Week 4: Begin at the Beginning

My engagement with photography began in front of the camera, as a child model, aged 4 (four guineas a session, paid to my mother).

AB as child model

Photographs by Ray Harwood (personal collection)

My godfather, Ray Harwood (1926-2017), took a course in photography at Regents Street Poly when he was discharged from the RAF after the second world war. Unable to afford film, he took work as a photographic assistant for Conde Nast, becoming assistant to Cecil Beaton (including the 1953 Coronation photographs, that’s him on the right below, HRM on the left) and then a staff photographer for Vogue, before establishing his own studio.

ray and beaton.jpg

Queen Elizabeth II; Cecil Beaton and two assistants (John Drysdale; Ray Harwood)
by Patrick Matthews, 1953.
On display at Museum Kampa, Prague, Czech Republic.

The smell of film, the buzz of the strobe units, the weight and sound of a Pentax Spotmatic and a Hasselblad, have formed a lifelong visceral bond with photography. And photography exemplified for me the opportunities for working-class social mobility in post-war Britain, though I took a different path. I learned to process and print at the age of ten, and have taken photographs in a somewhat disorganised and incoherent way since. I don’t have my earliest images to hand, but here are three from the late 80s, processed and printed in our bathroom in Hackney. Like all my photography until about 18 months ago (shortly before Ray died), it is personal and focused on immediate family. I don’t think the images have aesthetic or artistic value, more personal and evocative of a period in our lives. I don’t think they would withstand any detailed analysis as images.

andrew.jpg

Diane.jpg

michael.jpg

The book in the third image (my son’s favourite picture) is an Open University collection, and it is open at Pierre Bourdieu’s paper on the three forms of capital (which I was reading at the time), ultimately more influential in shaping my trajectory than photography. Just short of sixty years on from my initial encounter, the time came to become reacquainted with photography, delve deeper and weave together the various strands of my life and interests, which is challenging, exciting, enthralling and more. And now I have my own period Spotmatic and Hasselblad, but no studio in Knightsbridge …

Week 3: Reflection

Getting into social media (in particular, Instagram) has been a challenge this week (see post for details). The upshot is, I think, greater clarity about how I might use social media in advancing and promoting my own work, and how it might specifically play a part in elements of my project (for instance, in maintaining momentum amongst participants, and disseminating both the process and outcomes of each component of the work). In relation to my own work, it has made me think more carefully about development of a website where I can bring together the different strands of my work (the artistic, the academic and the community). Whilst Instagram can establish contact with individuals, groups and organisations (the calling card), I need to be able to direct attention to a wider body of more integrated work.

The discussion provided good advice on the use of Instagram, and alerted me to some issues around the holding of personal data (as I will be interviewing people as part of the project) which I need to sort out in relation to GDPR. I was disappointed not to be able to take part in the viral image activity – too much to do whilst travelling between UK, Guyana and USA. But I want to pick up ideas from this activity later in the project development process.

Limited opportunity to shoot work relevant to my project as I’m away from home, but I have been to some great exhibitions in New York (will post about these) and picked up some books at Aperture (and will post about these, too). Practical work on my project has been more concerned, over the past three weeks, with making contacts and developing partnerships. And I’m continuing to stretch myself into portraiture, and thinking about ways of exploring visually the lifeworlds of the residents in relation to the way in which physical space around them is being transformed. As discussed in the webinar, any portraits included in the final project will also have to include references to context, in order for them to make sense with respect to the project and the impact of regeneration on individuals and communities. The juxtaposition of images, as in Sissel Thastum’s work (guest lecture this week), warrants careful consideration in achievement of this contextualisation, and develops my experimentation with triptych form in the previous module. The idea of placing the residents is their ‘urban landscape’, in a way that can give a sense of their intimate engagement and interaction with aspects of this environment (including interior and external space) is challenging. As Sissel discussed, being clear about the interpretative dimension of the work produced is important, both with respect to the images produced and the relationship between the photographer and the ‘subject’.

