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IAP 5 research point 5.0 storyteller or history writer?

Is the photographer a storyteller or a history writer? There are so many ways to approach this question, and so many strands that could be unpicked, some of them not really very productive to exploring the key point at issue but important nonetheless. For example, the question presupposes a clear dividing line betwen storytelling and history writing which implicitly separates the two on the basis of fiction vs fact. But it can be argued that any good storytelling has at its core a substantial element of fact; and conversely that the recording of history is not a purely factual activity but always involves a subjective and/or politically expedient viewpoint.

Likewise, some documentary photographers – Cristina de Middel being a notable example – adopt storytelling techniques and even include outright fictional elements to aid in the communication of a historical narrative. Even Bernd and Hilla Becher, perhaps the most restrained of all documentary photographers, show us a selective, edited world that has much in common with the landscapes of fairytales, in that every building is a tower.

Going further into the question of subjectivity vs objectivity we come to the nature of reality itself, which has occupied thinkers in fields ranging from metaphysics to perception to mathematics and quantum physics. Is the world around us an objective fact existing independently of us or a subjective construct created by our minds?

Then there is the question of whether the camera ever tells the truth or is capable of doing so.

With all these caveats in mind I would say that essentially I feel that there are indeed broadly two approaches to photography, one of which constitutes a commentary on the world and the other which expresses the photographer’s personal creativity. For the reasons touched on above these are not mutually exclusive, but operate as a kind of motivational force. My own default approach is the former, but one of the reasons I enrolled on the OCA course was a recognition that I am by nature and habit very practical, organised and methodical, and I hoped to find and develop the messy, random and creative side of myself.

Pollen (2018) argues that in terms of neurological function this divide is based on the difference between the brain’s creative aspect and its default mode network (DMN). He provides compelling evidence that in creative mode the neurons fire intensively and randomly, while in DMN they fire much less and stick to established pathways. His main focus in the book is on the apparently highly therapeutic aspects of the creative mode and the fact that it can be triggered via psychedelics such as psilocybin, but he also observes that the creative mode can also be generated by spiritual pursuits such as meditation, and that this also corresponds to a sense of spiritual integration with the world widely reported by participants in the psilocybin studies he cites.

In my own work I know I still have some distance to travel to really let my creative brain run free, and this is certainly something I continue to strive for. The catch-22 of course is that it’s not something that can be approached via the orderly, analytical DMN brain which is my own default mode. It’s something that involves letting go, trying things for the sake of it, playing around with no prior plan, and making fewer images that are concrete and descriptive, and more that are metaphorical and suggestive.

References and resources

Pollan, M. (2018) How To Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. London: Allen Lane.

IAP 5 research point 5.1 objects as metaphor

It was very interesting to revisit the prescribed chapter of Cotton (2014), ‘Something and Nothing’, some 2.5 years on from first reading it. On the one hand it made me aware of how much I’ve learned in the intervening period, these ideas, artists and works now being familiar territory; and on the other hand it reminded me of how far I still have to go before my own work carries anything remotely approaching the layers of meaning and significance that those in Cotton’s survey contain. It was therefore a useful signpost to re-encounter at this stage of my journey and made me aware that re-reading the whole book would be a very good thing to do.

Turning to the specific question we are asked to consider, the emergence of coronavirus and lockdown has seen a marked increase in the use of objects and environments as metaphor, to the extent that this approach has arguably been the most notable feature of photography in the Covid-19 era. The strange emptiness public spaces, the universally experienced sense of isolation and loss – of companionship, of daily routines, of work, of freedom, of the ability to make plans; and for many the permanent loss of loved ones. All these almost demand to be expressed via metaphor due to its ability to express a sense of absent signs of life. Furthermore the restrictions on movement and activity brought by lockdown have themselves highlighted metaphor’s unparalleled ability to speak to an audience via even the most available and mundane objects.

References and resources

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson

IAP 5 exercise 5.1 still life

All of these images have been shot during the lockdown period and use still life to convey the sense of absence and abandonment that has permeated everything. Some of the images are part of an ongoing project I have entitled Lockdown Diaries and which I intend to be my submission for assignment 5; others I took as part of other ongoing projects that currently have no end point in view, including a project documenting industrial buildings in the natural landscape, which perhaps might feed in to something later when I do the Level 2 Landscape module. The wheelbarrow shot was of course a deliberate reference to William Eggleston’s tricycle image from his 1969/70 Memphis series.

IAP 5 exercise 5.3 journey

This journey is a walk I do at least once a fortnight, a figure-of-eight loop around an area of the South Downs behind Peacehaven. I often take my camera, and each time I focus on taking a particular kind of image. Sometimes this might just be about textures and I’ll take lots of close-up images of woodworm-holed barn doors, piles of roofing slates, rusty containers, peeling signboards. Other times it might be about the industrial buildings and equipment that make anomalous shapes in the rural landscape. The most recent time I did the walk I was simply experimenting with different ways of using a zoom lens in this kind of environment, and enjoying both its macro abilities and the way it condenses views across the landscape, giving them the same kind of perspective as the paintings Eric Ravilious made of the South Downs. I decided to use a selection of images from that particular walk for this exercise.

