Questions

Informing Contexts: What's the Narrative 2

I have continued to ruminate about the theme of narrative and how this is created photographically throughout this module, as well as trying to find answers in the work of other practitioners. Aside, from the challenges that have presented themselves over the last three months away from the course, this subject has been the most difficult for me to grasp and then relate to my own work. 

I have found myself increasingly uninterested in the work I’ve been making, at least in the way that I’ve previously produced it. I realised that I’d become frustrated with a sense of repetition and of being in a visual rut. Towards the end of the previous module I started to realise that it would not be possible to elevate my work without a closer focus on the intention behind the work and the way this was then translated into the image itself.

I think I have a clearer idea of what visual narrative is now, particularly having reflected on how other practitioners manage to capture your attention and challenge your imagination with their work. 

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the work of Gregory Crewdson recently, the Twilight and Cathedral of the Pines projects in particular. 

The work of Gregory Crewdson, from    Twilight

The work of Gregory Crewdson, from Twilight

Aside from the beauty and elaborate complexity of his images, the thing that strikes me most about his work is the fact that each image provokes a question (often many). What happened here? Where are her clothes? How could that have gotten there? There is always a sense of transience, being invited into the space between events that have just occurred and those that are about to take place.

These questions oblige you to stay with the image, searching for the answer. When, as is almost always the case, the answer isn’t immediately apparent in the photograph you are transported to your imagination or to speculation to look for it. Either way the image has captivated you and taken you beyond the immediate fact of looking at a two-dimensional representation on a screen or in a book. These unanswered questions are everywhere in Crewdson’s work, often provoked by the simplest of small details. When I saw his work at The Photographer’s Gallery last year I was intrigued by how almost all his interior shots included a half empty glass of water somewhere in the frame. It’s a motif that is too consistent to be a coincidence, and it fascinates me even now…

The half empty glass of water on the bedside table...an intriguing element of many of Crewdson's images. This, from    Cathedral of the Pines

The half empty glass of water on the bedside table...an intriguing element of many of Crewdson's images. This, from Cathedral of the Pines

Why are they there? What do they mean? 

The ability to provoke these questions in the viewer is key to creating narrative I think.

The ability to provoke questions is also seen in the work of Lynne Cohen, who achieves this despite almost exclusively shooting empty interior spaces. Her work asks you to consider the actions of people on their environment and surroundings, to consider their activities and behaviours and how they connect to our own, in spaces that we all inhabit. 

The work of   Lynne Cohen

The work of Lynne Cohen

Similarly, the work of Lynn Saville in the US (primarily New York City) and Rut Blees Luxemburg (most notably in London) asks us to consider how we respond to our urban spaces and how these environments reflect our behaviours and our concerns. The fact that they both use the night as a key part of their visual toolbox is of course particularly interesting to me. Again, without including people in much of their work, they invite questions about the world we inhabit and thus require the viewer to engage with their work and with themselves.

Aplomb St Pauls by Rut Blees Luxemburg,

Aplomb St Pauls by Rut Blees Luxemburg,

A further lesson about narrative has occurred to me following a recent visit to the Gursky exhibition currently showing at the Hayward Gallery. I was not very familiar with Andreas Gursky’s work prior to visiting this show, but seeing his work you can’t help but be confronted by his vision and the consistency of that vision throughout his career. His work, to me at least, seems to repeatedly explore the behaviour of humans, their interaction with space, and the way we see. It struck me that he has adhered to a set of technical and conceptual ideas throughout his career, and in doing so the underlying motivation of the work becomes clearer. 

The Gursky exhibition at Hayward Gallery

The Gursky exhibition at Hayward Gallery

By this I mean that one who devotes their career to exploring a particular subject compiles a body of work that in total communicates much more clearly than someone who makes a small project on the same topic. This consistency of thought is one way that narrative is created I think, by the repetitive consideration of an idea from various angles and perspectives, showing it in different forms and contexts…this ultimately builds into an eloquent story. 

Again, relating this back to my own work, I feel that my interest in solitude and urban life is not exhausted by any means. There are so many facets of this issue that remain to be explored and this allows me to envisage how my work will develop beyond the MA. The consistency of vision is not something to be underestimated or devalued, but will hopefully become a key pillar in my work that ultimately results in a more articulate whole, regardless of what other work I also go on to produce. Along with the idea of trying to create questions with my work and leaving enough space for imagination to expand the scope of the image, I think I have enough to be moving forward with.

References:

THIS IS LOCAL LONDON. 2015. ‘London Dust exhibition featuring Rut Blees Luxemburg photos opens at Museum of London’. This is Local London [online]. Available at: http://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/news/12927124.7_arresting_images_showing_London_s_changing_financial_district/[accessed 19 April 2018].

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].