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.

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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.

Thomas Ruff at the Whitechapel Gallery (Photographs 1979-2017)

The main impression I came away with from visiting the Whitechapel Gallery on the 2nd November 2017 to see the Thomas Ruff exhibition was that Ruff took a very playful approach to his exploration of the processes, genres and aesthetics of photography. This playful approach was tinged with a more serious undertone as he addressed issues like photographic technique and how this changes with technological advances.

Thomas Ruff's 'Portraits' - 1986-1991 'Dwarfing' an Exhibition Goer at the Whitechapel Gallery
Thomas Ruff’s ‘Portraits’ – 1986-1991 ‘Dwarfing’ an Exhibition Goer at the Whitechapel Gallery

There were many aspects I didn’t ‘get’ regarding Ruff’s photographs but some things I had an inkling about and I have written down some of these observations here. I would start with the size of the prints: lots were enormous in scale; dwarfing people and his other, smaller prints in the exhibition. However, I didn’t feel these prints were gigantic only for effect in making the viewer say wow (although this may have been part of the reason!) The other reason (at least with Portraits 1986-1991) was to displace presumptions that a passport photo should appear small and make the viewer contemplate why this might be. For me it was because although the appearance was the same (in terms of lighting and composition) to a passport photo, the scale was the opposite of what we might expect from a passport picture. This brought up implications of seeing these people depicted as unique – because they are printed so large the viewer tries to find expression from an expressionless face.

Thomas Ruff's 'jpeg' - 2004-2008 Works When Viewed From a Large Distance Appear of 'Good' Quality
Thomas Ruff’s ‘jpeg’ – 2004-2008 Works When Viewed From a Large Distance Appear of ‘Good’ Quality
'jpeg' - 2004-2008 © Thomas Ruff When Viewed From Up Close Reveals Itself as Very Pixellated
‘jpeg’ – 2004-2008 © Thomas Ruff When Viewed From Up Close Reveals Itself as Very Pixellated

A similar study of scale could be seen with his series jpeg 2004-2008. Here from afar the enormous prints appear sound to the eye, showing the destruction of New York’s twin towers. However, as you get closer the image begins to break up and become pixellated as it becomes clear they are of very low quality, taken on mobile phones using jpeg. I inferred meaning from this in that although the event is of such high importance the quality used to record it can often be of low integrity and yet it is usable; the images are still circulated and viewed on such large scale.

A Selection of Thomas Ruff's 'Nights' - 1992 - 1996
A Selection of Thomas Ruff’s ‘Nights’ – 1992 – 1996

Another, constant theme throughout Ruff’s work is experimentation; constantly pushing the boundaries by exploring the limits of photography. From documentary style night shots using a special surveillance camera making the ordinary seem otherworldly, to the digital photogram, Ruff changes his approach and techniques according to technology, often with hauntingly beautiful results in my opinion. His experimentation did inspire me to try out different techniques myself and his postmodern appropriation of existing imagery was intriguing.

An Example of Thomas Ruff's 'photograms' - 2012 - 2015
An Example of Thomas Ruff’s ‘photograms’ – 2012 – 2015

One such series of works in particular really caught my eye. press++ 2016- were (again) giant prints, appropriated from the archives of news agencies. I did wonder how the writing and stamps had appeared on the images themselves as it appeared quite natural. I found out that Ruff ingeniously overlaid the backs of the photographs containing all the context and information about the photograph onto the front of the photograph. This was quite unique because the context appeared in the same place as the content. I discovered the result to be an interesting combination of text and image that worked well.

A Selection of Thomas Ruff's 'press++' - 2016-
A Selection of Thomas Ruff’s ‘press++’ – 2016-

Overall I was glad I went to this exhibition as it made me think a lot about image size when presenting work, experimenting process and techniques with my own work and brought up some novel ideas concerning the photograph as an object.

References:

Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979-2017 [Exhibition] 27th Sep – 21 Jan 2018. Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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.

Droste Self-Portraits

One day a while back I happened to buy a black and white photography magazine on a whim. The magazine was the July 2016 volume of Black + White Photography and in it there was an article called: A Modern Eye on some of the work of Dora Maurer. The work on show immediately caught my eye and I have come back to it a few times because it really captured my imagination. Seven Twists I-VI (1979) grasped my attention for the reason that initially it was quite striking to look at because of the optical illusion.

Seven Twists I-VI (1979) - Dora Maurer
Seven Twists I-VI (1979) – Dora Maurer

Afterwards I began to appreciate the organic qualities the photographs possessed. By this I meant there were subtle imperfections to the photographs-in-photographs which rendered the illusion as authentic and natural. As well as this these subtle imperfections also had a romantic appeal to them in my opinion – if everything had been lined up absolutely accurately the photographs would have appeared flat and utilitarian.

The illusion itself was a variation on the Droste effect but one that twisted as the photos were taken, printed and then photographed again inside a new self-portrait. I particularly liked the ‘blank canvas’ or photograph as the starting base for the work. I could imagine it would be possible to start using a self-portrait as the initial photograph instead but this approach for me suggested that the work was quite spontaneous and perhaps the illusion wouldn’t have been as strong without the blank photograph.