Week 3: Instagram

Some great advice on, insight into and debate about Instagram provided by others in the discussion group. Lots to get to grips with. When it comes to Instagram, and social media more generally, I’m definitely in the remedial group. I set up an account before the module and acquired one follower (a former colleague) immediately, followed soon after by my son. The activity asks us to develop a strategy. I have posted a sequence of images with a consistent style, and sought appropriate hashtags (though it has been tricky finding ones that attract the right kind and level of interest, as others have noted). I’m responding to any comments made, and increasing the number of people and organisations I follow, thinking about what this implies about my own work. Gaining 20 followers in a day indicated that I should meet the (thankfully low) target of 30 set for the activity. I shifted the content incrementally to bring it closer to my current work.

What Instagram can offer me at this point in time, as a photographer, is limited, I think, but I can see that I could use it very productively (in a clearly directed and designed manner) when I am more advanced in my final project. This would entail, I think, a number of accounts, each focused on a particular locality, plus an account of my own for the work that I produce in relation to these contexts (which would include insights into process and outcomes as well as images). As a means of dissemination (and exchange within a particular group, for instance a residents’ group) it’s a really good resource. Whether or not Instagram facilitates wider interaction and dialogue, as others have observed, is a moot point. The potential for Instagram to stimulate some form of financial return or competitive edge is less of an interest for me, but clearly important for commercial photographers seeking to maximise exposure and access new markets. And it appears that Instagram is now the first port of call for collectors, galleries, publishers, agents, editors and others in the industry, thus making a well-managed Instagram presence/identity essential for many photographers. For those seeking no more than a wider audience for their work, I’m less clear, at the moment, about whether Instagram provides sufficient return for the work required. The crux appears to be developing a strategy (whatever the means adopted, online or IRL) to reach and engage the right audience.

In 3 days I’ve gone from 2 to 66 followers, with a relative deluge of likes. The key appears to be consistent and regular posting, and following and liking other people’s work to show that you are active. And, I hope, posting good and engaging images. To reach the right audience for your purposes, I think you need to accept that there will be a high degree of redundancy. From this point I think it’s a matter of cultivating that audience through well targeted and considered liking and commenting. I’ll continue to post and cultivate, but maybe less frequently, and more experimentally. One firm and unambiguous piece of advice from the photo-journalist I spent time with in the preliminary activity was ‘Delete everything you did as a student’.

I think I can see how I can productively use Instagram in my work. Engaging in an extended dialogue through Instagram is, I think, too much to expect. If Instagram is a calling card, then we have to follow up to make the appointment to engage more fully through other means. Maybe its more like a card in a (global) newsagent’s window.

One key concern for me is the need to be really clear about our aspirations and organise our Instagram use and strategies (and expectations) accordingly. I don’t aspire to be a ‘social influencer’ (now the top career aspiration for young people, apparently – looks like we are going to be reliant on AI for our doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers …), nor to make a million a year as an Instagram star (seriously, who needs that, sitting at laptop all day, generating content …), nor even to max out my likes. So that’s not necessarily where I need to go to develop my Instagram strategy. Better to identify people with whom I share aspirations who have successfully advanced these through Instagram and learn from them. And maybe develop some strategies of my own.

Week 2: Reflection

The webinars with Susan Bright and Victoria Forrest provided real insight into the process of curation and publication. In terms of exhibiting, I’m now thinking more carefully about the relationship between the design of an exhibition and the space available. This is particularly important for multimodal exhibitions, which need to balance providing an collective experience and drawing individual attention and provoking reflection. The Elina Brotherus exhibition did this very successfully. Likewise, book design warrants careful consideration (and specialist assistance or advice). I’m thinking about forms of dissemination and public engagement more carefully, and in an integrated manner, in the development of my project. I’ll revisit both these presentations.

