Reflective evaluation

IAP: Reflective evaluation of my learning

Before I started this module I hoped it would help me learn how to create portraits that revealed something of my subject’s character and/or circumstances to a viewer who had never met the subject and knew nothing about them. Once I received and read through the documentation, however, I realised that the first thing I would have to learn was how to overcome my fear of asking strangers to cooperate as subjects. This fear was largely due to my feeling that I didn’t yet have any sense of how to go about creating these portraits from either a technical or an artistic point of view. I therefore had no confidence about asking people to act as my subjects because I had no real idea how I should direct them and felt I had nothing to offer them in return for their time and cooperation, being unsure whether I’d be even able to produce an image they would appreciate if I were to offer them a copy.

There is only one way to resolve this kind of catch-22/cart-before-horse issue, and that is to jump in feet first, sparking the learning process that will gradually grow into an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. This is what I eventually did, and over the course of the module I have indeed learned a lot about how to approach making a portrait. This learning has progressed gradually through the course, with each assignment uncovering further insights.

Three specific learning points stand out particularly strongly in my mind. The first of these builds on the learning I acquired over the course of the first two modules (EYV and C&N) about how to create a coherent series of images with a sense of internal consistency, and extends this into an understanding of how also to include differences of emphasis and perspective to create a series that has greater depth and is more amenable to different interpretations by the viewer. This learning is reflected in the differences between my A1, for which I tried to make the individual portraits as consistent in format as possible in order to emphasise their status as a series, and my A2, in which I began to get a feel for the ways in which different kinds of image could be combined and still retain a sense of cohesion.

The second learning point that stands out for me is that I now understand that it’s not actually essential to include the physical person in the image frame to make a portrait. I already understood that an effective portrait should reveal something of the subject’s inner life or circumstances and intuitively understood that this could be achieved without a physical representation of the subject within the image frame, but had not recognised this explicitly. Doing so allowed me to become more aware of ways of capturing personal experience, and my A5 lockdown diary, a portrait of my own lockdown experience, takes advantage of this learning.

The third notable learning point is that I have gained a strong insight into Barthes’ analysis of photography as a medium for bringing the past into the present, and have come to understand the power of this retrospective aspect and the associated aura of nostalgic loss that it can confer on even mundane events. In this respect I feel that my A4, which was shot in the period immediately preceding lockdown, now has a heightened sense of poignancy and nostalgia for the pre-covid social order and its lost world of unthinking physical contact. Conversely the images I shot for my A5 included an attempt to document the sudden and at the time surreal changes in the world at large as well as my own personal experiences of these changes, but the images documenting the changed public landscape rapidly lost their initial impact as the environments they recorded became normalised and ubiquitous. This ability of photography to shift the framework of time means that the images I shot for A5 of the post-covid public environment which seemed strange when I shot them now seem normal, and it is the images that record the pre-covid world for A4 that now have the aura of strangeness and are imbued with a nostalgic sense of prelapsarian innocence.

LO1 demonstrate an ability to make technically accomplished photographic work and apply technique purposefully and appropriately

IAP A4: final for assessment

Project statement

I was drawn to photographing these scenes for the way they seem to catch their subjects mid-story in a narrative with a hidden history and an unknowable future. Their sense of portent became stronger in retrospect as Covid-19 revealed itself to be the future that lay in wait.

IAP A4: summary for assessment

Background

Since I moved to this eastern side of Brighton three years ago I’ve been struck by the way the scenes in the windows of the bars, restaurants and other small businesses seem as night falls to become silent dramas played out on stages formed by capsules of light enclosed by darkness. They appear to exist as frozen moments in time with no sense of what came before or afterwards, and are both literal and metaphorical windows onto other people’s lives.

I first photographed these scenes in 2018 for an exercise and assignment in EYV, and returned to shooting them anew in the second week of January this year for exercise 2.2 in photographing the unaware. After completing that exercise I continued to shoot these scenes whenever I had occasion to walk towards central Brighton at night-time. At that point I had no specific intention in mind and was just taking the photographs for my own enjoyment, but as I read further ahead in the module and saw that assignment 4 was about the relationship between words and images, I realised that these pictures with their sense of stories waiting to be revealed might be a suitable project for the assignment.

