Assignment 5: tutor feedback

Due to circumstances beyond her control, the tutor report back from my Assignment 5 (oral presentation) arrived a little while after the tutorial itself, and I confess that I have had the report a little while myself before getting around to writing this up. I’m reworking the assignment itself today, so this seems like an opportune time to go over the feedback and add my own comments.

General comments

Overall it went down well:

“I found your response to this assignment quite refreshing Rob – the presentation was structured and presented clearly with a pleasing visual treatment, which I felt strengthened its accessibility and my enjoyment of it.”

I was reminded to be more consistent and thorough in documenting my visual analysis:

“Remember to keep building up the depth of your research notes on written assignments as well as practical ones – especially re: image analysis and critical theory relating to illustrations you decide to work with – particularly relevant to the next and final assignment”

Specific pointers

Some pieces of advice, with my comments as appropriate:

  • Section intro slides left blank for up to 20 seconds – some reviewers commented on this
    • I will experiment with reducing this time in rework
  • Add list of illustrations to Acknowledgements slide (original version has photographer names only)
    • Good point – will do
  • As noted by some peer comments – the vocal has a certain echo, that if you have the time and resources, you could consider re-recording
    • Yes, I do intend to re-record now I have identified how to attach an external microphone directly to my computer
  • Daniel Meadows’ example images don’t really align with voiceover point about being non-judgemental / democratic, as boy on left looks ill-at-ease
    • Agreed, there are better supporting examples so I will update this slide to replace that image and ideally add more
  • Although you’ve clearly put a lot of time and research into this assignment and reflection is certainly well evidenced, I don’t feel specific research (into your sources or images) is logged as clearly as it could be. I would say it would be worthwhile writing any of these notes of critique and analysis up and tag clearly in the appropriate section before assessment.
    • Yes, accepted – I can augment the existing notes somewhat
  • You have posted several updates with the planning of this assignment, documenting concept and structure development, questions you’ve had and how you’ve dealt with certain challenges. This is a very useful record, which you’ve managed to make visual with use of screenshots and image ‘boards’ – I particularly find the latter useful in how it alludes to the criteria you’re setting yourself and patterns you might be seeing across certain images. As the actual text for this post is quite short, it would have been fantastic if this could have been followed up with further reflection on final images used (from later in the process), as you don’t refer to them specifically again.
    • Again, I concede that I could fill in some of the written gaps in my decision-making process
    • I have added more notes in the preparatory post I did shortly before completion

Assignment 5: Portrait Not Portrait [original]

This is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.

This assignment is an oral presentation of just over 16 minutes on the subject of Portraiture as a Device in Documentary Photography.

As part of this assignment I’d like to do a Virtual Q&A, so please imagine you’ve seen me present this in a room and I’ve now asked if anyone has any questions. Have a think and put your virtual hand up by using the Leave a Reply form below.


Thank you.


Assignment 5: image decisions

I believe I’ve finalised the content of my oral presentation Portrait Not Portrait after an intensive few days pulling it together. I’ve done the slides themselves, written a script per slide and done a few runs through.

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 11.23.33.jpg

I just need to do the voiceover and it should be ready for upload and comment.

This post is to talk a little about how and why I chose the example images. Apologies, it’s quite long. I used a lot of images!

Overall principles

I looked at the key points I was trying to make per section, and at the examples I had selected and tried to map how I was representing each topic:

  • Eras of time covered in the ‘history’ section
    • In an early version I had too much from the 1930s/40s
  • Colour palette
    • As black and white historically tended to dominate documentary photography
    • In the end it was just about tipped (16:15) in favour of colour
  • Nationalities of photographer
    • As I’m conscious of bias to US/UK in a lot of academic sources
    • In the end it was almost but not quite evenly split between US, UK and the rest of the world
  • Gender
    • There’s been a clear gender bias throughout history, so aiming for 50:50 would have been unrealistic and unrepresentative
    • It was 80% male, 20% female for quite a while, but I ended up taking Dorothea Lange out (sorry, Dorothea) and ended up with 84% to 16%

In the end I’m happy with the edit and the flow. I’m sure I could have built many different versions. I’m sure I’ve excluded some important people and examples.

General images

I sought images for certain pages that didn’t necessarily need to support particular voiceover points but rather could just exist as simple visual punctuation.

The opening and closing slides were chosen for their composition – full-length  body shots – as I needed to overlay text blocks and this would not have worked with closer compositions, with the risk of obscuring facial features. Additionally, as full-screen images they needed to be in landscape ratio, not the norm for portraiture.

The Alec Soth image on the title slide is a great example of both the documentary and portraiture genres as it evokes the aesthetic most closely associated with the former and the single-subject focus of the latter. Getting specific at a graphic level, the horizontal pipe in the background perfectly dissected the image  and gave me space for the text block.

The David Chancellor image is visually useful in the same way, with its strong horizontal delineation that accommodates the text block. The colours and the punctum of the bloodied face are what makes this a striking closing image. As an aside, this is one of the slides where I picked a key colour from the photograph to use as the title text colour – a tiny point but one that I feel subtly helps the image and text work together coherently.

The contents page and the ‘What’ section title also needed images that made no specific point but gave examples of the breadth of the genre. I was drawn to both the composition and the muted palette of the Phil Borges image, as both differed sufficiently from all the other examples to get across my intended diversity . The face paint is later echoed by the Chancellor image, though I only noticed after the event. There’s a tiny punctum in the Borges photo that makes it successful: the biro cap on the necklace. There’s a story there, and seeing the image makes me want to know more.

The Mimi Mollica image is more in the traditional documentary photography tradition as seen by both the mono palette and the setting. It’s the thin, scarred face that makes this image so striking; again it begs for a narrative explanation.

For the brief comparison of portraiture vs documentary I wanted images that typified the genres. I love the Julian Germain image – it has the direct, consensual focus on one person that I wanted to get across, and possesses a warmth and humanity that’s helped by the colour palette and lighting.

The Mary Ellen Mark example is stereotypical documentary. Black and white, gritty subject matter, urban setting, subjects not addressing the camera. This all helped serve my point that documentary photography is about a wider reality over individual subjects.

For the other context slide where I talk about how a traditional portrait is different to a documentary portrait I wanted to make a simple point about the subject focus being the differentiator. The Christoph Soeder image is one I’ve done a visual analysis of already, but in short I felt it illustrated my point about a ‘pure’ portrait being both of and about the individual.

The photo by Brent Stirton uses props and a background that make it clear that the human subject is but one part of a bigger story. I was happy here to invert a couple of the genre norms: the colour palette is one and the gaze to camera (or  not) is the other. I wanted to show that the norms that I had established were not set in stone.


It felt appropriate to open the historical section with an August Sander, and I felt that one of his most famous images would work best.

Starting with the typology section: the John Lamprey diptych was chosen above similar examples by other photographers for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the use of frontal and profile views in one image, particularly against the grid background, really emphasised my point about treating people as specimens. Secondly, the only nudes in the presentation are, in an inversion of the general photographic norm, male rather than female.

For the specific Sander examples I wanted multiple images to emphasise the posing similarities. I chose three with differences in contrast: the first in shades of grey and the latter two with strong figure-to-ground contrast. My intent here was to show that though poses can be standardised, Sander did find ways of providing visual diversity. For me this set of three images is an exercise in first of all spotting the similarities, then the differences.

The Daniel Meadows images were chosen as I wanted to break the run of adult males in this section, so I selected a child and a woman. I found the boy’s face in particular very striking. [UPDATE: on advice from my tutor I will replace this image as it doesn’t align closely enough with my voiceover point about the images being non-judgemental; it could be interpreted that the boy was ill-at-ease and potentially had learning difficulties, and could therefore have been exploited.]

I felt that the social documentary section would work well opening with a Lewis Hine child labour portrait, and settled on this one for the unsettling gaze of the subject, and the diminishing perspective behind. The separation of subject and background seems to me to emphasise that she doesn’t belong there.

I wanted to include at least one iconic FSA-era image and at one point had both this Walker Evans picture and Lange’s Migrant Mother, but the later got cut. As noted in the voice-over, the visual style of this is very distinctive, with lens compression pushing the subject so close to the wall that she looks pinned, which could be a signifier.

The Chris Killip images as a contrast to the previous two head-on portraits to show how documentary portraiture had evolved by the 1970s. I find the graphical form of the first image very arresting – bunched up in an almost foetal position; the despair is tangible. The second image is one that is analysed in an excellent book The Documentary Impulse (2016) by Stuart Franklin, where it is used as an example of ambiguity in documentary photography. This pair of images made my point about a portrait not needing to clearly show a person’s face, and how this can heighten a metaphorical message. I also like the pleasing symmetry of the two subjects both sitting on walls. The distinctive brickwork places the tightly-cropped subjects in a specific urban environment with minimal detail.

Once I move onto self-expressive documentary it seemed obvious (perhaps too obvious?) to cover Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin. With hindsight these two make largely the same point about the autobiographical nature of some documentary portraiture. In both I was drawn to the piercing, challenging gaze.

Richard Billingham‘s Ray’s A Laugh project came to mind while researching this assignment, and I looked for images that most resembled portraiture – most of the images are wider scenes. I think it’s the masks in the background that make this image. It may not be an intended reading but masks always signify identity to me, and I read the overall project as a kind of examination of family roles and identities.


I open the contemporary section with an image by Chris de Bode, whose work I also discuss within the section. I find this opening image visually striking mostly because of the strong gaze.

The Charles Fréger set that opens the typology slide is intended to be a counterpart to the Sander trio from earlier, to draw out the differences in approach. This project and these portraits in particular appealed to me because, as well as getting over my point about diversity of subject, they just look so young and ill-at-ease that I find them fascinating.

Wherever possible I wanted to introduce sufficient contrast to make my points, so moved from Fréger’s deadpan colour poses to Zed Nelson‘s characterful black and white squares. As well as the strong mono contrasts, it’s the expressions that bring these alive, particularly on the chap on the right.

The contemporary social documentary slide is where I talk about Chris de Bode, though I’d used what I consider his best image as the section opener so looked for his second best. Like the earlier shot it combines a great facial expression with good background context.

The Lee Jeffries project I researched produced many strong images but this was most visually striking. It’s the combination of glassy eyes (cataracts?), the deeply aged skin and the running nose. This stood out as the best example of what Jeffries called the ‘heavy emotions’ he encounters in his subjects.

Boris Mikhailov is used as an counterpoint to the previous two examples that social documentary is more ethical now than before, and in some cases it’s the opposite. This particular image was chosen, to be honest, because most of the others were a little too extreme and would have been more jarring in the presentation context.

Finally in this section, I wanted to bring in photographers that push the boundaries of ‘documentary’ and how their portraits can overlap into fine art. Tom Hunter and his Vermeer homage sprang to mind immediately. It’s a good example of an identifiable art style being adopted, and so is a nice gentle introduction to the notion of hybrid genres before getting more conceptual with the next example.

The Aida Silvestri work is something I saw at The Photographers Gallery a couple of years ago and it stayed in my mind. It’s an amazing blend of documentary, fine art and portraiture, and it completely subverts the portraiture norm of showing the face. Obscured face portraits is something of an interest of mine.

Moving from something so conceptual to the straight photography style of Alex Soth might seem like a odd move, but I wanted to close with a style more like my own before I segue into my own practice. Soth is an art-documentarian in a much more subtle way than the others, in as much as his work is shot in a very naturalistic way, yet has an elegiac, melancholy feel to it that is difficult to articulate.


Putting together this last section was almost the inverse of the first parts – rather than structuring a line of argument and then sourcing images that support the theory, for this part I needed to collate a cross-section of my own work for the last few years and retrospectively find common threads, then apply these to the points raised in my analysis of the work of others.

Without going overboard on the self-analysis here, I found examples of:

  • Typologies
  • Archetypes (metonyms)
  • Narrative devices
  • Metaphor
  • Portrait subject as key part of story

One consequence of this assignment is that I’m realising that the most valuable part hasn’t been demonstrating my knowledge of the subject, but examining my own work.

The whole last section has been a revelation to me. I got a lot out of retrospectively identifying what I was doing and why – and more importantly I felt that I got a lot out of articulating what I will do with this knowledge in future.

The cutting room floor

Just FYI, here are some images I considered as part of my research but ultimately excluded:

Assignment 5: progress

As well as doing a mind map recently to organise my overall thoughts for this presentation, I have been working on a number of other strands in terms of context, structure and key messages – summarised here as a progress update as otherwise it might look like the final assignment arrived fully-formed (far from it).

My tutor is always reminding me that I need to document my working processes as I go along, layering up to the final delivered piece of work. I think this applies to academic assignments like critical reviews and oral presentations as much as photographic ones.

To this end, here are some reasonably structured updates on how I’ve been approaching the assignment.


I’m a huge believer in the importance of a good title – I’ve blogged about this before on previous assignments. I often find that a project really starts clicking into place when I believe I have a title that suits it.

This time around I was looking for a succinct main title – short titles suit audio-visual presentations in my opinion – that could be further clarified with a subtitle.

One of the driving forces behind my attraction to the subject matter is my fascination that one genre of photography is used within another, yet subverts its original intent – a ‘true portrait’ is about the individual, while a ‘documentary portrait’ uses an individual to represent a wider point. The former is defined ‘inside-out’ while the latter is defined ‘outside-in’, if that makes sense. I want to get across this ‘it is but it isn’t a portrait‘ dichotomy.

My planned title for the presentation is:

Portrait Not Portrait

My more descriptive subtitle is in effect my working title so far:

Portraiture as a device in documentary photography


I had originally envisaged a simple three-part structure following the advice of my tutor:

  • History
  • Contemporary practice
  • My own practice

Working on the aforementioned mind map made me realise that there is a need for a short upfront section at the beginning to define my terms. It’s just a couple of slides but it really helps to correctly frame everything that follows. In particular I wanted to clearly present my distinction between a traditional portrait and a documentary portrait, as described above.


I’m increasingly a visual thinker, so as well as doing the mind map I really wanted to make sure I had a presentation format that I felt best served the content. T0 this end, after I’d started my research and brainstorming I mocked up the presentation template that I want to the content to drop into.

My main criteria were:

  • Image-centric
  • Clean and contemporary

So far I am working with the template shown below:

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 11.13.23.jpg

Seeing the presentation itself take shape in parallel with the content being formed and tweaked is how I work best on things like this. The building up of the presentation in layers, filling in levels of detail iteratively, suits the way my mind works.


Here’s a summary of the planned content of the presentation and the arguments I want to get across.

“What” – definitions

I’m reasonably comfortable with these two slides so far:

  • One defining genres of portraiture and documentary photography
  • One differentiating between a traditional portrait and one used as a documentary device

“Then” – history

In the mind mapping stage I worked out how I want to organise this section – a chronological history seemed inappropriate and potentially overwhelming for five minutes of content, so I think a more useful way of looking at the past is to identify a few categories of documentary portraiture, from a point of view of intent, e.g.:

  • Typology
  • Ethnography
  • Empathetic social documentary
  • Self-expression

This lends itself to map on the types of representation I listed in the definitions section:

  • Metaphor
  • Metonym
  • Narrative device

I also wish to analyse in this section some of the common visual language used in historic documentary portraiture.

I will touch upon some ethical aspects of critical theory (such as the Gaze, the Other etc) but to go too deeply into these could derail the main flow so I need to be careful here.

“Now” – contemporary practice

For consistency I will also look at this from a category point of view, looking at a few different types of documentary portraiture evident among current practitioners.

I want to use this section to highlight some ethical comparisons with how documentary portraiture has been done in the past, in particular ideas around respect for the individual.

I also want to examine the visual language being used by some key contemporary photographers, and how this has evolved from the more straight portraiture employed in the past.

“Me” – my own practice

This is where my recent research has taught me things about my own work that I hadn’t previously recognised. Looking at the different uses of portraiture in documentary and then applying the categorisation retrospectively to my own project archive has been an eye-opener. I am now more aware of how I’ve used people in my projects.

I most often use metonymy, as in using a person to represent a wider group or situation. I very rarely do purely typological projects, however – the use of person as exemplar / archetype is normally in the context of serving a wider narrative rather than being the end in itself. Occasionally I use a portrait as a metaphorical device, and I will include an example or two of this in the presentation.

The research has made me think about how to more consciously use portraiture in projects going forward. It has made me think about the ethical issues around using people as representatives over individuals, and how to mitigate the risks.

Specifically regarding subject matter, I’ve recently realised that a majority of my projects have been one one of two subject themes – which can overlap but are also separable: firstly, social inequality; and secondly, voluntary organisations. Both of these lend themselves to a respectful use of portraiture. I will expand on this a little in the voiceover.


I want the presentation to be very visual. Text should be kept to a minimum. Images and voiceover should carry the majority of the key messages. I’ve been gathering images for the last few weeks and will determine which are best suited to supporting my points per section/slide as I build up draft versions of the presentation. Some examples below:


Last but not least, I’ve been testing out the technology. I’m using Apple’s Keynote presentation app rather than PowerPoint, and I’ve trialled recording a voiceover to match the slides, and exporting the presentation to a video file. Both tests were reasonably successful. My main learning was to get a microphone to plug into my computer, as the sound from the internal mic is distractingly tinny.

Next steps

  • Select example images per section
  • Construct draft slides per section
  • Produce first full draft in next couple of days
  • Refine and publish for comment
  • Finalise for tutor submission

Assignment 5: mind map

I’m starting to embrace mind mapping as a technique for preparing academic assignments, on the advice of one of my tutors. I have used them on and off in the past but they do seem to be particularly suited to critical review essays and this oral presentation, as they help me in structuring the overall flow and argument of the work, in identifying content gaps, and in spotting connections between aspects of my scope.



This will no doubt be a work in progress until I finish the presentation. It’s helping me so far, anyway.

Assignment 5: proposal

After a fairly intense first four sections on this course it was a pleasant surprise to see that sections 5 and 6 have no coursework, only an assignment each.

Assignment 5 is the oral presentation, and the brief is detailed below, with annotation where appropriate.


For your oral presentation, you’re free to choose from any of the study areas on this course – social documentary, fine art photography, portrait photography or advertising photography.

My tutor advised me to make the subject of the oral presentation (and the critical review) something that fits in wth my own practice and/or my developing personal voice. My realisation of recent weeks is that my work is predominantly most closely aligned to documentary photography in some form or other – the subject matter is always based on some reality rather than acts of pure imagination.

I’m attracted to what might be termed ‘expressive documentary’ (or ambiguous, or poetic…) rather than straight, didactic social documentary. I like to lean towards the ‘creative treatment’ part of John Grierson’s definition of the genre as “the creative treatment of actuality”.

With this in mind, I want to make both my oral presentation and critical review documentary-focused to one degree or another. However, I don’t just want to run through a potted history of documentary photography here, I want to look at how it borders with or overlaps into one of the other genres listed above.

After briefly considering the overlap between documentary and fine art, I landed on an examination of the use of portraiture in documentary projects. More details below.

Prepare your presentation in PowerPoint and deliver it to camera. Your presentation should demonstrate your understanding of the underpinning issues behind your chosen area of study and how you’ll adapt them to your own future practice.

Not sure if or why PowerPoint is mandated, as the final output is a video file – I know other students have used iMovie, and I was planning on using Keynote… we’ll see.

Your presentation should look at:

  •  the historical background
  •  contemporary practitioners, visual language, influences and contexts
  •  the relevance to your own practice
  • your future plans and direction and possible projects relating to this area of study.

Your presentation should be 15 minutes long (± 2 minutes).

From discussing this with my tutor, her recommendation is to divide the presentation into three five minute segments, first on the history, second on the contemporary use and third combining the last two points about my current work and future plans.

Post your presentation onto the OCA website or to your own website. There must be a facility for student reviewers to ask you questions about your presentation and for you to reply and post both questions and the answers that you give.

I’m going to see if I can embed it directly here on this blog.

Proposed theme


Portraiture as a device in documentary photography

… meaning the use of pictures of people not to communicate something about the character of the subject (as per the traditional definition of a portrait) but to illustrate a wider social documentary issue.

This can take various forms:

  • Person as symbol (metaphor)
  • Person as specimen (metonymy e.g. typologies)
  • Person to illustrate narrative point

I do want to place certain criteria on the subject however, to avoid the scope become too broad – I want the images I select as examples to resemble a portrait, even if the intent is different.

  • Person is the main subject matter in the frame
  • Person is aware of being photographed

I have a few photographers in mind already – August Sander, Robert Frank, Alec Soth, Zed Nelson, Charles Freger, Daniel Meadows – but I’m sure I’ll come across and include many others…

Next steps

  • Research historic photographers
  • Research contemporary photographers
  • Draft an outline structure