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IAP 1 exercise 1.1 historic portrait

The portrait I have selected to study is August Sander’s Young Farmers, which he made in 1914. The first thing that strikes me about this portrait is that on first glance there is actually nothing to suggest that the three young men portrayed in the image are in fact farmers. Indeed, in their smart suits and Homburg hats and sporting their polished canes, they appear to represent the epitome of urban existence. They are well groomed – all are clean-shaven and have neatly trimmed hair; their shirt collars are stiff and white, their shoes shiny and free of farmyard mud. They engage with the camera in a confident and urbane manner.

One of the three stands apart from the others and has a slightly more raffish air – his gaze is a little more knowing and more questioning than that of the other two, and he holds a cigarette between his lips in the style of a habitual smoker. His hat is tipped back on his head, in contrast to those of his companions with their brows slightly down at the front in a manner that seems more modest.

Likewise his cane seems to be longer and shinier than his companions’, which may be why it touches the ground at an angle and his arm is bent, while their arms and canes are straight and upright – differences that have significant metaphorical implications. Whereas his companions might plausibly be going off to church in their Sunday best, the man with the longer cane looks more likely to be on his way to a social event of a less virtuous character: a poker game, perhaps. He could almost be a prototype template for the kind of character Humphrey Bogart made his own two to three decades later.

The left hand of the middle subject offers further ambiguity on the urban/rural question, its apparently expressive mannerism suggesting that its owner may have artistic cultural tendencies, while the dark shadows between fingers and palm could be interpreted as a clump of earth.

Other than this, only the soft-focus rural landscape in the background and the dirt road the trio stand on offer any suggestion of a non-urban context. But it’s not even clear whether this is farming land – there is no crop in sight and it looks more like heath or marshland. Neither is there any enclosure device such as a fence.

This apparent mismatch between the image’s title and its contents surprised me at first, because I had come to think of Sander’s portraits as archetypes, each subject representing a particular profession or lifestyle. Once I noticed the incongruity between this trio and their title, however, I began to see that in a considerable proportion of Sander’s images the title is actually the only clue to the subject’s occupation, and that our belief in his portraits as archetypes is generated by the titles combined with the directness with which his subjects present themselves. This directness leads us to take Sander’s titles at face value, to trust them even where there is nothing in the image to substantiate them.

August Sander (1914): Young Farmers

IAP 1 exercise 1.2 background as context

I was surprised by some of the observations I made while studying Sander’s portraits, as before looking at them in close detail I had the impression that they were more consistent in format than they actually are. In fact there are a number of elements, including the image backgrounds, that vary considerably across the project.

What is consistent, however, is the objective and even-handed way he treats every subject, regardless of social standing or any other feature. Each subject is presented, and presents themself, in an emotionally neutral manner, and this is what gives the series its immense power and enduring relevance. It makes each individual portrait simultaneously a detached study of a individual person and a representative – even an archetype – of the category into which Sanders has placed them, eg farmer’s child, Nazi officer, political prisoner, secretary etc. Collectively this gives the images the impression of an almost scientific study of a society at a point in time, which of course is precisely what Sanders intended.

Also consistent throughout the series is that every portrait is carefully balanced in composition. I intuitively felt this to be the case and decided to place a 3 x 3 grid across a random selection of a dozen to reveal their structure more explicitly. The results (reproduced below) illustrate the strength of the images’ balance and symmetry and their consistency in this respect.

Beyond this there is much that varies from photo to photo. Some portraits are of individual people, others are couples or pairs and others again are groupings of varying numbers. Most, but not all, subjects look directly at the camera, but it is very clear that even those not facing the camera are consciously presenting themselves to its gaze.

Some of the images are head-and-shoulders portraits, while others are full-body. Some have blurred backgrounds and others include sharp detail. Every face, however, is in sharp focus. Many of the backgrounds are neutral and studio-like, while others – sharp or blurred – provide contextual material for the portrait’s subject or subjects.

IAP 1 exercise 1.3 portraiture typology

The t-junction

This typology consists of people seen from the window of my flat, and includes the following types:
– People at work
– People with dogs
– People with folders
– People with phones
– People with footballs
– People getting in or out of cars
– People disposing of garbage
– People without props

Process

I have recently been playing around with taking pictures of people through the window of my flat, which overlooks a t-junction. My initial intention was to investigate the kind of pictures I can make of people when they aren’t aware of being photographed. I was hoping to capture fly-on-the wall type images that seem to offer a window into the personal world of the subject in a similar way to those made in the late 1930s by Walker Evans on the New York subway and by Peter Funch some 70 years later at a New York street junction.