In the early evening of Friday 20 March the government instructed all non-essential businesses to close for an unspecified period due to the coronavirus. I realised that night would be my last opportunity to make further such images for potentially some considerable time, so I grabbed my camera and went out to take a final batch.

Research

I have always enjoyed the atmospheric quality of night-time photography such as Brassaï’s Paris at Night series and night-time images of London by photographers as diverse in style as Bill Brandt, Rut Blees Luxemburg and Antony Cairns. All these artists have inspired me to experiment with making images of the city at night.

I was also influenced in my subject matter by the constructed scenes of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, seeing parallels in the window scenes to the work of these photographers in the way they pose questions about the participants that cannot be answered. Similarly I noticed a resemblance in some scenes to paintings by Edward Hopper, which have the same intimation as works by Wall and Crewdson of hidden histories preceding the depicted events.

Process

Between 10 January and 20 March when the Covid-19 lockdown was announced I took 357 images for the series. For the 50 images I took on the final evening I used my Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a 24-70mm lens; for the other 307 I used my Panasonic Lumix GX9 with a micro 4/3 12–32mm lens. With both cameras I worked in manual mode, ignoring the exposure meter and using the image preview to adjust my settings.

I worked through all the images slowly, starring those that particularly stood out as I went. At the end of this process I had 80 starred images and used this batch as my starting point for the main edit. I processed these 80 in Camera Raw, adjusting light levels and straightening horizontals, rejecting any that on closer examination weren’t up to scratch or seemed surplus to requirements.

Presentation

The introduction of lockdown has of course given these images a new perspective. Looking back at them now, the future that lay ahead of these scenes is revealed and they are consequently imbued with significances they did not explicitly have at the time but which were nevertheless implicitly buried in their sense of an unknowable future.

After whittling the images down to a shortlist of 33, I decided it was time to see how these worked as prints. I am very conscious of OCA assessors’ preference for non-glossy prints and understand that this is because the strong overhead fluorescent lights in the assessment room play havoc with reflective surfaces and make glossy prints difficult to read. So my first test prints were on semi-matte paper. I printed a few different images at A4 and one at A3, but was slightly disappointed with all of them. They seemed to lose something in the matteness – they looked flat, two-dimensional, and their vibrancy and sharpness was diminished. I realised that in fact reflectiveness is a key element of the images – the shiny windows and the reflections in them, the overlapping of concrete and reflected objects and signage and the visual confusions created by this mix. So I tried the same test images on glossy paper, and was left in no doubt that this is the correct medium for this series.

I then printed all 33 shortlisted images on glossy A4 paper and started trying to whittle down the numbers without losing the sense of the series offering individual standalone stories while collectively working as a comprehensive survey of the people who live and work in Kemptown. After getting rid of nine I was left with 24, which I submitted to my tutor for his feedback. He encouraged me to make a new edit that focused more strongly on the sense of unknowable outcomes and less on the people-typology aspects.

Discarding my impulse to make the series a comprehensive survey of Kemptown people made the task of editing the 24 images I had submitted for feedback down to the 7 to 10 required in the assignment brief considerably easier. It also gave me an idea for how I might fulfil the assignment’s requirement to accompany the images with text. Camus’s The Plague offered obvious parallels with the arrival of Covid, and I now selected a set of images and snippets of text from the book that seemed to resonate with each other. That edit can be viewed here. But when I stood back and looked at this revised presentation I found that the text completely overwhelmed the images, closing down their scope of interpretation and directing it too crudely in a direction that was not adequately supported by the main narrative thrust of the images. I also realised that in the process of selecting images to match the Camus text I had discarded some of those that most strongly evoked the sense of unseen stories playing out.

I therefore returned to my first shortlist and re-edited it once more, eventually arriving at an edit that I feel succeeds in my original intention of capturing scenes with a sense of unknowable prequels and sequels, and at the same time describes the general ambience of Kemptown and its people.

