I looked at the work of all the photographers mentioned and recommended in the course manual and took from that what I thought might help me in both the assignment and the project exercises:-
Project 1 – the frozen moment
Project 2 – a durational space
Project 3 ‘What matters is to look’
Harold Edgerton’s work (http://edgerton-digital-collections.org), despite the time it was made, is still technically beyond anything I could hope achieve with my equipment so the influence here lies not only in encouraging me to seek out new possibilities within my means, ie using the technology available, but also in eliciting an appreciation of a very powerful blend of scientific investigation and aesthetically robust imagery – the frozen human movements in particular.
I’ve looked closely at Jeff Wall’s work because I found his techniques of deep research, patience and detailed staging to be very interesting. The picture of the bursting milk-carton is very powerful because it captures the moment of an event that seems to happen without the human subject being aware of it. Has he accidentally burst the milk carton or is he doing it or is it being remotely burst as part of the act? He’s looking the other way at something in the middle distance which suggests detachment. Knowing the background, the more I study the image the more I begin to see that the decisive moment may well be appear to be decisive for the viewer but it’s been meticulously planned in advance.
Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, (www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/exposed-philip-lorca-dicorcia ): I found his series of portraits of people going about their daily lives on the streets to be very powerful because they drew me into an interrogation of the subjects. Some might be seen to be physically attractive, ‘easy on the eye’, so we become interested. Others are lost in thought which means that some of their concerns appear to be marked on their frozen expressions and cause us to attribute states of mind to the subjects, to wonder at the kinds of lives they might lead, where they’re going, what they’re thinking, etc. I think these reactions are not unusual in terms of anthropology and human psychology. None of this depth of interrogation could happen, I think, with moving image. The still images are decisive in that the camera and associated apparatus capture a moment that humans cannot, allowing us to forensically examine the subjects and lend motives and meanings to their lives.
Robert Capa on D-Day at Omaha – this and other wartime documentary photographs by Capa are firmly established in the canon of photography. Without going into the debate as to how staged some of his images might have been, they are certainly very powerful pictures of undoiubtedly real events in which the lives and deaths of people are in play. For me, the most interesting image in the following series (https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/conflict/robert-capa-d-day-omaha-beach/) is the one where we can examine the facial and bodily expressions of some of the soldiers at a ceremony for the fallen. One young soldier in particular, has a look on his face that combines horror, fatigue and grief all at once and he can barely lift his eyes from the ground. Whatever is going on in some of his other pictures, this one seems to grab an authentically decisive moment in displaying the effects of war and death on mainly young men undergoing extreme physical and emotional stress.
Michael Wesely – I like the somewhat ironic turn of his ‘still’ life photos which are of course anything but still, thus setting the two dimensional plane of the image against the almost paradoxical depth of space and time that a photo affords . He seems to distil and refine certain techniques that have become very fashionable in the current era, for example camera shake (or ICM (intentional camera movement depending on one’s preferences) and other types of motion blur. But the quality of his imagery reveals deeper processes at work and what I take from his work is an enthusiasm for patience and undoubtedly a mindset that values sustained and committed experimentation informed by a generous measure of solid conceptual thinking.
Francesca Woodman – I’ve followed her work for some time now and recently saw an exhibition of her early prints in Edinburgh. If we’re talking about ‘the durational space’ then her pictures investigate this in many interesting ways, primarily by asking questions of identity within the time and space of the image’s realisation. Using long exposures, mirrors, fabrics and other materials that cover and hide parts of the subject (herself naked or partly naked in most cases) she seems to shake the identity of the subject so consistently and at times violently that it’s in danger of coming apart at the seams. I’d like to develop in my own work in the future the idea of loosening up the identity or even the reality of a given subject, perhaps myself, by exposing and extending the temporal elements inherent in taking pictures.