The more pictures I took, the more I noticed different activity-based categories – or types – starting to emerge. I also noticed that organising the images into a typology seemed to highlight both the characteristics that define each category/type and also the similarities running across the different types that bind them together as a typology.

Reflection

Obviously I would need a lot more images to really flesh out the various categories/types, and new ones would certainly emerge – people on bicycles, for example. And if I were going to pursue this idea I would need to start again and use a more powerful zoom lens so that the resulting images would have a better focus and resolution. But I feel there is the basis of a typology concept here, and the exercise has prompted me to think about these images in a different way. It has also prompted me subsequently to explore other projects that use fly-on-the-wall techniques, and in the process I have come across Hans Eijkelboom’s book People of the Twenty-First Century, which clearly demonstrates the potential for a typology like the one I created and shows the way its impact increases exponentially with the number of entries.

References and resources

Eijkelboom, H. (2014) People of the Twenty-First Century. London: Phaidon.

IAP 1 exercise 1.4 archival intervention

A chronotype series documenting the relationship between me and my sisters from 1962 to 2017, curated from my family archive.

When we were growing up I never thought about whether my sisters and I were close or whether we cared much for each other. I was two and a half years older than Jane and nearly four years older than Sarah, and was very much the older sister, left in charge while our parents were out at parties or the officers’ mess. Parties were a big part of army life in the 1960s, and my father was repeatedly elected PMC (President of the Mess Committee), which effectively made him the host of mess events. There were also a lot of parties in our cellar, which my father converted into a party den with a fully stocked bar and wallpaper made from pages of Playboy magazine.

I recall feeling protective towards and responsible for my siblings, but I also considered them a bit of a nuisance at times, and don’t know how I’d have responded if anyone had asked me at the time whether I loved them. It’s not a question anyone ever asked, nor one I recall ever asking myself. But now when I look at these pictures I see that our relationship was actually very special, with an unquestioning mutual acceptance. Perhaps that’s what love really is.

My father was a keen photographer and took the first six of these photos, and possibly also the seventh. He died of leukaemia in 2015, but I only saw him a handful of times after my parents split up in the early 1980s and he started a new family. When he was dying, Jane scanned hundreds of his old slides and prints, and would show him a few every time she visited him in hospital. Towards the end he was permanently unresponsive, but Jane reported that he sometimes made a small sign of acknowledgement when she showed him one of the images. After he died she forwarded the scans she’d made to myself, Sarah and our brother Mark, and this is the archive from which I’ve curated this selection. It was a deeply moving experience to encounter my personal history in this form, even though I already had clear and strong memories of the places and people in the images, and even of many of the images themselves, as we’d seen them as slideshows at home.

There’s a big gap in the sequence between the seventh photo, taken in 1976 or 1977, and the eighth, taken in 2017. We did see each other from time to time in that 40-year period, but not very often. These were the years when we dispersed to go to university and ended up living a long way away from each other. While Jane and Sarah got married and had children, I lived in squats and co-ops in London and partied extensively. We met up occasionally but increasingly rarely. Often a year or two would go by without me making contact with or hearing from either of them.

The decades slipped by, their children grew up and left home and my partying eventually gave way to a healthier lifestyle. Then out of the blue on the last day of 2016 my partner of 25 years dumped me, and I found myself alone in a town I had no connection with. I emailed my sisters to tell them of my change in circumstance, and the three of us set up a whatsapp group. We’ve been in close contact ever since, and I don’t know how I would have got through 2017 without them. The final photo in this series was taken by one of my nieces when we all got together in August 2017.

When I look back at these photos now, I see the thread of continuity running through our lives. Although the series doesn’t have the consistent format and unbroken continuity of Nicholas Nixon’s study of the Brown sisters, the impact is not dissimilar in the way it tracks the relationship between us. I also see how much the three of us have made each other the people that we still are today. And I see what a blessing it is to have sisters.

IAP 2 exercise 2.1 individual spaces

This exercise and others like it in this module make the assumption that we have people at hand to act as subjects. For me this is not the case. I live alone in a town I moved to three years ago when my long-term relationship ended. I have no partner or children, and I work from home on a self-employed basis so have no work colleagues. It’s not easy to make friends in a new town at my age (61) and the people I am in regular contact with are all old friends I made earlier in life who I communicate with via Facebook and WhatsApp rather than face-to-face.

