Critical Review Final – My Reasoning for Making Changes Based on Tutor Feedback

I have gained feedback from my tutor regarding my original Critical Review and have now decided to go back over my tutor’s comments. While it was for the most part well received, there were of course some improvements that could be made. My tutor helpfully highlighted these for me and I would suggest the improvements I have been asked to consider making are pretty much all things I agree about in retrospect. I have decided to make this post to go along with the revised version of my critical review with the changes marked in red so it is possible to see exactly my thought processes while making the amendments.

 

  1. I started the original critical review with a question which I had changed as the critical review developed in the first place several times. The question ranged from: ‘Because it is our natural inclination to make aesthetically-pleasing photographs, when this is achieved does this then render the photograph’s meaning disparate from its aesthetics?’ To: ‘Because it is our natural inclination to make aesthetically-pleasing photographs, when this is carried out does this then detract from a photograph’s meaning?’ As well as: ‘It is our natural inclination to make aesthetically-pleasing photographs. When this is carried out does this then render a photograph’s meaning artificial?’ Finally I settled on: ‘Does the type of aesthetic approach employed by the photographer affect the accessibility of the work to an audience?’ I felt at the time this was a more concise question. However, my tutor has picked out a part to the question which I too fell could be construed in different ways. Namely: ‘affect the accessibility of the work’ which could potentially mean the logistics of getting the work to an audience. This wasn’t the intended meaning of the term accessibility which in my mind had meant ‘readability’. Therefore, similar to my tutor’s suggestion I changed the question to: ‘Does the type of aesthetic approach employed by the photographer affect the way a photograph is read by an audience?’.

 

  1. I started the answer to my question in the original critical review with a statement that aesthetics affect the reader of a photograph’s gaze and so the photographer is faced with whether to make the work ‘aesthetically-pleasing or gritty’ Just by using the term ‘gritty’ I was making an uninformed opinion that ‘gritty’ was the opposite of ‘aesthetically-pleasing’! My tutor duly pointed this out by remarking that ‘Gritty can be a kind of pleasing aesthetic though’. Although I agreed with my tutor, I did scratch my head wondering how best to implement my uninformed opinion about gritty and my tutor’s remark about gritty having the potential to be a kind of pleasing aesthetic too. The next line of my essay did introduce the subjectivity of aesthetics and my tutor’s report for my learning log signalled he liked the personal element of my review. Therefore I decided to use these facts to restructure the essay. I admitted my personal preferences for what was aesthetically-pleasing and not aesthetically-pleasing and then showed that this was a subjective opinion and that it varies among people what their aesthetic tastes are.

 

  1. A quick update from ‘aestheticising’ to ‘aestheticisation’ here.

 

  1. My next point of debate was that of photographic truth. I wrote in my original critical review that: ‘I would agree on a base level that the viewer of such photographs (Salgado’s beautiful documents) is more likely to be distracted from the message because of the aesthetics than had the photographs simply aimed to portray ‘the truth’.’ My tutor didn’t necessarily find anything wrong with this quote but wrote: ‘mmmm. Truth is a tricky concept isn’t it.’ I decided to expand on my notion of photographic portrayal of truth by saying that: ‘although the photographer’s intentions might be honest, it is easy with photography to let aesthetics get in the way of truth.’

 

  1. Moving on to the part of the critical review where I considered the impression Thomas Ruff’s Portraits 1986-1991 series made on me, my tutor and I’s opinions differed significantly. He found the superficial aesthetics of Ruff’s Portraits 1986-1991 pleasing, while I had said in my essay: ‘the superficial aesthetics were not particularly pleasing to the eye. I didn’t say the aesthetics were displeasing; however I also didn’t say why I didn’t find them particularly pleasing. My prompted reasoning for why I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the aesthetics was just that the lighting was quite flat and at first glance it seemed quite bland. Interestingly, this could be exactly the kind of reason Ruff succeeded in getting across the meaning of passport photo to me as a reader of the portraits. Looking at Ruff’s Portraits 1986-1991 again, they did grow on me as the lighting is quite soft in fact so I can see where my tutor is coming from.
Fig. 2. © Thomas Ruff (1988) Porträt (P. Stadtbäumer)
Fig. 2. © Thomas Ruff (1988) Porträt (P. Stadtbäumer)
  1. My tutor referenced an article when he observed I had written initially ‘blank expressions of people’ while describing Ruff’s Portraits 1986-1991. In my eyes he referenced this article for me in order to get me to think more deeply about why the expressions of the sitters were ‘blank’ and I would say I am satisfied with my final answer having read through the referenced article. The subsequent changes I made to the essay took into account the lighting (which showed everything of the sitter’s features) and in turn how showing this paradoxically helped to reveal nothing about the sitter’s feeling (as described by Ruff in the article), helped by their blank expressions. I then went on to suggest how this would affect the viewer’s experience of the portraits in relation to the size they were printed in the gallery I viewed them in (the Whitechapel gallery).

 

  1. I replaced ‘emotions’ with ‘opinions’ because I felt that while Moriyama may have had ‘emotions’ present concerning the ‘dark streets of Tokyo’ and its politics, he remained detached while photographing and therefore ‘opinions’ was a better description. Also I added the book Bye Bye Photography (1972) as a reference to how a consistent project aesthetically could influence a work and how it was linked to readability rather than emotion.

 

  1. I decided (with the help of my tutor’s comments) that the reasoning ‘this is because it does not conform to (a Western at least) standard taste for the beautiful which has been more popular’ was largely unfounded as Moriyama had been influenced by William Klein and also Robert Frank who were both Western photographers. I changed instead my reasoning to: ‘I would argue this is because it is necessary with Moriyama’s work (like Ruff’s Portraits 1986-1991) to look further beyond the superficial, which acts as just an (aesthetically-consistent) gateway to the meaning found within’ which was much more reasonable and tied in with the rest of my essay.

 

  1. A continuation of 7. with the removal of ‘emotion’ – this time being linked with beauty in my critical review. I used instead the term reflexive where Moriyama’s work was subjective but in a way that he looked at the medium he was working with.

 

  1. I added the new references for the relevant quotes as well as the page numbers for one of the references my tutor had picked up on me missing out in the original essay.

References:

Moriyama, D. (1972). Bye Bye Photography. 1st ed. Tokyo: Shashin hyoron-sha.

Ruff, T. (1988). Porträt (P. Stadtbäumer). [Photograph] Retrieved from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/12/theory-gil-blank-with-thomas-ruff-2004.html [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].
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Daido Moriyama at the Michael Hoppen Gallery and in the Exhibition: ‘Another Kind of Life’ at the Barbican

On the 27th March 2018 I visited the Michael Hoppen Gallery to see the Daido Moriyama exhibition there. This was a decision I’d made as I had written about Moriyama in some of my critical review. Although my critical review had been well received, my tutor had some comments concerning my observations about Moriyama’s work. Therefore I thought it would be a good opportunity to see some of Moriymama’s work in person. Then I could make informed amendments to my critical review based upon visiting the exhibition(s) in person.

It seemed that subject was all important to Moriyama, however the high contrast, often grainy black and white medium could not be ignored. The photographs on show still clearly referenced the world they depicted but the overall effect for me was one of disoriented otherworldliness which the black and white medium helped to back up. Some of the photographs were sharp and quite clean (not much graininess) while the majority conformed to the ‘are, bure, boke’ – grainy, blurry and out of focus characteristics which defined the left-wing group of photographers Moriyama joined in the 1960s – (Scaldaferri, 2017). This inconsistency left me somewhat confused; while Moriyama was famous for appearing in the Provoke magazine for precisely these reasons (are, bure, boke), some of the photos in the exhibition went against this trend.

However, what did remain consistent was the high contrast evident in each photograph’s finish which was a trademark of Moriyama’s process. This as well as the disconcerting subject matter (stray dogs staring at the camera, seedy images from Tokyo’s underworld and grabs of American culture in Japan) tied the exhibition together into something weirdly satisfying.

Then on the 10th May 2018 I took it upon myself to visit a larger exhibition in which Moriyama’s work appeared as a feature of many photographers’ work displayed together. The exhibition was at the Barbican and was called Another Kind of Life. I found the exhibition as a whole to be very interesting and eye-opening in places. I enjoyed some features more than others and the one which stood out most to me was Jim Goldberg’s Raised by Wolves. Here he used similar to my eyes strategies and techniques as his Open See exhibition.

When I arrived at Daido Moriyama’s Japan Photo Theatre section, I was surprised to find a very similar layout of the photographs and the way they were framed compared to the photographs in the Michael Hoppen Gallery. I realised later this was probably intentional as both exhibitions were on at the same time. However, I liked the way the frames were all black and they tessellated so that there were no gaps in between the photos. I found this style quite appealing and in my opinion went well with Moriyama’s high contrast, ore, bure, boke look. Again the photographs appeared as snapshots at first glance but the subjects and aesthetics pointed towards something different. Also I found within the context of Another Kind of Life exhibition the work fit in well as the viewer gained insight into the world of people on the margins.

© Daido Moriyama (1968) Nippon Gekijo Shashincho (Japan Theatre Photo Album) from the series Japan Photo Theatre
© Daido Moriyama (1968) Nippon Gekijo Shashincho (Japan Theatre Photo Album) from the series Japan Photo Theatre

I had been aware of the popularity of Moriyama in Japan and that the had influenced a large number of young Japanese photographers. I was therefore pleased to see that another photographer appeared at Another Kind of Life who had been influenced by Moriyama. His name was Seiji Kurata. Although he had been influenced by Moriyama and it was black and white, I found his work to be very different aesthetically. It was much more considered at the time of shooting and the black and white treatment was much less harsh with less contrast. There was stilll lots of contrast but it contained grey midtones and things appeared sharper and more in focus. I liked the work of Kurata and thought he had managed to develop his own style, far from copying the aesthetics of Moriyama but instead using edgy subjects reminiscent of the person he was influenced by.

Seeing a variety of Moriyama’s work in person and some of the generation he influenced left me much more informed about the aesthetics and subject matter Moriyama concentrated on. His photographs were always edgy and the subject was paramount to his way of working. However, he had developed this edgy, distinctive high contrast black and white aesthetic which for me reflected well the state of mind he was in as he roamed the streets of Tokyo looking for a subject which captured his imagination.

References:

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins (2018). Barbican Art Gallery [Exhibition] 28 Feb – 27th May 2018.

Daido Moriyama (2018). Michael Hoppen Gallery [Exhibition] 22 Feb – 7th Apr 2018.

Scaldaferri, G. (2017). Discover The Captivating Work Of Acclaimed Japanese Photographer, Daido Moriyama. [online] Culture Trip. Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/daido-moriyama-the-father-of-street-photography-in-japan/ [Accessed 16 May. 2018].

Study Hangout 10/12/2017

On 10/12 2017 Bryn, Anne and myself attended a study hangout.

We talked in detail about our respective critical reviews. Anne was quite pleased with her feedback for hers as it was quite positive with some changes necessary, thankfully not as many as she’d feared.

I admitted I was partly stuck with my essay but was awaiting a response from my tutor regarding some questions I’d come to realise were bugging me about my writing and investigation into aesthetics in photography.

Amendment (22/12/2017):

I have since received an email from my tutor regarding my questions about my critical review which I found very helpful and have commenced writing the critical review, while taking into account suggestions based upon my questions my tutor had made.

Bryn communicated that he had read up quite a bit some of the primary resources from the course which was helping to inform his critical review and was starting to look at secondary sources to further back up these readings. Also he discussed how he might include in his essay something about how it was desirable to have a larger project to work on and have continuation with instead of having to constantly reinvent the wheel for each project. Hiroshi Sugimoto has this large project continuation in his Seascapes project which he works on in combination with shorter projects which Bryn admired.

Bryn asked Anne whether she might go back to the Gloucester Docks again for Assignment 5 so that her projects had a continued theme and she said may consider it. Also Anne described her interactive exhibition for the Somerset exhibition of OCA students which sounded very interesting. Here she asked exhibition-goers to reorder a set of photographs into the ‘right’ order that she had in mind and take a photograph of their perceived ‘right’ order and put that photograph in a guest book to document their participation.

Bryn asked Anne if she might consider doing something interactive in the Gloucester Docks similar to this and she said it was a possibility.

Lastly I talked about my ideas for Assignment 5 with Bryn which concern tourism in the city I live in of London. Here I would basically be taking a spoof tourist role, documenting my experience in the city from the perspective of a tourist in London, with myself falling for the usual tourist traps and hotspots/landmarks that a usual tourist would but with twists in the photos used to document this act. The twists would be present in order for the viewer to be able to discern it was a spoof tourist role I was taking.

Study Hangout 19/11/2017

Today I attended a study hangout with Anne, Bryn and Michael. We talked about very in depth subjects surrounding the ethics of photography including authentication of photographs as documents, subjectivity in photography related to the myth of objectivity, the death of the author and manipulation of the message. We related these in depth subjects with photography artists; the most prominent of these artists being Sebastião Salgado, closely followed by Don McCullin and then Martin Parr. Michael introduced us to the work of Simon Norfolk briefly who I aim to look at more closely as his work at first glance looked very interesting. I was not sure why our conversation was so theoretical but it may have been something to do with 75% of us having commenced work on the critical review or having just submitted it!

Balloon Vendor in Kabul - 2001 - From the Series: "Forensic Traces of War" © Simon Norfolk
Balloon Vendor in Kabul – 2001 – From the Series: “Forensic Traces of War” © Simon Norfolk

My opinions on the listed subjects were that it is very difficult to authenticate documents like photographs 100% as the viewer can usually interpret the evidence of photography being an indexical medium differently. This is even if supporting documents like text or (to a lesser degree) geotagging are included. I felt objectivity is a myth yet it is still possible to shoot in an objective style. Ultimately all photography is subjective (as even objective photography has its own aesthetic) but I would suggest some photography is more subjective than others. Relating to the death of the author, my stance was that this is true nowadays much more with the proliferation of images and ways of sharing them. Now it is not about who took the photograph but what the photograph depicts. The message of any photograph can be manipulated by means of supporting documents and other context like the photographer’s oeuvre.

We talked about the contrast in transparency of message between Salgado and McCullin where McCullin was very decisive in why he took photographs of war while Salgado’s reasoning seems more layered and less clear. We touched upon how my own critical review was going and I divulged that maybe the topic I’d chosen was proving to be too broad and therefore lacking direction. Finding relevant quotes and supporting work or photographs to back up my particular argument seemed like a way of tackling this.

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].

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.