Informing Contexts; Reflections on Week 4 ‘Into the Image World’; 17th February to 23rd February, 2018

This week I’m going to describe my motives and where I feel I’m currently going.

The fundamental intent of my work, has it was from the start, is to improve the way I approach my photography, increase my understanding of what is good photography and most importantly change my mindset, the attitude by which I approach my photography. The MA award, if gained, is to a large extent a bonus. My focus was initially on relatively ‘pure’ portrait photography, but on the advice of my tutor in the last module I changed this to one with a more documentary theme based on environmental portraiture. This has proven to be both challenging and rewarding and has made me consider making my photography a full-time occupation post the MA course.

This past week, or to be more specific the workshop that I participated in (Falmouth University), has been very has been formative in terms of strategy. As part of the workshop we were offered the opportunity to have our current work reviewed by a number of different reviewers, some staff, some tutors and some external participants. I was able to get 1-1 slots with six reviewers, and a group portfolio review with my Course and current Module Leaders.

I will say more in detail about the advice I was given in a separate blog, but the result was that whilst I was reassured that a number of my images were reasonable, though by no means exceptional, there was a lot of room for improvement. The nature of my project wasn’t particularly queried, indeed, thought to be a good topic in that the people I were addressing were thought generally unavailable.

A significant change to my project did however results from the comments of three of the reviewers, all very experienced. They advised that I should consider creating a more detailed and thought through portrait composition by using a tripod and a medium or large format camera. Possibly with a specific background that would be common to all my subjects. At the same time I would still take more environmental images of my subjects in their workplace. One purpose of this would be to slow me down.

The choice of film camera is up to me and has not yet decided. One reviewer did suggest using a 4” x 5” plate camera using collidion gel plates. This I have already decided against, too big a jump at this stage in a course (I’m still struggling to get to terms with time-wise). I am however intrigued at the suggestion so it’s not ruled out as a longer-term option. My background as a qualified member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and ex-lab technician might also make that more doable than in might otherwise be. So it’s likely to be a second-hand 6cm x 6cm or 6cm x 7cm 120 film camera.

In terms of hare my current strategies working I’d have to say mixed. As I’ve described in the last three months my project strategy has made two major changes. The second has yet to translate to tactics, the former I would say has been reasonably successful. Whilst it’s not proving that easy to get collaborators, the seven photoshoots that have been conducted to date went reasonably well.

In regard to my general strategy of using the MA tuition to improve my photography is proving sound. Whilst my appreciation of my own photography has taken a resounding knock, largely on having a much greater exposure to the work of much more creative and experienced photographers, it has improved my understanding of what makes an interesting image. The assimilation process of translating this understanding unto my current practice if however only just beginning I may I suspect take some time.

So whilst at the moment I’m feeling on the whole pretty negative about my own photography, I’m sure that as the course proceeds and I incorporate more of my project approach into my general photography this will change.

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We’ve  been asked to comment on the statement: ‘is photographic ambiguity an intent in it’s own right? Well, yes, I feel it is. Whilst there is always a possibility that the narrative or nature of the sets of images that you put forward my be understood a different way by others, there are certainly many images that have been captured or created specifically to be ambiguous. I often wonder, particularly when looking at more abstract or less defined work, whether what I am seeing is what others see. Barthes described the ‘punctum’ as the feature that distinguishes the more interesting images but does I think not expect everyone to see the same ‘punctum’.  The signs and symbols may be shared, but they may well be not.

The created or captured ambiguous image is almost the very opposite of those described by Elkins in “How to use your eyes’. Instead of simply providing form that the viewer can ‘see’ in a very detailed and definitive way, the viewer is being lift much to their own devices in deciding what is the nature and message contained within this image.

Whether adverts themselves are ambiguous I’m not sure. They certainly have often have hidden meanings and prompts, but is this really ambiguity or just more than one thread communicating the same message through multiple rationales. A message might be hidden, but is it truly ambiguous if in the end there is only one meaning, ‘Buy My Product’? So while exposing the existence of loneliness was an hidden theme in the 2015 John Lewis Christmas Campaign, it did in consequence enhance the view of John Lewis as a charitable-minded organisation. i.e. that it would be good shop for charitable folk to buy from. Not very different perhaps to the ubiquitous use of sports sponsored branding on the participants clothing and equipment.

Williamson made the point that “Advertisements must take into account not only the inherent qualities and attributes of the products they are trying to sell, but also the way they can make these properties mean something to us.” <authors italics>. So perhaps they are ambiguous, but only in that there is more than one message, not that there is more than one meaning. Similarly Barthes talks about the different degrees to which narrative is coded, classifications and other societal or cultural meanings intrude. Though as Barthes points out, the words used in theatre or film may lead to multiple potential meanings, particularly in languages less defined than French or German (such as English or phonetic Japanese). Thus narrative can easily have degrees of ambiguity. Photographic imagery narrative is no different and less constrained by linguistical rules and common understandings, though maybe more effort is needed. To paraphrase Barthes “it ceaselessly substitutes meaning for the straightforward copy of the events recounted.”

I finish with the comment made by Stephen Shore on a Nicholas Nixon image; “In bringing order to the situation a photographer solves a picture, more than composes one”.

‘Friendly, West Virginia 1982’ by Nicholas Nixon

‘Friendly, West Virginia 1982’ by Nicholas Nixon

Sometimes the photographer is catching meaning in an otherwise ambiguous situation.

 

REFERENCES

Williamson, J .”Decoding Advertisements – Ideology and meaning in Advertising” (2002) New York, Marion Boyars,

Barthes, R .“Camera Lucida”(1980) translated by Richard Howard(1981) London, Vintage Books – Random House (Penguin)

Elkins, J. “How to use your eyes” (2000) New York, Routledge,

McCabe, M “John Lewis extends Age UK partnership with behind-the-scenes ad” (2015) Campaign’s on-line magazine 20th November, 2015 (accessed 2nd April, 2018; https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/john-lewis-extends-age-uk-partnership-behind-the-scenes-ad/1373626#8xBCeC75Pl1Qki4T.99

Barthes, R. “Image Music Text”(1977) translated by Stephen Heath(1977), London, Fontana Press (Harper Collins Publishers)

Shore, S “The Nature of Photographs” (2007) London, Phaidon Press