Category Archives: Assignments

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Assignment 2: Collecting

Introduction and Contextualisation of Assignment 2, Collecting

For this assignment I chose to explore things. I began by photographing the small objects I have around the house that make sound and music or which represent music or sound-making – bells, statuettes, a paper pianola. But it all began to resemble product photography, requiring as a result a consistent light source, background, display surface and so on. I really wanted to work more spontaneously on this assignment so with good light outside and around windows I decided to capture a series of images using two lenses, moving quite rapidly and intuitively from interior to exterior, establishing a flow around the home and garden. Homes, and indeed gardens, are like factories or living organisms. Stuff comes in, is processed, and some kind of waste is ejected, or lies around in various states of neglect, decay or even putrefaction. Nothing stays the same, everything is changing from one state to another. Dust gathers or gets wiped away (in vain as it happens), this thing is picked up and another put in its place, to be itself replaced by the original thing or another. Or the very place itself is reconfigured. In a world of plastic, fabrics, textiles, ornaments and transient products with their packaging, the home is alive with colour, texture, shifting morphologies, presence and absence. The garden sees seasonal growth. Various patinas cover or differentiate whatever is left lying around. One ends up asking what is being represented in the imagery. Is it something stable called a home or is it the constant or even relentless change taking place at various timescales? If I return tomorrow to the same spots and take a picture, almost everything will be different. And yet, more or less the same. This I find interesting as a ‘deep’ concept behind such an apparently simple project and it also might bear fruit in future projects.

I nonetheless deliberately avoided over-thinking what to photograph because, knowing the territory intimately, I already had an idea about what qualifies as a ‘thing’ for this project and what doesn’t. I preconceived that morphological and chromatic contrasts and complementarity would be important factors and that I wanted to frame my photographs without fussing over the formalities of technically ‘correct’ framing. My aim was to (appear to) come upon these things ‘as they are’ (or were), so that all this evidence of domesticity would come to life by virtue of my sniffing it out so to speak, approaching things confidently, then making quick decisions around structuring the various representations within the frame. I was therefore open to allowing unexpected elements to enter the frame by homing in uniquely on one or two things to the exclusion of the whole frame. My structuring wasn’t negligent or casual in any way – on the contrary I took decisions to favour one or two element over others, to work carefully with focus and aperture settings in highlighting these elements and finally to ’allow’ the image to accrue meaning around these central elements (though not necessarily centrally placed within the image) as a result. I had been pleased with results in a precious exercise using the viewfinder grid so I visualised this grid as I shot. I also decided to do as little software processing as possible, for two reasons. First the jpegs from my Fuji camera are not only excellent in most respects but they have a consistent palette and second I favoured the idea of a ’quick return’ to strengthen the concept of making quick decisions in and away from ‘the field’. I’m very interested in matters of representation and I’ll write more on this in my learning log and research pages. Overall I’m taking an analytic approach, perhaps similar to Rodchenko’s idea where we don’t try to capture our subject in one synthetic portrait but rather in ‘lots of snapshots taken at different times and in different circumstances’.* 

I’ve posted below my original contact sheet and my amended sheet. The yellow bag image (original series, image 4) is certainly the weakest image in the series and to make sense it needs to resonate with the leaf in the hanging picture. I wanted to reshoot the photo but couldn’t find the bag so I removed the image from the series. I decided to reshoot the feeder stands from a different angle because I thought that original image was rather weak (amended series, image 6). Taken lying on the ground looking up at the feeders the new image has a kind of random, spontaneous, summery look that I wanted to convey. I then took a picture of a collection of things that have gathered outside my studio: flowers in a pot, glass bowls that were formerly used as musical instruments  and an old umbrella. I think that the glass in the new image (amended series, image 8) strikes a chord with the glasses in image 2. The reds and the greens are reasonably consistent with the overall palette own the series though perhaps the whites and greys are a little out of kilter. I’d need to see the images displayed in a larger format. These two new pictures are taken with the 35mm lens (50mm equivalent) and are more generous with the framing as a result. Addressing one of the feedback points about zooming out I think that the contrast between these and the tighter shots works quite well. I’ve addressed the other feedback points in my learning log.

*Bolton, Richard. The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. MIT Press, 1999. p87.

