictionality.

Personally, I would have taken of the captions ‘camera collector’ etc out of the actual image (avoid graphic design) as they are powerful enough on their own. Save the captions of when they are published alongside the images.

I agree. I was uncertain whether to use captions (necessary) and where to put them. For the rework, I will place captions in smaller text and clear of the image area.

File naming (as above) great. Perhaps use: ‘Self-portrait building surveyor CB001’ (where CB is your initials and it is first image from the ‘surveyor’ shoot) In this way you will be able to easily locate images and is more relevant if you decided to submit them to editors, magazines or photo libraries.

File names aren’t particularly important. I prefer to use meaningfully-titled folders. If I were organised enough, I would use keywording rather than filenames as a flexible way of locating images in future.

You grasp the social codes that photographers use to translate the experience of confronting the self by selecting the appropriate the technical codes with which to allude to certain roles in society,

I do? I think this is a reference to the use of props and clothing as visual clues to the role being depicted. That was intentional and the result of some thought and experimentation (see the variety and combinations of props used as the building surveyor, for instance)

Do explore and articulate these codes as applied in the context of ‘Typology’ portraits and use these critical terminologies and define them “standardised as possible to maintain uniformity” .

Write up is really well expressed but could do with some further contextual research and defining key terms (as mentioned). Link these to the course work and draw out what is relevant including technical processes of your influences (i.e. Avedon’s American West is shot outside with a backdrop gaffer taped to a wall and just a reflector (understand the weather in this country may make that difficult).

Interesting. One of the comments that came back in the peer feedback exercise (from an OCA tutor) is that Avedon used a north-lit studio. I will do a bit of independent research before commenting in the assignment notes submitted for assessment.

Black & White or Colour: a matter of personal choice and works well. Understand the Avedon influence but why not colour? i.e. we can see August Sander being con-temporised by such photographers as Rineke Dijkstra. Its still ‘Avedonian’ as it has the forensic gaze.

In this case, monochrome seemed the obvious way to go; colours would be a distraction. however, I acknowledge that this might be because I had already settled on Avedon as my style model. I have seen some of Dijkstra’s work (the Strange and Familiar exhibition at the Barbican in 2016) in large-format colour, which gives a ‘softer’ but still forensic look to herimages, not quite appropriate to how I saw my self-portraits.

Technical Processing

You mention what you did but don’t expand enough on the reasons (aesthetic or conceptual) why you made such selections. A good understanding of three point lighting (again, use these terms) influenced from the coursework perhaps (or already well versed technically). In addition to Lightroom and pre-sets. This is a good workflow. Probably not necessary to tweak in photoshop but if there were specials tools you needed then mention them and why and how you used them.

A bit more detail needed in the write-up. Another example of ‘show your workings’

Print Quality

Welcome addition of prints. Because of the matt watercolour paper could do with bring contrast out a little for some punch (but subtle not too much) just to get deeper blacks.

Something to look at when reprinting. Always a difficult balance between getting a decent black and clogging-up the shadows.

Coursework

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Demonstration of Creativity

Your application of the course work to discover direction for the assignments is partially strong. Continue with this method as well as feedback from peers is good. However, be critical and trust your instincts. For example, the close up parts of your self identity portraits (suggested in peer review) probably not as strong as the final versions you have settled on – this is simply about linking the process of working with the contextual research. Close ups would be far too illustrative in this sense and force the reader to immediately recognise the roles rather than leaving it open to make them work. Its showing not telling (always the best documentary advice – and these are documentary portraits).

Probably why I had difficulty in producing any ‘close-up’ work and abandoned the idea (sorry, Kate)

Lead the viewer / assessor by making links from in the ‘research’ tab with your findings on the course work (you are doing this but make it clear).

I am trying to do this by assigning multiple categories to my blog postings, so that they appear under all the appropriate menu options.