I’m aware that some OCA students have advertised locally for models for exercises of this kind, but I would personally not feel comfortable inviting strangers into my home or visiting their homes. Yes, I could go out and find subjects on the streets as I did for assignment 1, but that experience took me weeks and was so stressful I ended up dropping out of the course for nine months.

It’s really quite upsetting to recognise the extent of my social isolation, but I’m determined to find ways to complete the exercises and assignments. For this exercise I decided to illustrate the way the exercise has made me feel about my relationship with the outside world. I don’t actually spend a great deal of time standing looking out of my windows – my real window onto the world at large is my computer screen – but these images accurately portray the sense of disconnectedness from my local environment I experience when I think about how few people I actually have any direct contact with here.

I overexposed the background views through the windows to emphasise the disconnect between my world inside my flat and the world outside. In this way I feel I have fulfilled the exercise’s requirement “to create a link between the two components of your image, ie the subject and their surroundings”. By giving the two components contrasting exposures and hence different textures, I have highlighted the issue of separation.

The exercise asked for three different portraits, but I feel that repeating the same motif here emphasises the sense of disconnection by suggesting that long periods are spent in this way. It also suggests the idea of someone viewing a series of paintings in a gallery, which adds further to the sense of separation between subject and background and thus helps to strengthen the narrative theme of the set.

Two of the images were shot with the camera facing due west and the third facing due east, in mid-afternoon at the beginning of January, so the images required some work in Camera Raw and Photoshop to reduce differences in colour temperature and levels of light and shade.

The central motif – a female figure standing in front of a window – brings to mind Tom Hunter’s Woman Reading Possession Order, itself a recreation of Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter. While my images take a different viewpoint, from the rear instead of the side, and are not studies of light and shade in the manner of those images, I feel the motif conveys the same sense of a woman constrained by circumstances.

Clearly the set does not fulfil the exercise’s requirement to “make three different portraits using three different subjects”, but I feel it comments on that requirement and makes the point that someone who lives alone (as an increasingly large proportion of people do) is going to find the logistics of the exercise difficult if not impossible.

IAP 2 exercise 2.2 covert

A couple of years ago when I was doing the EYV module I learned that taking photos of people in lit interiors from the street when it’s dark is an easier way of making covert images of people than doing it in broad daylight, as they’re much less likely to notice you. It also offers opportunities to capture shots that look like stills from a film or play, because the subjects are often engaged in activities and the lighting tends to be more dramatic than daylight.

For this exercise I decided to use the under-cover-of-darkness method again. I now have a small mirrorless camera, a Panasonic Lumix GX9, which is a lot more portable than the Canon ESO 6D Mark II I used previously, and also less conspicuous, so I used that. The images I captured are a bit grainier than the ones I took with my Canon, even though I checked and matched the ISO I’d used previously (800). They’re also lower in resolution and therefore sharpness than I would have liked, which is partly due to the fact that in each case I captured the entire building but subsequently decided to crop quite severely to frame the images more closely around the people. If I were to repeat the exercise again now, I would zoom in from the outset.

Do the images fulfil the exercise brief to shoot portraits of subjects who are unaware of the fact they are being photographed? I’m not really sure that they count as portraits, as they don’t focus on a single individual and are more like narrative scenes than character studies. If my resolution had been higher and the images sharper and less noisy, I might have been able to make them into portraits by cropping still more closely to focus on an individual subject. Nevertheless, I enjoyed making the images and quite like them for what they are.

IAP 2 exercise 2.3 same model, different background

My approach to this exercise was inspired by my concurrent reading of Bull (2010), specifically Bull’s coverage of Kenyon’s (1992) analysis of subjects that tend to be overlooked by snapshot photography and Chalfen’s (1987) calculation that the average 75-year US lifetime is represented by just 30 seconds of shutter time. Both observations of course pre-date the era of ubiquitous digital photography, but Bull’s observations nevertheless increased my understanding of art photography’s interest in the mundane.

Using myself as a model, I therefore set out to record the ordinary details of an ordinary day in my life. I photographed myself on the toilet, in the shower, doing yoga, having breakfast, preparing to go out and do some errands, printing out the postage labels and custom forms for a lamp I’d sold online, and watching tv.

After reviewing the images I decided to crop them to make my sweatpants the main subject, with the background details in each image telling the story of what the person in the sweatpants is doing at each point, and cumulatively documenting a single day in their (my) life.

