How to Photograph an Abstract Concept

As I have been studying documentary I have become increasingly aware of the need for a clear brief. This enables more incisive photography in my experience. The reverse I’ve found can also be true – in my recent Assignment 3 – Gentrification in Deptford I was struggling for a clear brief and started using post-conceptualisation as a strategy so that I could just start taking pictures and see what developed from there. However, for my upcoming Assignment 5 – A Personal Project, one of the requirements for the assignment is ‘a methodical approach’. Therefore I could either use post-conceptualisation as a method or do the opposite and produce a clear brief but not somewhere in between.

One area I’ve realised could be improved in my work would be the inclusion of an abstract concept rather than literal concepts in producing a clear brief. With the exception of Assignment 2 – Ephemerality of the Image where I developed the idea of an abstract concept, I have not explored abstract concepts. One essay that really inspired me with regards to abstract concepts particularly for Assignment 2 was Maartje van den Heuvel’s Mirror of Visual Culture. Here I eventually discovered a way of photographing an abstract concept – ephemerality of the image but the process of developing the ideas was quite drawn out.

I decided on a whim to make a search on the internet: “How to photograph an abstract concept” without much hope for inspiring results but was pleasantly surprised a few search results down to find something other than a list of ’20 ways to instantly improve my abstract photography’, which was what the rest of the results seemed to consist of! The search result in question linked to an essay by John Suler called Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche relating to conceptual photography. I found Suler’s essay to be accessible and practical and here were some of the observations I came away with after reading the essay:

I had been thinking about photography in the ‘wrong’ order in my mind at least; writing loose briefs and hoping for something creative to come out of my observations on research conducted. Instead I learned it was preferable to think of a concept in conceptual photography first and think about how this might best be represented as a photograph or set of photographs afterwards. In particular, ‘Photographs also offer a seemingly more real, tangible depiction of concepts that otherwise seem abstract or elusive.’ – (Suler, 2013). Many of my previous projects had been literal concepts so learning that one of photography’s strengths lay in depicting abstract concepts was interesting for me.

One part of Suler’s essay that I had an opinion on was: ‘[conceptual artists] are free to use an idea as the guide in creating a work, rather than being restrained by aesthetic standards about how things are supposed to done. – (Suler, 2013). Although I agreed with this statement on the most part (as opposed to creating just aesthetically-pleasing photographs like in non-conceptual photography), I felt there was an additional side to conceptual photography often being minimalistic and perfunctory in style. As the idea behind the photograph or set of photographs becomes more complex (the conceptual art I’ve come across often is quite complicated in concept), the execution of the photograph almost needs to be simple. This is in order to get across the message as lucidly as possible for a complicated idea. Suler (2013) touches upon this when he remarks ‘The process might be very challenging and creative, especially when dealing with complex or elusive concepts.’ when talking about creating artistic photographs for conceptual art. My response would be the perfunctory approach for the resultant photographs is kind of like a style for complicated concepts, not only to get across the message of the art but also also a deliberate attempt by the artist to signify the art is more important than the photograph.

A photograph’s concept can be translated into an image either specifically or ambiguously. When it is translated ambiguously, viewers tend to project their own meaning or understanding of the concept onto the photo which is what some photographers want according to Suler (2013): ‘The photo presents the container of a general concept or idea, but then people fill that container with their own personal meanings.’ When creating abstract concepts in photographs I would prefer for the viewer to infer meaning but for it to be not too ambiguous so somewhere in the middle. Suler (2013) is of the opinion that for the more specific of these approaches a clear understanding of the concept is desirable before visual communication commences.

As I was more interested in creating images for abstract concepts, it was useful to note from Suler’s essay that he recommended the use of a dictionary, thesaurus and online image search engine to aid the sender of the concept (the photographer) in acquiring a better understanding of the ins and outs of their abstract concept. He also states that ‘Symbols, metaphors, and similes are very useful when designing conceptual photographs.’ – (Suler, 2013) whereby the receiver of the concept (the viewer) could associate signs a photograph may possess in order to gain the sender’s meaning. Therefore if I wanted to create a photograph symbolising entropy of meaning in social media imagery, I could look up the definitions and synonyms for entropy and social media. Then I could see how other people represent entropy or social media in their photographs/images and also think about symbols, metaphors and similes that would be appropriate once I had a more lucid idea of what the concepts entailed.