Whilst not intending to develop a business from my photographic work, thinking of the development of my project ‘as a business’ has been very helpful in clarifying who the work is for and what it is intended to achieve. As the work develops I do need to consider financial aspects (and maybe seeking funding), and also legal aspects. In the research proposal, I wrote about the use of the Creative Commons. I need to return to and clarify this in relation to the three levels of work that will be produced.

The development of my project has been mainly in terms of creation of networks, building relationships and creating contexts. This has been very productive, with work arranged with the UCL Student Union volunteering unit (working with volunteer photographers to document the work of volunteers with local community groups), a workshop for the Development Planning Unit at the Bartlett, followed by working with community groups and MSc students on planning and regeneration initiatives, and work for the Centre for Excellence in Equity and Higher Education in Australia (making a series of still photographs relating to projects to supplement short films already made, developing a critical commentary on photovoice style research drawing on projects on domestic violence and on youth offenders in rural areas, and publications on equity in higher education, space and time involving the use of visual arts based research methods and approaches). If all goes to plan, I should be able to line this up with the requirements of each module and the development of the final project. If all goes to plan …

Being out of the country has made it difficult to create images directly relating to the project. I have, though, attempted to develop my portraiture work in preparation for the project. Some preliminary images of family in Guyana below (these require some work – just a quick selection to give a sense of current photographic work). This has given rise to a possible alternative project – I’ll write about this in another post. I have also been working through Roswell Angier’s (2007) book on portrait photography, and will develop the outcomes of the projects from that when I am back in London at the end of the month.

Angier, R. (2007), Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography, Lausanne: AVA Publishing.

Stefan Draschan Museum Project

OK, these images are not so good, but … I was at an exhibition at the Guggenheim on Monday (‘One Hand Clapping’, an exhibition of contemporary art from China; a post on this in my CRJ to follow, when I can catch up) and I thought I’d take a look at the permanent collection. Part way through, I remembered this discussion topic, and took two photos in about 5 minutes – see below. On the way out, I stopped by the gallery door and took a few minutes to look closely at the people going in, particularly the colours they were wearing. I reckon I could match the appearance and colours worn by several people to particular works in the gallery, and could wait for them to get to the relevant work to get the shot. On the basis of this, I think that, given a good deal of patience, a feel for ‘camera syntax’ and quick reactions, you could build up a decent body of work in the style of Draschan. And no need to set up shots (as he stands accused by some). Like Vincent, I certainly don’t think I have the patience, and also don’t feel comfortable hanging around galleries doing this kind of work, but an interesting exercise to try, if only for a short session.

Week 2: Let’s talk business

Like a number of others in the group, it hadn’t been my intention to develop a business from my photographic work, but the module is very constructively provoking me to think carefully about how my work is positioned in the broader field of photographic practice, who the work is for and how it reaches an audience. Given the early stage of my thinking on this, I’ve kept it brief (but aspirational), and related it to the current direction of my final project.

Mission

To use photographic image-making, alongside other media, to understand the social, cultural, political and economic dynamics of urban regeneration, and work collaboratively with residents in achieving positive and equitable outcomes for the local community.

Product

  • Images produced by residents as part of participatory research studies, designed to explore the diversity of life-worlds, circumstances and aspirations of communities.
  • Images produced in collaboration with local stakeholders (residents, activists, researchers, community groups, local government and businesses) to develop photographic and related resources to use in initiatives designed to develop local prosperity and for use in local advocacy.
  • Images produced from my own artistic, emotional and intellectual response to resident and collaborative images and my engagement with the areas and their communities.
  • Workshops for residents and other stakeholders, exhibitions, online and print resources and publications relating to the images produced and the process of image-making.
  • Publications offering critical commentary on visual arts methods in interdisciplinary research and development.

