Square Mile • Tutor feedback and responses

I received my tutor’s formative feedback on my Square Mile assignment today. The good news is that there is no rework suggested. There are some important points to ponder and actions to take as I move forward into Part 2 of the course.

Word document here.

Substantive feedback is set in blue text below. My responses are in black.

Overall Comments

The challenge in this assignment is to produce images that show visual qualities that identify and express your ideas of the subject. It can often be difficult to get ideas and concepts into the images that we make and in this assignment you have confronted some of these issues. You have also taken the time to consider alternative interpretations of the subject.

You have considered the formal elements of image making and transferred these to your own work. I was pleased to see that you had considered some alternative images for your presentation and that you had included these in your learning log. One of the skills to develop as a photographer is the ability to discriminate in the selection of images.

I was pleased to see that you have considered and reflected upon the work that you have produced however this needs to be developed in greater depth so that critical reading is undertaken that is relative to the work. This will allow you to evaluate it within a critical context of the processes undertaken coupled with the underpinning ideas and concepts contained within critical reading. I would like to have seen your comments upon the work of other photographers with specific examples of their work rather than just linking to external sites.

The critical text element is limited to 500 words, to cover rather a lot of ground. I have made those comments, and drawn some examples, in my blog entries. I used links to avoid plagiarism issues – presumably not quite the problem I had assumed; I will do more direct quoting of text and images in future.

Overall you have made a good start to your course and have demonstrated a willingness to be challenged and to think about the creative process that you are engaged in.

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

There is clear evidence in this submission of a good technical ability and an eye that can spot potential images in developing a theme. You set yourself a task and maintained the topic throughout the piece. However the work, although narrative in structure is rather tentative in approach to photographing people. As you state “The exercise was a personal challenge because I am uncomfortable with street photography. Several of the images appear voyeuristic, as I did not want to be seen to be invading subjects’ privacy, and would probably fall foul of Robert Capa’s oft-quoted maxim, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” This has had an affect upon your work in that the majority of images show people with their backs to you or walking out of the frame. This does not engage the viewer. It might be useful to consider the worries that you express regarding the voyeuristic nature of photography within the context of critical /theoretical reading. It could be argued that the very nature of photography is voyeuristic regardless of the nature of the specific genre. Another aspect of this that could be reflected upon is what constitutes privacy in today’s technological society. Does your Olympus in some way intrude more than the common use of the camera in a mobile phone?

I would have been more comfortable with a longer lens, perhaps 85mm (full-frame equivalent) but (a) I had already decided to use the Trip35 and (b) I am aware of the other maxim, attributed to Eric Kim, that “Creepiness is proportional to focal length”.

The voyeuristic nature of photography as a whole is a topic that I will spend some time researching. A first response to the question of privacy is that we grudgingly accept passive surveillance (fixed CCTV) but people are more likely to question the motives of photographers actively turning a camera on them. I think the Olympus may intrude more than a mobile phone because it is camera-shaped, rather unusual, and is clearly being used to take a photograph, rather than make a phone call or play a game.

I note that in the learning log you have included captions with the images that are straight descriptions of what is seen in the image. I am glad that you did not include these in your final presentation as the images can be read quite clearly however it would be useful for you to reflect upon these decisions within the learning log as part of your thinking upon the image making process.

I had thought about emulating Karen Knorr’s ‘Belgravia‘ in my eventual assessment submission, with photographs printed 5×3″ on A4 paper and an extended caption on the lower part of the page. I may still do it, but will think hard about it first.

I was pleased to see through your contact sheets that you had a variety of alternative images under consideration for your presentation and that there is some analysis of your thinking as you go through the process of final selection.

Overall you have made a good start to your course and have demonstrated a willingness to be challenged, to question and to reflect upon the medium.

Thank you.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

There were a number of opportunities to broaden out ideas in this work through further analysis of issues arising. In particular the nature of voyeurism in photography and who actually is the voyeur. Is it the photographer or the viewer?

First thought – both but in different ways. The photographer is active, having selected a subject and time, and physically pressed the shutter. The viewer is more passive but still complicit.

Is photographer so special in today’s world that we consider it to have the power to intrude or are there now so many images that it just cancels itself out? More images have been made in the last ten years than in the whole previous history of photography so why should we consider that the photograph has a special status?