Lastly, Suler touched upon post-conceptualisation (which I used for Assignment 3 – Gentrification in Deptford) although he used the term ‘reverse engineering’ of the conceptual photograph. Here he basically describes the process I went through with Assignment 3 where I took photographs first and then ‘apply an idea to it’ – (Suler, 2013). While both approaches can be effective I felt the more appropriate strategy of conceptualisation of an idea beforehand would perhaps be better for Assignment 5 where ‘a methodical approach’ was desirable.

References:

Suler, J. (2013). Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche. [online] Truecenterpublishing.com. Available at: http://truecenterpublishing.com/photopsy/conceptual.htm [Accessed 23 Oct. 2017].

Van Den Heuvel (2005). Mirror of Visual Culture. Documentary Now! [online] Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/heuvel_discussingdocumentary.pdf [Accessed 23 Oct. 2017].

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Study Hangout 22/10/2017

Today I attended a study hangout with Miriam and Leonie.

The Hell of Sierra Pelada mines, 1980s - © Sebastiaou Salgado
The Hell of Sierra Pelada mines, 1980s – © Sebastiaou Salgado

It was good to hear their progress and we were at similar stages in the course although Leonie had almost finished Assignment 5. Miriam and I were starting the critical review for Assignment 4. I discussed my ideas for Assignment 4 with the group – the idea of beauty in documentary and whether a really aesthetically-pleasing photograph takes away from the meaning a photograph may be trying to convey. The responses from Leonie and Miriam were very interesting for me, with Leonie comparing the work of Tim Hetherington and Don McCullin’s American soldiers photographs saying that one was rendered completely differently from the other in regards to beauty. Looking at the two photographs side by side I could definitely relate to this observation.

Korengal Valley, Afghanistan - © Tim Hetherington - 2007
Korengal Valley, Afghanistan – © Tim Hetherington – 2007
'The Thousand Yard Stare' - © Don McCullin - 1968
‘The Thousand Yard Stare’ – © Don McCullin – 1968

I used the work of Sebastiaou Salgado as an example of aesthetic beauty with the potential for displacing meaning because his photographs have been typically so beautiful. Miriam countered this point by saying one of Sebastiaou Salgado’s photographs – that of a gold mine (The hell of Serra Pelada mines, 1980s, was the photograph I think she was referring to) means she no longer buys gold but only fair-trade; the photo by Sebastiaou Salgado had made such an impression on her. This could make the case that beauty captures the viewer’s attention with the possibility for meaning to be discovered afterwards in the same image, which should be something to consider when writing my critical review.

Lastly we discussed juggling things like work with the course and how it affects the flow of our studying. Also what our plans were after competing the documentary module and how often it would be helpful to liaise with our tutors in order to improve assignments.

Overall I found the study hangout to be very helpful as always but in particular it did give me some more points of consideration for my critical review.

Self-reflection for Assignment 3 Documentary

I was asked for Assignment 3 to produce 10 images of varying viewpoints and compositions while still maintaining a consistent visual style. I feel I managed to maintain a consistent visual style of landscape documentary while employing different focal lengths and compositions. I tried to keep an open mind as to the intent of each photograph while taking them; instead editing the photos accordingly to tell my story later. At the same time, I remained aware while walking around Deptford for any mini-stories to play out which might help with conveying the general theme. However, I was more concerned with photographing and looking for signs of gentrification in the area, whether obvious or not than these ‘mini-stories’. Focusing on post-conceptualisation differed from what I have tended towards in the past, which made the shooting and editing process more liberating. I did find I had to put more thought into how to edit and sequence the photographs afterwards. This was because of the increased number of photos to edit down from compared to previous assignments and also because I had then to decide which photographs best fit the story and where.

I found the project came together to tell a convincing story of gentrification ongoing in the Deptford area. The requested PDF book form allowed me to lay out the photographs and select the order of the selected images until I was relatively happy with the layout. The content reflected my observations of Deptford although it was somewhat fictional for the reason that Deptford appeared a lot less bleak in half the photos. This was intentional however, as the story juxtaposed gentrified areas with the high street. The introduction to the PDF book contained clear and concise information regarding the project which in my opinion worked as an anchor to the book.