References and resources

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications.
Kenyon, D. (1992) Inside Amateur Photography. London: BT Batsford.
Chalfen, R. (1987) Snapshot Versions of Life. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

IAP 2 exercise 2.4 same background, different model

For this exercise I went back to the idea I’d been playing around with for a while and had used in the typology exercise in part 1 – shooting people through my front room window. Having discovered in the course of that exercise that I needed the images to be higher-res, I switched cameras and tried my Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a 70–300mm zoom lens.

Since I was focusing on an area of road into which pedestrians are currently being diverted due to building works taking up the pavement, my potential subjects would inevitably be in motion, so I decided to use shutter priority mode with a speed of 1/200 to keep movement blur to a minimum. I also increased the ISO to 800 to give myself a reasonably small aperture size and thus give myself a margin of error in focusing.

To minimise the possibility of being spotted by potential subjects I connected my phone to the camera via wifi and used the remote live shooting facility. This allowed me to stand away from my camera and meant that any movement I made was less likely to draw attention to the camera. I took a batch of photos, but after cropping them and finding that the resulting resolution was still not quite good enough, I realised that I needed to zoom in on a smaller area of the road.

Focusing on a smaller area made it difficult to make well-composed shots due to the reduced timeframe I had for capturing the subject as they passed through my target area and the slight delay in communication between the camera and my app, especially the latency in the live viewfinder display on the phone. I therefore decided to use high-speed continuous shooting mode instead of single shot, which meant abandoning remote control since continuous shooting is not available via the phone.

This combination of settings gave me exactly what I needed. I simply started pressing the shutter release button as soon as a potential subject moved into my area of interest and continued pressing it as they moved through the frame. This gave me an average of around 5 shots for each subject and immediately increased my rate of successful subject capture.

At the end of this session I selected half a dozen images. Although I had used a tripod, some small differences in the positioning of the images’ white triangle focal point had occurred due to the tripod moving on my wooden floor, so I adjusted them slightly to make the alignment of the background consistent through the set.

IAP 3 exercise 3.1 mirrors and windows

Mirrors

In these images the focus is inward, with an emphasis on exploring questions of identity and personal history.

Windows

In these images the focus is outward, with the emphasis on observing character, relationships and the patterns of life. Some of them are literally taken through windows, confirming the idea of observation.

The question of looking inward or outward in photography is one that I have found very interesting since I first encountered the concept quite early on in my OCA studies. As a follow-up to this exercise I have written a post outlining some of my thoughts on the subject on my learning log.

IAP 3 exercise 3.2 aspects of personality

Some of the things that make me uniquely who I am:
– I don’t have a home town and went to 12 different schools
– I’ve never had children or been married
– I didn’t communicate with my mother at all for about 10 years
– I’m very organised
– I have more freckles than anyone else I’ve ever met.

The images below are intended to illustrate the organised aspect of my character, and I think they also speak about the socially detached nature of my lifestyle – although of course not all people who live alone are tidy. In fact I was discussing exactly this point recently with a friend who has also never married or had children but whose home is full of what I would call clutter. So I think these images do say more about my organised and organising character than anything else, and I can envisage expanding them into a series of studies of different people’s characters as revealed through the arrangements of their domestic paraphernalia.

The other idea I considered was a study of people with freckles. This idea was prompted by a visit this afternoon to an exhibition at Brighton Museum entitled 100 First Women Portraits – photographs by Anita Corbin of women who have been the first female in their respective fields. I was very surprised to see that the first regular female TV newsreader Angela Rippon has freckles, and this highlighted the fact that she was the single freckle-faced woman amongst the 100. Perhaps this is an idea I will follow up on at a future date.

IAP 3 exercise 3.3 unhelpful portrayals

We don’t need to look far today to see marginalised or under-represented people and groups being badly or unhelpfully portrayed. While I suspect that the brief for this exercise was written in kinder times and is intended to get us to think about portrayals that are unconsciously bad or unhelpful, today this question inevitably also raises the issue of the conscious and deliberate negative portrayals that have become an integral part of the daily discourse on social media, in the right-wing popular press and even on mainstream TV programmes such as the BBC’s Question Time.

But as I said, I think this exercise is probably intended to prompt us to address our own unconscious unhelpful portrayals and to become aware of whether we are portraying our subjects from an insider or outsider perspective. I have already written a blog post about the inside/outside question so won’t repeat that here. Instead I will consider an example of the way a photographer consciously thinking about their perspective informed the way they approached the work and influenced its outcome.

