Critical Theory

Informing Contexts: Week 8 Reflection

“My life is kind of, at least equally influenced by pictures of things, as it is in things. We know what’s nice because we saw it in a magazine…we make lots of decisions about our life, and what we want, who we are and where we want to go, from pictures”

Thomas Demand, 2013

This has been one of the most difficult CRJ entries to write. Week 8 encouraged us to consider and evaluate the ways in which photographers discuss and defend their own practice. This has always been, and remains, something I find very difficult to do. This inherent incapacity coincided with another testing period at work and along with my ongoing inertia with my project, left me stumped. 

It seems, as we get ever closer to the final project, that we’re required to be more specific and more articulate about our objectives as practitioners...not an unreasonable demand at this stage of a postgraduate photography degree. Yet for possibly the first time, I'm questioning whether I was ever that suited to MA study, having had no formal photography training prior to starting this course. Combining this course with an increasingly demanding job hasn’t gotten any easier, and has left me perpetually frustrated that I haven’t got more physical and mental resources to devote to the course and to reaping the rewards of prolonged, intense concentration and reflection on my work. I find myself thinking that I will not truly have internalised all the lessons on this course till probably two or three years after graduation (I’m hoping to achieve that at least!).

So week 8 was a bit like that!

Asked to consider what ideas, aesthetics, techniques, contexts and theories we are exploring in our practice, I initially just baulked and was completely unable to engage with the question. Only after a couple of weeks of rumination have I been able to come back to this question in even a provisional way. I’m still wrestling with these ideas, still trying to absorb some of the lessons we’ve been introduced to during this module and during this course (which has flown by the way!) and still trying to understand my place in the matrix. I apologise in advance therefore, if this entry feels somewhat nascent and unformed. 

The ideas I am trying to explore in my current work have been consistent in big picture terms but have changed in subtle ways on the micro level as I've moved through this course. 

At the moment, I'm trying to examine:

  • Solitude/loneliness as a pervasive and yet under-discussed state.

  • Loneliness as a negative – isolating, depressing, oppressive, diminishing and destructive, leading to communities lacking cohesion and interpersonal connections.

  • Solitude as a positive – regenerative, contemplative, protective and liberating.

  • My own experiences of solitude and loneliness – how/where/why I’ve felt lonely in the past, what my feelings are about these events now and what I hope for moving forward.

  • Solitude and loneliness as these states might be connected to previous emotional trauma/memories/significant moments in time.

  • Solitude/loneliness as experienced at different ages/stages of life and how one's experience might differ depending on your age/stage of life.

What am I trying to say in my work? Well, I'm trying to say loads of things (successfully or otherwise, who can say!):

  • That there's beauty at night

  • That there's room for reflection, contemplation (and possibly temptation) at night

  • That you might be alone but that you aren't really alone – we're all in the same boat, feeling this way is not unique (or as isolating as it may feel at the time). 

I'm also trying to say that I too feel this way, alone, adrift, cut off at times and that I'm trying to understand myself and my did I get here? How can I bridge the gap between myself and others? I'm trying to say that we need to look out for each other, and look after one another. We need to look outside of ourselves. I'm trying to say that it's ok to be different and to stand apart from the crowd. 

There's a lot there! These elements come in and out of my thoughts at different times as I try to build this project and conceptualise the work. They have also, to different degrees and possibly in less explicit ways, been present in much of my photography since I first started taking pictures back in 2013. 

Artists and practitioners whose work resonates with me, and feels relevant to this project include:

  • Clint Eastwood
  • Sofia Coppola
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Todd Hido
  • Alec Soth
  • Gregory Crewdson
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Edward Hopper
  • Stephen Shore
  • Rebecca Solnit
  • David George
  • Olivia Laing
  • Mark Rothko
  • Barry Jenkins
  • Sam Mendes
  • Lynne Cohen

For me, these people – filmmakers, directors, photographers, writers, painters – have in common that they produce work that relies heavily on storytelling, narrative, sentimentality, beauty, giving voice to the outsider or disenfranchised and taking an alternative view of things at times. Many of these practitioners have directly referenced solitude as a concern of theirs, or produced work that explores this theme to at least some degree. 

Thinking specifically of the photographers, there's a consistent thread of producing images that challenge the viewer to consider what's happening both inside and beyond the frame – narrative images that demand interpretation or discussion. Most of these practitioners stare directly at bare emotion, have an obvious interest in the human condition, and are not afraid to confront or explore sometimes difficult feelings. Even in the case of practitioners such as Cohen, whose work rarely actually includes humans, there is an inquisitiveness about the impact of humans on the world and the environment and an encouragement to think beyond the boundaries of the image. 

