Looking back into the future to the end of time: post-humanism and the photography of Hitoshi Sugimoto

Sugimoto is a significant figure in contemporary photographic practice. From his New York studio, the Japanese born photographer has produced several series of photographs that are widely represented in major collections and regularly internationally exhibited. As an art photographer, he has been hugely successful, and has combined this with a range of architectural projects, multi-media installations, collaborations and public works. Notably, his work has a strong conceptual basis, as well as being technically highly accomplished (he works in monochrome with an 8 by 10 camera, producing very large prints, and relentlessly experiments with methods of producing images and prints). Conventionally, analysis of his photographic work has concentrated on the capturing and manipulation of time, and on the dialogue between eastern and western epistemologies. My analysis will draw on this valuable and insightful work, but will depart significantly in exploring Sugimoto’s photographic work in relation to post-humanist theory (that is, theoretical work that seeks to go beyond humanism, for instance work by Rosi Braidotti 2013, Donna Harraway 1991 and N. Katherine Hayles 1999). In particular, I will explore Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s (2017) notion of ‘midhumanism’ to sidestep a linear view of time in favour of the vortex, and to dispense with the seemingly inevitable grind of passage from pre-(x), to (x), to post-(x), where we languish waiting for a new episteme to gestate. The theoretically stultifying effects of this ‘progression’ are particularly marked in the analysis of photography, which having moved with tide of western theory away from its modernist origins (as a representational technology), consigns the ever-increasing population of art-photographers to the post-modernist hopper (for sorting and labelling).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Paramount Theater, Newark, 2015 (Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

It should come as no surprise that Sugimoto started his professional life as an antiques dealer (and continues to deal in antiques to this day), given that, I would argue, his work synthesises antiques from (and thus, in terms of cultural commodities, adds value to) the present. For instance, Sugimoto claims that his Seascapes Series seeks to show parts of world as the ancients saw them (Sugimoto, 2018a). He seeks out fragments of the present that can be claimed to be invariant across the human era (and, as Sugimoto observes, time is itself a human construct), and represents these in investable, portable (see Henning 2017, for exploration of the portability of photographic objects) and tradable form (limited edition large format prints). The blurred photographs of modernist buildings in the Architecture Series decouple the aspirations of the architects from the image, and allow the buildings to live on as a cultural commodity without their modernist baggage.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Fagus Shoe Last Factory – Walter Gropius, 1998

As Molinari (2015) observes, the blurring seeks out an enduring core to the buildings, which are thus allowed to escape the ravages of time. In no sense, then, is the photograph a record of a point in time; it is in not a representation of what the building once was, or will ever be, except in this particular rendering. For me, the photographs in this series are durable cultural artefacts (and thus commodities), synthesised in the present from a physically and conceptually unsustainable past. Related arguments can be made about other series. The printing of Fox Talbot paper negatives finds in the present lost moments from the past that were never realised in positive, material form, but remained latent (in a process akin to way that Sugimoto as antique dealer scours markets for artefacts). The Diaorama and Waxwork photographs allow imagined and constructed pasts to be rendered portable and available for exchange in an enhanced indexical form (a photograph), invoking and subverting the modernist aspirations for mechanical representation. Whilst Sugimoto’s account of his own work differs in many ways from my reading, he clearly recognises the subversive potential of his work, and the ironic dimension to not just stopping time, but bringing the dead back to life and turning time back on itself.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, 1994

‘In my picture, Wellington seems to have come back to life, while Napoleon remains very much dead. I know it is unlikely, but should I win a place in the pantheon of great artists, I have this crazy fantasy of someone adding a wax figure of me taking a picture of the two great men with my large-format camera to the existing scene!’ (Sugimoto 2015: 28).

My positioning of Sugimoto in relation to post-humanism is based on a reading of his commentaries on his own work (in print, for instance Sugimoto 2015, and on film, for instance, Nakamura 2012, Sugimoto, 2011, 2018a, 2018b). In his writing on Fox Talbot, which includes reflection on his own photographic work, such as the Photogenic Drawings made from Talbot’s paper negatives, and his experimentation with static electricity in the Lightning Fields series, Sugimoto celebrates Talbot’s humanism. For instance, he notes with surprise that Talbot studied ancient languages, conducted research on Babylonian cuneiform characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs, and was translating Macbeth into Greek verse.

