Category Archives: Assignments

Assignment 2: tutor feedback & reflection

My tutor’s feedback on assignment 2 can be found here.

My assignment dealt with the feelings associated with a creative block and to this point, my tutor offered the following advice:

“My experience when faced with uncertainty in photography and underpinning ideas is that we tend to get around these problems proactively by engaging in the decision making process by stepping forward with creative processes. Engaging with the world of image making as a series of iterative stages is far more productive than trying to design images solely from our imagination.”

I think this is an important point: about just doing something creative and expecting nothing in particular, but relying on getting there iteratively. Perhaps there’s also a lesson about the subconscious making itself known through the creative process, but it’s important to give it a chance – otherwise I get stuck.

There are some specific points in the feedback which I need to internalise:

  • Avoid use of obvious symbols and consider how ambiguity might be more interesting – some of my images leave little to the imagination
  • Think about use of text (or not) and making a reasoned choice
  • Think about use of narrative as well as symbols. I have to admit that in my desparation to get something done, I completely forgot about the narrative aspect. I will try to incorporate this into assignment 3

For my next assignment, my tutor suggests the following:

  • Allow time to explore a range of alternative solutions within your chosen [area?] and analyse these to deduce the most profitable outcome
  • Keep one eye on your research which can inform your own creative practice
  • Look to use processes where you might not always be in full control over the outcomes
  • Consider alternative forms for your images alongside the images shat you show on your blog

I believe that I demonstrated a number of these points more in EYV than in the current subject especially the use of research and using processes such as movement where I am not always in full control of the outcomes.

In my planning mindmap for assignment 3, I have incorporated some of these points so that (hopefully) I don’t forget about them.

 

 

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Reflection on Assignment 2

Today I finally submitted assignment 2. What a relief. I’ve also been reflecting a lot on what I’ve learned from the assignment in terms of overcoming blocks, generating ideas and not getting stuck – an ever-present trap for me. Image 028 resonates most strongly with me about barriers being in the mind and if I could just metaphorically step back, I’d see the barrier for what it is and be able to move on. Easier said than done, I think, but the idea stays with me.

Another reflection point is about about looking and seeing. When I knew what I was looking for, potential subjects were everywhere. It’s about having a strong idea and focusing on it – not to the exclusion of all else, of course, but as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do (Lewis Carroll, I think).

Assignment 2: photographer’s block

Brief

In this assignment we are offered the choice between two alternatives: “photographing the unseen” or “using props”. I chose the first as I believed it offered more opportunities to stretch myself. Following is the brief for “photographing the unseen”.

Start by doing some reflecting in your learning log. What kinds of subjects might be seen as un-photographable? How might you go about portraying them using photography? List a few examples of things you’re experiencing now or have recently been thinking about. This doesn’t have to be too in-depth or revealing, but it can be if you want. Equally, it might be something as apparently trivial as how you’re going to fit everything into your busy day. At first you may come up with literal examples, but the more you think about them the more those ideas will develop into specific and more original ones.

Make a list of at least seven ideas. Try and keep to things you have a personal interest in or curiosity about. Keep a notebook with you at all times and make notes when ideas strike you as interesting. (This is good practice for all stages of the degree and beyond. Ideas books are something to be revisited time and again for ideas and hints for the photographer you’re becoming.)

Now implement one of your ideas. Aim for a tightly edited and visually consistent series of 7–10 images.

Reflection

What kinds of subjects might be seen as un-photographable? Following is a list that I developed over some time.

The Unseen – Examples

Stuart Hall in his essay Encoding/Decoding (quoted in Wells 2015), discusses how images are first “encoded” by producers and then “decoded” by viewers. Wells go onto say that “the transfer of meaning in this process only works if there are compatible systems of signs and symbols which the encoder and decoder use within their cultural life. Our background – i.e. our gender, class, ethnic origin, sexuality, religion, etc. – all affect our interpretation of signs and symbols.”

Hall (2014) when discussing symbols, also points out that in certain cases the meaning is related to the nature of the object. He cites examples such as a set of scales could mean justice, a rose could mean beauty. He also points out that “there are some symbols where the relationship between the symbol and its meaning is less obvious”. He provides examples such as a sword implying truth and a lily purity. These symbols have a culturally specific meaning.

Given this research as background, it was important for me to select symbols which have the widest possible application. This point of course connects back to the external context of the images: if they are displayed in my learning blog, then potentially anyone in the world can see them. I have to ask myself how will they perceive these symbols? Certainly not in all cases the same way that I do.

Research

My starting point for research was the obvious one: to see who had done work on the topic of photographing the unseen.  This research yielded a number of names:

  • Lydia McCarthy – On her website, McCarthy provides the following background: “Through darkness and light, the camera reveals worlds unseen. It has the capacity to transverse sacred realms and illuminate the wavering, insubstantial nature of reality. Never inactive, never a witness: it invokes.”
  • Edward Thompson – via infrared photography, Thompson reveals a quite different view of the world than what we normally see with a strong sense of unreality and even unease.
  • Peter Dazeley – the description on the BBC site states that “Peter Dazeley’s book Unseen London shows the insides of popular tourist attractions such as Big Ben, as well as once glorious buildings like the Battersea Power Station.”
  • David Maisel – Maisel’s series History’s Shadow was developed during his residency at the Getty Research institute where he was drawn to the museum’s x-ray archive. Every object in the institute’s collection is x-rayed on acquisition, so the archive forms a “system of record normally hidden from public view”.

All these photographers have a different “take” on the concept of the unseen. From the fairly literal approach of Dazeley (things which we don’t have access to) to the more scientific approach of Maisel and Thompson (things which we can’t perceive because of the limitations of human vision). Finally we are left with the work of McCarthy which deals with another type of “unseen” – that of the internal view of thoughts, feelings, emotions or as McCarthy puts it “travel into the deepest recesses of my consciousness and discover what lies within”.

In addition, I looked into the photographers mentioned in Part 2 who make use of text with their images:

I had the good fortune to see Knorr’s Gentlemen at Paris Photo 2016 (see blog post here). I saw first-hand how the beautifully presented print and text worked together.

Concept Development & Process

While developing the list of potential unseen topics, a number seemed interesting, and I spent some time thinking about them. I had lots of ideas, but none of them enthused me. Perhaps I threw my net too widely, but I ended up completely stuck. This lasted for months. At some point, it occurred to me that I had “photographer’s block”. I don’t know if that’s a common phrase, but I suspect everyone who reads this article would be familiar with it.  I started to play with this idea, but over time it become more clear that it worked quite well as an example of the unseen – specifically, the feelings associated with photographer’s block.

Following is the mindmap that I built up over some weeks.

Concept Development

My starting point was to think about the feelings I was experiencing – the feelings of being frustrated and going in circles. That was easy because they were fresh and vivid. Once I had a list of feelings of reasonable length, I then started to think about how I would represent those feelings. What symbols would reflect how I felt doing this assignment? Lastly, I thought about technique. I came up with three ideas which I believe relate to this idea of being stuck:

  • Black and white: it’s not so much the choice of B&W which is important, rather, it is not choosing colour. Colour has a certain energy and presence – a feeling of life – which I felt was not appropriate for the subject. I choose B&W therefore, as the opposite, in order to convey a drabness, or monotony of feeling. I could have taken a half-way point: desaturated colour, but this was not appealing because I felt the message would be confused. One additional technical point was to make the final images relatively dark by underexposing and adjusting as needed in post-production. I felt this better reflected my mood.
  • Square format: suggests stability, but can also suggest rigidity and being enclosed in a tight box – being stuck, in short.
  • Vignette: suggests (at extreme) tunnel vision, focusing only on one thing (the centre) to the exclusion of all else. Again, an allusion to being enclosed in a small space. The vignette shouldn’t be extreme – it should only just be “there” as a suggestion but no more.

