Epilogue to EYV

Dear Assessors,

This is my final posting in this blog, before it is ‘frozen’ and my coursework is submitted for assessment. Therefore, it is the post that will appear first when the blog is opened and I take the opportunity to draw your attention to some features.

Basic navigation should be obvious. The menu structure approximately follows the OCA standard template. All postings relating to a particular assignment will be found under the appropriate submenu of the ‘Assignments’ menu above. Similarly with coursework, but there are two levels of submenu, drilling-down to individual ‘projects’ as set out in the course notes.

Book and exhibition reviews can be found in the ‘Books’ and ‘Exhibitions’  submenus of the ‘Research & Reflection’ menu. In the ‘Other Notes’ sub-menu, I have collected some postings that are peripheral or supplementary to the course.

In addition to the course notes, there are three pieces of self-directed work that I invite you to consider:

A note on the concept of originality

A note on lying by photography

A three-post series on colour theory and symbolism: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Chas Bedford

 

PS. My blog for Photography 1: Context and Narrative is (will be) here.

Advertisements

Assignment 5 – tutor feedback and response

I have now received, and had time to consider my tutor’s formative feedback on this assignment. Some rework is required and, as usual, he makes some pertinent and tangential points for further research. I have made some preliminary responses below, and I have some things to consider further and follow-up during my next course, ‘Context and Narrative’. Tutor’s comments in blue; my responses in black text.

Overall Comments

As this is your final assignment for this module I took the opportunity to look back over your learning log. This clearly evidences a sustained growth in your thinking and what I feel may be a willingness to explore and experiment with challenging ideas and themes in future modules.

I hope so. I enrolled with OCA with the intention of being challenged (OK, maybe challenging back a little as well) with a new approach to a familiar activity.

There are many interesting observations throughout the log particularly in your responses to the exhibitions that you have visited. I was amused by your honest description of your experiences at Chartwell House and can sympathize.

In the exercise viewpoint you selected Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare to discuss.

Actually, that image is selected for us. It was a useful exercise, as I had to look deeper into an image that I have previously glossed-over.

The interesting thing about this is that it is one of the few images that Bresson admitted to cropping. The analysis and reflection that you have engaged with since starting the module indicate a growing awareness of contemporary photography and a developing personal practice.

There was quite a lot to cover in this final assignment and it is clear that you engaged with a number of ideas prior to formulating your final piece. The photo-story that you shot covers the Christmas collection activities of the Rotary Club for charitable purposes. The location that you have worked in provided good opportunities to develop a theme and to cover the requirements of the assignment however the work has generally followed a formulaic pattern and perhaps needed to be considered in greater depth to develop and generate ideas that can move beyond the clichéd or immediate.

That worried me as well. I was following the advice usually given to writers, “Write about what you know”, but perhaps I was too close to the subject. I had some constraints in that I was supposed to be working as well as taking photographs. I believe that what I produced was a good reflection of my feelings and experience of this event but I have been doing it for so many years that reflection seems no longer necessary.

I would like to have seen you consider the implications of meaning surrounding the event. This could have been from a social, cultural and experiential perspective.

At present, I am not sure how I would do that. I will be looking for answers in future courses: Context and Narrative at level 1 and Documentary at level 2.

Is it appropriate that a collection like this take place in the first place? Is charity the answer to solving the problems that exist?

Yes, to the first question. The second question is more complex; charity may not be ‘the answer’ but it is certainly ‘an answer’. Rotary identified particular needs, and particular organisations working to fulfil those needs. It makes sense to work with existing structures rather than to attempt some sort of limited hands-on response.

Are the recipients empowered in any way by the event?

Yes. The recipient organisations have resource needs, some of which can be satisfied by purchasing goods or paying staff. Money donations indirectly address those needs.

How does the work reflect the diversity of ethnicity and its relationship to the event?

Not a relevant question in this context. Ethnicity is transparent to both the problem and the agencies working fora solution.

On the surface a simple enough event yet it can contain complexities of meaning that are not immediately apparent. Add to this the problem of how to communicate such issues through photography and you have a challenge.

One to follow up in future courses, as noted above.

You mention that it has the feel of a Picture Post story but this magazine also ran numerous stories that delved below the surface of the topic most notably in the reporting of the plight of the Korean prisoners of war by Bert Hardy and James Cameron. Overall very good development within the learning log and strong potential for development in the practical work.