Awoiska van der Molen (https://www.awoiska.nl/biography#about) – this kind of work, in the way the photographer has chosen to deal with time and place, interests me more than the kind of decisive moment street photography derived from Bresson’s pioneering photographs. Van der Molen engages with a location over many days, one or two weeks, immersing herself in an environment until she feels ready to start taking photographs. The actual location is unimportant and kept out of the narrative behind any given series. Whether these procedures actually produce images that accurately reflect or even refer to how the artist is feeling about a place or whether they capture something essential about a place or space is open to debate, but I’m convinced that the deeper the engagement with a location and with the passing of time over whatever timescale (in this case and more generally within the landscape genre), the better the chances of richer significance, depth and consistency in the images that result from the engagement. I’ve found this in the photos of several artists, most notably in the work of canonic landscape photographers like Robert Adams. To explain something of how Awoiska van der Molen approaches time and duration in her long exposure landscapes and how I’ve begun to think about the role of perception in photography I should quote here from an article which contrasts her work with what is normally thought of as the decisive moment.*
The notion of time at stake here has been called durée by French philosopher Henri Bergson, in English ‘duration’. Duration does not concern a conceptualisation of time, not a way of thinking about time; it concerns a phenomenology of time, how we experience time. Before elaborating on Bergson’s notion of duration, I will first reflect on the question what it means that Awoiska van der Molen’s photographic images evoke a temporality that thwarts the temporality of the unique moment, which has become so prevailing in the most dominant photographic practices.(p2)
In concrete perception memory intervenes, and the subjectivity of sensible qualities is due precisely to the fact that our consciousness, which begins by being only memory, prolongs a plurality of moments into each other, contracting them into a single intuition. (p6)
(quoting Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory , trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer (new York: Zone Books, 1991), p.60).
This plurality of moments should not be understood as a narrative sequence, but rather as a form of stasis in which several temporal dimensions converge. The memory, which makes itself felt during perception, consists of a plurality of moments, but without the possibility of disentangling this plurality in specific moments in relation to each other, e.g., one moment after another. According to Gilles Deleuze in his book Bergsonism, Bergsonian duration is not defined by sequentiality but by co-existence.And this co-existence does not consist of specific moments, because according to Bergson time is indivisible and continuously subject to change. However, it concerns different temporal dimensions such as present and past, which can only be
experienced at the same time, in relation to each other. The photographs of Awoiska van der Molen seem to be an embodiment of Bergson’s notion of duration. (p6)
Here then we are being asked to completely rethink or at least remain open to new possibilities within our ideas of time and duration in photographic imagery.
I also spent some time with the work of Richard Misrach, in particular his Desert Cantos. Misrach is another who has immersed himself in his subject or subjects, these being vast regions of American desert. Although he will have taken great care at the split second of capturing each image I think that the scale, depth, range and duration of his projects completely and successfully undermine the notion of a decisive moment.
Finally, I studied two photographers who approach the passing of time in different but equally interesting ways. Alexander Titarenko exploits the technique of (medium length) long exposures in urban environments, notably Havana and St. Petersburg, for example in the series City of Shadows (http://www.alexeytitarenko.com/cityofshadows). For me his greatest skills, apart from those he exploits in the darkroom, lie in the ways he blurs his subjects, normally pedestrians, just enough to contrast with static objects (eg street furniture) or even other human subjects at rest, offering an accumulation or an aggregate of decisive moments, all wrapped up in the one image.
Chris McCaw on the other hand (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2015/06/18/when-the-sun-burns-a-hole-in-your-photo/) makes highly distinctive pictures in which the passage of the sun actually burns holes on photographic paper placed in the camera, asking questions of the passing of time and the consequences of exposing film or paper to what is probably the original timekeeper, ie the sun.
The Decisive Moment Debate.
Write up your research on the decisive moment in your learning log taking care to give a proper account of the three differing views….., and any further research you’ve undertaken independently. What do you feel personally about the decisive moment as a visual strategy, or just as a way to take pictures? Conclude your post with your own perspective on the debate at this point in time.
The three points of view discussed in the OCA Handbook, Expressing your Vision, can be summarised as follows:-
Point of view 1
Some important photographic practices, eg documentary photography, looked to find meaning not in the making of great statements but in recording smaller more discrete moments in the belief that fragments of time can be given meaning by dislocating them from their context. This suggests that the decisive moment was something of a revolutionary way of thinking about documentary photography in particular.
Point of view 2
It misses the point of our contemporary situation and photographers such as Paul Graham have successfully undermined the decisive moment by introducing indecisiveness into the urban experience.
Point of view 3
The decisive moment is a cliché even if it has a basis in reality. New modes of investigation are needed, especially for contemporary examinations of urban life.
Where do I stand with ‘the decisive moment’? It’s certainly not the only way of thinking about photography because, like any other artistic practice, photography is essentially what it is in the current era by virtue of its great diversity. I agree that there is a style of photography which offers great visual interest, depth and meaning by working with the notion that it’s worth waiting around for something interesting to happen and that the more you do it, the better you get at it. However I’m more interested in why a ‘moment’ should be the preferred unit of time (or, better, duration) that one wants to consider as decisive. How about the decisive day or week? Obviously a carefully framed or serendipitous photograph taken with a time exposure of up to a few seconds can be considered as decisive and momentary but we also need to consider the intentions and procedures of the artist who might care less about waiting for the right moment and more with embedding him- or herself in an environment over long periods of time, at the same time perhaps exploring the wider psychology of perception than small-window ‘snapshots of reality’. I’d be interested to learn more about the mechanics behind a possible correlation between a photographer’s philosophical view of the human condition and their idea of aesthetics in relation to photography. Then to learn more about photographers who challenge the notion that we see in nature what we’ve been taught to look for. I base this on the idea that good photography can teach us to see the world in new ways.