This is the first time that I’ve actively thought in advance about how the techniques employed would support the narrative. It is a learning point for me that taking this order (leaving technique to last) ensures that technique supports the goals rather than the other way around.

Selects & Selection Process

Following are my selects for this assignment.

My selection process consisted of removing duplicated themes and to narrow down to one example of each. I looked therefore for variety, but also looked for images consistent with the feelings of being blocked, therefore barriers or symbols of indecisiveness feature strongly. There was very little post-production work as the square format and B&W production was done in-camera.

The final image (028) triggered some further thoughts for me about the process I went through personally. There’s an obvious barrier on a road. But looking further, we can see that there’s a sign on the road surface indicating that it’s a cycle path implying that certain people can pass through, but not everyone. In addition, it’s easy enough to walk around the barrier suggesting that the barrier is internal and with a little imagination, it’s a simple matter to bypass. Finally, the path is an a large, open area suggesting that choosing a narrow road while ignoring everything around is somehow limiting.

Contact Sheets

Following are my contact sheets for this assignment with an indication of my selects.

Assessment Criteria

1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills

The techniques employed were straightforward. The hard part was coming up with the initial idea and exploring the idea through the feelings evoked. The visual awareness I had to employ was about being observant in my local area. Once I started looking for things which reflected my feelings, I became surprised at how many examples I could find just within a few km of my home. Composition was intentionally fairly “dead pan” with subject front and centre. Making it more complex and even perhaps verging on beautiful would have completely missed the point.

2. Quality of outcome

I believe that the outcome reflects the brief very well – of illustrating the unseen – the unseen in this case being about the feelings associated with photographer’s block. I have chosen a consistent and coherent presentation, selecting symbols which I felt most strongly supported the feelings of being blocked and constrained.

3. Demonstration of creativity

I believe that I managed to turn adversity to my advantage in this assignment. After spending far too much time looking for enthusiasm, I chanced upon an idea which I could develop to answer the brief. In doing this, I actually surprised myself because I had felt that I had lost whatever inspiration and creativity that I had. At the completion of this assignment, I feel more positive and that I am starting to develop my personal approach.

4. Context

This assignment was all about reflection and using some research, principally of the photographers mentioned in the course text plus those I found on my own and with context provided by Short (2011), Wells (2015) and lastly by Hall (2014).

References

Hall, Sean (2014), This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. (2nd ed) London: Laurence King Publishing

Short, Maria (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 23 Sep 2015)

 

Assignment 1: reflection

My tutor’s feedback for assignment 1 can be found here.

Reflection

This assignment was an unusually tough one – I hope the rest of C&N won’t be the same. It took me a long time to come up with an idea that I could live with and I thought that I’d understood the brief of the assignment, but from the feedback of my tutor, plainly I’d missed the point.

The lessons I learned is that I need to carefully read the brief and stick to it more rigidly than I’d become used to in EYV where my tutor encouraged me to use the assignment as a starting point, and not be afraid to take risks and explore new areas. I have to hold back the creativity a bit, I think, which might make that part of the assessment more challenging to meet. I can accept though, that it’s possible to be creative while still meeting the brief. A bit disappointing, but on to Part 2 – let’s see what that brings.

Assignment 1: Two sides of the story

Brief

Create at least two sets of photographs telling different versions of the same story. The aim of the assignment is to help you explore the convincing nature of documentary, even though what the viewer thinks they see may not in fact be true. Try to make both sets equally convincing so that it’s impossible to tell which version of the images is ‘true’.

It might be interesting to consider the project as evidence for a court case. What conflicting stories can you make your images convincingly tell? Would it stand up in court?

Choose a theme and aim for 5–7 images for each set, depending on your idea. Discuss this with your tutor.

Concept Development & Research

After coming up with and abandoning a couple of ideas, I decided to more-or-less take the suggestion in the assignment text and use self-portraits to show multiple sides of a story. This approach allowed me to explore questions of identity and how we use symbols to tell a story about ourselves.

