Final reflections

I reached the end of Gesture & Meaning at the end of December 2016, and spent January on rework and assessment preparation culminating in my final submission at the end of January. I then took February off studying completely (I used the time to set up a photography business and so will no longer be studying full-time but blending study with work, hopefully). I started my studies again this week and decided that after a suitable period of reflection, it would be useful to capture my overall feelings on the course.

The course content was rather eclectic

I’ve made this point a few times at various junctures, usually as a criticism, but my final view on this is that the diverse nature of the course isn’t wholly negative by any means. It has its pros and cons. Sometimes it felt like the first four (genre) sections were written by four different authors, so different are they – not only content-wise (this is to be expected) but also in terms of depth, breadth and the mix of exercises and research.

However, from the standpoint of the end of the course I can now find the positives: the diversity of genres and coursework stretched me out of my comfort zone several times and in the end had permanently expanded my photographic world, which can only be a good thing.

However…

The course title feels somewhat arbitrary

I was particularly attracted to G&M because I am interested in the G and the M :-)

The course introduction includes phrases such as:

“You’ll look at photography that focuses on the human body as a subject”; and

“This course will therefore develop your practice through a greater understanding and comprehension of the messages given through gesture by the human body.”

Following on from Context & Narrative (still my most fulfilling course) I was looking forward to a deeper dive into the specifics of signification through human subject matter. But this didn’t really came through strongly in the course content – it was something I had to consciously hold in my mind whilst I worked through the course rather than an identifiable thread.

My opinion is that the first four sections didn’t uniformly adhere or even align to this stated body-centric focus, and instead were more like standalone potted genre mini-courses. An identifiable line of argument, or shared foundation of knowledge, throughout the overall course were lacking. In comparison, Documentary feels much more consistent and directed towards a coherent destination.

The ‘shape’ of the course is quite odd

By this I mean:

  • the first four sections are very coursework-heavy and finish with a photographic assignment
  • the last two sections have zero coursework, only an academic assignment each

The shift between these two is quite abrupt! I shouldn’t complain, as there was ultimately less work overall in these last two sections. However, having been studying Documentary in parallel I prefer the structure of that: coursework throughout all five (not six) sections and a mix of photographic assignments (1, 2, 3 and 5) broken up with an academic one (4).

Having said that…

I found the academic assignments more fulfilling than I expected

The oral presentation and critical review essay initially looked to me like they might be perfunctory afterthoughts following the photographic assignments, but the truth was surprisingly more positive. I really enjoyed both researching and pulling together both of these two assignments. I think the ability to choose your own areas of research is the key to how satisfying I found these assignments – it related to my following point about honing in on an area of interest. My experience on these assignments makes me less trepidatious about the academic side of Level 3.

The fragmentary content helped me to hone my personal voice

The main positive I identified in the eclectic content approach was that it helped me to identify one significant aspect of my developing personal voice, namely the kind of subject matter I’m drawn to. I talked about this in an earlier blog post, but in summary I realised around Assignment 4 that I was steering the brief on whatever genre assignment I was working on to be fundamentally about some kind of social documentary subject. Finding this thread in my own work was a real lightbulb moment.

I appreciated the value of a good tutor

My tutor Helen was excellent. She provided a really good balance of encouragement and challenge. She articulated the difference in expectations between Levels 1 and 2 very well, and made me step up my game in some key areas that I needed to develop in, from technical matters such as printing and presentation, through to the quality and depth of my visual analysis and my documentation of my working processes.

Working with Helen made me realise that the point of the tutor isn’t to tell you whether your work is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but to help you refine and develop your ways of working. Her focus on the process as much as the outcome is one of the key differences I saw from Level 1.

To conclude – whilst I found the course to be a bit of a curate’s egg for most of its duration, my instinct for optimism (or revisionism) leads me to focus on the positives. I’m still glad I did it – the alternatives I had at the time still don’t appeal, even with hindsight – but equally I can see why it has subsequently been discontinued and replaced with Self & the Other.

Now just to wait for the results…

Assessment pack pt 2: production process

I sent off my assessment parcel a couple of days ago after pulling it together over the previous week or so, taking photographs as I went along so that I could present a record of the decision-making and production processes. This is the second post on my assessment preparation, following the first part on research and inspiration.