I decided I would try to incorporate this touch (the blank canvas starting point) which eliminating other touches (like the twisting effect) in my own Droste self-portrait. Because I appreciated the subtle imperfections of Maurer’s work, I wanted to make this a feature of my work. I did this by the inclusion of the remote cord from my hand to the camera as well as alternating the hand holding the canvas in each picture. This kind of attention to detail I was learning could make or break a photograph. Unlike Maurer, I tried to pay close attention to how the photographs-in-photographs ‘lined up’ – both inside each other and with the photographic frame. Like Maurer, I chose the black and white medium to make the illusion stronger and to remove a sense of time to disorient the viewer (as the sense of time was now only from each iteration of the photograph). Lastly I elected to create the Droste effect for the photo-in-photo 3 times as then the illusion was quite apparent but didn’t overwhelm the self-portrait.

Droste Self-portrait (Cropped)
Droste Self-portrait (Cropped)

Although I wouldn’t strictly put this photograph or set of photographs in the genre of documentary it still included documentary elements, which is why I’ve included it as a post for my documentary course. Documentary elements could include the changing of my appearance from photograph to photograph-in-photograph. It could also raise documentary questions from photograph to photograph-in-photograph like permanence (or impermanence) of the photographic medium and what is true and untrue about this photograph or set of photographs? For example some parts are seemingly consistent from photograph to photograph-in-photograph but at the same time the photographs appear within each other. Also details like the hands alternating from side to side as the photographs become photographs in photographs. Therefore perhaps it proves that photographs are indexical to reality but at the same time can’t always be relied on as documents.

Droste Self-portrait (Uncropped)
Droste Self-portrait (Uncropped)

Incidentally I felt my self-portrait worked slightly better cropped in but I have included both the cropped and uncropped versions. The reason I felt it worked slightly better cropped in was that the viewer was able to concentrate on the illusion more and could be less distracted by other parts of the image. Also the alternating hands were more obvious in this version.

References:

Maurer, D. (1979) Seven Twists I-VI. In. A Modern Eye. (2016). Black + White Photography, (191), pp.40-43.

Imaginary Documents

Wandering around Deptford for my upcoming Assignment 3, I realised I wasn’t going to have a story suddenly jump out at me from the blue; I had to make the story arise. This was due to the apparent bleakness of much of Deptford apart from the high street. It was what my eyes showed me and was obvious too in the snapshots I was producing. This bleak appearance was however, a blessing in disguise as it made me start actively thinking for the first time what stories I could begin to put together and therefore what imaginary set of documents I could construe.

At first I was a bit tentative about creating an at least partly fictional story as most of what I had learnt about documentary photography so far seemed to veer towards the factual. I decided actually, after all, a lot of documentary is constructed on the most basic level of selection and framing anyway. Therefore, how much of what is selected and framed by the photographer is objective, factual documentary and how much of it is subjective?

Having said all of this, I selected a story which very much had its roots in the notion of this bleakness in Deptford which in my mind was quite factual. I thought I would contrast this with the hubbub of the market on Deptford High Street on a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday.

As I was having the realisation that most documents are on some level subjective and so pulling a story from it was acceptable, I came across some text in my course. This text effectively mirrored what I was thinking but was written more eloquently. Here Jose Navarro, the course author, wrote:

Traditional thinking documentary photography supports the idea that the photographic document is evidence of something that happened out there, something that occurred without being choreographed or prompted by the photographer. Which is precisely what Mohamed Bourouissa doesn’t do. – Navarro (2012)

'la main' - périphérique - Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)
‘la main’ – périphérique – Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)

Bourouissa’s work intrigued me because it featured a style where a story was ‘pulled’ from reality but was done in such a way that it was difficult to tell whether the scenes had been staged. The work I looked at was: périphérique (2005-2009) and in particular la main (the hand) and la rencontre (the encounter); a couple of a series of edgy, unrestful images where the viewer was unsure of the authenticity of the scenes. I looked at these for a while and I’m still not sure whether they were staged or not. This was because it was hard to imagine the photographs being taken without being staged but the actor’s faces were so convincing and the snapshot framing was so dysfunctional that the scenes were believable.

I envisaged a landscape/documentary approach for photographing Deptford, which would mainly rely on found scenes. This would function quite differently as the scenes wouldn’t be staged but as a set I would be creating a narrative within which these found scenes fit in.

'la rencontre' - périphérique - Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)
‘la rencontre’ – périphérique – Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)

One other realisation about tendencies for my own documentary practice was that I invariably seemed to want to try to create single-image narratives. Whether this was down to Assignment 2 – Documentary where I was asked to try to produce single-image narratives I was not sure. Either way I realised I was attempting to complete the assignments in single shots rather than thinking about how multiple photographs could relate to one another.

One possible solution I could foresee would be to focus on creating numerous images which, while quite possibly not depicting single-image narratives, when edited down and then put together produce a more telling narrative than singularly. Bourouissa’s series: périphérique (2005-2009) certainly worked as single-image narratives and together as a series, proving that both approaches could exist in tandem. However, I wanted to concentrate on looking at how multiple photographs could relate to one another in a series.

References:

Bourouissa, M. (2005-2009). périphérique [online] mohamedbourouissa.com Available at: http://www.mohamedbourouissa.com/peripherique/ [Accessed 17 Aug. 2017]

Navarro, J. (2012). OCA Documentary Course.