LO2 be able to translate ideas into visual outcomes with confidence and autonomy

IAP A2: summary for assessment

Background

Of the three sisters in my family, middle sister Jane has always been the queen of glamour, so it was no great surprise when she decided in 2007 to have breast implants. I was more surprised to learn at the beginning of 2019 that she was going to have them removed, because until then I was unaware that one of her implants had ruptured during a routine mammogram. Neither had I heard of breast implant illness (BII), nor did I know that Jane’s and other Allergan-brand implants had by then been heavily implicated in 457 global cases of breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL) and nine patient deaths – figures that soared in the following months to reach 573 cases and 33 deaths by July 2019, when the FDA requested Allergan to recall a number of its breast implant products after establishing that 481 of the cases and 12 of the 13 deaths with identifiable implant brands involved Allergan products.

Neither was I aware how complex and painful it is to have breast implants removed, or how long the recovery period is, both physically and psychologically. All these things I learned only after Jane’s explant, when she asked me to accompany her while she had additional minor reconstructive surgery, in the immediate aftermath of which she would be unable to carry anything and might need some degree of personal care. In June 2019 we travelled together to Birmingham for what turned out to be the first of two reconstructive procedures, with the second taking place in January 2020.

Research

After Jane asked me to accompany her for her reconstructive surgery I joined a Facebook BII group she recommended, which opened my eyes for the first time to all the abovementioned implant-related issues. In terms of photographers, I had the work of several artists in mind as I approached this assignment, most notably Philip Toledo’s Days with My Father, Matt Finn’s Mother, Elina Brotherus’s Annonciation and other projects, and Nigel Shafran’s Dad’s Office along with his other portrayals of the domestic environment. The main thing I took from all these photographers was that I aimed to make images capturing something of the impression and feeling of being alongside Jane as she went through her surgical procedure rather than attempting to document any of the specific clinical details.

Process

On our first trip to the clinic in Birmingham in June 2019 I took a few pictures with no particular intention in mind. The second time I took far more photos with the aim of using them for this assignment. Revisiting Jo Spence’s work in January 2020 just before I set off to meet up with Jane prompted me to make a mental note to include images with the sense of an action taking place rather than just static poses. Together with my experiments with continuous shooting during the exercises for A2 which demonstrated the value of having several similar shots to choose from, this led me to decide that I would shoot all the images for the project using continuous shooting. Since there would likely be movement in the images, I also again decided to use shutter speed priority mode in order to minimise movement blur.

I had no opportunity to review the images I shot for this project before I returned home, so was disappointed to find that despite the fast shutter speeds my decision to use continuous shooting had caused many of the images to lack the sharpness of focus I would have liked them to have. This was especially the case for the pictures of Jane herself, and in some cases the problem was exacerbated by the presence of visible noise, which was a consequence of shooting in some poorly lit locations with only available light and attempting to compensate for this by setting the ISO at a level that in retrospect I can see was higher than advisable. There was no possibility of reshooting, but I learned a valuable lesson for the future, being that it really is a better idea to optimise the settings for each image individually rather than going for the scattergun approach I took here.

On the plus side there were things I was only half aware of at the time I shot the images that turned out better than I expected. The fortuitous scattering of petals in the first image which emphasise the impending vulnerability also suggested by her prone posture. The way the clinic and its clinical waste shed can be seen to represent the two faces of the cosmetic surgery industry – the glossy brochure on the one hand and the mundane reality on the other. And the way that Jane and the painting behind her in the final image evoke Munch’s The Scream, yet the preceding image of evening light on the curtain anchors it into calmness and reflects the fact that this traumatic process is drawing to a close. And I feel the colour palette of warm dark earth tones and greens that runs through the images works to pull them together as a set.

In his feedback my tutor pointed me to a video of Larry Sultan discussing his project Pictures from Home (1983–92), in which Sultan spoke about an issue that I have also encountered in this project with my sister – the feeling that I am in some way betraying a trust as I present her experience in my own images and words, which I know are not the ones she would use herself. This issue is compounded for me by the fact that I have been attempting to offer a candid and non-glamorised account of a subject that has its very origin in Jane’s ongoing long-term project of creating the most glamorous possible version of herself.

