Assignment 6: initial thoughts

I’ve been a little quiet on here lately as I switched to focusing on my other course Documentary for a while. I have however decided that realistically I only have the time to complete one of my Level 2 courses in time for the January submission deadline, and that one will be Gesture & Meaning as I am closest to the end, and Documentary finishes with a rather large photographic assignment which I am only a little way through – G&M finishes with an essay, which is much more achievable in the remaining winter months!

Critical review – thought process

I had originally envisaged an essay based around portraiture, specifically that which obscures the face, as this is an area of interest to me as a viewer (but not especially as a photographer). However, after some discussions with my tutor it became apparent that it would be more useful to focus on areas that align better with my own evolving practice, which leans more towards documentary than any other genre, and I’m not much of a portrait photographer really. I switched to covering portraiture for the oral presentation, albeit with a documentary twist. For the critical review I needed to get back to basics and find a subject that both interested me and fit in with my own practice.

I thought about what aspects of my Level 2 courses (both of them) have made the most impression on me this year, and which of them lend themselves best to a critical review. The aforementioned ‘faceless portrait’ concept was one, but not related enough to my own practice. The possibilities of authorship in documentary photography was another, so I covered this in my critical review for Documentary.

I remembered that I’d attended the OCA symposium Photography Matters in May this year and came away with a sense that I had identified a consistent thread across most of the papers presented: in one way or another, they had explored the limitations of the still photograph, and suggested ways of overcoming the limitations. In particular, the paper by Keith Roberts on archival portrait pairing struck a chord with me. This tangentially led to a thought process that brought me to the proposed critical review topic…

Proposed subject

I am interested in the use of photography for storytelling, as this is one of the foundations of documentary photography. The notion of storytelling is not limited to documentary photography and can also be applied to fictional narratives such as fine art photography or advertising.

Whilst the ability of photography to tell stories is generally predicated on the use of multiple photographs (e.g. the photo essay format), there are some photographers who have attempted to make a single photograph carry a narrative. This is however working against the photograph’s inherent nature as a still, single, silent, flat artefact.

What I am interested in is the range of approaches that have been adopted by photographers over the years to work around the narrative limitations of the still photograph. In an age when the vast majority of visual news media is audio-visual, does still photography continue to have a narrative purpose? If so, how?

So my working title is:

Can a photograph tell a story?

The title may evolve as I plan and draft the text, so I will revise this towards the end.

Other inspirations

In addition to the symposium mentioned above, I recalled a few other pointers that I’ve picked up over my studies that relate to this subject area, and will form part of my reading for the essay:

  • John Berger’s essays ‘Appearances’ and ‘Stories’ in Understanding a Photograph (2013)
  • An old Alec Soth blog post on storytelling
  • A quote by photobook designer Ania Nalecka: “A photobook gives you dots to connect, not drawing the lines. The question is how far you put the dots apart.” (2016)

Expected areas to investigate

  • Characteristics of the photograph (including limitations)
  • Application of storytelling (factual, fictional)
  • Juxtaposition with other images (single images, part of series)
  • Use of text – captioning, context, embedded text etc
  • Composite photography inc collage
  • Camera techniques e.g. timelapse, multiple exposure, ICM etc
  • Application of semiotics e.g. metaphorical signifiers

Next steps

  • Start a draft mind map
  • Collate some reading material

4 thoughts on “Assignment 6: initial thoughts

  1. helen 30 November 2016 / 12:53

    Sounds good – looking forward to reading it.


    • Rob Townsend 05 December 2016 / 17:09

      Thanks! Question is, am I looking forward to writing it…? :-/


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