I am predominantly producing images at night at the moment. This aesthetic choice stems from my own comfort with this time of the day and the techniques required to produce interesting images at this time, but it also fits my own conception of solitude, my own feelings around this and my previous experiences. There's also something in there about how I process things visually and the way memories tend to come to me more easily at night, in darkness, than they do during the day. The idea of reaching into the depths of memory or emotion to connect with these feelings certainly works best for me at night. I've written before about how the night stereotypically lends itself to some of these ideas, the ‘dark night of the soul' etc and this also feeds into and informs my practice to some extent. Practitioners in the list above who are also predominantly known for night work (e.g. Luxemburg, Hido, Hopper to a lesser extent) often portray a strand of displacement and disconnection in their work, Hido in particular. 

Increasingly, I’m convinced that I need to introduce people into my world of solitude, whether that's portraiture or as actors in the urban landscape, because the work now seems to be somehow incomplete without finding a way to include the people I’m trying to represent, the people I am trying to 'reach out' to. I plan for people to play a more prominent part in the work in the next phase of the project. 

When considering the context of my work, I'm hoping to argue that the state of solitude is an almost universal one and thus the context is potentially everywhere and everyone. This work should be applicable, and hopefully accessible, to all. I originally conceived of this work as being a useful starting point for a workshop about this issue, hopefully with the aim of providing strategies and resources to help people ‘reach out’ to others and ameliorate this state of loneliness. Moving forward into the final project phase, this has to be a key strand of the work – making it accessible and relatable to people in different strata of society. This aspect of the project is really important to me, but has yet to be fully explored so far. 

Some contexts for this work are easily identified – the book, the exhibition, the short film. These strands interest me in different ways, and feel like essential parts of the final complete whole of my ideal project. Of course, constraints of time/finances/collaborators/my own competence etc. may mean that these avenues are not all available, but they still represent the goal. I would ideally like my work to be available in all of these contexts, but appreciate that that work may necessarily extend beyond the duration of this MA. 

Thinking about the professional placement of this work, I believe this largely depends on how well I'm able to engage potential audiences, where they are, in a way that encourages them to interact with and respond to the work. For example, it's certainly possible to be more strategic about how I share this work via my current social media channels. Finding effective ways to interest my followers could give the project a new lease of life and propel it into a wider consciousness that then opens up the possibility of publication or exhibition. I must engage the audience, I have to generate sufficient interest and feedback from those who do encounter the work, to be able to leverage that for possible professional dissemination of the work. 

Considering critical theory that might underpin this work, I suppose the project relies in some way on the idea of connecting with the viewer through common references and common experiences. We’ve already discussed in this module the idea that a large part of the success of an image relies on its ability to utilise commonly accepted ideas and signs to communicate with the viewer. As the work becomes more personal and more introspective, I have to consider the importance of expressing myself in a way that optimises communication, possibly by using accepted visual references, but that still allows me enough creative leeway to produce work that’s individual and distinctively 'mine'. 

Ultimately, I want viewers to be moved by the work, to feel an emotional connection to the subject and the content of the images. Of course, this relies on me communicating clearly and skilfully. I want the viewer to be able to see something of themselves in the work (another reason why adding people into the mix seems to make sense to me). I want my viewer to be challenged to review their environment, to look around more, to see opportunities for connection where maybe they hadn't done previously. I'd like the viewer to know that I feel the same and that in most ways that matter we're all the same. 


YouTube. “TateShots: Meet the Artist - Thomas Demand”. Available at:[accessed 12 April 2018].

Positions and Practice: Week 10 Reflection

Week 10 was for me more like week 12 or 13! As I mentioned previously, I’d gotten into a study deficit due to the dual demands of the MA and my actual job, which meant I got round to the work for week 10 a little late. As always, it’s only a couple of weeks after the fact that I seem able to properly contextualise what I learnt during that week, as the dust settles and the information gradually seeps into the cracks in my mind where the weeds of new thought will no doubt eventually grow.
I write this having just recently finished reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.

Barthes photographed by   Henri Cartier-Bresson  , 1963.

Barthes photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1963.

Here we have a writer, who starts his critical appraisal by admitting that he doesn’t really take photographs, setting out to identify what Photography is ‘in itself’. He argues at length for the particular qualities that make certain images stand out above others, the aspects that attract and retain his attention and provoke an emotional reaction. He seems to conclude that without these special qualities (the ‘punctum’) the image can only ever be appreciated on a technical or cultural level (the ‘studium’) but will not be truly memorable. 

A large part of his thesis is based on an image of his late mother in her childhood. He talks about this photograph at length, returning to it and its qualities often. The book contains a number of photographs that he uses for illustrative purposes, but Barthes chooses not to include the image of his mother that he refers to repeatedly, arguing that it cannot possibly have the same significance to the reader as it does to him so there’s no point including it. 

For me this book encapsulated a lot of what annoys me about critical theory and how almost intentionally opaque it can be. Photographs are everywhere. Their reach is limitless. Their potential audience is absolutely global, transcending geographical, cultural, ethnic and economic boundaries. Yet, the discourse in which these images are discussed is often conducted amongst somewhat self-satisfied academics who are almost exclusively Western, wealthy, male and white. The language used is almost designed to obfuscate, to exclude people who aren’t in the club from being able to have an opinion. Because if you can’t speak in terms that the academics will understand, or if you lack the intellectual arrogance to simply invent language to support your argument, you do not have a voice in this debate and your contribution is invalid. 

