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.
What kinds of subjects might be seen as un-photographable? Following is a list that I developed over some time.
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.
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:
- Karen Knorr – Gentlemen & Belgravia
- Sophie Calle – Take Care of Yourself
- Sophy Rickett – Objects in the Field
- Bryony Campbell – The Dad Project
- Duane Michals (multiple series)
- Kaylyn Deveney – The Day-to-Day Life of Alfred Hastings
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.
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.
Following are my contact sheets for this assignment with an indication of my selects.
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.
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).
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)