Research

Context, reflective thinking, critical thinking, analysis

You have begun to utilise much more critical language which is showing that you are becoming more confident in articulating how your work sits with others and engages with the ‘discourses’ of photography. Build on your influence from Avedon’s ‘forensic’ gaze and include further research into ‘typologies’ (your: “I wanted to keep pose, framing, lighting etc. as similar as possible,”) and include August Sander and his contemporaries such as Rineke Dijkstra and say something about photographic ‘codes’ and motifs (as used by Avedon etc).

Learning Log

Context, reflective thinking, critical thinking, analysis

Although the Learning blog references in the actual self-reflexive write up are a good indication of how you drew from the research, it may have been more useful to have shown the images concerned with a summary of how they influenced the final work rather than a simple URL link. In this way, rather than inviting the reader/assessor to ascertain the revanche of the research on your behalf, you reflect on it and tell the viewer what you’ve found. That is true reflective learning.

This is inconsistent with other OCA advice about avoiding plagiarism in the blogs. I will use images if I find them in Creative Commons or if a Google Images search show that they are so widespread already that they are effectively in the public domain. If an image is only found on the artist’s own website, I will link to it rather than copy it. There is a continuum in between, to be considered on a case-by-case basis. For instance, I am comfortable with using Magnum images in their ‘social media watermark’ form because I believe that what they do it for.

Suggested reading/viewing

Not listed here. All downloaded and viewed.

Summary

Strengths

Technical codes used to create a standardised look that the viewer can compare and contrast.

Useful research on the ‘forensic’ gaze (and others) applicable to key photographers such as Avedon.

Well expressed writing style with some really strong images that are engaging (simple but effective).

Areas for development

Name and define critical language such as ‘Typology’, Codes, archetypes. Conventions, Identity Formation, The self etc.

Some cases of ‘show your working’, some of things that I had not formally considered.

More analytical interpretation of key photographers so that the technical and visual allows you to uncover context and messages (see ‘Understanding Images’ grids for these methodologies).

Include a little more research on subject and approach .i.e define how ‘identity formation’ is applicable to photography though reference to social science or philosophy.

Some ideas in the reading list.

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Criticizing Photographs – Terry Barrett

Criticizing Photographs is a work of metacriticism, defined by Barrett (2006, 231) as the criticism of criticism. Does mean that a review of it is metametacriticism, or is it best not to overthink and just get on with writing about it?

This is a scholarly book, having started as a PhD thesis (my tutor has a copy) and expanded as an educational text on criticism. The style is formal and chock-full of references, so it is not for the casual reader and (as I discovered) it is useful to have some  prior knowledge of photographers and critics in the ‘art world’. That said, as a student text it provides a good analysis of criticism and an introduction to ‘art theory’

According to Barrett (2006, 2), any piece of criticism does one or more of four things: description of the work, interpretation, evaluation, and using the work as a basis for theorising. The first three are reasonably clear and sequential – theorising is more difficult to explain, which Barrett does at some length and, in my view, unbalances the book as a result.

After a first chapter introducing the notion of criticism in its various styles, the relationship between critics and artists, and the value of criticism (it encourages the readers to increase their own understanding and appreciation of the art) he devotes a chapter to each of the four functions of criticism.

Describing an artwork or exhibition seems prima facie simple but, by considering the example of three critics views of a single exhibition (Avedon’s In the American West) we see that there can be differences depending on what the critic is looking at, his prior knowledge and outside sources of information, in addition to the obvious noting of subject matter, form, medium, style etc. Description is not entirely separate from interpretation and evaluation. Barrett sees the three as interdependent, and a good factual description is an important part of meaningfully interpreting or evaluating an artwork.

Interpreting an artwork is to go beyond describing it (asking ‘what is it?) to attempting to make sense of it (asking ‘what does it mean?’, ‘what is it about?’ or ‘what is its purpose?’). We are introduced briefly to Barthesian semiotics (through the example of the Panzani advert deconstructed in Rhetoric of the Image) as one of several approaches to interpretation, including consideration of the style or tradition in which the image is made, its general external context and the perceived intent of the photographer. We are warned against the ‘intentionalist fallacy’ but, as a photographer,  I still have difficulty with the concept that my view of my intention is no more or less valid than anybody else’s.

