Grant Scott

Informing Contexts: What’s the Narrative?

The journey so far on this MA has been challenging, enlightening and inspiring. The first year blew past at an unrelenting pace, picking me up and depositing me on the threshold of year two with a head spinning full of new ideas. Year one positively disturbed and challenged my practice, raising a number of questions (some of which are only partially answered, at best, at this stage) but also left me feeling much better equipped to find the answers.

One of the key questions I’ve been trying to resolve since the end of the previous module is the question of storytelling through images, the construction of a visual narrative. Prior to commencing this course, I’d never considered this concept at all in a photographic sense. I’ve always had an interest in storytelling, as a consumer of stories (particularly written fiction and cinema) and have also previously studied filmmaking, scriptwriting and creative writing out of a desire to pursue this interest further. Photographically though, I’d been forever in pursuit of the single killer image, never appreciating or aspiring to, the creation of a bigger picture with my work. However, as I’ve developed a better understanding of the work of other practitioners, and from listening to photographers describe how they’ve gone about ordering their work to best communicate their ideas, I began really trying to understand how this related to my own work.

I started to consider the idea of ‘punctuation’ in a collection of images - photos that provide a bridge or link between other, possibly stronger, images and allow the whole collection to flow properly, in a way that would not be possible without these images. I can’t claim this idea as my own, having heard it first (I think) from Peter van Agtmael. The idea though was really resonant with me for all sorts of reasons. I came to understand the importance of this concept as I reviewed more and more photobooks and found myself gradually able to appreciate this idea of ‘flow’, and possibly too also identify those images which were acting as the key narrative links in the chain. 

I yearn to be able to communicate with my own work, in a way that can stimulate conversation, thought and potentially action. All the most memorable and affecting works of art that I’ve ever personally experienced were able to communicate something to me, and in so doing connected with me on a supra-visual level (eg. The first time I stood in front of a Rothko painting) and all great artists of any genre manage to achieve this in their own way. So the idea of sending a message, or relating a story, to your viewer (or at least consciously trying to) is vitally important.

This idea dawned almost too late to have a significant impact on the way I approached preparing for my final submissions, but I did begin thinking provisionally about the idea of how one puts a portfolio together: the rhythm and flow it should have to rise above a simple collection of ‘killer images’. This informed my WIP submission to some degree and it was heartening that the feedback acknowledged that the work flowed well.

This concept of narrative, and how it applies to me, has continued to haunt me since then. I feel like the way to give your work the best chance of communicating is by first articulating to yourself what it is that you’re concerned with, being clear about what the themes are that you wish to explore. It’s not possible to be sure of communicating anything specific if you aren’t working towards some kind of structure, however simple. This is something I’ve written about before and will continue to think about, having by no means cracked it. I definitely have a clearer idea about what I’m trying to say with my work (compared to when I started this course, for example) although I can certainly be much more eloquent about specific areas. I feel this is a process of continuous self-examination and self-questioning, ensuring that what I’m trying to say has some relevance to others and is being attempted in the most productive and clear-voiced manner. I suppose there also needs to be some sort of concession to the audience here, as understanding your audience better should theoretically allow you to anticipate how they might receive your work and thus fashion a message that has the best chance of reaching your intended target.

Right now I feel that ‘narrative’ is the key that will unlock the barriers preventing my work from progressing further. It feels pivotal at this point. Standing at the halfway point of the MA I can certainly see how my work, and the way I think about it, has developed. Equally, I’m even more aware of my shortcomings and feel like the gap between where I am now and where I want to get to is bigger than I might have previously appreciated…the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know I suppose! The idea of being in a position to publish a book, mount a serious exhibition or rally people to a cause (the seriousness of the blight of urban loneliness for example) is nonsense in the absence of the ability to weave a narrative through the work that holds it together as a coherent body of work and allows it to communicate to a wider audience. So, this is something I feel I really must tackle and work to improve.

I’ve struggled to find much discussion of this important area of photographic practice elsewhere. Some practitioners mention narrative in passing without ever managing to define it, or outline how they approach constructing narrative in their own work. Grant Scott (2016) however suggests that the development of narrative is potentially hampered by the use of digital image-making and sharing platforms, and argues for the importance of seeking to understand the construction of narrative across different genres before applying this art to one’s photographic practice.

Scott states that:

“Without engaging with an understanding of narrative beyond photographic practice — combined with an enjoyment of storytelling — it is impossible to develop narrative as a photographer. It is also extremely difficult to teach narrative to people who have never considered narrative as an essential aspect of photography.”