Market

  • Resident, community and local activist groups.
  • Organisations and networks concerned with development, public space, housing and social justice.
  • Local authorities and constituent departments.
  • Academics, researchers and students concerned with urban planning, community development and equity.
  • Arts organisations and galleries wanting to enhance local public engagement.
  • Local college and university departments (including photography, arts, planning, development, architecture, urban anthropology, social science).

Personal learning in plain view

I struggled initially with the idea of producing a personal reflective journal that is both a public document and a component in the assessment for an award bearing course. This struggle was both intellectual (I had difficulty in getting my head around it) and emotional (I was not sure about how I felt about it). Whilst I haven’t totally resolved these struggles, I have, I think, reached a practical and personal resolution (how I am going to deal with it). And, of course, that resolution might only be momentary, and subject to revision as I progress through. Most importantly, though, I have, I think, reached a point where I can turn initial trepidation into a positive commitment. Learning in plain view, through this kind of public private writing, is a good thing.

In reaching a resolution I wanted to avoid the obvious performative solution. Treat successful completion of the degree as the primary function, and manicure the postings to project the image of a successful student. This is a tried and tested approach to any form of reflective journal (I am relatively sure that Erica McWilliam has written something about this in relation to the journals produced by beginning teachers, which I need to check). It is high risk, though, as, to be successful, it requires the writer to have a clear sense of the principles of assessment of the programme (what are the assessors looking for). So, to a degree, you have to be an adept to be able to produce a text that passes as that of a successful student. And there are complexities as the tacit criteria might require failure (and recovery) as part of the process. That is that, the writer may have to walk the tightrope of manufacturing a sufficient vulnerability on the path to ultimate success. There may also be a requirement for a degree of perceived authenticity, or revelation of a sufficient sense of self to authenticate the postings (bearing a watermark). A thought about blockchain technology has just come to mind, where who you are is encoded and preserved for future authentication (though that is an excessively static conception of self). I’m not going to pursue that here.

This is an excessively cynical approach to my mind, and there is the strong odour of bad faith. However, it does not have to be a total strategy, and in making any statement in this kind of environment there will always be a degree of self-checking (what are the consequences of publishing this?). So performativity as a total strategy stinks, but a degree of performativity (a manicured projection of self) is inevitable. The act of writing (and the reflection that that involves) means that we can never just ‘get it all out there’. Writing requires selection and expression and slows things down, though tweeting clearly allows people to just ‘blurt it out’ (to millions of others in some cases). This is not the place to wrestle with Derrida (there’s a post coming on that in due course).

To bring this post to a hasty conclusion, I think my approach is to treat this as a genuinely educational opportunity. To formulate and convey emerging thoughts and practices in a new (for me) domain of endeavour produces something to think about that moves practice forward in, potentially, dialogue and engagement with fellow travellers. Of course, to learn is the primary objective for me in doing this course, and the personal stakes are relatively low in that there are few professional consequences to success or failure (and relatively limited personal consequences, mostly related to self-esteem). To a degree, posting to the blog enables me to formalise my thinking, to put down markers and to remember (and there will be a post on memory ‘prosthetics’; aids to ageing cognitive functioning). It is a place to build something in public view. What’s the advantage over doing this in private? That, maybe, is to do with the pressure that the public exposure brings to take some care in expressing thoughts (but not to the extent necessary for a published paper or book). And it provides a framework for organisation of thoughts and experiences around a particular project (growing as a photographer, and understanding the field). And memory is important, too (‘but you said …’). How do I feel about the seeping out of what is written here to other domains of practice? That’s uncertain. This is for a pedagogic purpose, and it is about exploration not exposition. It’s a supplement to, not replacement of, identity and practice in other areas of life.

Narrative and ‘The Tyranny of Story’

The Tyranny of Story, Parts 1-3, BBC Radio 4, August 2018.