Before moving on to evaluation, Barrett devotes two chapters to describing types of photograph and the way their meaning is affected by the context in which they are seen. In particular, using an image by Robert Doiseneau of a couple in a café, the way in which accompanying text can radically change a reader’s perception.

Evaluation or judgement asks the question ‘is it good?’. To answer the question, we need to set some criteria and to make a reasoned argument on whether the photograph fits the criteria. The criteria set will vary between critics and may not always be expressed (although they will always exist in some form). It may include considerations of ‘realism’,  ‘expression’, ‘formalism’ or ‘fitting its intention’. My own criterion, craftsmanship, is relegated to an also-ran status. This chapter is illustrated by considering opposing critical judgements on Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1993 exhibition.

The chapter on Photography Theory is, at 56 pages, by far the longest in the book, hence my comment about unbalancing it. Theorising is to attempt to answer the ‘big questions’ (actually, it seems necessary first to formulate the questions) such as ‘is it art?’, ‘is it true?’, “is it moral?’, ‘what do we mean by art, truth or morality anyway?’ and uses photographs as a starting point for some major digressions. This is a chapter that I will return to when I am ready for it. Although it unbalances a photography book, it appears to be a good starting point for considering art theory in general.

The final chapter, on writing and talking about photographs, has a different style from the rest of the book and appears to be bolt-on content that does not flow from the preceding chapters. It deals with example content of Barrett’s students’ work and studio discussion.

Overall, the book is a good and useful read, and I expect to dip back into it many times during the rest of my OCA studies.

Reference

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

Felix, Gladys and Rover

We are asked to comment on the formal structure of Elliott Erwitt’s image ‘Felix, Gladys and Rover. New York, USA. 1974’, and whether the structure contributes to the meaning of the image.

I recall that, when I first saw this image, my attention was first drawn to the woman’s (Gladys?) booted legs and the chihuahua, which are the darkest and highest-contrast parts of the image. I saw the second pair of larger legs en passant but concentrated first on the chihuahua which appeared to be the main subject and the focus of humour. It has an odd expression (wall-eyed) and is clothed in a knitted wooden hat and jacket – suggesting a cold day, as reinforced by the woman’s overcoat and boots.

I noticed the legs at the left of the frame but, on my first viewing, assumed they were human and uninteresting. It is only on a longer examination that we realise that the second pair of legs belong to a very tall dog, probably a Great Dane. This is the element of Barthesian punctum, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. This double-take realisation forces us to re-evaluate the picture and the relationships between its three subjects, particularly the size difference between the dogs which we assume are both owned by Gladys. We might speculate about details of their day-to-day life; are there two different sized dog-baskets (or kennels, or food dishes) for instance? Certainly, there must be practical differences in the exercise regime.

This is not a conventional rule-of-thirds picture. Gladys is centrally located and the chihuahua (is he Felix or Rover, by the way?) is entirely within the right-hand third. OK, the left-hand vertical third line coincides with Dane’s left leg and it is possible to draw a weak lower horizontal third through the ankles of the four longer legs and the belly of the chihuahua, but I do not see those as major elements. To me, the main organising elements are the expressed vertical lines (four long legs, the lead and the secondary elements of the tree to the left and gazebo to the right) and the implied horizontals (hemline of the coat, bottoms of the feet, and a weak central horizon line), giving an overall grid to the image. The even spacing of the main elements contributes to the impression of an ordered grid.

This is not an HCB ‘decisive moment’ grab shot, but something more considered. I do not know whether we are looking at models or a group that Erwitt has met by chance  and persuaded to pose, but he has taken time and trouble to arrange the elements properly. By getting himself (or at least his camera lens) down to chihuahua eye level, we are able to get an idea of its viewpoint and to emphasise with it; nearly everything in its world must be taller. If this were a grab shot as the subjects were walking toward the photographer, all four Great Dane legs would be in frame and the element of punctum would be lost. Instead, the Dane has been posed side-on so that its rear legs are out of frame to the left. (Well, nearly so. The Magnum image above shows part of a thigh in the top left corner, which has been cropped out from the version presented in the course notes).