Once I’d made my image selection, it struck me that the result was very different from any series I might have made if I’d set out to shoot a set of images specifically for the exercise. After giving this some considerable thought I came to the conclusion that this was due to the fact that if I’d had the exercise brief in mind – ie had the specific intention to photograph my journey – I’d have been thinking about how to present the journey to others. As it is, these images result from me exploring the environment along my journey. They therefore show the sights and interactions I personally experienced as I proceeded, rather than being an attempt by me to show the journey to outside eyes. I feel that this sense of personal exploration comes over in the images and makes them more evocative of the journey than those I would likely have taken with the brief in mind. This is a powerful insight for me and gives me clues about how my tendency to approach a brief too literally can get in the way of my creative expression.

IAP 5 exercise 5.2 exhausting a place

Looking out of my kitchen window towards the junction of Sudeley Place and St George’s Road, Kemptown
10.45 am Saturday 4 July

Words and letters
Sudeley Place
Disabled
Non-recyclable waste
No trade waste
No building waste
No bulky items
Necot
Tea coffee (the rest too small to read)
Brighton Cookery School
Cook Eat
To Let Carr & Priddle
VK09 RHE
Buy three get one free

Colours
Blue bin
Black bin
Purple plantpots
Green trees
Purple flowers
White flowers
Red flowers
Red shop sign
Blue To Let sign
Yellow paving tiles
Orange wall
Green garden door
Blue shed
Orange shed
Blue car
Silver car
Black car
Red car
White house
Yellow door
Black door
Grey door
Terracotta chimney pots
Yellow road marking
White road markings
Grey roof

The leaves and branches on the trees wave in the wind
My tomato plants hang limp and dead after a week of wind and rain
The fire escape winds upwards and downwards
The sky is flat and white with cloud
Seagulls squawk as they bounce in the wind
The flowers in the gardens below nod their heads in the wind
Two garden tables have been turned upside down in the garden below to stop them blowing away

The Necot café is serving customers from a side window while lockdown continues
Two people stand and talk on the corner keeping a two-metre distance
A woman in a blue anorak walks past
A grey car draws up and parks in the Disabled parking bay next to Necot’s side window
Two women get out of the car, one in a pink jumper and the other in an orange jacket
Orange jacket crosses the road to the wheelie bin and deposits a garbage bag into it
A man in a yellow jacket walks past with two dogs, one black one white
The pink and orange ladies order something from the Necot café
They rest their elbows on the shelf of the open window through which Necot is serving its customers 
Two women turn the corner, one with a dog and the other dressed all in peach. Peach lady hunches her shoulders as she walks up the hill
The pink and orange ladies stroll around the corner and back again as they wait for their order from Necot
Another customer has arrived at Necot, a man wearing a khaki jacket. He stands a good two metres distance from the other customers
Another man walks around the corner on the near side of the road – it’s my downstairs neighbour Martin, carrying an orange shopping bag
The pink and orange ladies stand with their hands on their hips
Two more people come round the corner; both wear face masks and scarves wrapped around their necks
A woman in a tub-like hat walks down the road holding her phone to her ear
She stops to talk to the pink and orange ladies
The orange lady now holds a cup of coffee
The man in khaki receives his coffee order and walks away out of sight around the corner
The pink lady hasn’t received her order yet and leans against the windowsill as the orange lady drinks her coffee
A young couple walk briskly round the corner and head up the hill towards the hospital with purposeful strides
The occupant of the ground floor flat below me comes out into their yard, turns and goes back into their flat
The orange and pink ladies now have their orders from the café and get back into their car
They do not see seem to be in a hurry to drive away
Pink lady is in the driving seat
She is organising things in the car
A man in a black mask with AirPods in his ears walks down the hill towards the café
The pink lady has got out of the car as she continues to rearrange things
A man with grey hair and a bald pate has arrived and is making an order through the cafe window
A young woman with a lot of hair blowing in the wind walks down the hill reading her phone as she walks
The pink and orange ladies continue to sit in their car as they consume their orders from the café
Finally pink lady starts the car and they drive away

Comments

This exercise asks us to create an observation report like those compiled by Perec (1975) and asks us to consider whether we can transform this into a photography version. I located a copy of Perec’s observations and used them as a loose template for my own report. I can see that the point of the exercise is to encourage us to look carefully at what’s around us, and to look not just at the actions taking place in front of us but also at the location, and to view it through different frameworks – focusing in turn on words, colours and other characteristics. For me, however, this forensic deconstructing of the scene felt uninspiring and I would not use this method as the basis of a photography project. At this point in my development I’m more interested in trying to encourage my subconscious creative mind to intuit meanings and significances that are less direct and literal than this. I’m looking for the emotional content of a scene rather than the obvious narrative content. My experience of doing this exercise was that listing everything in this way served to drain the scene of interest rather than inspire me to explore it through photography.

References and resources

Perec, G. (1975) translated by Lowenthal, M. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Wakefield Press.