I listened to this three part documentary presented by John Harris on BBC Radio 4 as preparation for a workshop run by co-producers Nina Garthwaite and Alan Hall. The workshop was cancelled, but the programmes raised a number of issues of relevance to the development of my project. In an earlier post, I raised questions about the extent to which photographers can be considered to be storytellers. Following up the programmes, I think I now have a clearer position on this, which can help inform my work. A distinction is drawn between whether (i) our lives fundamentally have a narrative structure, or whether, (ii) whilst episodic in form, our lives should, for our own well-being, be rendered as a narrative, or whether (iii) for mutual comprehensibility and engagement our lives can be presented in narrative form, or whether (iv) presenting lives as narratives is, at best, a distraction or, at worst, a damaging mis-representation, that creates unattainable expectations and encourages self-deception. Galen Strawson’s work, which sees life as episodic, and narrative as a misleading construction (see, as a brief introduction, Strawson, 2015), is interesting in respect of the last of these positions.

It is clear that there is a popular demand for stories/narratives, and that, in order to convey a message, narrative form is a powerful resource. Personally, I like telling and listening to stories. They provide a powerful means of communication, interaction and dialogue. Taken into the political and commercial domain, of course, this desire for and attraction to compelling stories can be used to distract and mislead. Reflecting on the decline in MMR vaccination, for instance, the case is made by neuroscientist Tali Sharot (a colleague from UCL) that stories (whatever their foundation) of catastrophic damage to a loved one hold greater emotional appeal than the narrative of the collective (and individual) benefit of eradicating forms of childhood illness founded on scientific research. The puzzle here is understanding the motivation for construction, propagation and subsequent narrative dissemination of these ‘alternative facts’. One argument might be that this is a popular reaction to professional discourse which dis-empowers ‘ordinary people’.

Whilst some photographers might feel that they are revealing narratives, others may see themselves as constructing narratives. I sit more on the construction side of this, but showing respect to, and in dialogue, and possibly collaboration, with the people being photographed. In this, I lean towards a desire to disrupt narrative form to allow different accounts to be explored and to enable new dialogues. Narrative can be powerful in drawing and holding attention, but is not an end in itself, and ultimately if the production of a greater understanding of others, more open dialogues, new forms of knowledge and new ways of knowing are the desired outcome, subversion of established, and expected, narratives is inevitable.

I’ve talked myself out of being a storyteller here, recognising that story can be a valuable resource, hook or medium, but understanding that this has to be undermined in order to create the space for new dialogues. Maybe I’m a teller of provisional and unstable stories (or a provisional and unstable storyteller). In order not to continuously tell each other stories we already know (and that reinforce our prejudices), and to make space for other ways of being and knowing, we need a wider range of resources, strategies and tactics. A way, maybe, of inquisitively making and unmaking, synthesising and deconstructing narratives to produce something new.

By chance, a few days later I stumbled into another Nina Garthwaite project, the Soundhouse at the Barbican. Here, she and collaborators are attempting to bring creative podcasts into public space, in a gallery-like listening environment. I’ll explore that elsewhere, as part of consideration of ways of presenting work, and the potential of the gallery as a space for public reflection and engagement.

References

Strawson, G. (2015), ‘I am not a story’. Accessed on 29.09.18 at https://aeon.co/essays/let-s-ditch-the-dangerous-idea-that-life-is-a-story

 

 

Week 2: Whose image is it, anyway?