Original Series

Amended series

Addressing the amended series and numbering the images from l to r, top to bottom I think that of all the images, number 8 is possibly out of kilter with the others. I say this because of the white wall and predominance of greys in the stones. In fact I can’t really decide on this because I’m probably too close to the work so would benefit from a second and third opinion to ascertain if I’m being over-fussy. The simple solution would be to remove it from the series. The problem is less obvious in the gallery image where the pictures are presented as a framed gallery. Although image 1 is nothing special it does serve as a meaningful introduction to the series and there’s also some value in inviting the viewer to share common ground – we all leave dishes lying around at some point. I took some care to offer interest in the texture of the table, the colour of the drink in the glass and some formal structuring in the lines of the cutlery and the contrast between lines and circles. I think images 2 and 3 come across well, mainly because of the forms and colours, muted in 2, stronger in 3. There’s also a progression towards abstraction (it’s hard to figure out image 3 at first), taken further in images 4 and 5 which offer glimpses and varying depths of field between colourful things, again with vibrant colours, especially at the red end of the spectrum. Images 6 and 7 take us into the garden. I prefer image 6 to the previous shot of the feeders. It open up the space and brings in a breath of fresh air to the series. Image 6 picks up the garden green of image 5. The yellow/green bowl seems to connect the palette of the interior with the blue/greens of the garden. Number 7 strikes a chord with number 6 in the colouring of the bowl on the ground and literally takes us back down to earth. I can see that this might be seen to flow nicely into number 8 and I’ve already mentioned my indecision here. I think that image 9 ends the series strongly. The dappled light is pleasing as is the contrast between the centrally placed red and the surrounding greens. Overall I’d say that the series hangs together more through colour and light than through the presentation of forms.

Tutor Feedback

I had a very positive session with my tutor during which it was decided that I should change the title (originally Domestic Crime Scene which on reflection has very little to do with the images and perhaps doesn’t draw the viewer into the most meaningful narrative). Names are indeed important. I’ve learned that there needs to be a strong bond between what the pictures say and what a title or other accompanying text might say or allude to or connote. However any given narrative is never set in stone. A narrative can hold some measure of truth contained within a posited ‘real world’ that sits behind the images or it can be a truth (or even a pack of lies posing as the truth) imposed, fabricated, alluded to and so forth. I find it interesting to reflect on the uncertainty around what the results would have been had I thought up the title in advance of the shoot and what might have been lost or gained as a result of an inevitable stiffening up in terms of formalising the structure of the images. I changed the title to the following: ‘a fresh light on familiar things’ which conveys the idea of looking afresh at the everyday and which takes account of the good ambient light that tends to characterise the images.

It was suggested that I set out my photographs on some sort of grid or ‘hang’ them on a virtual gallery wall, which you can see below. Although there’s less detail with the smaller images the overall view of the pictures as a series more than compensates. When I get round to assembling zines or photobooks I’ll work from now on with various grids that afford an overview. At the moment I’m of the view that there’s far more skill and judgement needed to put a successful series together than to take a good, even an excellent picture. You can get lucky with a single shot but the complexity of a good series requires so much more than luck.

*Bolton, Richard. The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. MIT Press, 1999. p87. 

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My response to the Square Mile brief.

Before enrolling on the course I was aware of the Square Mile assignment so I’d been thinking about the ideas behind the task in my day-to-day activities. Alongside this I was clear that I wanted to decide fairly quickly where to place my photographic efforts, meaning that I wished as far as possible to avoid genre-hopping and random experimentation. This originates from an existing practice in experimental sound and music, where I believe in keeping things ‘tight’ with respect to making work.

Initial ideas

I begin then with some ideas on how to get started. I could perhaps start in the home photographing domestic objects and perspectives, move to the garden and then fan outwards to the countryside (I live in the Scottish Borders which, with its lush woodlands, big skies and fine rivers, is very picturesque and probably offers a lot in the way of ‘nice’ photos). But because I wanted to think some more about why and how to deal with landscape I shelved this for later. Alongside all this thinking I was researching the broad categories of contemporary art photography, looking closely at what might be called documentary styles or idioms. For example, the work of Chloe Dewe Matthews on the execution of deserters in the Great War struck me as interesting because she photographed quite ordinary places and spaces, then added resonance with a very powerful and well-researched historical context (see her photographers’s talk on the OCA website: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/video-resources/photographers-talk-chloe-dewe-matthews). Second, I looked closely at the work of the Hillers, whose work and legacy has always fascinated me, to arrive at some ideas on formalising an approach to photography, above and beyond taking pretty pictures, which still eludes me by the way: (https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/01/photographic-comportment-of-bernd-and-hilla-becher: accessed 13/05/19). Finally I studied the work of Rinko Kawauchi (and others who deal with the everyday) whose work investigates ‘the ordinary moments in life’. If I was ever to settle down photographically I’d like to fall somewhere between these three practices and to take a project-oriented attitude to photography in general.