Creativity was one aspect I was worried about before the project started but by using post-conceptualisation I eventually started taking photographs. Then I could observe elements of Deptford where my creativity could be applied. I identified the billboards by roads as a possible source of interest. Using Inception (2010) and my own Assignment 2 Documentary as inspiration, I managed to create an image which I felt reflected gentrification in Deptford from a subjective point of view. Inception (2010) inspired me with the concept of ‘a dream within a dream’ or even ‘a dream within a dream within a dream’! I experimented with creating ‘a dream within a dream’ which could possibly reflect parts of society nowadays, though mostly unsuccessfully. Eventually I was inspired by ‘The Photograph Manipulated’ chapter in Graham Clarke’s: The Photograph (1997) to use image manipulation as well as picture-in picture techniques to produce Image 10 for Assignment 3.

In my opinion my learning log could improve by quantity of reading around documentary but in terms of the assignment I thought critically about my assignment with my Study Hangout group and in the post Imaginary Documents and I researched gentrification in Deptford.

References:

Clarke, G. (1997). The Photograph. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.187-205.

Inception. (2010). [DVD] Directed by C. Nolan. UK, USA: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Editing and Selection Process

Because I used post-conceptualisation to form the basis for my project, I shot a lot more photographs then I usually would for an assignment. The essence of post-conceptualisation would be to photograph freely while keeping an eye out for any themes that may arise. Hopefully a theme stronger than other themes would arise from which basing your project is possible. Then afterwards you put together some of the photographs taken during this process in order to inform the viewer to the theme and this would be where editing and selection takes place.

Shooting more freely and then conceptualising afterwards was liberating but it meant I took longer editing down the photographs. My workflow was to import all of the photos taken, quickly process the images I felt applied to my decided theme of gentrification more readily and then put these in a group so that I had a loose first edit of all the photos taken. Then I would look more closely at these photos for an idea of how they might come together to tell the story of gentrification in Deptford. To accomplish this I set up a digital book dummy, edited out extraneous photos and rearranged selected photos until I had a rough draft of a book. I already had some idea of which photos I wanted where from the import and quick process stage but this was the moment to refine this selection.

Afterwards I performed a more extensive processing on the photos selected and made sure they were in the order I deemed best (I rearranged them more than once at this stage). Then I worked on the title page and accompanying text for the project which served to consolidate the story told. Lastly I added brief captions to the photos anchoring the photos in the storyline.

I have included all quickly processed images taken of Deptford during the time photographing the area in a gallery on this post so it would be possible to look at my editing and selection process and observe which photographs made the edit.

Assignment 3 Documentary – Gentrification in Deptford

Through visual storytelling I have created a set of 10 photographs which aim to show gentrification in Deptford. Using various viewpoints in a landscape style I have depicted a changing Deptford from my perspective. The story progresses from a seemingly vibrant Deptford high street market continuum to portray a poorer side representing the residencies and surrounding neighbourhood.

Continuing with the development side (and opposition) to gentrification, the changes can be observed taking place, culminating with a vision of gentrified Deptford. Although sleek and contemporary, the scene is sparse for now. A resolution to this is presented in recreational use of land.

Click on the link below to see my project Gentrification in Deptford in PDF book form:

Gentrification in Deptford

Researching Gentrification in Deptford

Different boroughs in London begin the gentrification process at different times with Deptford beginning the process later on than most. Therefore perhaps less information concerning gentrification would be available than other areas. I decided I would research gentrification in the Deptford area specifically in order to get a better idea of how and why it was occurring. A search of ‘Gentrification in Deptford’ on the internet yielded some varied and informative results.

First I looked at a history of old Deptford. The name Deptford was derived from a ‘deep ford’ which ‘crossed what is now Deptford Creek, at the mouth of the river Ravensbourne.’ – (Hidden-london.com. (n.d.). This is also ‘where Deptford Bridge DLR station is now located.’ – (Calafate-Faria, n.d.). It was first mentioned as ‘Depeford’ in 1293. The main influx of wealth came when Henry VIII ‘founded a naval dockyard … in 1513 and within a century Deptford had become one of the leading ports and a major industrial suburb.’ – (Hidden-london.com. (n.d.). This prosperous dockyard lasted for many years but in 1869 it closed ‘due to the silting of the Thames. Its use was restricted to shipbuilding and distributing stores to other yards and fleets abroad.’ – (Royal Museums Greenwich | UNESCO World Heritage Site In London, n.d.).

Despite the docks being replaced by a cattle market which subsequently closed in 1913, ‘Deptford suffered a long and damaging period of deterioration’ – (Hidden-london.com. (n.d.). This occurred because of Second World War bombing and postwar industrial decline. ‘Many of the large firms in Deptford closed down in the late 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in a high level of unemployment in the area. The history of the 21st century will be about economic recovery and urban regeneration.’ – (Deptford.towntalk.co.uk, n.d.). This last quote proves that Deptford was still a relatively poor area until the turn of the century (20th-21st).