My example is Émeric Lhuisset, whose series of unfixed cyanotypes L’Autre Rive was shown as part of Brighton Photo Biennial 2018. As one of the volunteer invigilators, I had the privilege of attending a pre-opening talk in which Lhuisset described his determination to avoid presenting the refugees who were the subjects of his series as either invading hordes or tragic victims as they are invariably seen in the media. Instead, he wanted to show them as ordinary people doing everyday things like taking selfies on the beach.

It is not hard to see that there are good reasons for avoiding even well-meaning outsider-perspective portrayals, not least that depersonalising minorities such as refugees by presenting them as tragic victims reduces other people’s ability to relate to them as fully rounded human beings who have the same hopes and fears as everyone else. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to imagine that the consequence of the depersonalisation engendered by even these well-intentioned stereotypes might have helped to lay the ground for the overtly hostile attitudes towards all minorities that have become so ubiquitous in recent times.

IAP 3 exercise 3.4 the gaze

The course notes introduce us to eight gazes. As outlined in Bull (2010), these have their origins in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay in which she applied ideas from psychoanalysis to the viewing of film (Mulvey, 2009) and Victor Burgin’s adaptation of her analysis to photography (Burgin, 1982).
1. The spectator’s gaze – the look of the viewer at a person in the image.
2. The internal gaze – the gaze of one depicted person at another within the same image.
3. The direct address – the gaze of a person depicted in the image looking out directly, as if at the viewer (through the camera lens).
4. The look of the camera – the way the camera itself appears to look at people depicted in the image (the gaze of the photographer).
5. The bystander’s gaze – the viewer being observed in the act of viewing.
6. The averted gaze – the subject in the image deliberately looking away from the lens.
7. The audience gaze – an image depicting the audience watching the subject within the image.
8. The editorial gaze – the whole ‘institutional’ process by which a proportion of the photographer’s gaze is chosen and emphasised.

I would add to this list four further gazes:
9. The internal object gaze – the gaze of a person depicted in the image at an object (as opposed to a person as per gaze 2 above) within the same image.
10. The offstage gaze – the gaze of a person depicted in the image at a person or object outside the image frame. The offstage gaze is often (but not necessarily) also an averted gaze, but there is a subtle but significant difference: the sense that the subject is doing more than simply averting their gaze, and is actively gazing at something outside of the image frame rather than passively staring into space.
11. The offstage viewer – the implied gaze of a person outside of the image frame at an object within the frame.
12. The reflected gaze – the gaze of the photographer captured in a reflection. The reflected gaze of the photographer is simultaneously the photographer’s gaze into the scene and their gaze out of the photo towards the viewer, and it shares both these viewpoints with the viewer, who is now placed both inside and outside the image, bringing their attention to the indexality of the image and making them conscious of the act of photographing.

Image 1 above contains the following gazes:

– The spectator’s gaze, by virtue of the fact that there is at least one person in the image.
– The internal gaze, in the form of the central subject gazing at the right-hand subject, the right-hand member of the trio of standing men looking at the middle member of the trio, the middle member’s own gaze towards the seated woman at the left of the image, and that woman’s gaze towards the woman seated immediately to the left of the central pillar.
– The gaze of the camera/photographer towards all the subjects in the image.
– The averted gaze, of the right-hand subject looking away from the camera.
– The editorial gaze, by virtue of the fact that the image has been framed by me during the process of taking the photo and possibly also during post-production.
– The internal object gaze, in the gaze of the right-hand subject at her glass, the gaze of the right-hand member of the standing trio at something in his hand (perhaps his phone), and the gaze of the woman beside the central pillar at the menu.

Image 2 contains the following gazes:

– The spectator’s gaze, by virtue of the fact that there is at least one person in the image.
– The direct address, of the waiter to the left of the image looking directly at the viewer through the camera lens.
– The gaze of the camera/photographer towards the subjects in the image.
– The editorial gaze, by virtue of the fact that the image has been framed by me during the process of taking the photo and possibly also during post-production.
– The offstage gaze, of the central and right-hand subjects towards someone or something outside the image frame.

