This week’s work, the final week with any prepared sessions for us to participate in, focused on an extended interview with the photographer Felicity McCabe.
She discussed how her practice had developed since her days as an assistant to Nadav Kander to now, where she has a thriving independent practice and has developed a distinctive photographic voice. What stood out for me in her interview was the constant willingness to experiment and challenge her practice – shooting different subjects, testing things and being willing to fail in the process. She was able to demonstrate how this continuously creative process ultimately resulted in evolution and progression in her work and placed her in a position to accept new professional opportunities.
McCabe also takes a really refreshing attitude to the connection between the experimental aspects of her practice, her personal projects and her commissioned work. Setting aside the idea that there are different expectations or requirements in these different areas, she is explicit that everything is connected based on the fact that everything originates from a single source, herself. As such, by definition, the work is always connected in some way. I found this to be a really interesting idea, because it seems to take the pressure off the idea that one has to consciously strive to maintain a clear sense of authorship and personal ‘style’ in work that is commissioned (by implication, this being harder than when making personal work). McCabe convincingly argued that over time, it will be possible to see a consistent vision in all your work, as long as you remain true to the impulses that stimulate you to create work, even if at first the work produced might seem unconnected.
For me, this links into another idea that we’ve heard during this module (and which was also put forward in Grant Scott’s book ‘Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained’) which is that there should not be a hard distinction between the ‘personal project’ and ‘commissioned work’. Listening to McCabe, and to various other practitioners discussing their work recently, there’s a common theme of people either finding a way to leverage a personal project into paid work or a book/publication, or alternatively finding that work that originally started as a commission ends up either being extended into a long form project or sparking an idea that subsequently becomes a significant project that then pushes their practice and profile forward.
At the risk of reiterating another idea that I’ve mentioned earlier in this module, the overriding advice then surely has to be to strive to make good work, regardless of the context in which the work was initiated – because you never know what opportunities may arise as a result, or what direction the work might take you in next.
This all feels particularly relevant to me at the moment because having really examined my motivations and the inspirations underpinning my project during this last 12 weeks I feel more inspired than ever. At the end of the previous two modules I’ve felt a sense of mental exhaustion and disconnection, oppressed almost by the demands of the course and just totally detached from the photographic passion that brought me here in the first place. I think there’s also a tendency to judge yourself by the standards of your peers, many of whom already have a professional photographic practice and so by those standards I have felt something of a failure.
Now however I’m so energised by the prospect of what’s ahead of me. I’ve been able to place my creativity and the ideas I have swirling around in my head all the time into a framework that seems robust enough to support them and allow them to grow and develop. I’ve been able to reconnect with that love of shooting that I had previously, something I was genuinely worried I might have lost for good. I also have a much clearer idea of where I might realistically be able to take my practice in real, tangible terms. In a way, I wish this module was longer, because the fruits of this new sense of purpose haven’t quite yet borne fruit and I’d love to have more ‘solid’ things to show for it right now, but they are coming in just a little while.
As things stand I’m positive about the future of my project and practice as a whole, and have a much clearer picture of how I’m going to get to where I intend to go.
One of the few things I’m clear about is that I would like my future photographic career to have a number of strands, aside from creating photographic images. One of my main reasons for doing the MA was that it would provide possible openings into some of these potential career strands such as teaching.
I’ve always enjoyed writing, although having chosen a scientific career, there is little scope for the sort of writing I enjoy in my day to day work. Of course, writing this CRJ as we are obliged to do, hones the skill of writing for a photographic/critical theory audience and in this module I’ve taken another opportunity to write in this genre by agreeing to write two book reviews for Shutter Hub.
I’ve written for Shutter Hub in the past and it’s always an enjoyable opportunity, made only slightly less so on this occasion as their submission deadline coincided uncomfortably with that for the MA work this December. The stress is worth it though, for the opportunity to write about something I’m really interested in – I love books and I love photography – and to continue developing my written communication skills.
I’ve thought about how I might develop this strand of my practice further, and consider submitting work for a journal (e.g. Source) as possibly being the next step. I’m not sure I yet have the credentials to be a credible author in a photography journal but this is a forum I would hope to be able to contribute to in future.
I still see text as playing a role in my final project output also, and having planned to do a creative writing course at the time of my original project proposal I’ll be looking to do this as we move into the second year of the MA. I have a very important medical exam coming up in late February, so once that’s out of the way the creative writing course will possibly be the next thing on the agenda to do alongside the MA work.