Admittedly I was more interested in the history of Deptford from the 1980s to the start of the 21st century because it shaped gentrification in conjunction with the old Deptford. However, there was limited history from then on, perhaps because the changes had been not well documented? So I collected tidbits from the various sources I could find. One useful source stated that: ‘As a result of economical decline and redundancy, the Creek and Thames waterfront saw much of their industrial heritage demolished to make way for new development, notably the clearance of the Royal Dockyards (to make way for Convoys Wharf – in use until 2002)’ – (Deptford Creekside Conservation Area Appraisal, 2012). This suggested that Deptford was undergoing a period of transition from the 1970s to the turn of the 21st century and beyond.

During this period, ‘When Lewisham Council changed its housing policy for the estate in the late 1970s – giving priority to young single professionals – it gave impetus to the development of a radical arts and music scene that gained Deptford an almost legendary status in the 1970s and 80s.’ – (Deptford Creekside Conservation Area Appraisal, 2012). This showed Deptford’s art and culture based heritage which was important to Deptford’s identity. This could be the first signs of gentrification but a much larger sign happened later with the regeneration of Deptford’s high street since 2008 – along with a £2.1 million refurbishment to the high street: ‘The town centre’s image has been further enhanced by its contemporary new station building with its steel framework and glass facades.’ – (lewisham.gov.uk, n.d.).

Then later on in 2014, ‘The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson yesterday (Monday, March 31) approved plans to build up to 3,500 new homes and create over 2,000 new jobs on a site in Deptford that has been derelict for 14 years.’ – (london.gov.uk, 2014). The decision to develop Convoys Wharf (the development in question), ‘was taken against the will of the local council of Lewisham.’ – (Calafate-Faria, n.d.). This perhaps suggested the flats would be out of budget for many local residents and gentrification would occur.

 

A few of the results showed photographers’ projects. In particular one project which stood out to me was Gill Golding’s ongoing project: Deptford: A Town in Transition. She too used colour landscapes to document a changing Deptford and the gentrification taking place. I liked looking at her photographs because they were clear, colourful and juxtaposed the new with the old Deptford well. I felt they offered a good insight into the changes and conflicts arising in Deptford as regeneration progresses and gentrification becomes more prevalent.

References:

Calafate-Faria, F. (n.d.). Urban ‘regeneration’ in Deptford. [online] Goldsmiths, University of London. Available at: http://www.gold.ac.uk/news/comment-urban-regeneration-in-deptford/ [Accessed 26 Aug. 2017].

Deptford Creekside Conservation Area Appraisal. (2012). [ebook] London: lewisham.gov.uk. Available at: https://www.lewisham.gov.uk/myservices/planning/conservation/conservation-areas/Documents/Deptford%20Creekside%20Conservation%20Area%20Appraisal.pdf [Accessed 26 Aug. 2017].

Deptford.towntalk.co.uk. (n.d.). About Deptford Town Centre & Historical Information – Deptford TownTalk. [online] Available at: http://www.deptford.towntalk.co.uk/local/history [Accessed 26 Aug. 2017].

Golding, G. (n.d.). Deptford: A Town in Transition. [online] Gill Golding / Photographer. Available at: http://www.gillgoldingphotography.com/deptford [Accessed 26 Aug. 2017].

Hidden-london.com. (n.d.). Deptford – Hidden London. [online] Available at: http://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/deptford/ [Accessed 26 Aug. 2017].

lewisham.gov.uk. (n.d.). Deptford town centre regeneration. [online] Available at: http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/inmyarea/regeneration/deptford/deptford-centre/Pages/default.aspx [Accessed 26 Aug. 2017].

london.gov.uk. (2014). Mayor approves plans for major new development at Convoys Wharf. [online] Available at: https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/development-at-convoys-wharf [Accessed 26 Aug. 2017].

Royal Museums Greenwich | UNESCO World Heritage Site In London. (n.d.). Royal Naval Dockyards. [online] Available at: http://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/royal-naval-dockyards [Accessed 26 Aug. 2017].

The Photograph Manipulated – Chapter 10 – The Photograph – Graham Clarke (1997)

I have been reading through parts of Graham Clarke’s The Photograph (1997) – in particular a section which caught my eye was ‘The Photograph Manipulated’ (Pages 187-205). Usually I would skip by chapters such as this as I have in the past preferred to keep my photos in general realistic and so I would be less interested in a chapter of this nature.