Image 3 contains the following gazes:

– The spectator’s gaze, by virtue of the fact that there is at least one person in the image.
– The internal gaze, in the form of the woman to the left of the image gazing at her companion opposite, the two standing men to the left of the right-hand pillar gazing at each other and the waitress immediately beside that pillar gazing at the diner who is in the process of ordering.
– The gaze of the camera/photographer towards all the subjects in the image.
– The averted gaze, of the main subject looking away from the camera.
– The editorial gaze, by virtue of the fact that the image has been framed by me during the process of taking the photo and possibly also during post-production.
– The internal object gaze, in the gaze of the diner beside the right-hand pillar at the menu.
– The offstage gaze, of the main subject towards someone or something outside the image frame.
– The offstage viewer, in the form of the owner of the hand holding a menu at the left edge of the image frame.

Image 4 contains the following gazes:

– The spectator’s gaze, by virtue of the fact that there is at least one person in the image.
– The internal gaze, in the form of various of the diners in the image background gazing at their companions.
– The gaze of the camera/photographer towards all the subjects in the image.
– The editorial gaze, by virtue of the fact that the image has been framed by me during the process of taking the photo and possibly also during post-production.
– The internal object gaze, in the shape of the woman gazing at the plate of her dining companion in the polka-dot top.
– The offstage gaze, in the gaze of the main subject at a person outside the image frame.
– The offstage viewer, being the owner of the arm in the bottom left corner of the image frame who is implicitly viewing the phone held by the main subject.

Image 5 contains the following gazes:

– The spectator’s gaze, by virtue of the fact that there is at least one person in the image.
– The internal gaze, in the form of one or more of the diners in the image background gazing at their companions.
– The direct address, of the main subject looking directly at the viewer through the camera lens.
– The gaze of the camera/photographer towards all the subjects in the image.
– The editorial gaze, by virtue of the fact that the image has been framed by me during the process of taking the photo and possibly also during post-production.
– The internal object gaze, in the shape of the woman gazing at the plate of her dining companion in the polka-dot top.

Image 6 contains the following gazes:

– The spectator’s gaze, by virtue of the fact that there is at least one person in the image.
– The internal gaze, by virtue of the photographer’s gaze at the subjects being captured in the image.
– The direct address, of four of main subjects (including the photographer) looking directly at the viewer through the camera lens.
– The gaze of the camera/photographer towards all the subjects in the image.
– The averted gaze, of one of the subjects.
– The editorial gaze, by virtue of the fact that the image has been framed by me during the process of taking the photo and possibly also during post-production.
– The offstage gaze, in the form of one of the subjects gazing at someone or something outside the image frame.
– The reflected gaze of the photographer in the mirror.

References and resources

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Burgin, V. (1982) ‘Looking at Photographs’ in Victor Burgin (ed.) Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan.
Mulvey, L. (2009) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Visual and Other Pleasures. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

IAP 4 exercise 4.1 decoding adverts

I enjoyed reading Dawn Woolley’s deconstructions of advertisements, and selected one of her posts to comment on. For ease of reference I have copied the relevant advert here top right.

The immediate impression I got from this advert was that it was intended to evoke a VE Day street party. In my eyes it is a direct copy of photos of VE Day celebrations such as the one below it, rather than the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee as suggested by Woolley and some of those commenting on the post. Admittedly, the same overall street party format can indeed be seen in photos of the 2013 Jubilee celebrations (see bottom right), but for me the advert’s muted colour palette and the style of the foreground woman’s V-neck dress predominantly evokes VE Day rather than the 2013 Jubilee. However, given that Woolley’s post was written in 2014, it is likely that the 2013 Jubilee will still have been in people’s minds (a lot more strongly than it is in mine now, writing in 2020) and that the advert is actually intended to evoke both the original VE Day street parties and the Jubilee parties of 2013 and thus convey a sense of continuity over a long period of time – a sense of continuity that is transferred to the product in the advert.

The ad has packed in as many signifiers of Britishness as possible, most of them nostalgic, so again referring back to a distant time. Union Jacks, bunting, cucumber sandwiches, strawberries, planes suggestive of both the Battle of Britain and the Red Arrows, a suburban environment of terraced houses and trees, the foreground woman’s striking resemblance to the Duchess of Cambridge bringing in the idea of royalty. These nostalgic references again emphasise the advertised product’s own long history, which the advert tells us extends back to 1924.