In the legal case between appropriation artist Richard Prince and photographer Phillipe Cariou, both artists appear to have gained in some way from the exposure achieved. This kind of controversy is at the heart of Prince’s practice, and he courts (no pun intended) this kind of attention. Cariou’s work is almost certainly better known than it was previously. Legal actions like this can only come into play when there is some kind of loss (actual or potential) to be compensated. In this case Cariou’s work is not diminished in any sense by Prince’s appropriation. We might be irritated that Prince has ‘made something’ from someone else’s work (both artistically and financially), but the potential for this is not inherent in Cariou’s work. Cariou couldn’t, for instance, have made Prince’s work himself – the ‘value’ (commercially and artistically) of Prince’s work lies in the appropriation and manipulation of the work of others, and in the fact that it is Prince that is doing it (Duchamp’s point with the urinal). These kinds of appropriations and manipulations are everywhere, and we all do it to some extent in our work (I didn’t design or build the C19th colonial building I have just made an image of, and the role in colonial oppression that I might want to convey is, I am sure, no part of the architect’s plan). Aesthetically, I don’t personally like Prince’s work, nor do I find it conceptually significant in any lasting sense. But there are artists, such as Peter Kennard , whose work I do admire (for its directness and clarity of purpose), who work predominantly with other peoples’ images (the bomber used in his piece ‘Conversion’ appears elsewhere in this discussion thread – I don’t think he’ll be suing).

‘Researching reality for me involves ripping photographs out of their context to bring the perpetrators of war and poverty slap bang into the same space as their victims. I want to act as an early warning system, be the canary down the mine. Imagining through images the end result of the direction in which we are heading and picturing people struggling to find another way’ (Peter Kennard in Read and Simmons, 2016: vii).

We are always building on and with something, and I personally wouldn’t want this to be overly restricted by the law (particularly having worked in oppressive jurisdictions where freedom of expression is limited by law).

If it is moral outrage that we feel in seeing Prince’s (and other) appropriations, I don’t think we should turn to the law to do the required ethical work (we’d be constantly in and out of court and consistently not getting the outcome we desire). Whilst recognising that we can’t control how our images (and other creations) are used, we can, through the use, for instance, of the creative commons, signal how we would like our images to be used, and what restrictions or caveats we wish to place (for instance, on whether an image can be freely used for non-commercial purposes, whether we want to be asked and/or acknowledged, whether it can be edited and used in part etc). This doesn’t police and enforce the use of images, but it helps users know when and how they are able to legitimately and without recourse use an image (we do want our images to be seen, right?) and draw a clear(er) ethical line in the sand, so that when those who use and appropriate images cross the line, they do so knowingly. And, of course, if you feel there is any actual or potential direct or indirect loss (financial or reputational, for instance), the courts are ready and waiting, with well trained legal eagles to fight your case (for a price, of course).

Read, M., & Simmons, S. (2016), Photographers and Research: The role of research in contemporary photographic practice, London: Routledge.

Week 1: Reflection

Meeting with a young working photo-journalist as part of the preparation for the module made me feel like a dilettante. It was certainly difficult for him to understand why I might want to develop my photographic practice, independently of any commercial imperative (though he clearly understood the value of political commitment in the production and distribution of impactful work). It was very productive, though, to get some insight into how photographers making very different kinds of images approach their work. It was a pity not to be able to discuss this with others at the webinar (which didn’t run at the time stated, so I had to miss it, and now five hours behind UK, looks like I’ll have to miss the next couple, too).

I’m not a professional photographer, and don’t intend to become one, so I knew that this module would be challenging. I think, though, that I have figured out how to get the most from it, and how, I hope, I can make a constructive contribution. I found the introductory activities a useful way to become acquainted with the work, and lives, of others on the programme, and it was good to catch up again with the people who did Positions and Practices last session. Working in a larger group of people in different stages of the programme is certainly going to be a different experience.

I was able to relate the Max Ferguson’s insight into magazine publication to the dissemination of my own work (and thinking carefully about the three forms/domains of image making that my final project will involve, and how these will be presented and circulated, and find an audience). The advice on the use of social media (to communicate the distinctiveness of your work) and personal website (to concentrate on personal projects) was really helpful.

In terms of developing my own work, this has focused mostly on making contacts and relationships, and arranging settings for image making later in the year. Creating a portfolio for this module is going to be challenging as the image making will be end loaded. At this point, making images will mostly be about refining technique and developing a distinctive style. I am also having to come to terms with travelling and being away from the places in London where I will be doing photographic work, and the impact this has on advancing my project and producing work for assessment in this module.