Perhaps somewhat sympathetically, Scott also states that:

“The art of editing is a skill that can often take years to master based on shooting experience and developed visual knowledge, so it would be unrealistic to expect the novice photographer to immediately possess the ability to know which images lead, drive and deliver a narrative.”

I don’t feel I’ve made much (any!) progress yet with understanding how to improve the narrative flow of my work, despite all the agonising. This may be because I’ve hit a bit of a block in terms of defining my themes as clearly as possible. I feel it’s imperative to inject more of myself into the work and currently I’m struggling to find a way to bring those elements that directly concern me into the work in a more explicit way than I’ve managed up to this point.

Moving forward in this module, particularly as we approach the final major project, this will be a key goal for me – finding a way to more clearly articulate my themes and construct a narrative thread that elevates my collection of pictures into something that’s hopefully more meaningful.

 

Reference:

SCOTT, Grant. 2016. ‘Why is narrative such a difficult concept for young photographers to master?’. Witness [online]. Available at: https://witness.worldpressphoto.org/why-is-narrative-such-a-difficult-concept-for-young-photographers-to-master-ccef10fb1064 [accessed 28 January 2018].

 

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: The New Global Landscape

The digital world is full of noise, and that cacophony of noise makes it hard to be heard. It makes it hard to stand out and make your point, express your opinions, build a client base, and tell your personal stories. Adding to that cacophony without a distinctive voice is therefore pointless. It is better to be quiet while you define what you have to say and how you want to say it. Listen to those who are speaking clearly and observe how they disseminate what they have to say so that it can inform your own language.

Professional Photography, Grant Scott, p16.

 

“"I am a photographer, I take photographs, that is and has always been the spine of any photographers professional practice. But is that enough today? You may, of course, perceive that as being a rhetorical question based on what I have written so far in this book. But it is not. Its a challenge to any professional photographer to take up and address, no more or less than that. Only you will know if your answer to this question is convincing and honest.

Professional Photography, Grant Scott, p176.

Highly recommended reading...

Highly recommended reading...

I have just finished reading the book ‘Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained’ by Grant Scott (2015). 

This book perfectly amplifies the work we’ve been covering in the Sustainable Prospects module and has given me much food for thought, as well as a number of avenues to pursue in my own practice moving forward.

Scott makes a very compelling argument for the existence of what he describes as a new and ever-changing landscape of professional photographic practice. He states repeatedly that the practitioners who will be best-placed to exploit this changing landscape to create opportunities and survive the economic squeeze that has affected the entire photographic industry are those who accept that the old norms are no longer given and who are open to adopting new skills and developing familiarity with new media. This will allow them to create and disseminate their work as well as engage with a potential audience who are no longer to be found in the traditional places.

These messages are of course very similar to those we have been presented with throughout the MA and more particularly during this module, where the focus has been squarely on positioning oneself and defining our own space in the professional landscape. The questions that must be answered by all of us are similar to those which are alluded to in the quotes above – what are you trying to say, how are you going to say it, and how are you going to define your practice?

As Scott also argues, without a clear appreciation of and willingness to tailor one’s efforts towards the needs of the client, it is not possible to consider oneself to be a professional practitioner. As such, as the client’s demands change thus must the photographer adapt their offering in order to remain relevant, and economically viable.

As I have written elsewhere, I’ve had a continuous internal discussion going on during this module in particular, trying to articulate to myself and subsequently to potential clients and collaborators, what sort of photographer I am and how I plan to engage with the professional world. This book has really helped to make certain elements of this challenge very clear and has also helpfully provided some clear and practical advice as to how to proceed, that I can take forward.

This also comes at a time when I have been trying to reconsider my project in light of advice given to me by tutor Krishna Sheth about the direction my project should take. This has left everything somewhat open to question and I am unable to progress without heeding the very pertinent advice that I have been given and which is echoed in Scott’s excellent book.

As such I am planning the following over the next few weeks, including the module break over Christmas/New Year:

1.     Explore how to gain some basic skills shooting video

2.     Get some basic audio recording equipment

3.     Shoot a trailer for my project using these skills gained (I already have a broad outline)

4.     Promote the trailer via current social media channels

5.     Commence research for a new personal project

 

Reference:

SCOTT, Grant. 2015. Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained. New York & London: Focal Press.