Choosing a primary theme

That out of the way, most of my pictures for this task converge on the historical theme of witch-hunting in the Borders, focussing on locations where these poor women were ruthlessly and institutionally murdered. It’s not very cheery I admit but the idea came to me during a walk with an old friend by the junction of the river Teviot with the river Rule where I was trying to photograph an old tower on a hilltop. My friend introduced me to the hanging tree, where, it is said, the last witch in Denholm parish was brutally dispatched. It’s unlikely that this is the actual tree – I’m not sure if trees like this survive for four hundred years, but the locals still refer to it as such and believe it to be the actual spot of the hangings. To add to the misery, here we stood in ‘Dead Man’s Haugh’. I later sat down with a local historian, Chris Veitch, to pick his brains on other locations where public executions might have taken place. One such is the ‘Goose Pool’ on the river Jed near the Grammar School. In the 17th century witches were drowned here. Nowadays kids cool off in summer at the very same pool. Chris also pointed to a field on the map just out of town where witches were burned. Needless to say it lies above ‘Dead Man’s Dump’. These three locations became my first subjects. I should point out for those who aren’t perhaps aware that during the 17th century the east of Scotland, including the Borders, saw some of the worst witch-hunting ever witnessed. Historians put this down to extreme interpretations of Presbyterianism and Calvinism, though social historians point to a general malaise and insecurity brought about by constant war and shortages of food. Whatever the reasons, the contemporary commentator would look at the whole affair as an extreme case of collective misogyny.

Problems and solutions

So much for a theme, but how do you go about photographing a tree in a field? Conceptually as opposed to technically? Even though in the end the first determines the second. Again I refer you to the aforementioned work of Chloe Dewe Matthews. Perhaps you have to make the tree stand out in some way. ‘Readers’ of the picture will have to trust that it is in fact the tree to which I’m attributing all this weight of history. Do I go for a generic tree (at the risk of being rather boring), a spooky tree (hackneyed), an atmospheric tree, perhaps with early morning mist, like you’d find in a movie? Should I photograph the whole tree or a few branches to show that somebody might be hung from such a tree? Should it be in colour or black and white? And so forth. In the end I opted for the best shots that I could (Hanging Tree 1 and 2). You might notice that despite the fact the tree is still alive it hasn’t come into leaf like the others.

Hanging Tree 1
Hanging Tree 2

Two that I set aside can be seen on the contact sheet at the end of this post (images 9 and 10). Hanging Tree 1, the first taken out of three visits to the site, is probably the best of the two. But now I’m faced with the problem of orientation. One is landscape, the other portrait. I’m not sure, and I welcome advice, but I imagine a consistent narrative would benefit from everything being shot the same way.

The drowning pool was easier. Drowning Pool 1 was taken from a small bridge over the river and came out like a very pretty postcard picture. Because it ’s so pretty and inviting I decided to opt for colour in the series of tree/pool/field. Drowning Pool 2 is more of a voyeur’s perspective. Images 6 and 7 on the contact sheet show alternative views.

Drowning Pool 1
Drowning Pool 2

Although at first glance it doesn’t flow very neatly into the story, this picture of the Baptist Church is included because the church sits right next to the Drowning Pool. Excuse the fire station tower and tree sticking out at the top.

Jedburgh Baptist Church

I happen to know that this church was established by visiting American missionaries, mainly from Midwest states such as Missouri. All good people of course, but also fundamentalist in their theological beliefs, ie adhering solely to the Bible as a source of truth. This fundamentalism was deeply embedded in the minds and lives of the Presbyterian Scots who colonised parts of the American South, which of course establishes a socio-historical connection to the witch-hunters. Not to mention the fact that baptists themselves like a dip in the water as part of their cleansing rituals, which jars somewhat with the history of the pool next to the Church. This would have to be developed further to make photographic sense. Image 1 on the contact sheet shows a black and white version.

The last of three locations, the Burning Field, is indeed a field, a high field with good clean air and fine views, probably they ideal place for a public burning back in the day. But again how do you photograph a field so that it represents any old field as well as this particular field? I settled for the two images below.

Burning Field 1
Burning Field 2

The first has a sense of enclosure and some nasty looking weeds that I could have highlighted more for dramatic effect. The second is rather uninspiring, but maybe that works better. I need to look into this issue of representing ordinary places a bit more. Images 2-5 show both colour and black+white alternatives. 

Finally I had to find some contrast to lift the mood a bit so I thought about the three locations and how they carried connotations of air, water and fire. In representing the earth flowers are traditionally offered for many reasons, one being as a votive offering to the dead, to give them peace.

Votive Offering 1
Votive Offering 2

These two pictures are my votive offerings to the victims of persecution. They have their origins in a different project – I’d noticed for some time that flowers at twilight seem to give off light, as if from their own source. In fact they must do so because it happens even when there’s very little ambient light for the flowers to reflect. So I tied these images into the story. Image 8 on the contact sheet is an alternative. 

There are two other images on the contact sheet, 11 and 12, one of a friend’s back garden and workshop, the other of a toy left on a fence post. For me these are familiar sights, the first typical of the relaxed semi-rural environment in which I live, the second because my own children used to reach out of their prams and leave toys, hats and gloves on the dykes and fences of this same stretch of road. To be collected again next day. Perhaps one day such images will form the basis of a project on themes around ‘the everyday’.   

Square Mile Contact Sheet