First thought – the photographer is less ‘special’ than hitherto, as a result of the proliferation of digital cameras and camera-phones bringing competent image-making into the general public realm and divesting the ‘photographer’ of his mystique. Similarly, the photograph is now just a set of charge-states on a silicon chip rather than a piece of paper to be held in the hand, collected in an album or hung on a wall.

In starting your course to develop your skills and thinking in photography it might appear ironic that due to the proliferation of images you might have to address the question of what is the very nature of photography. As part of your course you will start to question the practice of photography and to delve further into the meaning of images. This can be illustrated in the learning log through research and development into a critical theoretical approach to image making.

‘Watch this space’, or at least the Notes section of the Research & Reflection menu.

Square Mile -Analysis

This is the body text of my contextual analysis document:

‘There is a Welsh term “Y Filltir Sgwar” (The Square Mile) which may either be taken literally or understood as the area with which one is familiar and concerned about.’ (Moore 2012)

My childhood ‘square mile’ is no longer available, being two hours drive from home and inaccessible without trespassing. I have therefore adopted Moore’s description and selected part of my current home town, Maidstone.

The brief calls for relatively small images (1500 pixels equates to 5” at 300 dpi) similar to the 5×3-inch enprints of former times. This suggested a ‘snapshot’ approach so I chose to use a snapshot camera, an Olympus Trip 35. I currently use home-developed monochrome films with my older cameras and selected Ilford HP5+ as being appropriate for expected light levels in February.

My original intention was to photograph the shopping streets in the town centre. However, my walk into town involves crossing the Medway; I took what I intended to be a brief detour along the riverside path and found there was enough of interest to spend an hour and two rolls of film there. I made three further visits, finishing with 162 images for editing and selection.

My photography on the first day was undirected, as a result of which, there is only one image from that visit in my selected twelve. My subsequent visits were made after researching other photographers’ work in specific localities and I had a clearer idea of what I wanted. I have chosen to cover the way in which people use the space for recreation, exercise and access.

For inspiration, I viewed recent OCA learning blogs of other students on this course, particularly those of Melanie Paul, Chris Haddon and Ludovic Marquez. Among established practitioners, I viewed online galleries with the work of Keith Arnatt (Tate), Venetia Dearden (Dearden 2014), Jimmy Forsyth (Amber) and Martin Parr (Magnum)

The main lesson learnt was the importance of the scale of the background. In Arnatt’s ‘Walking the Dog’ series the backgrounds are tight, sufficient to identify the type of place, but not the place itself; in his ‘AONB Area of Natural Beauty’ series, the background is wider and we learn more about the place. The Marquez blog shows the opposite effect; although wider than Arnatt overall, his tighter views give a sense of involvement in the place, which is lacking in the wider vistas.

The exercise was a personal challenge because I am uncomfortable with street photography. Several of the images appear voyeuristic, as I did not want to be seen to be invading subjects’ privacy, and would probably fall foul of Robert Capa’s oft-quoted maxim, If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” All twelve images have been cropped to some extent, to a field of view equating to a focal length of 50-60mm.

Given time and space to develop the project, I would track activities over the course of a year. For instance, there is a lot of boating activity during the summer months.

Square Mile – final selection

These images are (reduced copies of) my final selection for the Square Mile assignment.

My Square Mile is the River Medway where it passes through Maidstone. The area encompasses the riverside paths and four bridges (one rail/foot bridge, two road bridges and a footbridge). Despite unpromising surroundings, a main road on most of one side and a trading estate on most of the other, it is well used as a leisure/recreation area. The river itself is used by pleasure-boaters, rowers and canoeists. The footpaths are used by joggers, anglers, dog walkers, swan-feeders and those just eating their lunches or walking from A to B. I have tried to cover most of the area and most of the activities.

The brief calls for 1500px images, suggesting the size of the old 5×3-inch enprints; I decided to go for a snapshot approach, using a snapshot camera. All photographs are shot on HP5+ film in an Olympus Trip 35.

Square Mile – looking for inspiration III

Interesting to compare Martin Parr’s New Brighton images with David Bailey’s East End and Jimmy Forsyth’s Scotswood Road.

I noted a paragraph in ‘The Genius of Photography (Badger 2010:162) commenting on Parr’s The Last Resort thus, ‘Photographs of screaming babies, children with ice cream on their faces, in a litter-strewn environment, led to Parr, a middle-class boy from Surrey, being accused of cynicism.’ I wondered whether there was a difference in approach between Parr, as an outside observer, and Bailey and Forsyth who were documenting their own environments.