My research started with Cindy Sherman, who is well-known for taking a strongly narrative approach and using herself as a model. Her chameleon-like ability to take on different personas   leaves the viewer in doubt about whether we see anything of the true Cindy Sherman or is it all make-believe. Badger (2014:165) points out that while photos such as the example below appear to be self-portraits, in fact they are not – it is simply that Sherman was her own model and role playing was the point of the work.

Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #14. 1978

Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #14. 1978

In searching for other photographers who are known for self-portraits (or at least, for using themselves as models), the names of Vivian Maier (admittedly, only a small part of her work was self-portraiture), Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and of course, Francesca Woodman came up (see my EYV blog item on Woodman here) and of course, the famous series done by/of Martin Parr.

Approach

Irving Penn, "Pompier" (Fireman), Paris, 1950 © by Les Editions Condé Nast S.A.

Irving Penn, “Pompier” (Fireman), Paris, 1950 © by Les Editions Condé Nast S.A.

The approach was kept very simple in order minimise distractions.  The simple, clean approach of Irving Penn with his Small Trades series was very much in my mind at the time.

I setup a black background and placed a small stool about 2 meters from the background to avoid too much detail of the background showing in the final images. I used natural light reflected down a light well. The camera was placed on a tripod, focused on a tripod temporarily placed over the stool and controlled by a remote unit. Very little post-processing was required: an adjustment to the white balance as the originals were a little too warm and a slight crop to 5:4 format to reduce the distracting expanse of black background given by the 3:2 format sensor.

The assignment was effectively about setting up multiple narratives where each is equally convincing, but which may or may not be true. For the narrative to be consistent and clear,  I used two approaches: props and text. While the props themselves may have been sufficient, I felt that the use of titles helps to drive the message home.

Selects & Selection Process

The selection process consisted of discarding the obvious duds and selecting the images which showed the symbols (skis etc.) most clearly. Clarity of message was my primary goal in this case, so the selection process was relatively quick.

Contact Sheets

Assessment Criteria

1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills

Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills

Self-portraits are a pain, no doubt about it! Focusing, depth of field, movement – everything works against getting a straightforward, sharp image. After experimenting with flash and not liking the harsh results, I opted for natural light. Having a programmable shutter release meant that I could set a delay before taking a series of shots with slight differences in poses. Even so, as the contact sheets show, there were a lot of failures.

2. Quality of outcome

Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.

I used this assignment as an experiment in showing different sides of a subject. At first glance, the photos might show my work, hobbies and interests. But how do you know what is true and what isn’t? Just because I wear motorcycle helmet, does that mean that is the “true” me? How can you tell? Ultimately you can choose to believe or not as you wish, which is the nature of documentary.

3. Demonstration of creativity

Imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice

From a creative point of view, I really struggled with this assignment, taking far longer than I planned. My original idea of looking at two sides of Geneva: the attractive and the ugly was initially interesting, but I couldn’t get engaged with it. It wasn’t until the idea of self-portraits came to my head, which I then realised linked back to the suggestions given in the brief that things started to click. Creatively, I think the work is “ok”, but no more than that. I think I could go further, but perhaps would end up too much down the path of Cindy Sherman.

4. Context

Reflection, research, critical thinking

Of the people I researched, all except Vivian Maier show different sides of themselves whether real or imagined. We could say that this approach is somehow the opposite of conventional documentary, but in a way, it also tells us about the photographers – at least about their interest in and ability to take on other personas.

As background to this assignment, I looked into the sections on narrative and semiotics in Short (2011) and also in Hall (2014). I understood from these two sources that the props were indexical signifiers – that is, they are “physically or causally linked to the signified” (Short 2011:123). The titles could be seen as symbols since they represent the concept that I was trying to communicate. In this case, I recognise that there is no subtlety about my approach, however given that the outcome is meant to documentary in some sense, then the approach is justified.

References

Badger, Gerry (2014) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited

Hall, Sean (2014), This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. (2nd ed) London: Laurence King Publishing

Short, Maria (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA