Coursework Reflection

Informing Contexts: Week 1 Reflection

“A photograph evokes the tangible presence of reality”

John Szarkowski, 1966

 

The Nature of Photographs, 2nd edition, by Stephen Shore

The Nature of Photographs, 2nd edition, by Stephen Shore

This week we were challenged to examine how the context in which photography is consumed affects the reading of the work, and then how this might relate to our own practice.

The week was titled ‘the shape shifter’ which suggests the potentially wide-ranging scope of such a discussion. The presentations introduced some key texts relating to this debate, one of which ‘The Nature of Photographs’ by Stephen Shore, I already had in my collection and have thus re-read this week.

 

 

The first text we were asked to reflect on was ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ by John Szarkowski (1966). Szarkowski proposed five characteristics inherent to all photographs:

-       The thing itself

-       The detail

-       The frame

-       Time

-       The vantage point

Szarkowski argued that these characteristics could form a common vocabulary with which all images could be discussed. 

The term ‘the thing itself’ evokes the belief that has long been thought to establish photography as separate from all other visual practices, that being its ability to directly represent or truthfully reproduce the ‘real world’. My view however is that photography has moved beyond the strict necessity of being tied to, or responsible for, representing the real world. So many questions arise from the preceding sentence alone, that it immediately becomes clear that attempting to hold photography to this lofty obligation is unrealistic. What is ‘real’, and whose ‘world’ is photography supposed to depict? And why should photography be expected to represent reality when other visual practices are not held to the same standard?

“Where a painter starts with a blank canvas and builds a picture, a photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture”

Stephen Shore, p37, The Nature of Photographs

Examining the other four criteria that Szarkowski proposes further loosens the imperative of photography to be a facsimile for real life. Each of these variables, applied by different practitioners, would result in a different photograph even if ‘the thing itself’ was unchanged. The idea that the photographer selects a fragment of the world in front of them on which to focus their attention and to act as the substrate from which they will derive their image renders this debate redundant to my mind.

Reality is such a subjective concept, particularly in the digital age. Photographs now often rarely ever exist in any physical sense, and thus never have any tangible connection to the world in which they were created. Photographs now mostly act as a conduit of visual information from one location to another, from a point of origin to a destination in the viewer’s occipital cortex, via a screen or hard drive far removed from where the image was first captured.

I think a photographer must find a way to accept this current state of affairs and seek to master different ways to harness this conduit, this fizzing superhighway of visual information, to best communicate to their anticipated audience, all the time accepting that this audience may never be known in any real sense and that the image at all times can find its way to places that the photographer could never have originally conceived of.

So, no pressure!

For myself, I don’t feel bound by a commitment to represent the reality of the scene in front of me. The scene has always served as a starting point from which to create an image that most truthfully represents my inner reality. The challenge for me has always been more that of selection, giving myself the broadest range of possibilities to paint the picture in my mind. To date, the night time has always been the first criterion, mainly because it allows me to most easily access the internal visual landscape that my photography is usually trying to chart.

Of Szarkowski’s 5 criteria, the one that resonates most readily with me is the idea of ‘time’. Photographs have the power to communicate across time in a powerful way and for me images have always held the power to evoke memories and emotions from years ago, in a way that I still don’t fully understand. In the context of my current work being shot mainly at night, there’s the immediately evident fact of time being crucial in the exposures and the way that time can be used to manipulate the way that light is represented.

Stephen Shore’s book openly builds on the propositions made by Szarkowski before him. I have always been drawn to Shore’s work, not least because of his idea of elevating the ordinary to the level of interesting photographic possibility. I believe (as does Shore I’d say) that the world around us offers endless interesting viewpoints, with beauty to be found in apparently unexpected places.

“The context in which a photograph is seen effects the meanings a viewer draws from it”

Stephen Shore, p26, The Nature of Photographs

Shore’s quote above seems difficult to argue against. The same photograph viewed in a gallery would seem to carry a different meaning to the same image viewed as part of a video slideshow or on the back of a cereal box.

To consider the contexts in which my work has been, and could best be seen in the future, I’m not sure I have a great handle on this at the moment. Before this MA I’d already had work exhibited in a gallery setting and early last year had work displayed in an online context also. 

Since the course began, I’ve made a small book and in the break between modules also experimented with t-shirts. Trying to sell these proved to be a total flop (for a variety for reasons I’m sure). The context in which images may be optimally displayed is possibly not the same thing as the context in which a potential audience may wish to view them. The question then becomes, how does the photographer reconcile that difference? For example, increasingly I feel that sharing my images on Instagram does them a disservice, as displaying them at the sizes native to most devices makes it impossible to appreciate the details and gradations of light on which the messages I hope to communicate in my work depend. Also, there seems to be a futility attached to sending these thumbnails out into the turbulent sea of images in the hope that they will catch someone’s eye. It just feels pointless.

How can you hope to communicate your nuanced message in a vast arena full of shouty people? This is a question I haven’t yet resolved. Most certainly though, my work on this course will benefit from a clear understanding of the context that best suits it. I plan to keep experimenting in the weeks ahead in the hope that I can gain a clearer idea of the best way to place my work.

References:

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. London: Phaidon.

BATE, David. 2013. ‘The digital condition of photography: cameras, computers and display’. In Martin LISTER (ed.). The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. Routledge, 77-94.

 

Sustainable Prospects: Week 11 Reflection

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.  

 

Sustainable Prospects: Reflection Weeks 5 & 6

“Apply yourself to the process of making good work”

Steve Macloed, Metro Imaging, 2017

 

Week 5 focused on the importance of building networks to support and progress our practice, while week 6 was a slightly slower week aimed at allowing presentation of provisional presentations that are due at the end of the module.

This period has coincided with a busier period at work and, along with that, I seem to have found myself deviating somewhat from the topic for various reasons. The overarching challenge for me remains the task of setting out and putting into place a method of working that will allow me to move my practice forward in the immediate future and hopefully also in the early stages after the MA is finished.

I know that might seem a bit premature, but the first year has already almost flown by and I feel there’s so much more progress to be made, there’s no time for messing around!

Steve Macloed and Kate O’Neill dispensed pearls of wisdom this week, about the importance of making local connections with other practitioners and of approaching these connections in the spirit of openness and mutual benefit. It’s not just about trying to milk people for all they’re worth, but rather about trying to foster genuine and nurturing connections that may also provide some kind of boost to your practice, almost as a happy bonus. For me, this all boils down to simply being nice! Maybe I’m being too naïve about this, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a lot easier to enjoy your work and develop lasting connections with like-minded people who you don’t feel are somehow trying to shaft you. 

So…be genuine, don’t shaft anyone, try and help people if you can, support those whose work you appreciate or are inspired by…just share a bit of love around!

I feel really strongly about this, mainly because artists are always struggling and yet often are able to connect with people that they may never even meet in ways that may be truly transformative for the person(s) in receipt of the work. I believe that if someone’s work touches you in that way you should support it, promote it, buy it…whatever! 

Anyway, one of the key messages that again popped up this week was the idea that alongside all the glad-handing you should never lose sight of the actual making of good work (hmmm, I may have said this before…). Increasingly, I’m understanding that this requires a commitment, and almost stubbornness, that is not subject to external validation or circumstances but has to be fired by an internal desire to create, to adhere to a personal imperative to produce, to be productive. I suppose if I learn nothing else during this MA, that would be a useful lesson in itself. The need to develop a process that sustains practice beyond the MA, when there isn’t an assignment deadline or a tutor chasing you down. There needs to be a plan, a strategy of some kind.

Recently I was fortunate to meet a group of creative and inspiring graduates who had created a magazine in reaction to limited job prospects post-graduation. They collaborated to create a platform to promote their own work and that of other creatives and thus gave birth to Bricoleur

Aside from being a pleasure to meet them, it was really heartening to hear how they’d approached the challenge of conceiving, funding and producing the magazine and having read the first issue, I was struck by how earnest their endeavour is and how it’s already a success, after just a single issue. The commitment to producing the work is the key…just make it! 

Then connect with people who might be interested…

And make the work about more than just yourself. Find a way to bring others with you if possible.

 

 

Sustainable Prospects: Week 4 Reflection

This week’s coursework focused on defining our ‘photographic DNA’ and developing a practical strategy to market our practice. We were introduced to various practitioners offering nuggets of wisdom on different aspects of practice, from how to put together a portfolio that will attract the right sort of attention, to how to market oneself and how best to make links with industry professionals.

The clichéd image of the photographer as tortured artist, a solitary figure with a singular vision, more concerned with f-stops and camera shake than conversation and handshakes, belies the fundamental importance of developing and valuing personal connections in the industry that can sustain, inspire and potentially also provide opportunities for work.

It seemed to me that all the practitioners this week were basically saying the same thing: be interesting, have something to say, be sensitive to others and the demands they might be under. Essentially, be nice!

Of course, underneath all that is the inescapable fact, that the work has to be good. Because no amount of networking can compensate for uninteresting or uninspired work.

I struggle to define myself as a photographer. This is partly, still, because I struggle to actually consider myself to be one. This contradiction increasingly obstructs my ability to progress as a practitioner and is something I need to address urgently. The ‘imposter syndrome’ is causing a big impediment!

The other thing that I was reminded of this week, is that ultimately we’re all just owners of an opinion. The course tutors and invited contributors give us various ‘dos and don’ts’, derived of course from a position of industry experience and awareness of professional expectations and requirements, but they are opinions nonetheless. The following quotes illustrate the contradictions in the advice about what the best way to approach things is at times: 

“My last bit of advice is to always throw in something extra; something unexpected. Make sure they remember you. ‘You know, that guy who made the musical ping pong table…’ Be unforgettable and unmissable.” 

Miranda Bolter, 2017

“Put together a short, emailable PDF crammed with fantastic ideas, demonstrating unique thinking and doing. Then, in real life, projects can be expanded, personal work shown, stories shared, and it all ends happily ever after.”

Michael Johnson, 2017

“Create printed marketing material. A postcard is still the most effective thing to leave with someone after a meeting. If it’s an image that really resonates, they will almost certainly put it on their wall and then you will always be there reminding them that you’d like to be commissioned. Stickers are great too, and surprisingly cheap to print. My laptop is covered in stickers by my artists. Tote bags, if you’re feeling flush, are also great.”

Helen Parker, 2017