Public private writing

I am still struggling with the idea of producing a reflective journal that is both a public document and a component in the assessment of an award bearing course. This struggle is both intellectual (I am having difficulty in getting my head around it) and emotional (I am not sure about how I feel about it). I am not going to be able to resolve these struggles here, but should, at least, produce a practical 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.

The simplest resolution might appear to be performative. 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), and the ability to produce appropriate evidence. 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. Anyway, here we are only addressing the inward (course assessment) element of the journal. Managing this alongside projection of a public persona  adds a further, very demanding, level of complexity.

This is, in any case, 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. To do otherwise is a lost opportunity to learn. Of course, to learn is the primary objective for me in doing this course, and the stakes are relatively low in that there are no professional or life-chance consequences to success or failure (and only a few personal consequences, mostly related to self-esteem). To a degree, posting to the blog enables me to formalise and organise my thinking, to put down markers and to remember (and there will be a post on memory ‘prosthetics’; aids to supplement ageing cognitive functioning). It is a place to build something in public view.

Why not do this in private? That, maybe, is to do with the positive pressure that the public exposure exerts to take some care in expressing thoughts (but not the degree of care needed 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), that might also offer something of value to others. And memory is important, too (‘but you said …’). How do I feel about the bleeding 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.

Draft presentation feedback

Really useful feedback from Michael on initial draft, and on the draft video from others in the webinar this week. Michael encouraged me to be more confident in presentation of my work and ‘project a positive view as an artist’, which helped me to take out the hedging, and to feel more positively about my work myself. He also asked what kind of photographer I was. Thinking this through, I decided to present crossing genres (and resisting, for instance, being a landscape, or and architectural, or a documentary photographer) as a positive aspect of my practice (and not having to develop a professional identity helps me to be able to do this). I moved the ‘swimmer’ image to the beginning of the pool images – he was absolutely right about the need to give a clearer sense of context for these images. I also tried (and failed) to say less about the images (maybe at a later point in time; for the moment anxiety rules). All much appreciated.

Jesse suggested I could lose the material on the RPS award and use the time to better effect – I agree, and will do that. Catarina observed that whilst a chronological organisation has some benefits, it would be better to put the Roding Valley Park material together. Absolutely – will do that for sure. Paul, as ever, provided numerous pathways and other photographers to follow up. I have a list, and will get to work on these. Thanks, everyone.

I’m leaving the draft in the CRJ by way of illustration of development.

 

Artists on the cutting room floor

Putting together the draft presentation for this module provoked me to think about my engagement with the work of particular artists. I can’t say artists that have influenced me, as I don’t, as yet, have a sufficiently mature practice to have been influenced. These are artists that I have encountered as a viewer, and have been engaged by their work. None of this will go into the presentation, but I want to continue to think about my relationship with particular bodies of work, so some simple blog posts might help to do this.

The artists that immediately came to mind were: Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Helen Chadwick, Peter Greenaway, Simon Hantai, Richard Long and Keith Arnatt. In each case there are either particular exhibitions or particular works that have left an impression (sometimes both, the latter leading to the former or vice versa). All except Hantai have produced photographic work. It would be mundane to just take the artist and write about them, and this kind of cataloguing wouldn’t provide a sufficient motivation for me to do it. Rather, I will take a theme to explore in each case. First throughs are: blur (Richter), myth (Twombly), self (Chadwick), process (Hantai), classification (Greenaway), movement (Long) and performance (Arnatt). But that might change. And there are others in the waiting room.

Draft presentation: Week 6

For discussion at the webinar on Friday 13th July. It took a while to find the right tools to do this. In the end, I used Keynote to put together the presentation and do the voice-over. Then exported as a movie and edited in QuickTime Player before uploading to Vimeo, and embedding the video here in my CRJ. This is a first attempt at the draft. I need a couple more images – one for the spoken introduction (to go on or after the title page) and one for the end of the presentation (to go before the references). The references are a work in progress. I assume that it is OK to use the images under fair use, but would like advice on that before publicly posting the final presentation. There are a few stumbles here and there – I’ll re-record when the final form of the presentation is decided. All feedback welcome.

Ethical practice: Week 5 reflection

Only a brief comment, belatedly, this week. Overtaken by the imperative to get the draft presentation in decent shape before the webinar. The ethical codes that shape my work as a researcher are pretty elaborate (the British Sociological Association and the British Education Research Association), so I have kept my ‘manifesto’ short and simple, but aspirational.

I aspire to produce engaging, informed and insightful work that has the potential to challenge, supplement and transform understanding of our (however defined) intertwined lives, societies, cultures and environments and those of others, in a way that is open, dialogic, honest, respectful and equitable. And to keep learning.