The main challenge I found in presenting Gesture & Meaning work for assessment is the eclectic nature of the assignments:

  • One photographic assignment each on four distinct genres (documentary, art, portraiture and advertising)
  • An audio-visual presentation
  • A written essay

The outcome of that research and inspiration piece was that I decided that the key to presenting the whole set of assignments in a coherent way was to standardise the presentation in terms of the design principles – colour schemes, typefaces, materials, sizes etc) to provide the consistent framework in which the visually different assignments could sit.

An alternative approach could have been to bespoke each assignment’s presentation to its subject matter, changing the materials, sizes, layouts and typography to best present each individual assignment as a standalone piece of work.

However, I took a step back and endeavoured to correctly frame this for what it is:

  • It is not primarily a presentation of individual art projects
  • It is primarily a presentation of a linked set of artefacts to be academically assessed

With this in mind, and putting oneself in the shoes of the assessors, I determined that consistency of presentation format would give a better impression than eclectic presentation tailored to each assignment.

Process

Upfront planning

First of all I decided on the presentation size: my tutor tried to persuade me to go 16″ x 12″ as a ‘true’ photographic size rather than A3 (a paper industry size), but I instead took the advice of Clive White, a tutor who regularly advises on assessment matters on the OCA forum, who coincidentally posted on the subject on the very day I was researching this: “A3 or 16×12? Once upon a time it went 10×8 then 16×12, 16×12 is just a short hand way for old timers to say A3 […] Nobody is fussed on the difference.” (White 2017). Between this and the fact that I could more easily source A3 portfolio box, paper and divider card I decided to go with A3.

My next decision was how many prints to include. Again I heard conflicting advice! My tutor initially suggested a few samples from each assignment, which was my original plan, but shortly afterwards she passed on advice from a colleague saying it would be better to include everything. Hmm… once again I took to the OCA forum, where issues such as this have been much discussed. I found a sensible opinion offered by the aforementioned Mr White: he advises his students to present a selection to demonstrate print quality, not the entire set as a duplicate of what is on the learning log. Most other OCA students I spoke to online concurred – expecting the assessor to look closely at 40 prints across the four photographic assignments seems a little excessive.

I ordered a half-depth A3 portfolio box from Silverprint. I had previously used the A4 equivalent and was suitably impressed.

For paper I generally use a good quality luster, and Canon make a pro quality luster paper made to work with my Canon Pixma A3 printer. I have seen assessment advice a number of times that recommends matte or luster paper over gloss due to the reflections from the latter. I presume that assessors spend a lot of time looking down onto tabletops under overhead lighting, not straight ahead to a mounted, framed, hung print as one would in a gallery situation.

I wanted to delineate the six assignments more clearly than I had done in the past and so sourced some thick A3 card (‘greyboard’) to use as dividers.

For the section introduction pages I felt that luster might be a touch too ‘photographic’ to carry a mixture of image and typography, so I got hold of some A4 matte paper.

Finally, for the essay I wanted a good quality regular printer (i.e. non-photographic) paper so got some premium A4 paper with a reasonable weight and a subtle texture to the surface

Once I’d gathered all the basic materials I ran print tests of the images I planned to include, as they had all been done at different times, on different equipment (I have changed my computer and printer during the course). I produced variations of Relative and Perceptual colour profiling and experimented with tweaking the output brightness and contrast until I was satisfied on the match between screen and paper.

img_4950

General structure

I made section introductions for the six assignments, with simple explanatory text, just one or two sentences, plus a sample image and confirmation of what was enclosed.

These were printed at A4 and mounted on the divider card using photo corners.

I aso made an overall introduction sheet and attached this to the inside lid of the portfolio box.

l1030025

All prints were done with a minimum 30mm border for handling – minimum as some images were done to slightly different ratios to best serve each individual assignment (e.g. the documentary project used 5×7 to better align with the target book layout; the portraits were done at 8×10 as a standard portrait ratio).

I’ll now briefly cover what I included per assignment – a tricky decision given the fragmented nature of the assignments (four photographic including one with a book and one with a calendar format, plus a 16-minute video presentation and a written essay).

Assignment 1

I included three sample images from the 12 submitted as the full assignment.

The main challenge was how to present the book version. I really wanted the whole presentation to be based around A3 materials to avoid anything ‘rattling around’ the portfolio box. My solution was to tightly fasten ribbon to a greyboard card and slides the book under the resultant ‘straps’.

l1030029

As a symbolic aside: the ribbon formed a cross, and the project was about a church, which I thought was an appropriate coincidence.

Assignment 2

I included three sample images from the 10 submitted as the full assignment.

I felt it important to include the final image as it is different to the other nine, offering a kind of resolution to the narrative of the series.

Assignment 3

I included the final selected versions of each of the four subjects. Coincidentally (but very pleasingly) all four sitters preferred the bespoke shot of themselves, so all four final images sit together quite well I think.

I did have a dilemma here: the original assignment submissions asked for the selected images to be printed large (A4) and the rejected shots at 5×4″. However, as detailed earlier I have been at pains to keep the presentation format as consistent as possible across the assignments. I wanted all the images to be at A3, and I felt that printing smaller versions of the rejected shots was visually jarring. For this reason I chose to exclude the smaller rejected portraits.

Assignment 4

I included all six images from the assignment, for a couple of reasons. First of all, six is such as small number compared to other assignments that selecting three or four out of six felt arbitrary and odd. Secondly, the concept (names subtly embedded into scenes) really needs to be seen as large as possible, so A3 prints is the minimum size that does it justice – I can’t assume assessors look at the online versions on giant monitors.

I discussed with my tutor whether to make an actual calendar for this assignment. Her opinion was that the images work better as a standalone set of photographs and that the calendar format felt like a secondary version of the series. She also took advice from an OCA colleague who agreed that “It doesn’t have to produced as a calendar – it’s mainly about the photography. Design of the calendar can be online”. So the calendar format is presented online but not printed. As per other decisions outlined above, my guiding principle was visual consistency.

Assignment 5

For this I included just the divider with an A4 section intro mounted on it, to keep it consistent with the rest of the submission – leaving it out completely felt wrong.

I did check with OCA whether to provide a DVD or USB drive with the presentation video on it, but was advised not to.

Assignment 6

This is the critical review essay, so it was clearly important to print a good quality copy of the essay. I also decided that the essay needed a cover page for visual appeal, so I took one of the images I discussed (Don McCullin’s shell-shocked marine) and the concept of ‘joining the dots’ to form a graphic design of circular extracts from the photograph.

l1030036

The dilemma though was how to present an A4 document as part of an A3 portfolio (printing the essay on A3 would just look silly). My solution was to craft a kind of A4-sized ‘tray’ out of three sheets of the greyboard card and sit the document in this recess. A ribbon was added to lift the document out.

And – that’s it.

Wish me luck!

Sources

https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/advice-on-printing-for-assessment-perhaps-it-could-be-passed-on/3906 (accessed 09/01/2017)

Assessment pack pt 1: research and inspiration

Before going into any detail on my own assessment pack (in a separate post) I want to start with a little wider context on photographic presentation.

As I have probably mentioned frequently in these pages, Gesture & Meaning is quite an eclectic course, being made up of four genre-specific sections followed by two academic assignments. The challenge for assessment presentation is how to present such a diverse array of projects in a coherent manner.

Helen my tutor suggested looking at photographic presentation in other projects that contain a selection of different materials, to see if there were ideas or directions that I could pursue in some way.

Three projects sprang to mind: Eamonn Doyle’s End, the catalogue that accompanied the 2016 exhibition of evidential photography ?: the Image as Question and the Foto/Industria 2013 catalogue box. Each, in different ways, dealt with the point of collating multiple items into a coherent whole.

Eamonn Doyle’s End

The exhibition of Doyle’s trilogy of Dublin projects, ION and End was the highlight of my visit to Arles this year. It featured a breathtaking array of presentation methods, materials, colour schemes, sizes and sounds, turning the photography exhibition into more of a multi-sensory experience. It made me realise that there are many possible ways of presenting photography and 90% of exhibitions play it rather safe.

I ordered the book that specifically covered the most recent project, End, as soon as I got home. It’s not really a book as such, but I’m not quite sure that the right word is! It’s a kind of a boxset of photographic artefacts. It comes in a white leather-style slipcase, covered in yellow cellophane.