Of course, Barthes’ work is considered a seminal text in the study of photographic practice, and I don’t wish to dismiss it entirely. It seems to me though, that the intrinsically democratic nature of photography obliges those who partake in critical appraisal of the medium to reflect that in their analysis. They should seek to elucidate, opening doors of understanding, rather than obscure the art and make the practice of photography seem like a more mysterious and less attainable thing. This is something that is increasingly getting on my nerves.
One of the tasks for this week’s reflection was to consider the relevance of critical theory to my own practice. I’m afraid to say that I don’t see any significant link between some of the high-minded elitist claptrap masquerading as photographic theory and the reasons why I take photographs. I appreciate there may be irony for some in the very fact that I am writing, critically, about this book and critical theory in general, in a way that many may find in itself inaccessible. For that I can only apologise.
I believe strongly that photography is a versatile art form. I believe that the analysis of this practice is important and can be beneficial for those who undertake it (hence me doing an MA). But I also strongly believe that those ‘in the know’ should strive to be as inclusive as possible in their analysis, to widen access to this beautiful practice and to enhance the enjoyment of it for those who are interested in spending more time to understand it. This can be achieved in many ways, both in the production and distribution of the analysis, and I think we all have a responsibility to consider how we can contribute to a more inclusive debate around photography.

So, taking that idea further, I have to consider how I will personally rise to that challenge. What will I do to help to demystify things? 

Some of my views & reviews via   Shutter Hub

Some of my views & reviews via Shutter Hub

I enjoy considering these questions and writing about photography. I'd certainly like to write more, either as a companion to my own work or as a contribution to the discourse of photography that examines the context of images related to each other and in relation to general themes.

So ultimately I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is. Can I contribute to photographic debate and critical theory in an interesting, accessible and no-nonsense style? Or shall I just make a groveling apology to Barthes’ memory and slink off into the distance with my tail between my legs!

Positions and Practice: Week 9 Reflection

This week’s focus was on critical theory and how we view, analyse and discuss images. I would admit that my initial stance was one of scepticism about the merits of critical theory, as it seemed to be a discipline that largely served to exclude the uninitiated from being able to participate in the discourse surrounding works of art. While I still believe this to be true in some cases, I would say that on reflection there certainly is a role for critical theory in photography. The breadth of potential contributions to the debate around the practice of photography, as well as the analysis of individual or related images, allows for many people to access or contribute to some form of discussion around photographic work. It's also possible to argue that critical theory serves to legitimise and elevate the practice of photography from merely a leisure pursuit to something that does merit consideration and discussion as an art form. 

As we saw Francis Hodgson arguing this week, it's important to establish a common measure of photographic ‘quality’ as we seek to identify images that ‘matter’. I felt this to be an immediately challenging and somewhat troublesome idea (eg. who judges quality?). Of course, the concept of quality in photographic imagery could be considered to be largely dependent on the intended purpose of the image and also the audience to whom it's targeted. The family snapshot, the advertising image and the documentary project are all aspiring to different standards of aesthetics and efficacy and different measures of their ‘success’. That being said though, I don’t think this renders the pursuit of quality entirely futile. It still seems to me to be an ideal worth pursuing at least at the level of the individual practitioner. It surely behooves each of us to seek to produce ‘quality’ work, aspiring to reach as closely as possible the mark that one sets for oneself at the very least, even if I personally believe that a universal and standardised measure of quality is probably an unattainable goal.
Of course, on the other side of this argument is the risk that those who are assigned the role of adjudicators of quality end up being such a homogenous group that there's an implicit and unconscious elitism both in selection of images of merit and provision of access to them. One could already argue that the ‘art world’ is not the most inclusive or welcoming environment and by seeking to establish a visual hierarchy there is certainly a concern that it is possible for inequality to become further entrenched.

Save Your Own Damn Self

Save Your Own Damn Self

Another interesting question posed this week was whether we approached our work in a predominantly emotional or cognitive way. Reflecting on this I feel that since starting to take photographs I have largely proceeded in an emotionally-driven manner and put very little thought into things at all. One of the main drivers for pursing an MA in photography was the hope of changing this and finding a more informed basis on which to continue creating imagery that was hopefully improved by being better informed. I suppose as much as I don’t feel that my approach has yet shown much sign of this, the very act of writing this CRJ is a step towards a more considered cognitive approach.

Finally, I recently read a book by David Campany – Photography and Cinema as part of my research into the link between photography and cinema and how this might help to contextualize my own practice and help me understand how I see scenes and create images. While I can’t say that after having read this book I have a clear idea of how my own work can be considered ‘cinematic’, one thought from the book has stuck with me, that being that ‘an image could simply be narrative without belonging to a narrative’. I really like this and hope to work towards producing images with more narrative content moving forward.