This was slightly narrow-minded as I usually post-process my photographs so they are manipulated to a degree either way (just not in content usually). However, I decided I would try out reading this chapter because I was enjoying the parts of the book and I perhaps thought in my mind reading a chapter of this nature might prove to be more useful than I previously imagined.

The chapter immediately grasped my attention when it began with a statement concerning ‘pure’ photography. ‘Pure’ photography postulated an ideal image which transcended the everyday world.’ – (Clarke, 1997). I had come across ‘pure’ photography in landscape photography along with ‘straight’ photography. Much of my photography to date has been these kinds of photography.

(Clarke, 1997) goes on to say: ‘From the 1900s onwards we can chart a series of photographic responses [to ‘pure’ photography] that seek to recast the photographic act in the new language of modernism. Such photography sought to manipulate the image’. The fact that image manipulation in the language of modernism subverted a lot of the kind of photography I had been practising so far made me interested to see what these ‘photographic responses’ looked like aesthetically and semantically.

The Constructor - El Lissitzky - 1924
The Constructor – El Lissitzky – 1924

The first work that struck me was by El Lissitzky called The Constructor (1924) and this was because his self-portrait held a lot of narrative to it by use of unusual composition combined with the juxtaposition of hand and eye. This composition and juxtaposition suggested to me the meaning that as constructor, the hand and eye work together mutually and accurately. The meaning was quite rigid rather than inferred. Part of this reason was that the image was obviously manipulated which allowed meaning to be more easily invoked.

Although Clarke deduced a rather wider meaning than mine from The Constructor (1924), parts of the meaning deduced was similar. He also raises an important point: ‘this is literally a manifesto on the way we do not interpret our world so much as construct it (or have it constructed for us).’ – (Clarke, 1997). I had begun to come to terms with such a point in my own work for Assignment 3 where using images in combination with each other, I was able to construct a story.

Object (or Complicated Imagination) - Gingo Hanawa - 1938
Object (or Complicated Imagination) – Gingo Hanawa – 1938

Further along in the chapter, I looked at montages and in particular Gingo Hanawa’s Object (or Complicated Imagination) (1938). One reason I had shied away from image manipulation (of contents) in the past was down to the unrealism of montages or collages. This image however, seemed to address the very nature of montages or photographs by playing on what constitutes an object. It used multiple objects juxtaposed to make one object and it was this juxtaposition of objects that created meaning.

Although the meaning was obscure and the image was unrealistic, when meaning was inferred from the image this negated the unrealism. This was because ‘Object is this a play on the nature of the object and meaning, … Object moves us back into the three-dimensional world and recalls us to the play between image and photograph which is the basis of the photograph.’ – (Clarke, 1997). The image Object (or Complicated Imagination) (1938) in my opinion was ahead of its time because it addressed itself.

Office at Night No.1 - Victor Burgin - 1986
Office at Night No.1 – Victor Burgin – 1986

Lastly I looked at the work of Victor Burgin in Clarke’s book, specifically: Office at Night, No. 1 (1986). Like Hawana’s Object (or Complicated Imagination) (1938), it was a montage, however it used a variety of media including photography, painting and typology. This postmodern approach for me explained the image within itself well by drawing on these various forms.

It was interesting how the image of the office-worker by the filing cabinet to the left was a painting (from the painting Office at Night (1940) by Edward Hopper) and yet this was mirrored by the photograph of the office-worker by the filing cabinet to the right in pose. This mirroring in my eyes signified the questioning of reproducibltiy which was further magnified when I realised the image of the office-worker by the filing cabinet to the left was a painting. This was because if read from left to right across then the photograph mirrored the painting; perhaps suggesting while photographs were inherently reproducible, paintings were not.

All of these works made me wonder whether I could somehow incorporate image manipulation into my own work and I was glad I read the chapter after all.

References:

Burgin, V. (1986). Office at Night No.1. [Photograph] New York: John Weber Gallery.

Clarke, G. (1997). The Photograph. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.187-205.

Hanawa, G. (1938). Object (or Complicated Imagination). [Photograph] Osaka: Sanya Nakamori Collection.

Hopper, E. (1940). Office at Night. [Oil on Canvas] Minneapolis: Walker Art Center.

Lissitzky, E. (1924). The Constructor. [Photograph] London: David King Collection.