The idea of celebration is conveyed both by the evocation of a VE Day street party and the euphoric expressions on the faces of the three women facing us. All three are significantly more euphoric than the people seen in either the VE Day or the Jubilee celebrations, indicating that the advertised product brings more joy than either national liberation or national celebration. Perhaps this is the case. Everyone loves a good hair day! (I happen to know that Silvikrin is a hair care brand, having used its shampoos in the early 70s and being able still today to picture clearly not just the tall, slim, flat containers the shampoos came in but also to vividly recall their fresh, sharp odours.) In any case, the euphoria certainly suggests the “magic” that Judith Williamson (1978) describes as being an important element in personal care product advertising.

References and resources

Williamson, J. (1978) Decoding Advertisements. London: Marion Boyars
Woolley, D. (2013) Looking at adverts 1. Available at https://www.oca.ac.uk/weareoca/photography/looking-at-adverts-1/ [accessed 18.03.20]

IAP 4 exercise 4.2 image and text

Coronavirus social isolation is now the order of the day, but I decided to go for a walk into town to find some images, keeping a safe distance from others who were also out and about. I hadn’t consciously noticed before that there are actually no billboards at all through the whole of Kemptown all the way into the central shopping area of Brighton. There are, however, plenty of smaller ads on bus stops and on small street display stands, so I took some photos of those. I don’t buy magazines or newspapers as I get all my news online, so decided to concentrate on the ad images for this exercise.

Image 1: Pepsi Max Cherry

This ad for Pepsi Max Cherry is basically an image of a can, which wouldn’t give anyone much idea of why it might be desirable without the graphics and the text. There are 12 words in total in the image, seven on the can and five around it. The word maximum (or its abbreviation max) appears three times within this total, no sugar and cherry each appear twice, while recycle, Pepsi and taste occur once. These words close down the potential range of meanings the viewer might infer from the image and direct them towards interpreting it as representing a tasty cherry-flavoured drink that they can consume without fear of putting on weight or destroying the planet. The fact that it is in fact a chemical concoction of carbonated water, colour (caramel E150d), sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame K), flavourings (including caffeine), acids (phosphoric acid, citric acid) and preservative (potassium sorbate) is concealed. The inclusion of the word cherry (twice), the extensive cherry colouring and at least five graphic cherries suggests that its ingredients also include cherries, but this is not in fact the case. Meanwhile the fact that the drink contains more caffeine than standard Pepsi is not explicitly mentioned, but the repetition of max/maximum leads us to infer that the drink is in some way more than standard Pepsi, and the strong, all-caps, slightly italicised fonts suggest a powerful forward motion and channel us towards the idea of an energy drink.

Image 2: Greggs bacon roll

The words in this ad again aim to close down the meaning of the image, directing the viewer’s interpretation towards an idea of nostalgic homeliness to be associated with the pictured bacon roll. The term “oven-baked” is a strong signifier for the idea of something that was made at home rather than in a factory, despite the fact that in this case the product is mass-produced on an industrial scale. Meanwhile the phrase “the nation’s favourite” adds to this a nostalgic idea of community and even the suggestion that a vote may have taken place, neither of which would be conveyed to the same extent by, for example, the superficially similar phrase “the country’s favourite”. Together the terms “oven-baked” and “nation’s favourite” evoke all the cosiness and bonhomie of The Great British Bake-Off. This is emphasised by the softly rounded font used for “It’s the nation’s favourite”, which (like GBBO) has an overall homely and cheerful demeanour with a small dose of cheekiness supplied by the elephant’s trunk-like uplift in the letter R. The disclaimers at the bottom of the image are not intended to be read as part of the ad and are there to ward off any potential claims of inaccuracy:
The “Nation’s Favourite” claim is based in part on data reported by Mealtrak TM for the volume of sales in the hot sandwich category containing bacon for the 52-week period ending on 21 June 2019 for the UK (excludes NI) Food on the Go Market (copyright 2019 Mealtrak). Subject to availability. Serving suggestion.

Image 3: Barbour

Once again (and as is generally, if not always, the case in adverts) the text closes the image down, channelling the meaning of a rugged rural landscape with countless possible associations into the idea of a clothing brand. The brand name Barbour is emblazoned across the sky like a title, while the only other word included in the advert, #BarbourWayofLife, signifies two apparently contradictory ideas: one, that the clothing brand and the raw, undeveloped landscape are one and the same, and the other that the brand is modern and hi-tech. The contradiction is resolved when we realise that the target audience for this advert is not in fact those who inhabit the rural landscape pictured, but an urban client base for whom the countryside amounts to a part-time pursuit or merely an aspiration.