One of the things we’re asked to do on this course is contextualise our practice, to understand who our ‘competitors’ and potential market might be, where our work sits amongst the work of current and former practitioners and how this all might inform decisions about our own practice.
In this vein, I wanted to briefly discuss four artists whose work resonates with me either in terms of similarities to my own work, or for containing strands that I’m hoping to develop or bring forward in my current project and in my ongoing practice.
As described on his own website Bohbot is ‘a documentarian with an eye for the theatrical who frequently takes a formal, typological approach to crafting visual narratives, highlighting the surreal symmetries of our constructed worlds and capturing the poetry of everyday places with a unique attentiveness to the interplay of light and color. He employs the latter two elements as tools of nostalgia, exploring loss and obsolescence by crafting images that are as much about what is invisible or lacking as what is there within the frame.’
The concepts of loss, nostalgia and memory are certainly integral to my own practice and I was delighted to come across his 2016 book Light On New York City, which is comprised of nocturnal street scenes shot around New York taken over the course of approximately three years to 2016.
He focuses mainly on archetypal street corner diners, theatres and various stores illuminated at night, some in visual contrast to the commonly-held perception of the city that never sleeps.
I originally came to this book having seen Bohbot’s work on social media and being excited to see that someone had managed to release a monograph of urban night images. The work itself is technically superb (with Bohbot displaying a clear mastery over the very often tricky city night light), and presented in a book of large high quality prints.
You can see more of the work here:
Considering my own work and how it might relate to Light On New York City, I felt that aside from the common factor of our subjects both being city scenes at night, there are few other similarities. Bohbot’s work for me in this book is almost journalistic, documenting the streets of the city in a way that as time passes and the buildings and businesses change, will likely render the work of increasing value as a historical record. The work is shot with a kindly eye to the city, Bohbot clearly loves the streets that he’s shooting, but I did not otherwise sense an agenda or standpoint in the work.
In terms of the market however, it’s really encouraging to see that images like these can be picked up by a publisher to create a book project. Published by teNeues, there was clearly deemed to be a market for a premium (it’s a beautiful hardback book of glossy prints) book of urban night photography and this gives me hope that my work might find a similar place in the future.
I came to this work during this module after listening to his interview with Ben Smith on the ‘A Small Voice’ podcast. In the interview he discussed the effect that spending time in conflict zones had had on him and how he had worked through these issues. The work ‘Buzzing At The Sill’ was in some way a product of his journey through this period of his life, while also being about America in the shadow of 9/11.
The work is honest, vulnerable and unflinching in many ways and spoke to me on various levels through images that are challenging and thought-provoking at various times. Turning from page to page I could not help but notice how narrative can be constructed by the selective use of text alongside the images (the use of which is likely to play a key role in the presentation of my project also), and also how sequencing plays a vital role in how the work is received and interpreted. Van Agtmael creates a powerful mood and an increasing sense of immersion in the work as you turn through the pages, something I can certainly learn from in the event of a future book project.
You can see more of the work here:
In line with my recent thinking, there is also a key lesson here in how invested the photographer can be in the work and how this ultimately strengthens the output. This work feels close to the bone for van Agtmael, with a level of disclosure that seems to pull the reader in closer and again is instructive for me in terms of my recent struggle to be more honest in my own work, finding a way to give more of myself to the output, making it more personal and hopefully powerful as a result. As a Magnum photographer, van Agtmael could possibly be forgiven for resting on his laurels and simply milking his status in his field, but this work feels like he truly invested and that’s an example I must follow.
Wearing’s work extends beyond the confines of strict photographic practice but has relevance for me in a couple of ways. Her project ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ is strongly influential for me, particularly in terms of trying to disclose the innermost thoughts of people in a way that is not too traumatic for the subject or the viewer, something of course that I have been trying to do in inviting people to contribute their own experiences of solitude to my project.
These apparently simple images exhibit a genius for revelation wrapped up in the supposedly quotidian, but of course it takes great skill to produce work that seems to be almost nonchalant and random in nature.
Wearing has also challenged the idea of representation, often using masks in her work to question the role of identity and the contested gaze. In many ways she manages to hide in plain sight, protected from true self-revelation by a closely-fitting mask that seems to allow her to be anyone else she pleases while remaining steadfastly her most private self. This idea of a conflicted identity is certainly one I recognise and one I feel plays a role in my own work. Seeing how Wearing has repeatedly explored this theme throughout her career is instructive.
You can see more of her work here: