My Practice – A Critical View

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As I noted in my Oral Presentation, I have worked with many different genres of photography – travel, street, events and documentary. If there is any kind of theme which cuts across this work, in the best of my images it is about capturing some kind of story about the people encountered.

I had no formal education as a photographer, though I did as a painter. From early photography days, I read all I could, and probably the earliest real education I had was from the Time Life  series.

I am a technically competent photographer, across most kinds of genres, although my studio and lighting expertise needs improvement. I took an RPS ‘Licentiate’ to demonstrate that to myself – reassurance need, I guess!

My ‘eye’ is informed by an early history as a painter, as well as a lifetime of literally thousands of hours taking and looking at pictures. That said, I feel that my aesthetic is too constrained.

As I look at my work, I am conscious that I sometimes create over-engineered (and over-thought) compositions. I have worked hard in recent years in candid portraiture and street, and often shoot abstract and more, to try to loosen things up.

Yet ‘friendly critics’ still suggest I need imagery which is more ‘intimate’ – and I agree. I do not think that this is about physical proximity. I do a pretty decent job of capturing the what, the ‘It’ (as per Francis Hodgson), including the context of the image and story, the ‘About‘ at fairly close range. In fact I have worked hard to do that. Yet I do sometimes feel that the images and their compositions are too ‘square’, too controlled.

I have an interest in the idea of ‘traces’, (practiced by Sophie Ristelhueber, discussed by David Campany and others) which seems particularly appropriate to the Cambodia project. I also see inspiration in the eclectic approach of Wolfgang Tillmans to tell a more complete story by varying the type, surface and context of the work.

In this desire to ‘trace’, I am also influenced by two excellent books. Michelle Caswell‘s ‘Archiving the Unspeakable‘ (2014) clearly unpicks the meaning of those Tuol Sleng mug shots, and Susie Linfield‘s ‘The Cruel Radiance‘ (2010) argues forcefully on the need to photographically expose atrocity. Both have influenced how I see the archive and historical side of the project, in the sense that the ‘traces’ of the genocide in Cambodia are both physical and psychological.

Going way back, to my painting, it clearly evolved. From the psychedelic Sixties, with an organic approach to colour and form, onto a rather formal, geometric period –  and then into manipulated photographs as I gradually stopped painting all together. There is a ‘constructionism’ about the imagery which seems consistent, which is probably a similar mindset to the one I bring to my photography.

Ironically, despite this rather ‘logical’ approach to art and photography, I am emotionally very much drawn to the abstract and the expressionistic.

Rothko, Kandinsky and Turner have always been artistic heroes. And occasionally I shoot that way.

I had great interest in Japanese Ukiyo-e whilst I was studying painting. There is something about the powerful design and figurative clarity intrinsic in woodblock images that attracted me, and still does.

And later, Daido Moriyama and ‘Provoke’ were both a jolt and a fascination in my artistic (and political) journey. They were a natural extension of an interest in ‘all things Japanese’, and youthful rebellion – which merely accelerated when we lived in Asia.

I have been studying Moriyama more formally in recent years.

In his images, I see intimacy, emotion, spontaneity and expressionism all at work, building on yet also countering that structured, Japanese aesthetic logic. And I see stories. I have tried my own interpretations of this style, and still plan to experiment.

Moving forward, I believe that there is a rather ‘controlled’ structure in a lot of my documentary work – with attention to detail, composition and context – which works practically but which I would like to aesthetically challenge.

When we began the Cambodian project, 19 years ago, I was determined to capture what happened in words and pictures, via a dedicated website.

This included the documentary photographs that I took, a historical account of the genocide and its implications, and a data-based summary of the school program’s development (and successes/failures). In fact, it was characterised rather more as a research project than as a photographic one.

Some of the images hold up quite well today, though I can see now that many talk to the ‘It’ more than the “About’. This image is from 2000:

In many ways, that is exactly what is required, to do justice to the Cambodian story, and in particular to the people central to that story. I feel very strongly that this is their story, not mine. And whilst it needs to be presented in a way that moves my image making forward, it also must reflect their expectations.

I am now using more interesting compositional devices and contextual triggers – in this, my street photography has helped.

From the March 2018 visit:

Yet I feel I could do much more. I want my images to challenge, to demand more pondering over and thinking about. In Barthes‘ words, more ‘Punctum’.

This needs to be a challenge to me as the image-maker, and also to the viewer, as the consumer of the work.

Andy Grundberg considers that Walker Evans, with his use of signs, Hollywood glamour and more, managed to balance ‘objective’ documentary (the personal impact of the Depression) with a very Post-Modernist approach.

In essence, I am beginning to see that I want to shoot ‘Modernist’, but I want to explore the ‘Post-Modernist’, structuralist implications.

In some of the latest images, whilst ‘geometry’ remains, I can see progress towards a more ‘intimate’ and hopefully engaging aesthetic.

One thing that I want to continue, which is always in my work, is to be celebratory with colour. Despite the serious subject matter, I believe this truly reflects how Cambodia is and how its people are.