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

The work submitted is of good technical quality. You have followed a standard construct for the photo-story and in general this has worked. The image of the man with the boxes is out of place with the other sequence of images even though you know that it is part of the process of the event.

I agree. I wanted to show some of the pre-event planning, but this one should have suffered the same fate as the musicians’ rehearsal, and ended up on the metaphorical cutting-room floor.

As viewers the images show us interactions between people but in a number of these images the subjects are not always establishing a strong connection as one head is slightly turned away and there are also distracting balloons. In particular images 6 and 7 of the sequence.

Tricky, for reasons mentioned in the blog. The only three set-up images were 1, 9 and 10. Everything else was shot as ‘candid’. Images 6 and 7 were each my picks from short sequences. I was looking for interactions between the subjects which, of necessity, means that they are looking at each other rather than the camera.

I disagree that the balloons are distracting. I regard them as an essential part of the process.

I do not think that the image of the money on the table is necessary as the image of the money in the bucket already gives the information and is visually more interesting.

Again, I have to disagree. Image 9 is graphically good but it would be the wrong image to end on. Pouring coins from one bucket to another may appear a bit slapdash, and I consider it important to finish with something showing that the money is carefully counted and accounted for. I have other images from the counting process and will consider substituting one of those.

Having looked at your contacts I would suggest that there are stronger images there that could be used. Again it may be the case that the editing process needs to be critically thought out prior to selection. A good deal of time does need to be spent on this process.

I did spend a good deal of time on the editing process, including laser-proofing of the 40 in the short-list for final selection. I will go through the process again but expect many of the same images to appear again.

 

I was interested in how the image of Georgia O’Keefe prompted you to think of the image of Antelope Canyon and your analysis of why this might be. I did wonder if perhaps at an unconscious level the canyon image may have been triggered by O’Keefe’s paintings.

[Some example images]

The shapes, forms and colours in these paintings are strikingly similar to the canyon image.

Unlikely, as I have never consciously been aware of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings (a shortfall that I have made a mental note to address) so this is a happy coincidence.

I do like the images from the previous assignment that you have made into icons and these work well together in this format.

Thank you.

The first attempt at making a book was very brave and good. However I would remind you of the old design adage of form follows function. The external binding with string would obviously cause problems with placement on and off bookshelves. Also the stuck down image on the cover will get frayed at the edges. Nevertheless a good attempt.

I will stay with this book (subject to renewing some pages) for assessment. A partial slipcase, stopping short of the lacing, would serve to protect it but would make it slightly too bulky to fit into the clamshell box of assessment materials.

Overall this project feels unresolved at a visual level and I would suggest reviewing the contact sheets and perhaps rethinking the images.

Noted as above. 

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

There has been very good development in the learning log over the period that you have worked on this module. There is good reflection upon your own work, of other photographers, exhibitions visited and books read. Always some interesting comments from you some of which need to be questioned but this is something for you to engage with further in future modules. As a starting point I would suggest developing such comments as re Martin Parr

“As a viewer, I felt more like an insider than a voyeur. I also suspect that his City subjects are happier with the results than his Merseysiders.”   Why?

Badger tells us of controversy around Parr’s early work, including ‘The Last Resort’. He was an outsider at New Brighton (and, therefore, so are his viewers) but was working as a commissioned photographer for the City images. The improved access and contact with his subjects must influence the result.

“Much of it is fascinating and makes us think beyond what we see on the surface, but after a while I got bored with looking for the gimmick behind the performance.” What is the gimmick is it related to one piece of work, a particular artist or a genre? Why do you think it is a gimmick?

The whole paragraph (from my review of the Conceptual Art exhibition at Tate Britain) likened the exhibition to a talent competition for conjurors. ‘Gimmick’ is a technical term in conjuring, being the device or sleight that makes a trick work. What I meant (which I believe is clearer in context) is that I had to look for the central idea/concept/trick behind each piece.

“To what extent does our acceptance of a photograph as ‘art’ depend on its being presented in an art context – printed large and hung on a white gallery wall?” You seem to be interested in this question and it is worth pursing. Consider also what if work is presented in an art context but is described as not being art? As we commemorate in 2017 a century since the first showing of Duchamp’s Fountain it is perhaps a good time to re-visit the question of what is and what is not art.

 This is the central question that has been troubling me. I came to this 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 this course, 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 the 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.

‘The camera never lies … huh?’

Last month, I gave an after-dinner talk to a local Rotary Club on the subject ‘tweaking your holiday snaps’. The vote of thanks included the hackneyed phrase “… and they say the camera never lies”. This is odd because apart from 5 minutes on using cloning to remove distracting elements, nothing I demonstrated (minor crops, global and local exposure/contrast adjustment, waiting for the light, foreground interest, etc.) altered the essential truth of the image. I then reflected on how often I hear similar sentiments expressed, often with the word ‘photoshopped’ in the same sentence.

The phrase ‘The camera never lies’, or variations thereof is almost as old as practical photography itself, dating back at least to the 1890s (phrases.org.uk) and early photography was used as a reference for artists in improving accuracy, for instance Muybridge’s sequence of the galloping horse. (Harry Ransom Center). Photography is evidential, the photographic image is taken as evidence that the subject matter existed, in that place in front of the camera, at least for the period the shutter was opened.

However, we live in an age when fashion images are routinely retouched, impossible scenes are created by CGI on our television and cinema screens and in advertising, we are suspicious of the photographs that we see in our newspapers, sometimes rightly so (Wikipedia 2016), and the winner of a prestigious photographic competition is disqualified for manipulation. (Cheesman, 2015). Although the layman may blame this on Photoshop, we should remember that retouching occurred in pre-digital days and was considered matter-of-course by the Victorian Pictorialists such as Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson.

An 1982 extended essay by John Berger, ‘Appearances’ (Berger 2013, pp61-98) suggests an essential difference between photography and other visual arts. He says that painting or drawing ‘translates’ the scene whereas photography ‘quotes’ it. This concept of ‘quotation’ gives me a metaphor for a broad taxonomy of ways in which photography can  appear to lie.

‘Misquotation’

The camera may quote the scene accurately but the image (quotation) is then altered in post-production. Spot the differences (not to mention the incompetent use of the clone tool) between the original and altered versions.

‘Selective quotation’

Apocryphally, the newspaper review, “If you want a riotous new comedy, avoid this like the plague.” becomes “… a riotous new comedy … (Daily Blah)” on the theatre posters.

Selective quotation can happen in camera or in post-production. The photographer can select his decisive moment and his framing to show his version of the story. Alternatively, an editor can change the emphasis and meaning of an image by selective cropping.

‘Quotation out of context’

Context is important to understanding. If you hear a person wanting to buy ‘a large farmhouse’ it is relevant to know whether they are talking to a baker or an estate agent.

Words and pictures reinforce each other. A false impression can be given if the words and photographs have different sources.

This image was used to illustrate and authenticate a viral hoax about snowfall in Cairo. The sphinx is actually a miniature from a Japanese theme park (Boese 2015)

Accurate quotation of a lie

I can do no better than quote John Berger on the subject of publicity images, a subject that occupies the fourth programme of Ways of Seeing (tw1975 (2012d)). The following quotation is from Understanding a Photograph (Berger 2013, 69)

‘The lie is constructed before the camera. A ‘tableau’ of objects and symbols is assembled. […] This ‘tableau’ is then photographed. It is photographed precisely because the camera can bestow authenticity upon any set of appearances, however false. The camera does not lie even when it is used to quote a lie. And so, this makes the lie appear more truthful’

A relevant variation on the original phrase is ‘The camera does not lie; photographers do’ (various sources, all unattributed) to which could be added, ‘… and so do art directors’

References

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics.

Boese, A. (2015) Snow-covered Sphinx. Available at: http://hoaxes.org/weblog/comments/snow_covered_sphinx (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Cheesman, C. (2015) Photographer loses £10k crown; Claims editing ‘not major’. Available at: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/latest/photo-news/photographer-loses-10k-crown-claims-editing-not-major-11228 (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Encyclopædia Britannica (2016) ‘Henry Peach Robinson | British photographer’, in Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Peach-Robinson (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Harry Ransom Center (no date) Horse in motion, Eadweard Muybridge, ca. 1886. Available at: http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/windows/southeast/eadweard_muybridge.html (Accessed: 30 October 2016)

phrases.co.uk (no date) The meaning and origin of the expression: The camera cannot lie. Available at: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/camera-cannot-lie.html (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

tw1975 (2012d) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 4 (1972). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jTUebm73IY (Accessed: 22 October 2016)

Wikipedia (2016) ‘Adnan Hajj photographs controversy’. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adnan_Hajj_photographs_controversy (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

The Death of the Author

Roland Barthes’ 1968 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ has been suggested by my tutor as an antidote to the cult of personality that has grown up around Cartier-Bresson and other celebrated photographers. The essay deals with the status of the author in contemporary literature, but there are parallels with photographers and photography.

