Peter van Agtmael

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: Work In Context

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.

Franck Bohbot

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. 

 

Justin_Carey_Photography_Light On New York City Franck Bohbot_88kb.jpg

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. 

Radio City Music Hall - Franck Bohbot

Radio City Music Hall - Franck Bohbot

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.

Peter van Agtmael

I came to this work during this module after listening to his interview with Ben Smith on the ‘A Small Voice’ podcastIn 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. 

 

Justin_Carey_Photography_Buzzing At The Sill_86kb.jpg

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. 

Hugo, Oklahoma, 2014 - Peter van Agtmael

Hugo, Oklahoma, 2014 - Peter van Agtmael

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.

Gillian Wearing

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. 

 

I'm Desperate - Gillian Wearing

I'm Desperate - Gillian Wearing

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:

Another aspect of her practice that is relevant to me is her willingness to work in various media. She has often created video projects, something I’m also hoping to move into in the near future, and this reflects a versatility that only enhances her relevance in the contemporary art marketplace. This multi-skilled approach is important to improve your chances of being able to carve out a niche for oneself in this harsh economic climate.

Todd Hido

I’ve written about Hido’s work before and the interesting thing for me is that I was never aware of his work when I first came into photography and was being formed by early influences. This is almost ironic to me now because I often feel that his work and his approach to his work most closely mirrors how I feel about my own practice. A quote of his, from an interview available onlinealmost perfectly describes how I feel about my own work:

I believe that all those signs from your past and all those feelings and memories certainly come together, often subconsciously, and form some kind of a fragmented narrative. Often you're telling your own story but you may not even know it.

His work contextualises mine in many ways – he is famous for shooting at night, although that is not all he shoots. He speaks openly about the connection between his unspoken past and the work he creates today. He has carved out a niche as a highly-respected fine art practitioner and teacher, both roles that I hope to occupy in the future, and has done so by producing work that strongly resonates with my own. 

 

Screen grab from www.toddhido.com

Screen grab from www.toddhido.com

As my knowledge of Hido’s work grows, I find myself having to resist the urge to produce images that are too derivative of his famous work. Any building with illuminated windows should almost have his copyright emblazoned on it!

Considering the work of other practitioners in this module, I can conclude that it is possible for me to develop a sustainable practice while shooting work that is true to myself. In fact, the key seems to me to be MORE true to my own vision and being careful to not dilute my voice in an effort to encourage collaboration. I’m convinced too of the need to diversify my skills to give me more story-telling tools and allow me to offer more to potential clients. Developing new skills and refining my voice will be ongoing tasks in the months ahead.

 

References:

·      BOHBOT, Franck. 2016. Light On New York City. Kempen: teNeues.

·      VAN AGTMAEL, Peter. 2017. Buzzing At The Sill. Heidelberg: Kehrer.

·      WEARING, Gillian. 2012. Gillian Wearing. London: Ridinghouse.

·      HIDO, Todd., CAMPANY, David. and TYLEVICH, Katya. 2016. Intimate Distance: Twenty-five Years of Photographs, A Chronological Album. New York: Aperture.

·      AHORN MAGAZINE. ca. 2010. ‘Interview with: Todd Hido’. Ahorn Magazine Archive [online]. Available at: http://www.ahornmagazine.com/issue_6/interview_hido/interview_hido.html [accessed 9 December 2017].