In an effort to unpack this issue, Steph Cosgrove‘s questions within this week’s lectures are helpful.

Let me pick some of what I consider the more appropriate questions, and attempt answers.

  • How and why do photographs matter to you?

For as long as I can remember, the visual world has huge attraction to me. I initially wanted to go to Art College, but was persuaded to be more mainstream – hence a degree in Maths & Philosophy (a mild protest vote) and a job in marketing. But my visual sense always needs feeding. Photographs are thus part of the way I capture and remember the world, and hugely important to how I think about it.

  • Is this due to its subject matter?

Sometimes, yes. I have always been drawn to thoughtful documentary work. But, frankly, I have always also enjoyed abstracted and conceptual imagery, forcing me to think and to ponder.

  • Is it due to its aesthetic or is it due to its context?

If I am honest, I suspect the aesthetic qualities of an image are where I invariably start. The composition, use of colour, use of materials etc. If that captures my attention, then I dig deeper on the story, the context.

  • Does this mean any critical and / or plausible accounts from both the image maker and perhaps the more elite critical community who might provide it with credence?

I am always interested in what the image maker has to say. However, it would be last resort to seek out ‘elite’ commentary when first viewing an image. I would normally only do this if my initial understanding of the image and its context, and what the image maker has to say, somehow felt unsatisfying.

That said, I invariably read about the photographers that I have seen, and what critics say. There is just a  sequence..

  • What matters to you?

It could be the story, or it could be the aesthetic when I am viewing images. I try to approach  viewing with an open mind as far as I can. The Zen parable of ‘Beginner’s Mind‘ has always been dear to my heart.

In my own work, I tend to seek the story, first, then ponder the aesthetic.

  • More importantly, how can you avoid triviality in a world dominated by images competing for our attention today?

I am not sure that any of us can, other than try hard. In my viewing of Instagram streams and the like, as most people do, I try to filter the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’. When I am looking at online streams, I also have some expectations of the image maker, giving a contextual and historical lens to look through.

I also have a fairly well developed (if eccentric) bullshit filter which has been developed over the decades.

  • What strategies do you implement to produce and disseminate meaning?

In my own work, I pay great attention to technical detail and composition, and then consider whether the ‘about’, the story comes through. Usually I accompany the image with a little text to prompt the imagination of viewers.

I also try to be consistent in the kind of images I am exhibiting, to develop an aesthetic and a style. That doesn’t always work though!

My personal branding across all platforms is usually very consistent – be it business, academic or photographic. I hope that people get what they see.

  • How do you balance the emotion and the cognitive when you look at images which surround us every day?

As noted above, I think my first response to imagery is largely emotional (and aesthetic). This could be a very rapid response. But only then do the logical, analytical brain cells kick in.

  • And what methods do you use to develop your practice over time?

I have been pursuing several different avenues of education (face to face and online masterclasses, local PhotoBath collective, this MA). I enjoy spending time shooting with fellow photographers, and do that as much as I can in different parts of the world. Of course, visiting as many exhibitions as I can, and collecting PhotoBooks also figures.

I set myself mini-projects –  aesthetic, contextual and technical (e.g. shoot Provoke-style today, capture street signs, take candid street portraits, push the lens/bokeh as far as I can). I take photographs every day, and I post images online most days. The iPhone is a wonderful device.

Locally, I have built a small but promising reputation as an events photographer.

Given I am also a data geek, I will admit to keeping track of my image response profile on Facebook and Instagram (past 2+ years). So, I know what people like, and what gets ignored. I rarely ‘shoot for the audience’, but I do have an idea, now, of what to expect.

In summary, whilst I see the Final Major Project as a very serious and (frankly labour and resource intensive) documentary effort, I also want to raise the bar on my aesthetic, and balance the ‘modern’/’post modern’. 

I can see some ways forward but not all is yet clear. I hope that this MA, the tutors and my peers can help spur me in this quest.

…………………………

Barthes, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

Bate, David. 2016. Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Bleiker, Roland (Ed.). 2018. Visual Global Politics: Interventions. Oxford/New York: Routledge.

Campany, David. 2012. Art and Photography (Theme & Movements). London: Phaidon.

Caswell, Michelle. 2014. Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Madison: University Wisconsin.

Grundberg, Andy. 2010. Crisis of the Real: Writings in Photography. New York: Aperture.

Hodgson, Francis. 2012. Quality Matters. Photoboekenmarathon, Huis Marseille, Amesterdam. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc. (accessed 9/4/2018).

Holborn, Mark (Ed.) & Moriyama, Daido. 2017. Daido Moriyama: Record. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Linfield, Susie. 2010. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meiselas, Susan. 1997. Kurdistan: In the shadow of history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ristelhueber, Sophie & Mayer, Marc & Ladd, Jeffrey. 2009. Sophie Ristelhueber: Fait (Books on Books). New York: Errata.

Tillmans, Wolfgang. 2017. Wolfgang Tillmans 2017. London: Tate Enterprises.