In fact, her attitude towards breast implants has changed in the past couple of years, but the glamour dilemma touches other aspects of her personal history and preferences, too. She has for decades worked as an artist’s model, so presenting herself in a glamorous way is second nature to her. She has a highly developed understanding of how to arrange her body and facial expressions to best advantage, and it is as difficult for her not to do this as it would be for me to do it. Although we specifically discussed the fact that I would be looking to make more candid images than the ones that she is used to modelling for, and she fully understood the reasons underlying this, I know for sure (and can sympathise with the fact that) she prefers to be seen at “her best” – and in this sense the images I have made for the series do not “do her justice” and feel – as Larry Sultan expressed it – like something of a betrayal.

My tutor suggested that I go back to the original images to create a new edit that came closer to investigating the emotions and feelings around my sister and her post-breast explant surgery story rather than documenting the literal journey to the clinic. I found this a really helpful suggestion, because I had sensed that I’d focused too closely on documenting the journey itself, but hadn’t been able to pinpoint what the alternative element was. I also now realised that I had been trying to edit the series to fit the brief as closely as possible instead of building the narrative supplied by the images on its own terms.

I now created a new edit from scratch. Nine of the 12 images from the first edit made it through to the second edit, and three new images joined the edit. The first new image is a direct switch of Jane on the train to Birmingham in January 2020 for a similar image from the earlier surgery trip in June 2019.  I had initially rejected the older image because I felt Jane wouldn’t like it, but it hints at an important part of her experience in this story – her fears about the outcome of the surgery and the competence of the surgeon, which meant that she barely slept the night before we travelled to Birmingham and woke up with a migraine. It also illustrates, as my tutor put it, her vulnerability – she is asleep and oblivious as the world rushes by.

The other changes both relate to my now feeling less concerned with the requirements of the brief and more interested in the internal narrative of the series. The reporter on the clinic’s TV screen wears an expression of horror and has her hands cupped close to her breasts in an out-of-control environment. The final new image finds Jane’s surgery-related paraphernalia – the painkillers, antibiotics and dressings – making an incongruous companion to her stylish ankle boots. These changes also reduced the overall problems with noise and insufficiently sharp focus, as these issues occurred mostly with the portrait images.

Presentation

The first option I explored for presenting the images at assessment was to just send them as prints. I tried out various print settings and found a combination that seemed to work well. Another idea I considered was to incorporate some of the materials I came across while researching the project – FDA press releases, breast implant brochures etc – into my presentation, and for this a book seemed to be an appropriate solution. I created three alternative book drafts – one with minimal accompanying text, which can be viewed here; a second with a strand of text from my research resources running through the book, which can be viewed here; and a third with the text at the end of the book, which can be viewed here.

I soon realised that the version with the strand of text running through the book made it impossible to read the text without feeling that the facing-page image was an illustration of or response to that text, which was not the case and therefore distorted the reading of the images. I was now unsure whether the version with minimal text said that all needed to be said, or whether the text placed the narrative of the images into a broader context, and decided to request my peers’ views via the Critiques forum. The unanimous view from the forum was that the version with minimal text was preferred. One commenter suggested condensing the minimal text still further and placing it all at the front of the book, and also varying the flow of images through the book, and I took both these suggestions on board. The forum comments can be read here.

After making further minor adjustments I had the book printed by Blurb, with the intention of submitting it for assessment. Covid-19 has, however, ruled this out, so instead I have made a short video that shows the physical book and am submitting this alongside the final print pdf and the individual images in a gallery format.

LO3 show a developed critical understanding of contemporary practice in relation to historical practice and theory, and the themes explored in this unit

IAP Reflection on inside/outside

Exercise 3.1 asks us to place archive images into two categories – mirrors and windows. For the purposes of the exercise, these categories are considered from the point of view of the photographer. Thus we are taking the viewpoint of John Szarkowski’s 1978 Mirrors and Windows exhibition and equating mirrors to autobiographical/inward-facing subject matter and windows to world-exploring/outward-looking subjects.