Practice will always throw up ethical challenges, and its important to address these in a consistent and transparent manner. Openness, honesty and respect are key for me, here. I am certainly wary of assertion of a privileged access to truth, which would seem to close off the possibility of any meaningful dialogue. Inquisitiveness would seem to serve us better.

Creative collaboration: Week 4 reflection

The collaborative activity this week provided a number of opportunities to develop my own practice as a photographer, in addition to getting to know the work of others in the cohort and to learn by working alongside them in a joint activity. An account of the focus of and motivation for the collaborative activity, and the method we adopted, is given in the post Looking for Derges: A collaborative project by Julie Dawn Dennis, Michael Turner and Andrew Brown. The final images produced are presented in the gallery post Collaboration project final images, and some of the source images I contributed are given in this gallery. In this post, I am going to focus on issues relating to collaborative production in the visual arts that arise from the collaborative activity and associated reading, not the procedural details of the activity.

My particular focus in this reflection is collaboration in the creative arts, and inter-disciplinary collaboration involving visual artists. The activity gave us some experience of working together as visual artists (our particular focus, drawing inspiration from the artist, Susan Derges, was explicitly concerned with the production of artistic work using photography).

Reflecting on the collaborative activity there appear to be a number of stages in the process: (i) reconnaissance and selection (scanning the interests of others and settling on one option amongst many, which involves judgement of the potential of each in relation to ones own interests); (ii) resolution of interests (shaping the focus together and adapting the activity to accommodate the range of interests and expertise of the group, exploration and research into artists, bodies of work and practices); (iii) determining working practices and timeline (figuring out how we work together and getting to know other members of the group, negotiating the stages of the project and the division of labour, agreeing communication, working practices, outcomes and milestones); (iv) production and negotiation (producing and sharing images, re-orienting the project in the light of experience, giving feedback, making selections); (v) constructing final images and narratives (determining and creating the final outcomes of the project including images, how they are presented and the narratives that accompany them and reflect on the process). As a pedagogic activity, carried out over a limited time period and not published or presented publicly, there are a number of issues that are less critical than they would be otherwise. For instance, the extent to which the focus and outcomes of the project fit with the artistic identities of the members of the group (and the extent to which these can be subjugated in the cause of the coherence of the project). Related to this is the issue of authorship, and whether the outcomes are attributed to the group or to individual members within the group. In our case, we were happy to attribute group authorship (everyone contributed images to each of the final products, and everyone produced at least one of the final composites). In a higher stakes collaboration, the question of attribution and ownership needs to be resolved at the outset, as potentially this can jeopardize the collaboration. It would be possible for individually attributed work to arise from collaborative activity. Alternatively, a collective identity could be produced for attribution of outcomes. Whilst this might be less of an issue in inter-disciplinary collaboration, where each participant has a clear sense of the relevance of outcomes to their particular areas of practice, there remains a question about the extent to which each participant influences overall and individual outcomes: are, for instance, visual artists attributed joint authorship of scientific papers, and are scientists given joint authorship of artistic work? I’ll return to this with examples in a later post, I think. I also wish to reflect on the limitation of the concept of artistic ‘practice’ in the light of the benefits and demands of collaborative work (I have in mind here the extent to which a fetishization of individual practice can limit productive collaboration in the arts). Finally, the tight timescale in this activity limited the extent to which (under pressure to deliver an outcome by the end of the week) we could engage in critical dialogue. This critical engagement is essential to fruitful collaboration, but with limited time can inhibit process. In any collaborative activity, it is essential to figure out how this critical dialogue is facilitated and managed (this is discussed by the Beth and Tom Atkinson in the course material).

The benefits of this activity for my own practice as a photographer have been immense. I have learnt more about the work of Susan Derges through a practical engagement with it and discussion with others in the group, and I have learnt from working alongside other photographers. I have produced work that is very different from the work I have done in the past, and I think that collectively we have produced something we could (or at least would) not have individually. I have learnt from the process of collaborative production and the use of online tools to facilitate this collaboration at a distance. A certain facility with Photoshop was assumed by the group members, which I certainly do not have, and this has enabled me to explore Photoshop and develop my ability to produce composite images. In the webinar, we received very positive feedback from other members of the cohort, who were impressed by the quality and originality of the outcomes, particularly in the time available. Within the group, we were concerned about the ‘muddiness’ of the complex composite images, in comparison to the simplicity and clarity of Derges’s camera less images. For me, this warrants further exploration of the the use of camera less and other alternative processes in producing images. So whilst we were pleased with the outcomes, we can see a number of areas for development that arise from this.

Other groups took a very different approach. One group did produce a composite image from three minimalist images produced by the group members. There was some discussion about the extent to which this final, highly complex and enigmatic, image was successful. Suggestions were made about how the image might be cropped or re-orientated, and the extent to which lack of a clear focus for the image was a strength or a limitation, with viewers hunting around the image to make meaning. The third group presenting at the webinar produced a sequence of impressive graphic black and white photographs from domestic settings, interleaved with quotes from photographers and theorists about the process of photographic observation. The juxtaposition of the images produced by different members of the group was particularly striking. This represented a very different, but no less effective, form of collaboration, where individuals with a shared set of interests contributed images to a final collective presentation.

From the webinar discussion, I have no doubt that the interaction that took place in the process of production of a collective outcome was a great value to the members of all the groups in the development of their own work. There is clearly greater scope for critical dialogue about our work, but, at this early stage in the course, I feel we are in the process of developing greater confidence in our own work and our relationship with other members of the cohort.

Collaboration project final images

These are the final images produced for the Week 4 collaborative project with Julie Dawn Dennis and Michael Turner. We each contributed images and the composites, each of which contain at least one image from each member of the team, were created using Photoshop. There’s a description of the motivation for the project, the process and source material here. My personal reflections are here and some of the images I contributed are here. The inital inspiration for the project came from the work of Susan Derges.

 

 

Images for collaborative project

Each member of the team for the collaborative project created source material images from which to construct the composites. One of our themes was the relationship between nature and self, and we initially intended to create an imaginary place from images from our own locale. We also wanted to experiment with forms of image making. For five of these images, I shot into pieces of wood and tiles that had been painted in black gloss (inspired by the work of Jorma Puranen).

 

Looking for Derges: A collaborative project by Julie Dawn Dennis, Michael Turner and Andrew Brown

This is the joint statement about the project produced by the group.

The group took initial inspiration from images by Susan Derges. Our approach was collaborative from the start, attempting to bring together each member’s interests and locations with themes and working practices drawn from Derges’s work.  We have attempted to address a number of questions that have engaged Derges, in particular the relationship between self and nature and between the imagined and the ‘real’, and the effect of the observer on the observed. These themes have informed both our process and the final images. We have also adopted aspects of Derges’s method, for instance in the use of experiments (in our case in making images and in exploring water droplets and effects of evaporation). We have chosen to present our final images in the circle format of some of Derges’s recent work. As there is little sense of scale in our composites, we felt that this format conveyed a sense of the ambiguity of both looking in to an inner world and out to an imagined (in our case composite) landscape.

There are, though, a number of ways in which we have departed from Derges’s method, for instance in the use of digital cameras (her work is largely camera-less) and in the creation of composites using photoshop (rather than use of experimental image making methods to produce a single image). Our approach has enabled us to produce a small body of original images in a short period of time through a genuinely collaborative process. We have acknowledged the inspiration of Susan Derges’s images and approach, and our desire, through collaborative image-making, to gain a greater understanding of this work, in the title of the project: ‘Looking for Derges’.

Our method

Our starting point was to take inspiration from images produced by Susan Derges, with particular attention to the relationship between self and nature, and to see if we could take photographs that could be layered to produce images that in some sense resonated with those of Derges. We initially thought we might take images from our respective locations and construct from these, another ‘imaginary’ place. As the group formed, and as we explored Derges’s work (see sources list below) and considered what might be possible in the time available, other points of personal and collective interest came into play. New themes emerged (for instance, loneliness and making images from nature rather than of nature) and approaches to image making inspired by Derges’s work were explored (for instance, experimenting with the evaporation of water droplets and seeing, through macro photography, change take place as water stains formed and pollen fell on the surface). The group members shared images from their experiments and photographic explorations of their local areas and discussed (through the discussion group and face to face video conference) how these could be combined using layering to form composites. Those adept with Photoshop produced composites to consider. We settled on a circle format for the images, as this both acknowledges an aspect of Derges’s recent practice, and is particularly suited to the emerging focus of the project. The images produced are more complex than initially envisaged, which is testament to the value of collaborative work. Our use of digital technology and editing in Photoshop, whilst allowing us to produce some aesthetically pleasing images, may, however, have drawn us away from the camera-less simplicity of many of Derges’s images (for instance, in her Moon and Ash series). There is clearly great scope for further experimentation with this type of work. The final composite images produced are here.

As well as being of great personal and collective value, the process, and the outcomes, are true, in a very modest way, to Derges’s emphasis on process and her aspiration to produce images that are more than ‘illustrating an idea … I’m not telling someone how it is, I’m triggering them to open up to their own experience to either remember or grasp and explore a set of imaginative or reflective processes … It is very much about an exchange or communication’ (Derges quoted in Read & Simmons, 2016, p.124).

 Sources

Galleries:

Derges, S. (n.d.). Purdy Hicks Gallery website. http://www.purdyhicks.com/display.php?aID=116#14. Accessed 28 June 2018.

Derges, S. (n.d.). Artist’s website. http://susanderges.co.uk/. Accessed 28 June 2018.

Videos:

Derges, S. (2010). Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography. Video, V&A, 2010. https://vimeo.com/13149808. Accessed 28 June 2018.

Derges, S. (2012). ICP Photographers Lecture Series. Video, International Center of Photography, 14 March 2012. https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/media/icp-photographers-lecture-series-susan-derges. Accessed 28 June 2018.

Interviews:

Derges, S. (2016). ‘Case study’ in M. Read & S. Simmons (2016), Photographers and Research: The role of research in contemporary photographic practice. London: Routledge. 114-125.

Derges, S. (2015). ‘Water, Life and Photography’. Interview with Colin Pantall, 28 September 2015. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com/2015/09/susan-derges-water-life-and-photography.html. Accessed 28 June 2018.

Technology and the Profession(s) and Practice(s) of Photography: Week 3 reflection

Richard and Daniel Susskind (2015) explore the impact of new technology, and in particular artificial intelligence and machine learning, on a range of professional groups, the institutions in which they work and the organisations that regulate their practice. They argue that we are entering a period of fundamental change in what we expect of the professions and how they operate, and call on practitioners to ‘think more widely and strategically, and to be tolerant of the possibility of change in their own disciplines’ (p.4). The areas of practice that they address include health, education, law, journalism, management consulting, tax and audit, and architecture. Whilst photography, as a profession, is not explicitly discussed, photography as a practice is clearly implicated in the changes that are taking place in the professions. Those who make a living as photographers will need to consider both how new technologies and the resulting changes in their own practice, and in the wider professional contexts within which they operate, will impact on what it means to be a photographer. The discussion topic this week has focused very much on journalism as a professional context, though the guest lectures have also raised important issues in relation to new technology, and in particular the critical role of visual artists.

Hayley Morris-Cafiero, through the circulation of images via social media, and subsequently a critical engagement with others through social media, highlights the critical role that photography can play in revealing and confronting social injustice and discrimination. Edmund Clark explores contexts in which the actions and expertise of multiple professional groups intersect and interact, and through his complex multi-modal works (in which the visual, and more specifically, photographic, is a major component) raises questions and illuminates practices, as a visual artist, that construct and contest social order, and the impact on institutions and individuals (as both subjects and objects of institutional activity). In both cases digital technology enhances and facilitates the work (more emphatically, these technologies are a pre-condition for the work).

So whilst innovation in photographic production and networked distribution of images transforms the wider field of photography, the potential for critical art is enhanced, both by the technology and the increased opportunity for inter-disciplinary collaboration. A place for visual arts is held open, not solely through appreciation of human craft (albeit in new areas of craft activity in a digital and post-digital age), and the enhanced ‘generic’ and employment related skills developed through a visual arts education (such as new forms of communication and community building, modes of working and collaborating, ways of engaging with data, creative problem posing and solving) but in the production of work that provokes, challenges and potentially transforms our understandings.

I wouldn’t, at this point in time, consider myself to be a photographer, but rather as on a journey into photography, or perhaps, more broadly, visual arts using photography. That sets a sense of direction, rather than marking out an identity. This is not just a point in time issue. More generally, a degree of fluidity in identity seems more fitting to the 21st Century, identities which, empirically, are always multiple and in flux, as much through changes in context as through a changing personal sense of self and community. Viewed in this way, personal trajectory becomes of greater interest, and cogency, than assertion or achievement of an identity. It’s a journey with a particular destination in mind, but recognising that both the place itself and the traveller are in a state of change and development. Arrival, if that ever happens, will inevitably be other than envisioned at the outset. And the effect for the traveller is to supplement, not replace, who they are and how they are seen by others. Calvino (1974, 1981) explores this better than I ever could.

In addressing the discussion question, I am learning to be (and be seen as) a photographer, in a time in which the idea of photography as profession is fragmented and radically challenged. In this context, the practices and communities associated with, and enveloping, photography and where we sit in relation to these, become more important than the idea of a profession. And finding this place involves critical engagement with all technologies, old and new, associated with photographic image making in the development of a distinctive voice, and the potential to supplement and enhance the practices of others, in other disciplines as well as in photography and the visual arts.

Calvino, I. (1974). Invisible Cities. Translated by W. Weaver. London: Vintage.

Calvino, I. (1981). If on a winter’s night a traveller. Translated by W. Weaver. London: Vintage.

Susskind, R. & Susskind, D. (2015). The Future of the Professions: How technology will transform the work of human experts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.