Cards on the table; I must say that there is a major barrier to my understanding – the dense language used (at least in the translation that I have seen) makes the text pretty much unreadable. I put the full text into three online ‘readability test’ pages which confirmed my opinion. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease index was between 7.2 and 25 (average 13.1), Gunning Fog Index 24 to 31.5 (average 29) and SMOG index consistently just over 18. (The differences in scores may be due to different algorithms recognising syllables in different ways). At these levels, I am inclined to suspect obscurantism rather than a desire to be understood. I am also unhappy about the way that personal opinion is presented as if it were incontestable fact. I find myself, once again, in Gavin Milarrrrr territory (starts at 3:47 in this clip)

What Barthes appears to be saying is that, in pure literature (he specifically excludes literary history, writers’ biographies, magazine interviews and autobiography – and, by extension, non-literary writing) it is the words and their meaning, rather than the author who wrote them, that is important. He sees the emergence in contemporary (‘modern’ in 1968) literature of a different kind of writer, dubbed a ‘scriptor’ who exists only to write the text.

Having disposed of the ‘author’, Barthes then wishes to dispose of the ‘critic’ and literary criticism, on the assumption that the purpose of criticism is to ‘decipher’ the text, i.e. to discover what was in the mind of the author at the time he wrote it. He believes that the text has a wider meaning than the writer’s intent. As an aside, and an interesting contrast, it seems that modern art critics also believe that the artists stated intent is no more valid a guide than the viewer’s or critic’s opinion (Barrett 2006,56). Perhaps “the critic’s” obituary notice is, like Mark Twain’s, premature.

For Barthes, the person who gives meaning to the text is the reader or spectator. He gives the example of Greek tragedies, written with words having double meanings that each character interprets differently, causing dramatic misunderstanding, and only the spectator (playgoer) grasps the whole story. Likewise, with literature, it is the reader and his unique set of life experiences and cultural references, who filters and give meaning to the text.

Bringing this into a photographic context, Barthes would say that it is the viewer of a photograph who is responsible for interpreting it, rather than the photographer. As a photographer, I should resent that view but have to accept an element of truth – although I take a view nearer to Barrett who says that the photographer and the viewer have equally valid interpretations.

For me, the viewer cannot be supreme because without the photographer there would be nothing to view. Perhaps the ‘meaning’ of a photograph arises by collaboration (or even a conspiracy) between author and reader, photographer and viewer. Something to ponder for the future.

Like the peasant in Spamalot, the Author “ain’t dead yet”

Reference

Barrett, T.(2006) Criticising Photographs (4th ed.) New York: McGraw Hill

Barthes, R. (1968) The Death of the Author (translated by Howard, R) [Online] at:www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf

A riff on ‘originality’

This posting starts from Matthew’s (my tutor) comments in formative feedback on Assignment 2.

The question that arises is a fundamental one of originality and at what point does work produced become imitation. In the world were millions of images are produced daily we may have to question if there can be such a thing as originality. It is conceivable that at some point we may have to draw a line in the history of photography at the point where originality stopped and to consider imitation not only as a form of flattery but as the only means of producing work.

I propose to take up the ball and, if not run with it, stroll around with it for a while. I don’t expect to come up with any answers but I hope to ask some of the right questions.

As a starting point we must heed Humpty Dumpty’s comment to Alice (Dodgson, C.L. as collected in Gardner 1970, 269) ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’. It is possible to create a problem, or escape from one, depending on how we define our key words. However, for a bit of objectivity, I start with COED (1964) which gives ‘originality‘ as the adverbial form of ‘original‘ inter alia thus:

… that has served as a pattern, of which copy or translation has been made, not derivative or dependent, first hand, not imitative, novel in character or style, inventive, creative, thinking or acting for oneself …

I suspect that Matthew is using a quite strong definition of originality, meaning something on the lines of ‘nothing like it has ever been done in the history of photography’. This is analogous with the concept of priority in scientific research – whoever is first to publish takes the credit. As time goes by, new research covers increasingly narrower points – effectively filling-in the gaps but whole new fields do open up from time to time. Similarly, in photography it is increasingly difficult to find something that has not been done before but I like to think there are ‘gaps’ to be filled, and the occasional conceptual leap.