As Bull (2010) points out, Szarkowski’s approach is a modernist one and considers only the content of the image. In this respect it is actually quite different to the similarly-titled categories of inside and outside examined by Solomon-Godeau (1994). The difference arises because Solomon-Godeau takes a postmodernist approach, which considers the context in which an image has been made to reveal as much as, or even perhaps more than, its content. Like Rosler (1975) and Sontag (1979 p.55), who derides the photographer who gazes “on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, […] as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal”, Solomon-Godeau argues that the photographer has to have to have directly lived the subject/s’ experience to be capable of documenting it in a credible and authentic manner.

These ideas have led directly or indirectly to the concept of cultural appropriation and its underlying presumption that only an insider is qualified to comment or build on the experience of any particular socially distinct group, ie one based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or other culturally defined parameters. But where do we draw the insider/outsider line? Is anyone who has, for example, lived on the street on The Bowery qualified to comment on the experience of everyone else who has done the same? Or would a young white man’s experience in that environment be significantly different to that of a black man, a woman, an elderly person?

It is worth pointing out that at the time Solomon-Godeau and Sontag were writing it was generally believed that the framework through which people viewed the world was determined by their own social position and personal experience, and was essentially fixed and immutable. There was of course a long tradition of thought proposing an alternative argument – that our perception of the world is, like reality itself, multidimensional and fluid – but this has only very recently become the prevailing paradigm. Today we argue not about facts but perspective, to the extent that arguments are now opposed not on factual grounds but on grounds of biased perspective: they are simply “fake news”.

The understanding that perspective is fluid and does not necessarily run along the same faultlines as class/gender/ethnic etc divisions has become increasingly evident in the past four years. In an era where it is common currency that all perception and analysis starts with a point of view and there is no longer any credence in the idea of absolute truth or a definitive version of events, perspective is the dividing line between insider and outsider viewpoints. Nothing has made this clearer than Brexit, which has revealed the underlying perspective faultline running through every subject from identity politics to global warming to welfare to immigration. This faultline emanates from the emotion-based principles described in Philipp Hübi’s essay in Tillmans (2018) – care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity – which themselves boil down to a single axis: the ability/willingness to put oneself in the shoes of others, aka compassion.

Where the modernist perspective focused on content and the postmodernists focused on context, the post-postmodernist perspective focuses on perspective itself. Modernism says you point the camera one way or the other. Postmodernism says you have to have lived the experience of your subject. Post-postmodernism says compassion and conscious perspective enables you to place yourself in the shoes of your subject. For the photographer, the question becomes: are we recording the subject’s behaviour (outsider perspective) or sharing their experience (insider perspective)?

I would also argue that while the postmodernist analysis zoomed out from the close modernist focus on the image to include consideration of the photographer and even the context in which the image is viewed, it did not zoom out far enough to include the viewer of the image, and could not have done, because information about the viewer’s response was not available in those days. Images at that time were mostly consumed in magazines at home, and in public galleries viewers’ perspective would tend to be guided by the accompanying materials and there was generally no forum or other medium for hearing and recording viewers’ thoughts. So the viewer’s input is not something that Solomon-Godeau, Sontag et al could even have thought about considering or even encountering.

Today the situation could not be more different, and the perspective of the viewer is perhaps of even greater relevance to the insider/outsider divide than that of the photographer. Images are constantly commented on in social media and other public forums, and everyone can be a curator, interpreter and critic. It is now commonplace that identical images are interpreted in completely opposing ways in different forums with different agendas.

I experienced an enlightening example of this when I worked as an invigilator at the 2018 Brighton Photo Biennial and spoke at length to hundreds of festival visitors. One of the installations I invigilated most regularly through the month was Uta Kögelsberger’s Uncertain Subjects Part II, comprising naked head-and-shoulder portraits of dozens of people of various nationalities who felt their views on Brexit were not being heard. Most people saw the format as an effective way of stripping down the differences between people and emphasising their commonalities, and it was so successful in creating a sense of familiarity/insiderness that several visitors each day told me they thought they recognised one or more of the subjects but couldn’t quite place them.