Although good pictures are good pictures and observational skills lie at the core of any photographic practice I don’t think it makes much difference to Cartier-Bresson or to photography more generally what we call his style or method of photography. People will always wish to organise, categorise and label whatever falls within their interests. It seems to be the way of things that a single-minded original artist will set the standard for an innovative type of practice, someone labels it, hordes follow, comment and debate ensue, academia gets a hold of it, then the style becomes (apparently) fixed, as if it actually exists as a reality in the world, by which time it’s already in the history books. This happens with music, film and painting and amounts to the same thing as a movement from cliche to ideology.
There are grand narratives own photography, just as there are in music. I’m not against these. Just as music is the art of sound, photography is the art of the still image. Both reveal form, add value to form, and so photography for example in its specific modes can point to truth and beauty. The orthodox idea of the decisive moment contributes to such narratives and is therefore important.
Like Wall and Woodman, Cartier-Bresson could easily have staged some of his photographs. Perhaps he did and for me this is unimportant because artists don’t always do what they’d like us to think they do. So the matter of chance, luck or staging is less important to me than, say, qualities such as economy of means, grace, freshness, ‘fresh intimation of form’ (Robert Adams) or any number of aesthetic measuring rods, not to mention socio-political engagement.
*TIME SATURATION: The Photography of Awoiska van der Molen by Ernst van Alphen (https://www.awoiska.nl/var/upload/essay_alphen_nu.pdf), accessed 28 July 2019.
Adams, R (1996). Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. New York: Aperture.
Berleant, Arnold (2002). Environment and the Arts: Perspectives on Environmental Aesthetics. Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate Pub.
Long exposure tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MItJk0J0Yb0, accessed 28 July 2019.
Check your work against the assessment criteria for this course before you send it to your tutor. Make some notes in your learning log about how well you believe your work meets each criterion. Your tutor may take a while to get back to you so carry on with the course while you’re waiting.
Demonstration of technical and visual skills – Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.
Materials and techniques: I chose my lenses and applied new techniques very carefully. Following a period of experimentation tied in with reading the assignment text, I overcame several initial difficulties and achieved my technical aims.
Observational skills and visual awareness: I took great care to apply observational skills in particular with the assignment where I had to take account of framing, focus and exposure in a fairly tight space, then readjust everything after several attempts and with the help of the preview features of my camera. My visual awareness was also put into practice in processing images using the software.
Design and Compositional skills: I’m pleased with the compositions in all of the photographs that I chose as final selections. I believe that my compositions are improving as I go through the various contact sheets in the assignment, or at least I’m getting better at rejecting bad shots, and I’m aware of the feedback that happens from preview to reframing to capturing a better shot. Exercise 2, where the toning of the umbrella largely determines the abstraction of the subject, is partly an exercise in design and I’ve learned a lot about how fairly simple processing techniques can make an image stand out.
Quality of outcome – Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.
I chose the presentation of the assignment and exercises very carefully and put a lot of thought into their realisation. Personally I like to ‘worry’ the tasks a little, do some reading and other research, then juggle ideas around in my head before picking up the camera. The assignment and two of the exercises clearly apply knowledge I’ve gained from studying the work of other photographers. I’ve taken care to present the development of the assignment and exercise 1 in particular and have put some effort into making the explanatory texts structured and clear.
Demonstration of creativity – Imagination, experimentation, invention.
It’s difficult to be objective in talking about one’s creativity, imagination, etc. but I can say that I put a lot of time and energy into experimentation, which of course involves rejecting a lot of ideas and first efforts, often over several cycles. Rather than jump on the first idea that came into my head I tried to keep my imagination and invention in check until I was well into the process of reading around the project. Then I planned and carried out the tasks.
Context – Reflection, research, critical thinking.
I particularly enjoyed the research and reflection for this project. Some of the recommended photographers were new to me and I learned more about some that I already knew. Part of the satisfaction comes from looking at what other photographers are doing, digging into what I can find out about their influences and then extrapolating from those to offer my own version of a concept or approach. For example, given that I spend a lot of time researching contemporary landscape photography, I had never seriously considered ‘setting up’ shots (like a light version of Jeff Wall) but now have in note form a few future projects that will benefit from such a method.