Martin Parr

Unfortunately, the book was not available at the time of writing this entry. A full set of images (small reproductions only) can be found on the Magnum website at http://www.magnumphotos.com/Catalogue/Martin-Parr/1985/GB-New-Brighton-The-Last-Resort-NN147024.html (accessed 19 February 2016)

A summary and a criticism of one image can be found on the Tate website at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/parr-the-last-resort-40-p11922/text-summary (accessed 19 February 2016)

Further commentary and some quotations from Parr himself at http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/8073/martin-parrs-last-resort (accessed 19 February 2016)

These images are shot between 1983 and 1985 on medium-format colour film, very saturated and using on-camera flash. Nearly all are people pictures. Most appear unposed, but Parr and his equipment can hardly have been inconspicuous.

I expect to revisit Parr in more detail in later assignments and later course modules.

David Bailey

There is a selection of East End images in Bailey’s Stardust (Bailey 2014:55-67)

We see grainy monochrome images from 1961 and 1962, showing mainly buildings (some still suffering war damage) with some people pictures, and  a group of semi-posed colour portraits shot for a Sunday Times Magazine feature in 1968

Jimmy Forsyth

See my previous blog posting at https://chasbedfordocablog.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/jimmy-forsyth/

Commentary

All three sets of images would fit the “Square Mile” brief. I felt a better sense of connection from the two ‘insiders’, Bailey and Forsyth, than from Parr who felt more like a fly-on-the-wall observer. The posed portraits by Bailey and Forsyth had an air of tolerance or indulgence by the subjects for the ‘local boy with a camera’. With the Parr images, I felt more like an intruder or voyeur.

Bibliography

Badger, G. (2010) The Genius of Photography, How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille

Bailey, D. (2014) Bailey’s Stardust. London: National Portrait Gallery

Square Mile – more contacts

These contacts are the result of three more visits to the riverside; various weather conditions (all sunnier than the first visit) but all around lunchtime. The last visit was a sunny day at half-term so there were a lot more people around.

With a total of 162 images between the two sets of contacts and a brief to produce 6-12 images for the assignment, there are multiple stories to be told. My plan is to select images showing people using or interacting with the space. There are images of a motor launch, rowers (unfortunately, the only canoeist is too small in frame), dog walkers, cyclists, swan/goose feeders, people eating their lunch and people just walking through.

I will need a mix of scales, mostly fairly intimate but building up an overall picture of the space.

Lightroom (OlyTripFeb16-092.tif and 90 others)

Jimmy Forsyth

Some images on Amber Side Gallery at http://www.amber-online.com/exhibitions/scotswood-road?show_all=true

Amateur photographer, having lost one eye in an industrial accident, Forsythe documented everyday life and scenes in Gateshead during a time of change.

Plans were in the air for knocking Scotswood Road down. When they knocked down the Infirmary in 1954 a curious crowd gathered to watch. It was then that I realised someone should make a record of what was left of the community. For posterity’s sake. I had nothing to do, why not make a record of Scottie Road to pass the time? It would show future generations what we looked like and how we lived. (pull-quote from “Scotswood Road” via Amber Gallery website)

Relevant to Square Mile assignment. Photographs show street scenes and overall views, wider than those I have looked at so far for this assignment. Posed portraits are a bit self-conscious but show a connection with the photographer. Several photographs of fires and road accidents.

For future reference, a full set of (40,000+) images is held by  Tyne and Wear Archives and Museum.

Wikipedia entry is useful starting point for links and references.

Books of interest:

Anthony Flowers & Derek Smith, Out of One Eye The Photography of Jimmy ForsythTyne Bridge Publishing, Newcastle, 2002, ISBN 1857951565

Anthony Flowers An Innocent Eye: Jimmy Forsyth Tyneside Photographer[9]Tyne Bridge Publishing, Newcastle, 2013,ISBN 9781857952148

Scotswood Road, (with Derek Smith), Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Newcastle, 1986, ISBN 1-85224-014-8.

Jimmy Forsyth: Photographs from the 1950s and 1960s, edited by Anthony Flowers, Tyne Bridge Publishing, Newcastle, 2009, ISBN 1857951336.