A small minority of male viewers, however, told me that they found the format distracting and disturbing, because the women’s naked shoulders made them unable to think about anything other than what their breasts might be like. Thus I learned that even in a case where the photographer has consciously taken and presented an insider perspective, the determining viewpoint is ultimately the one adopted by the viewer. This was demonstrated even more strongly by the viewpoint of Kögelsberger’s installation taken by many Brexit supporters, who saw the subjects’ one-line statements on what Brexit meant to them from a totally outsider perspective. Several Brexit supporters were actually incandescent with rage that they felt excluded by the installation because it didn’t reflect their own point of view, and a few even registered formal complaints that the work was biased.

References and resources

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994) Inside/Out. Available at http://www.photopedagogy.com/uploads/5/0/0/9/50097419/week_5_abigail_solomon-godeau_inside_out.pdf [accessed 13.02.20]
Rosler, M. (1975) The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, 1974–74. Available at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/95.117.a-x/ [accessed 13.02.20]
Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin Books.
Hübi, P. (2018) “The Power of Political Emotions: On Political Camp Formation and the New Right-Wing Populism” in Tillmans, W. (2018) Jahresring 64: What is Different? Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Book: Shore, S. Uncommon Places: The Complete Works

The introductory text to exercise 5.3 on journeys referred at some length to Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, and it occurred to me that although several images from this series had been included in the Cruel and Tender exhibition which I saw at Tate Modern back in 2003, I’d never seen the complete series, so I ordered a copy of the book. When it arrived a few days later I was struck by how deeply familiar all the images felt. Perhaps I have in fact seen them all many times over the years, but I think the sense of familiarity actually stems from the fact that the images seem to constitute an idiom that is both deeply embedded in and reflective of cultural representations of the US of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The sense of transience and endless open spaces, the juxtapositioning of the gaudy products and signage of mass consumer culture against untamed dusty landscapes and distant mountain ranges, the simultaneous sense of sparseness and abundance, the strong but muted colour palettes, the grid-like urban environments, reflected in Shore’s grid-like compositions. The cars are different today, but other than that this is what the US still looks like, in movies and in real life. More than Frank and Eggleston, in Uncommon Places Shore has captured the look and feel of the country – to the extent that it seems inevitable and unavoidable that it should be photographed this way.

Shore’s use of horizontal and vertical lines within the image to frame his subject and create interest in the picture plane put me in mind of Stephen Gill’s series Covered or Removed, which also uses these devices and has a distinctly Shore-like aesthetic despite being shot in Hackney rather than north America. I also noted that my own images from a two-week California road trip last July borrowed heavily from the same idiom (see selection below). Did Shore invent this idiom? Did he borrow it from Hollywood? Is it an inevitable outcome of the way such environments present themselves to be photographed? Perhaps all of these things are true.

References and resources

Shore, S. (2014) Uncommon Places: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson.
Gill, S. (date unknown) Covered or Removed. Available at https://www.stephengill.co.uk/portfolio/portfolio/nggallery/album-1-2/covered-or-removed [accessed 02.06.2020]

Book: Bull, S. Photography

I’ve had this book for about 18 months without getting round to reading it, and only chose it to take away over xmas because it was a good size and weight to stick in my handbag and read on the plane. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be the great choice it turned out to be. I ended up devouring it from cover to cover and repeatedly found myself admiring Bull’s short and succinct summaries of subjects ranging from surrealism to modernism and postmodernism to the ideas put forward by Bazin, Barthes, Benjamin, Sontag, Solomon-Godeau and others. In less than 200 highly readable pages the book covers an astonishing amount of ground and provided me not just with an overview of more or less everything I’ve read and learned about photography in the past two years, but also a better understanding of some of the original materials.

In part this is due to Bull’s ability to distill complex ideas into a single sentence, and in another part it’s due to the way he provides such clear context for the work, ideas and movements he discusses. His tracing of ideas in photography (and art in general) to developments in the wider world has prompted me to consider the source of the current interest in identity and its politics, and I’ve come to realise that it’s a natural and inevitable consequence of the era-defining developments of our time – the rise of globalisation and all its social, economic, technological and political manifestations including the development of globalised communication via the internet, and the consequent erosion of the power and importance of the nation state, including its role as a source of identity. There are of course many, many other consequences that flow from these developments, as well as reactive backlashes in the shape of the current rise of nationalistic right-wing movements, but I have found that thinking about identity politics in this context makes a lot of sense. It also gives me a sense of potential directions to look for relevance in my own future work.

References and resources

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

LO4 be able to reflect upon your own work and that of others with increasing confidence and criticality

Book: Usborne, M. I’ve Lived in East London…

This work was recommended to me by my tutor, and after looking at what I could find of it online I was so taken with it I ordered a copy of the book, and am very pleased I did, as there are about seven or eight times more images in the book than I’d found online, and the profile Usborne presents of his subject Joseph Markovitch is consequently seven or eight times richer and deeper even than I’d thought. The project is also a fascinating commentary on this part of east London, which has undergone a huge transformation since 1983 when I arrived in London from university and took a job as a care assistant at the Richard Cloudesley School for children with special needs, a stone’s throw from Old Street. In those days the area was very run-down and exclusively working class, with a reputation for low-level crime. The one exception was a live music venue in Hoxton Square called the Bass Clef, which was always a big problem to get home from if you missed the last tube because cabs never went anywhere near the area at night.

By photographing Joseph Markovitch in this now thriving and youth-orientated part of London, Usborne brings these contrasting iterations of the area face to face, and it is uplifting to find that the narrative of this encounter is framed not in terms of gentrification but as an ongoing process of change that a long-term resident like Joseph finds interesting rather than threatening or alienating. His willingness to embrace the new and the different is what makes him an engaging and likeable subject, and Usborne portrays this with great sympathy and subtlety, never slipping into sentimentality or nostalgia.

I tried to analyse how Usborne achieves this in specific practical terms and made the following observations:
– He includes many different kinds/styles of image, which collectively present what feels like a fully rounded profile of his subject.
– Many images portray Joseph apparently incongruously in the setting of modern-day Hoxton/Clerkenwell/Shoreditch, which superficially highlights his alienation from the area he has inhabited for a long lifetime. However, his evident engagement with the modern-day people and environment of the area, illustrated both through his body language in the images and his words in the accompanying texts, turns the impression around and shows that he actually remains deeply embedded in the area and embraces the changes. These images also have a wider resonance beyond Joseph and East London, and speak to the special willingness that London has to embrace and absorb change and diversity.
– Intermittent images show Joseph engaging with objects that interest him: a plaque on a wall, a film show, a book about Africa and another about celebrities. These give us a feel for his preoccupations and character.
– Images scattered throughout the book show Joseph’s own home and personal possessions. A betting slip, a near-empty refrigerator, a teletext screen, a crumpled family photograph, a belt, bus ticket and keys. These bleak images show the frugality and indeed poverty of his personal existence and stand in stark contrast to the modern and vibrant environment of the area beyond his home. But Usborne avoids pity and political polemics by showing us that these objects have emotional significance to his subject.
– In many images Joseph carries a plastic supermarket shopping bag, including the series of eight in front of Rizla-style graffiti lettering, where he wears the same clothes but has a different bag in each image. Usborne tells us that the bags contain a small carton of orange juice. This recurring motif tells us a lot about Joseph’s quiet self-sufficiency.
– Several images show Joseph in encounters with objects from the modern world that we know he does not himself possess: a golden trainer, a micro car, a medium/large format camera, a laptop. He seems intrigued, if somewhat bemused, by these trappings of 21st century life; envy or resentment at being excluded from the benefit of enjoying these objects have no place in his mindset.

All in all, this book is a fascinating, moving and insightful study of a person and a part of London. I have learned a lot from it, and hope to apply some of the lessons to my own future work.