I believe there is a legitimate, weaker form of originality in the dictionary definition – based on the phrases ‘not imitative‘ and ‘thinking or acting for oneself‘. An idea, concept or photograph may be original to a particular photographer even if it has been done by somebody else, somewhere else, so long as the author was not consciously aware of the previous work. (Work based on subconscious memory is a grey area in this argument). To continue with the scientific analogy, this is similar to Wallace and Darwin describing natural selection at the same time,  Newton and Leibnitz inventing the calculus, or Swann and Edison independently inventing the electric light bulb.

There is also a stronger interpretation, by which it could be said that no photograph is ever original. Every photograph (rather than piece of digital art) requires a subject to be present; the photograph is, effectively, a copy of the subject. This is obvious with a piece of 2-dimensional art such as a painting or a piece of graffiti. It is less obvious, but I believe no less true, that a photograph of any object is a copy of the surface form of that object.

On that basis, is a photograph of a photograph, such as Richard Prince’s copies of the Marlboro Man (example) or his ‘New Portraits’ exhibition (link) any more of a copy than his subject is? My own view is that they are blatant plagiarism, but this appears to be controversial in the art world. (Parkinson 2015)

In the absence of direct plagiarism we can still ask how similar one photograph must be to another before we consider it an imitation, and whether there are other factors in play. Is it simply the subject matter, or is context relevant?

Consider the images above, made decades apart. All are unique. All are of gardeners posing in their gardens.

I made the left-hand image today. Nobody in the history of photography has previously taken a photograph of my wife, wearing that outfit and standing in that corner of our garden. Indeed, the potting shed is only six months old and it is the first time it has appeared in a photograph. The image is unique, but does that make it original? My answer is ‘no’ because it is a conscious imitation (albeit in colour) of the sort of image used by Keith Arnatt in his ‘Gardeners’ series, discussed in previous blog postings.

Is the central image original? It was taken at about the same time Arnatt was making ‘Gardeners’. I regard this as original to me (the weaker form of originality described above) as I was not aware of Arnatt’s work (or indeed his existence) at that time.

Similarly, the right-hand image was taken by my mother some 15 years before ‘Gardeners’. Does that give it priority over Arnatt’s work? Does it refute his claim to originality? I think not, for similar reasons to the previous paragraph.

At this point, I run out of steam without any real conclusions except that ‘originality’ is a slippery concept and the question of its eventual demise depends entirely on how it is defined in the first (original?) place.

References

Concise Oxford English Dictionary (1964) 5th edition. ‘Original’ definition. Oxford University Press

Gardner, M (1970) Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. Revised edition. London: Penguin

Parkinson, H.J. (2015) Instagram, an artist and the $100,000 selfies – appropriation in the digital age [online] at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/18/instagram-artist-richard-prince-selfies

Tate (s.d.) Search Art and Artists, Keith Arnatt [online] at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/search?aid=666&limit=100&sort=date&type=artwork (accessed 3 April 2016)

Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day

The last Sunday in April is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (website here), an opportunity for everybody to go out, cut loose with the most basic image-making device available and contribute to a world-wide gallery of images. This is the fifth year running that I have participated.

PinholeDay16 002-2

The camera was balanced on the sundial in my front garden. Pinhole has a unique image quality being, in principle, uniformly unsharp with an infinite depth of field. In practice, there are good reasons why elements closer to the pinhole than the hole-to-film distance become less sharp. Also, with a 40-second exposure, some subject movement blur is inevitable except on a very still day. This image is no.307 in the 2016 gallery.

I take a slightly purist view of pinhole photography – it only counts if you have made the camera yourself. This is my MkII camera, built of foam-core board and taking 5×4 film backs. Effective ‘focal length’ is 65mm and aperture is f/150. This image was shot on Fomapan 100 and developed in Rodinal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gallery visits

Three gallery visits today; three very different experiences but all interesting in their own way. Martin Parr’s ‘Unseen City’ is a look behind the scenes of Lord Mayors, livery companies and such. He also curated ‘Strange and Familiar’ at the Barbican, a look at how foreign photographers have viewed the UK since the 1930s. Finally to the Magnum Print Room for the Sergio Larrain exhibition.

Write-ups to follow. Watch this space.