‘Talbot, I realized, had a deep understanding of the spirit of those ancient civilizations, when man (sic) first lifted himself out of ignorance’ (Sugimoto 2015: 34).

Sugimoto’s work is strongly humanist in its orientation, having collapsed time, extracted the past out of the present, projected it into an unknown future, and related his images to a supposed invariant human spirit. Central to this orientation is recognition that time is a human construct, and a sense of the passage of time requires a human consciousness. The desire to stop time, which he sees both in the work of the founders of photography and in his own work, is thwarted by that consciousness: while there are humans, there will be time, and our attempts to stop time will always be in time. He states that

‘The day when mankind will realize our deep-seated desire to bring time to a stop is coming inexorably closer. Time exists only through the agency of human perception. Only when mankind vanishes form the earth can we truly claim to have halted time’s progress. It is not long now.’ (Sugimoto 2015: 40).

In this distinctly post-humanist statement he recognises both the limitations of the aspiration to stop time, and the fruitlessness of the desire to produce timeless artefacts. Sugimoto has taken this further in his 2014 show at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Aujourd’hui le monde est mort (Lost Human Genetic Archive), in which he imagines the end of the world. He claims ‘Imagining the worst conceivable tomorrows gives me tremendous pleasure at the artistic level. The darkness of the future lights up my present.’ (quoted in Searle 2014).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tyrrhenian Sea, Conca, 1993

Whilst the Seascapes Series might help us to imagine we see the world as the ancients saw it, it will not enable us to see the world as it is, or was or ever will be. We, ourselves, are in, and entangled with, that world, and can only imagine (assisted by photographic or other technologies) standing apart from it (in the same way we can only imagine photographing Wellington viewing the corpse of Napoleon, or a moment that captures the duration of a film). Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s idea of midhumanism provides an interesting and potentially productive way of understanding, and appreciating, Sugimoto’s work. In this, human-centric narratives of history (that everything has a birth, a life-course and a death) are abandoned (Cohen 2017). The human is entangled with, not apart from, the world (though may aspire, and continue to attempt, to rise above the world). The human is enmeshed in and continuous with the world, and in striving to manage that embeddedness ‘all kinds of becomings are possible, and are not harnessed to trajectories of commencement and termination’ (Cohen 2017). This is the ‘midhuman, where human is difficult to tell from world, macrocosm and microcosm entangled rather than parallel’ and where we have to ’embrace the problem of human middleness, explore its implications, stay with it, stay with the world, think rigorously about the unexpected environmental consequences of human actions, midhumanism’ (Cohen 2017).

Sugimoto’s work, in its subversion of time, does not have, or exist within, a life-course enclosed by commencement and termination, except in the invocation of the end of humanity. The various series of photographs do not constitute a progression, and, although distinct, the series remain open, with the possibility of adding further images. His experiments (for instance, with static electricity) do not represent progress towards more advanced knowledge, but rather resonate with and supplement the experiments of the founders of photography. The images subvert the linearity of time and thus thwart human-centric western enlightenment, and modernist, aspirations, whilst potentially enriching our sense of entanglement and continuousness with the world.

In looking to my own practice, Sugimoto’s work is instructive in its conceptual clarity, and the manner in which successive projects develop rhizomatically from earlier work. From this, he is able to construct an overarching, unifying account giving the total body of work a high degree of coherence, with each series having a distinct visual (in terms of both the formal composition of the images and the method of production) and conceptual identity. Sugimoto has also been able to construct an exemplary contemporary (distinctly male) artistic persona, contextualising and positioning his work (artistically and commercially) and creating a network of interlinked activities which cross seamlessly between western and eastern cultural practice, each casting a light on the other.


Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cohen, J.J. 2017. ‘Midhumanism’. Critical Posthumanism. Available at:
http://criticalposthumanism.net/genealogy/midhumanism/ [accessed 30/12/18]

Searle, A. 2014. ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto: art for the end of the world’. The Guardian, 16th May [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/16/hiroshi-sugimoto-aujordhui-palais-de-tokyo-paris-exhibition [accessed 30/12/18]

Haraway, D. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Hayles, N.K. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Henning, M. 2017. Photography: The Unfettered Image. London: Routledge.

Molinari, L. 2015. ‘Space: timeless architecture’. In Hiroshi Sugimoto, Stop Time. Milan: Skira, 22-40.

Nakamura, Y. 2012. Memories of Origin: Hiroshi Sugimoto. [Film]. Available at: https://youtu.be/NhZJF4IPXcw [accessed 30.12.18]

Sugimoto, H. 2011. Becoming an Artist. Art21, Episode 141. [Film]. Available at: https://youtu.be/JCsbxVCdDtA [accessed 30.12.18]

Sugimoto,H. 2015. Stop Time. Milan: Skira.

Sugimoto, H. 2018a. Between Sea and Sky. Interviewed by Haruko Hoyle at Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan, June 2018. [Film]. Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Available at: https://youtu.be/JWh4t67e5GM [accessed 30.12.18]

Sugimoto, H. 2018b. Advice for the Young. Interviewed by Haruko Hoyle at Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan, June 2018. [Film]. Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Available at: https://youtu.be/TvO2WL-jGac [accessed 30.12.18]

Informing contexts and project development

My project involves three levels of image making in the exploration of community engagement with urban regeneration: (i) images made by residents as a way of exploring their lived experience and aspirations; (ii) collaborative image making with resident and community groups for influence, advocacy and change; (iii) my own artistic response to the impact of urban regeneration and the possibility of positive change for residents and communities. The work focuses, in particular, on social infrastructure. In the previous two modules I have concentrated on building relationships with community groups and researchers and on the development of the first two forms of image making, and this is reflected in the contextual research I have carried out. In the oral presentations for the previous two modules I have focused particularly on photographers who explore the lived experience of residents in urban areas undergoing change, on ways of engaging stakeholders and on the presention photographic work alongside other media.

In this module, I want to focus on the third form of image making and the development of my own artistic practice. For the preliminary task, I have chosen to explore the work of three photographers who have a strong conceptual base to their work combined with distinct and clearly defined forms of artistic practice, and who explore issues of relevance to my own project: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Naoya Hatakeyama and Fay Godwin. All three produce visual work that crosses disciplines, and they combine photography with other media. There are also strong philosophical, social and political dimensions to their work, and in the manner in which their work is presented and exhibited. Like me, Sugimoto came to photography from another discipline (social and political sciences), Hatkeyama is concerned about exploring the future of the city, and Godwin combines text and image in campaigning for public access to land. In the posts to follow, I’ll address the work of each in turn, and then pull together common strands and relate these to the development of my own work (in relation to intent, choices, strengths, limitations and plans for the module).

Generation Wealth

Lauren Greenfield, Fotomuseum Den Haag, 15th December 2018

It is difficult to come out of this exhibition, produced by the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, where it was first shown in 2017, feeling good about life.

The exhibition maps out work by Greenfield over the past 25 years, focusing on the effects of rampant consumerism and affluence, initially amongst youth in Southern California, and subsequently more broadly around the world (latterly amongst the new super-rich in China and Russia). The exhibition is arranged around a number of themes (for instance, New Aging, Sexual Capital, Dream Home) and comprises of images presented alongside short interviews with some of the people featured in the photographs.

The images are strong, and can clearly stand on their own, but the text gives additional insight into worlds that will be unfamiliar to the majority of viewers. Many of the images are shocking, and motivate viewers to read the text to learn and understand more. It’s an exhibition that demands time. It’s not a sociological work, and doesn’t attempt to explain or provide answers. It’s impressive that Greenfield has been able to build up a coherent body of work (visually and conceptually) over an extended period of time whilst working as a photo-journalist. Much to be learned, for me as a photographer, about presenting this kind of work in a way that maximises engagement and impact. There is a documentary, Generation Wealth (2017), which opened at the Sundance Film Festival 2018 and is available on DVD (and which was screened as part of the exhibition). Reviews of the film raise again for me the differences between film and gallery as modes of presentation, explored in an earlier post. Whilst the exhibition provides an engaging and stimulating experience (in which the work is not expected to provide explicit analysis, that’s a task for the viewer who negotiates their way around the gallery, rather than being driven forward by the temporal direction of film), the documentary is seen as failing to strike a position and provide an informed analysis. A book containing 650 photos and 150 interviews has been published by Phaidon. Again, whether or not the book is seen as a success hinges on the extent to which the reader is able to see it as a stimulus for their own subsequent investigation, or whether some kind of formal analysis is expected. We are in a place here where questions are raised about what art can and should aspire to achieve, and how work is positioned in relation to social critique. The show at Fotomuseum Den Haag is the first time the exhibition has been seen in its entirety in Europe.

Greenfield, L. 2017. Generation Wealth. London: Phaidon.

The Universal Photographer

Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Projects Gallery, 15th December 2018

A one room exhibition dedicated to the ‘universal photographer‘, a project by Dutch photographers Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy.

They have aligned found images with trends in photography over the lifetime (1955-2016) of the fictional universal photographer, who becomes the embodiment of responses to changes in photographic technology, an unfolding life-course and trends in art and photography (practice, theory and critique). The primary outcome of the project is a book, which includes extensive quotes from the work of major theorists, commentators and artists relating to the forms of photography covered, and fictional quotes about the work of the universal photographer and their work alongside a biography of the universal photographer (the pdf of the book can be downloaded here). It’s an impressive and entertaining project, and an exemplary exercise in post-modern irony. The project guides the viewer through the development of art photography and theory over the past half century, raising questions about the relationship between esoteric art and everyday life (the images are very much ‘everyday’ and naive, but articulated with the evolving art practices of the time) and rendering both faintly absurd, and strangely engaging, in the process. The project thus speaks both to the gallery visiting public and the to art world, questioning the relationship between the visual products of both. In presenting the work of the the universal photographer as art, the work also pulls art into the everyday and opens it (and the associated academic and artistic commentary and analysis) to common scrutiny and assessment.

In looking at the images, it is not a case of ‘we could have done that’; we actually did do it – these are our images, from our photo albums and boxes of family, event and holiday prints. In my own project, I have created a degree of insulation between forms of image making: this work removes that insulation in a gallery space and plays with the distinction between the sacred and the profane. And it’s all shot through with dry humour and parody. In the development of my project, it’s clearly important to the think about other mechanisms for bringing these different domains of practice into the same space and into constructive critical dialogue.

Geene, A. & A. De Nooy. 2018. The Universal Photographer. Rotterdam: De Hef.

Literacies and photographies

Steff’s use of (and preference for) the term ‘photographies’ (rather than photography) in the introductory webinar brought to mind the genesis of the use of ‘literacies’ rather than literacy. It also resonated with my concern (expressed in earlier posts) about the tendency to abstract the idea of photography from the contexts of production and circulation of images, with the effect of treating very different practices (for instance, casual mobile phone images of events on the one hand and commissioned photo-journalism on the other) as the same (in the sense that they are both ‘photography’). This tendency is particularly marked (and unproductive) in debates about the threat posed to professional photography by the ubiquitous production and circulation through social media of high resolution images, and the development of AI systems to select and edit images.

The dismantling of a singular view of literacy began with the exploration of social literacy, through social anthropological style studies of how, and where and for what, people use literacy, or engage in ‘literacy practices’ (see, for instance, Grenfell, 2012; Heath, 1983; Street, 1995). The study of literacy in practice brings to the fore the multiplicity of forms of literacy, each distinguished, and shaped, by the social context and the purpose of reading and writing. The study of literacy in different cultures and contexts not only raises questions about the extent to which a single term adequately describes a multiplicity of forms of practice, but also makes clear that these (literacy) practices involve engagement with and production of more than just text (sound, image, video, media, gesture and so on). So we have multiple literacies both in relation to the uses and contexts of literacy and in relation to forms of literacy (beyond just text). Hence, literacies, not a singular (cognitively defined and culturally invariant) literacy (commonly called the autonomous model of literacy, see Street, 2003) .

Likewise, photography is used in a variety of ways, in different contexts and for different purposes (culturally, socially and economically). Forms of photography (in terms of modes of production, technology and circulation) have also diversified. Hence, photographies.

This immediately raises the question of the relationship between different photographic forms, contexts and practices, the establishment and maintenance of hierarchies within and between these forms and the need for critical visual (photographic) literacy (for both consumers and producers of images). The point of this post, though, is to reinforce the idea of multiple photographies, and to form synergies with the study of the social basis of other areas of practice, such as literacy. My project proposal involves three forms of image making, which in themselves constitute three different ‘photographies’ (as social research tool, as advocacy and as art) and therefore provides a context for further exploration of these relationships.

Grenfell, M. 2012. Language, Ethnography, and Education: Bridging New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu. London: Routledge.

Heath, S.B. 1983. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Street, B. 2003. ‘Autonomous and ideological models of literacy: Approaches from new literacy studies’. Current Issues in Comparative Education. 5. 1-15.

Street, B.V. 1995. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education. London: Longman.

Artist self and independent publishing

Artist Self-Publishers’ Fair, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 8th and 9th December 2018

A really great way to finish the module for me. Having explored social media and other ways of promoting and disseminating work online, and building a profile, it was good to explore critical alternatives at the these ICA events. The Saturday session comprised of presentations and a group discussion. Highlights for me were the overview of the history of and relationship between political and artistic self-publishing provided by Nick Thoburn, the insight into a small scale community arts initiative (based in my own area of east London) by Sofia Niazi from OOMK and Erik van der Weije’s account of his transition from independent publisher in Brazil to lecturer in Holland (which involved giving away all his remaining publications – I got a copy of his Oscar Niemayer book).

Thoburn presents the strength of self-publishing as residing in its ability to create its own context (to be self-institutionalising) and the small scale, intimacy, tentativeness, vulnerability and emergent nature of its outputs. It is, for him, a fundamentally political activity, and lies in opposition to the the commodification of art and the institutionalisation of knowledge. Need to follow-up on Infopool and Mute Magazine, both of which address issues around the arts, regeneration and London. And his 2016 publication Anti-Book: On the Art and Politics of Radical Publishing.

One Of My Kind (OOMK) is a collective publishing practice based in Manor Park. They run a community printing press and courses for local people (Rabbits Road Press). Good local contacts to have for my projects, and their project The Library Was is very relevant to the social infrastructure dimension of my project. Was able to talk to them at the Fair on Sunday and will visit in the New Year.

Also spoke to photographer Erik van der Weijde about his transition from zine production and publishing to teaching at the Rietfeld Academy, and my own journey (more or less) in the other direction. A good introduction to the challenge (and economics) of small-scale self-publishing. His 2017 publication This is not my Book explores photography and independent publication.

Over 70 exhibitors at the fair on Sunday, and lots of examples of forms of publication to consider for my own work, and work that I’ll be doing with community groups. Particularly liked the work by OOMK and by Roberts Print. A lot of potential for a hybrid (online/print) publication strategy for my own work. The event helped to see the positive (critical and oppositional) dimension of self and small-scale publication, and provided contacts in this particular community to follow-up. And helpful to make tangible links between the themes of this module and the next two modules. Much of the work in this area is strongly theoretically informed, which links with Informing Contexts, and the outputs as books, zines, small print runs, events and workshops relate closely to the themes to be explored in Surfaces and Strategies.

The purpose of this post is to put down a marker around these themes and to form a bridge between Sustainable Prospects and subsequent modules, in relation to the development of my own practice and progress towards my final major project. I’ll return to all the themes signaled here in later posts.

OOMK (2016). The Library Was. Berlin: Fehras Publishing Practice.

Thoburn, N (2016). Anti-Book: On the Art and Politics of Radical Publishing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

van der Weijde, E. (2017). This is not my Book. Leipzig: Spector Books.

Photography and social infrastructure

From the outset, the purpose of my project has been to do more than document (and lament) the impact of regeneration and gentrification on residents. Work by photographers to date has tended to focus on the visible effects of change, but has done little to empower residents or reach a deeper understanding of what can be done to ensure that residents receive real benefits from the process (and can take appropriate action to ensure that they do benefit and are not displaced). In part this has to do with the lack of a conceptual base to the photographic work – as photographers we respond to what we see, but what we see is shaped by how we understand the contexts and lifeworlds we explore, which is in turn shaped by our own background and experiences.

In my initial exploration of housing estates and urban centres where change is taking place, it is clear that how residents organise themselves, where they meet and what they do (and links within and between different communities) is of vital importance for well-being and life chances. This forms a connection between the built environment on the one hand and the lifeworlds of residents on the other, through the activities of communities and the use made of public and private space. The idea of social infrastructure helps us to understand this relationship in a way that avoids individualisation (as notions of social and cultural capital might do) and emphasises activity in giving meaning to space and place (rather than prioritising, as developers will tend to do, the design of the space, abstracted from its use). In terms of the regeneration of estates, it is clear that in some cases residents have developed their own social infrastructure (re-purposing spaces for childcare, supplementary schooling, community events, worship and so on), often in the face of inadequate and decaying physical infrastructure, and lack of public services. Displacement of residents during and following regeneration at best threatens and at worst destroys this.

For my project, I need to develop a clearer understanding of social infrastructure in the contexts I’m exploring, and figure out how to investigate and represent this as a photographer, in and through the experiences of residents.

In Heatwave, Eric Klinenberg (2002) examined the effects of the 1995 Chicago heatwave on different communities. In particular, he wanted to understand why seemingly similar communities, in terms of socio-economic status, ethnicity, housing and employment rates and other factors, were differently effected, for instance, in terms of the number of people who died. A key factor appeared to be social infrastructure; having places to meet and engage in joint activities. In his most recent book, Palaces for the People: How To Build a More Equal and United Society, Klinenberg (2018) focuses specifically on social infrastructure, which he argues is

‘the missing piece of the puzzle, and building places where all kinds of people can gather is the best way to repair the fractured societies we live in today.’ (Kindle Locations 195-196)

and, further, that

‘social infrastructure plays a critical but underappreciated role in modern societies. It influences seemingly mundane but actually consequential patterns, from the way we move about our cities and suburbs to the opportunities we have to casually interact with strangers, friends, and neighbors. It is especially important for children, the elderly, and other people whose limited mobility or lack of autonomy binds them to the places where they live. But social infrastructure affects everyone. And while social infrastructure alone isn’t sufficient to unite polarized societies, protect vulnerable communities, or connect alienated individuals, we can’t address these challenges without it.’ (Kindle Locations 232-237)

Klinenberg’s work provides a strong rationale for a focus on social space. He goes on to define what counts, in his terms, as social infrastructure. It is worth quoting this at length here, as it begins to define a direction for the photographic gaze.

‘Public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, and swimming pools, are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are sidewalks, courtyards, community gardens, and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Community organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructures when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, furniture, clothing, art, and other consumer goods. Commercial establishments can also be important parts of the social infrastructure, particularly when they operate as what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “third spaces,” places (like cafés, diners, barbershops, and bookstores) where people are welcome to congregate and linger regardless of what they’ve purchased.’ (Kindle Locations 268-277)

Clearly, there is a long photographic history of focusing on these kinds of spaces, and the activities that take place in them. For my project, opportunities to explore these spaces in relation to urban regeneration are already opening up (for instance, the complementary schools in Newham, and the community centres in Barking). Whilst making these spaces visible and celebrating the activities that take place there through image making is easy to envisage, photographically exploring the threat to these spaces/activities, and the lack in new housing developments, is a challenge. I am going to come back to Klinenberg’s work in more detail later in the CRJ, once I have done more work on photographic precedents, and developed my own approach further.

Klinenberg, E. (2018). Palaces for the People: How To Build a More Equal and United Society. New York: Random House. Kindle Edition.

Klinenberg, E. (2002). Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Week 11 Reflection

This week has been dominated by finalisation of my WIP Portfolio and Oral Presentation. Both done now, and have been posted earlier in the CRJ. Have also made some additional links relating to my proposed final project (for instance, with members of the UKRI Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health network, and in particular an applicant for a Wellcome Foundation fellowship who wants to incorporate photography into his project). I have deferred work on my website and social media to next week. Took some time out to take more photographs in Barking and Romford in the hope of supplementing my WIP portfolio.

Romford, Tuesday 4th December 2018

The most interesting development of the week emerged from Richard Kolker’s excellent seminar on Wednesday. Richard’s work is CGI based, and falls firmly into the post-photography domain (my image above, made at a disused, modernist car park in the evening, with multiple light sources, has a strangely constructed quality to it).

Richard Kolker, Cafe (from England, The Game)

Richard’s presentation gave insight into the scope of and motivation for his work, and into his working methods. The work invoking the ‘digital uncanny’ was particularly interesting. I’ve followed this up online and looked in more detail at what he is doing. There might be some mileage in exploring the use of these kinds of constructed images in the collaborative exploration of the experiences and aspirations of residents on the estates on which I’m working . I’ve emailed Richard for any advice on this kind of direction – extract below.

‘My project focuses on community engagement with urban regeneration, with the aim of doing more than just describe and lament (but rather to produce insight and understanding alongside resources for resident advocacy). I’m working with some researchers who are exploring (through interviews) residents’ experiences and fears of displacement on six estates in London undergoing regeneration, and also with a community project supporting/advocating for residents in the largest housing development in Europe (Barking Riverside – dubbed by the local authority ‘Barcelona on the Thames’!). Other links with community and advocacy groups are in the pipeline. My work is focusing on social infrastructure and the lived experiences of residents. These people are bombarded by architects’ and developers’ constructed images and CGI representations of an imagined future. Your work made me think about the possibility of rendering the everyday experiences of residents in a similar way (including the social infrastructure and related activities that residents have developed over time on estates that have been neglected in terms public services and physical infrastructure). And the benefit of not getting picked up by the police or harassed by private security guards (as much of the land, for instance the whole of the Olympic Park development, and all the Barking Riverside development, is private land) 🙂 It’s not just experiences that I am exploring, but also aspirations, and that is maybe where the real potential of this approach (in collaboration with residents) lies. Whatever approach I take, I want the output to be multi-modal (text, sound, infographics/maps, images etc), so conventional photography will be part of the process and the outcomes’.

Just a thought. Will follow-up in future posts. Also relates to some of the themes explored in the seminar on Post-Capitalism and Photography at the Photographers’ Gallery. And possible work with Richard Sanford in his role as leader of the Future Heritage research programme at UCL Bartlett (will follow up earlier conversation with Richard once I have thought this through – I appointed Richard to lead our futures and horizon scanning work when I founded the research division at the Institute for Adult Learning in Singapore). One possible direction is the production of a counter-narrative on the future, focusing on urban development/regeneration.

Addendum [09.12.18]. Richard Kolker replied to my email and suggested that I download and experiment with Maxon Cinema 4D using the student license. Something to work on over Xmas. Also suggested I look at Rut Blees Luxemburg’s London Dusk, which I know from the Museum of London collection (large format photos of the City of London at night which include fragments of hoardings with developers CGI images).


Sustainable Prospects WIP Portfolio

In order to broaden my experience and expertise, I’ve submitted my work in progress portfolio as a pdf this time around. I liked the control that a web-based portfolio allowed for Positions and Practice, but can see the advantages of the pdf format. Scribus made design of the document straightforward. In terms of content, I think I would have been better to have set up a small project (related to my final project) that I could have completed within the module. This would have led to a more coherent portfolio. As it is, the majority of the visual work I have done in working towards my final project (in terms of building skills and developing approaches) can’t be included in the portfolio (as it would undermine the coherence). The portfolio captures part of the work, but not really the heart of it. I need to think clearly about this with respect to the next two modules.

I was aware from the outset that, not being a professional photographer and not coming from a visual arts background, this module was going to be a challenge (especially being the second module, rather than the final module). However, it has provided a good opportunity to think through how best to build networks and relationships, and consider ways of maintaining these and disseminating the outcomes of the proposed project.

Andrew Brown PDF portfolio


Photography and the city

From Tate Modern 10th floor , 3rd December 2018

Caroline Knowles (2018) explores how photography can play a unique role in understanding the complexity and dynamism of cities. She states that:

‘Photography is proving itself an invaluable tool in urban investigation and analysis as well as in campaigning arenas for global social justice. But there is scope to work in still more imaginative ways in bringing what is not seen before the public gaze in new and exciting grammars of images.’ (p.20)

In this post I want to explore how the role for photography envisaged by Knowles relates to my own work and, in particular, my proposed final major project. In her own fieldwork (as a sociologist) Knowles has used photographs as a way of exploring lived experience, for instance of homeless and marginalised people with schizophrenia. The relationship with the city evident in the images produced (in a collaboration between the researcher, a photographer and the participants) is very different from that expressed in words, and enables consideration of the ‘unspoken’ (and perhaps even the ‘unspeakable’). Producing, and discussing, images (for instance, in a form of photo-elicitation) enriches insight into the lives of the participants, and also creates the opportunity to consider what is not visible in the images. Images also enable aspects of the outcomes of the study to be communicated to, and engage, different audiences. Images can also provoke consideration of the relationship between the macro and the micro, and between different forms of practice and experience that fall within the frame. Images both invoke what is framed, whilst raising questions about the wider context within which they are produced. Relationships between people and with their environment can be explored through, for instance, environmental portraiture. Photographs also foreground the embodied nature of experience and activity, and entanglement and engagement with the city (and with each other) in both spatial and temporal trajectories.

Visual methods can work in consort with other forms of investigation and representation (ethnographic, statistical, cartographic, textual), bringing forward the kinaesthetic, contextual and sensual dimensions of experience. Knowles cautions, though, against banal and descriptive uses of images, either supplementing text or as the object of convoluted and obscuring narrative. Images ‘suggest other ways of thinking’ (p.17). Photography can enable us to slice through the city, and explore the tapestry of intersecting lives, activities and contexts. Knowles suggests a tactic of selecting a group, or category, of people and following members in their passage through the city. Or taking an object and following its pathway, or focussing on an event or a microcosm, or a part of a city that exemplifies a set of issues or a movement. These are different points of entry for investigation, which then give rise to sets of pragmatic, ethical and methodological decisions as the investigation unfolds. The point here is to preserve, and enhance, the distinctiveness of photographic image making as a supplement or a challenge to logocentric textual and statistical forms of enquiry.

My own study employs three levels of image making, which range across the uses of photography suggested by Knowles, from a form of elicitation (gaining insight into the lived experience and aspirations of residents) to an artistic response to environments and lifeworlds encountered. It is by necessity cross- or inter-disciplinary. As the recent meeting of the UKRI Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health network made clear, the major challenge here is to create a new space for the production of new forms of knowledge, through new configurations of disciplines and approaches. As Barthes (1986) observes,

‘in order to do interdisciplinary work it is not enough to take a “subject” (a theme) and to arrange two or three sciences around it. Interdisciplinary study consists in creating a new object, which belongs to no one.’ (p.73)

This accentuates the need not just for integrity and rigour within a discipline (for instance, the visual arts), but the ability to build relationships and networks across disciplines, professions, communities and contexts.


Barthes, R. (1986), The Rustle of Language (trans. R. Howard). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Knowles, C. (2018). ‘Researching and Photographing Cities: Getting Started’ in S. Nichols & S.Dobson (Eds), Learning Cities: Multimodal Explorations and Placed Pedagogies, Springer: Singapore, pp. 9-22.