References and resources

Usborne, M. (2013) I’ve Lived in East London for 861/2 years. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

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 A5: summary for assessment

Background

The announcement on Friday 20 March of lockdown measures to be implemented as of Monday 23 March brought a sudden and most remarkable change to every aspect of daily life. It’s already difficult now to appreciate quite how dramatic the change was, and how scrupulously everyone, almost without exception, followed the guidelines in the weeks that followed. Public spaces were deserted, traffic was virtually non-existent and the overwhelming majority of people seemed to be sticking to the guidelines of emerging from their homes only for “essential” reasons and the permitted hour of daily exercise.

Here in Brighton, police patrolled the beaches, moving anyone on who dared to sit or lie down. I was nervous about taking my camera out on my daily walks in case I was challenged about the “non-essential” nature of my activity, so I often used my phone camera instead. I was acutely aware that these were extraordinary times, and aimed to record images falling into two broad categories: those that captured sights that were specific to the experience of lockdown (signs of the time), and those that reflected the sense of isolation that lockdown brought to many, myself included, and/or were symbolic of the mood of foreboding that permeated the fabric of life at the time.

Research

I wanted the series to tap as directly as possible into my own responses to this once-in-a-lifetime situation and didn’t want those responses to be mediated by conscious or unconscious emulation of other people’s work. But the only way it would have been possible to avoid seeing other people’s responses would have been to avoid all forms of media, and like many people I actually did the opposite and exposed myself to a continuous stream of interpretations and expressions of the experience emanating from news and social media as well as specific photography-related sources. These included Annie Liebovitz’s Still Life, Alice Zoo’s Spring, Viktoria Sorochinski’s lockdown self-portraits, George Selley’s lockdown landscapes, Dougie Wallace’s images of supermarket shoppers, Michelle Sank’s portraits of people taking their lockdown exercise, and Nadav Kander’s response to isolation.

Process

I began the project on 30 March and shot more than 750 images over the next month and a half, during which time there was a slow rise in the amount of activity in public spaces and a gradual increase in the amount of traffic on the roads, but both remained well below normal levels for the time of year. Each day I went through all the images I’d shot that day, shortlisting and processing those I deemed to be suitable candidates for potential inclusion in the final edit. I felt it was important to do this as I went along, so that the selected images would be a running commentary of my impressions and experiences at the time, and not a retrospective view compiled later.

On Thursday 7 May, with a sunny bank holiday weekend ahead, Boris Johnson intimated that lockdown restrictions would be made less onerous as of the following week. This led to an immediate return to normal levels of activity in public spaces and on the roads, at least here in Brighton. Apart from the residual signage and a few people wearing masks, there was no real indication that lockdown had ever taken place. I continued to make photos for this series over the next week, but on 14 May I decided that the lockdown experience I was aiming to record was over, and my final image was taken that day.

As the project had progressed it had gradually become clear to me that I was more interested in the images that spoke to my subjective experience of lockdown than those that captured the signs of the time in the public arena, which were becoming increasingly ubiquitous and consequently less interesting. Despite this, the 14 images I submitted to my tutor for feedback were divided 50:50 between personal and public depictions. He highlighted the fact that my final edit included two distinct narrative strands – one located in the public space and the other in the personal – and that there was no sense of connection or consistency between the two. He recommended that I focus solely on the personal, concentrating on images that show my personal experience of lockdown and/or externalise the way I experienced it internally.

This gave me the clear sense of direction I had struggled so hard to find, and I now re-edited from scratch, a task that was infinitely easier now that my intended output was precisely defined. The outcome is clearly a significant improvement on my original submission and says much more about the practical and emotional experience of lockdown than the original edit.

Presentation

I feel that this series demands a minimalistic no-frills presentation to reflect the sparseness that has been seen across visual media during this time as we’ve become accustomed to seeing everything from meetings to yoga classes to news broadcasts and tv programmes via Zoom from makeshift studios. It therefore seems appropriate to present the series as digital images, and in a studio setting I would make these as large as possible, perhaps even life-size.