IAP 4 research point 4.1 anchorage and relay

Anchorage

Barthes (1977) defines anchorage as text that tells the viewer what an image is about, narrowing down its potential range of meanings and significance to that intended by the publisher of the image. It helps the viewer “to focus not simply [their] gaze but also [their] understanding”. Anchorage text often takes the form of a caption, and is most frequently seen alongside news images and advertising images.

Relay

Barthes defines relay as text that can advance the narrative of an image by including meanings that are not to be found in the image itself. Relay is often used in the memes that are now so common in social media, where it is used to humorous effect to subvert the apparent meaning of the image. Examples include the “distracted boyfriend” image, which has been paired with many different versions of relay text.

An awareness of the effects of these different kinds of text and their respective impacts on the viewer’s reading of an image – anchorage pinning down meaning and relay adding meaning that isn’t evident in the original image – is useful for the photographer because it widens the scope of what can be achieved in terms of communicating with an audience.

References and resources

Barthes, R. (1987) Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

IAP 4 exercise 4.4 news captions

Original caption from BBC News:
Police have told tourists to stay away from Lake District

Alternative viewpoint caption 1:
Families take advantage of lockdown to connect with nature

Alternative viewpoint caption 2:
#selfishpricks trends as Twitter users slam those ignoring lockdown rules

Recontextualising the image:
A guide to camping holidays in the Lake District

Original caption from the Guardian:
The usually congested Harbor Freeway in central Los Angeles pictured during lockdown

Alternative viewpoint caption 1:
Bliss for road users as LA freeway clears

Alternative viewpoint caption 2:
Global depression looms as economic activity stalls

Recontextualising the image:
Roads empty in LA as gas price hits $25 a gallon

Original caption from the Telegraph:
Police speaks to people sunbathing in Greenwich Park

Alternative viewpoint caption 1:
‘Heavy-handed’ enforcement of lockdown criticised by human rights lawyers

Alternative viewpoint caption 2:
Public demand police enforcement of social distancing rules

Recontextualising the image:
Dancing policewoman video goes viral

Original caption from the Daily Mail:
Britain’s hidden coronavirus victims: new figures reveal up to 600 elderly patients could have died in care homes – but bosses warn true figure is even HIGHER and reveals ‘two-thirds’ of homes have outbreaks

Alternative viewpoint caption 1:
Government failure to provide PPE for care homes leads to high rates of covid-19 infection

Alternative viewpoint caption 2:
Care homes criticised for failure to protect vulnerable inhabitants from coronavirus

Recontextualising the image:
Pensioners ‘delighted’ by announcement of 20% state pension increase

Comments

I believe the underlying intention of this exercise is to make us more aware of the polysemous nature of images and the different ways the viewer’s interpretation can be influenced by accompanying texts, but to be honest I found it rather uninspiring, not least because it’s almost identical to an exercise we did in the CAN module – as in fact was research point 4.1 on Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image.

IAP 4 exercise 4.5 words and images

When a man is stressed he will withdraw into the cave of his mind and focus on solving a problem. […] If he cannot find a solution to his problem, then he remains stuck in the cave. To get unstuck he is drawn to solving little problems, like reading the news, watching TV, driving his car, doing physical exercise, watching a football game, playing basketball and so forth. Any challenging activity that initially requires only 5 per cent of his mind can assist him in forgetting his problem and becoming unstuck. Then the next day he can redirect his focus to his problem with greater success.

When a man goes into his cave he is generally wounded or stressed and is trying to solve his problem alone.

The biggest challenge for women is correctly to interpret and support a man when he isn’t talking.

Men generally have little awareness of how distant they become when they are in the cave.

The number one complaint women have in relationships is, “I don’t feel heard.”

A man’s deepest fear is that he is not good enough or that he is incompetent.

It is difficult for a man to listen to a woman when she is unhappy or disappointed, because he feels like a failure.

When women talk about problems, men usually resist. A man assumes she is talking with him about her problems because she is holding him responsible. The more problems, the more he feels blamed. He does not realise that she is talking to feel better. A man doesn’t know that she will appreciate it if he just listens.

Words from Gray, J. (1992) Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. New York: HarperCollins.

I have enjoyed this exercise more than the others in this section, and also found it the most useful. It showed me how I can point the viewer towards a reading of an image that might otherwise not be considered up by them – a way of saying, this is what I see when I look at this photograph. This seems to be both a closing down and an opening up of meaning, but ultimately I think it’s an opening up because the viewer is free to (and inevitably will) make their own interpretation of both the image, the accompanying text and the relationship between the two.

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.