Erwitt clearly loves dogs. At least four of his books (Son of Bitch, To the Dogs, Dog Dogs and Woof) are devoted to them, and his doggy images have elements of anthropomorphism and humour. Felix, Gladys and Rover is no exception. Although the chihuahua is part of the image, we feel that we see the world from its viewpoint, emphasised by the low camera angle and the decision to crop the other two subjects at knee level. Its expression and clothing inject the sense of humour, but we also know that it is cared for to the extent of keeping it warm on a cold day. I also get a feeling of closeness, love and/or friendship between the three subjects, emphasised by the grid structure and their physical closeness.

[according to WordPress, that was 683 words – which is a good indication of the level of detail that will be required to produce 1000 words on a single image in assignment 4]

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.

Null photographs

This is a brief posting in response to a question posed in the introduction to part four (C&N, p92). The thesis is that photography is much like a language, although expressed in imagery rather than words. In most photography, the goal is to communicate or express something. We are challenged to think of photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication.

This is equivalent to voicing a semantically null sentence. While individual words in sentences can be semantically null (‘do’ or ‘that’ can be used to improve the flow of a sentence without adding to its meaning, as can the caricature teenager’s ‘like’) it is difficult to frame an entire sentence entirely without meaning. Similarly with photographs; almost all have some message, even if only as simple as “This is what [subject] looks like” or “This happened in front of my camera at the moment I pressed the shutter button”

It may be a matter of intent. The simple message may not be the goal of the photograph, just a byproduct. However, meaning exists.

A photograph may not have a goal at all, simply a random pressing of the shutter (accidental or otherwise). Those photographers who rebel against HCB’s concept of the ‘decisive moment’ can fall into this category, which may explain why I find it difficult to enjoy (or even take seriously) their work.

At the other end of the scale, an image might have been taken deliberately but the subject has been deliberately distorted or obscured to the extent that the image becomes completely abstract and potentially meaningless.

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-portrait exercise – submission and reflection

After spending far too much time ‘stalled’ in Part 3, Assignment Three the self-portrait exercise is now completed and ready to go off to my tutor. This is the final image set.

The changes from the images presented previously are the use of the dodge tool to eliminate the dark patch of background at the top left of each image and (of course) adding the text caption. I chose a rounded version of Arial font as being an appropriate balance between formality and informality (artificial handwriting fonts such as Comic Sans do not ‘work’ for me) and it is a font that does not draw attention to itself and away from the image.

Here are the contact sheets (submitted versions are marked up in manuscript)

… and here are the assignment notes

Reflection against assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills

Again, I am generally happy with my technical and visual skills. This was an interesting exercise in using studio lighting without being able to see how the light falls. Assessment and adjustments were made on viewing the results on the camera back screen. Post-processing was appropriate to the effect that I wanted.

Quality of outcome

The images fulfil both the project brief and my personal brief. I believe the basic idea (Shakespeare’s “one man in his time plays many parts”) is presented clearly and coherently.

Creativity

Tricky. The basic idea has been done before (but then how many haven’t?) and the style is modelled on well-known images. However, I had to work out my own lighting and camera styles (owning neither an 8×10 nor a big north-lit studio)

Self-portraiture is a new area for me, a bit outside the comfort zone. I am not particularly uncomfortable on the opposite side of somebody else’s camera, but the exercise felt self-indulgent.

As always, the question of ‘personal voice’ is one for the viewer.

Context

Mixed. The diary part of the exercise generated considerable self-reflection but the subject, by its nature (me) did not require a great deal of research. Similarly, I did not do a great deal of research on alternative treatments. Although there was no ‘light-bulb moment’ I have to say that the Avedon influence suggested itself to me very early and was self-evidently (to me at least) the right way to go.