The contents include concertina fold card prints, pamphlets, posters, and even a translucent tracing paper-esque sheet that wraps around a 7″ single (haven’t seen one of them in a while). The prints and pamphlets are slim enough to mount and frame as pieces of art without dismantling them – as I did for my favourite image.

It’s a hugely impressive piece of work, and really plays with what an ‘art book’ is, or can be.

Takeaway points

Thinking of how (or whether) to apply this approach to my own G&M assessment presentation: I concluded that this kind of diversity of material works really well for Doyle as he has the strong backbone of coherent content (the streets of Dublin) running through the work. My challenge is that the four photographic projects are really quite different in genre, content and tone – so applying an eclectic presentation approach might actually make the whole thing just too incoherent.

I came away from examining this particular work with the sense that there needs to be a strong line of consistency in either the content or the presentation method. I will return to this point.

?: the Image as Question

This exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London was on evidential photography, an extremely broad and flexible subject – the kinds of images included reportage, forensic, investigative, judicial, astrological, even record sleeves. The catalogue that accompanied the exhibition was particularly interesting – so much so that I bought one.

It’s presented in the form of an evidence folder, with all the component parts inside held in place loosely by an elastic spine. It means that one can remove or order the contents in an almost infinite number of combinations. It also means that, like the Doyle work above, one can easily remove and frame an individual print (again, I did).

In contrast to the Doyle boxset, this has an eclectic set of contents in terms of subject matter. Like the Doyle set, it uses different materials and sizes of print, in this case tailoring each artefact to the content and format of the original image. So it’s kind of a hybrid format in this sense.

What makes this eclectic mix of both inner contents and presentation formats really work is the ‘wrapper’ – the conceit of treating all the diverse components as items of evidence. The existing cultural code of the ‘evidence folder’ is exploited to provide a veneer of consistency and coherence to what would otherwise be a bit of a mish-mash.

Takeaway points

Again, though this execution is interesting and it ‘works’ for this set of images, I don’t believe that the contents of my four photographic assignments can really be crowbarred together into an arbitrary category like ‘evidence’ as used here, and even if I did go down that route, I’m not sure what the unifying theme and therefore ‘container’ would be.

Foto/Industria

A couple of years ago I bought this boxset of booklets when I was researching workplace photography. It was the catalogue for a photographic festival that I hadn’t attended (nor even heard of to be honest) in Bologna in 2013.

The catalogue is 17 individual square booklets presented in a grey shell box. The spines are all exactly the same thickness and designed with a small black bar that steps down the set like a staircase. The colour subtly shades from yellow to green and back again. The set is clearly designed to work beautifully together when filed in the box.

The contents are very eclectic though; the loose connection is that they are all somehow related to business, but they range from ad campaigns to company reports to corporate portraits to factories to offices.

I really like the format, as I find it gives a strong, professional backbone of consistency to what is in fact quite a diverse set of exhibitions.

Takeaway points

Though they are physically quite different, this ended up being the strongest parallel to my own implementation. It marries very eclectic content to a highly standardised and consistent set of design principles – not just a surface ‘wrapper’ like the evidence set above, but a design style that persists throughout every one of the 17 booklets.

What I took from this is that if the overarching design ‘rules’ – layout materials, colours, typefaces and so on – are both consistent and professionally done, this provides the connecting  thread to compensate for the component projects themselves being quite differentiated.

Sources

Doyle, E. (2016) End. Dublin: D1

?: the Image as Question (exhibition) Michael Hoppen Gallery, London autumn 2016

Various (2013) Foto/Industria: Bologna Biennale 01 Bologna: Contrasto

Assessment submission planning

Last night I had my final assignment feedback session with my tutor Helen, which I will write a post on very shortly. Today I’ve started on a plan for getting from here to assessment submission in the next two weeks or so. It sounds tight but I’m still studying pretty much full-time so I am currently confident of getting everything done in good time.

My outline plan is in two parts: online and offline:

Online

  • Rework assignments as per tutor feedback:
    • Assignment 1: mostly reworking the book layout (done)
    • Assignment 2: mostly adjusting my artist statement to clarify context and intent
    • Assignment 3: ditto
    • Assignment 4: potentially look at producing an actual calendar (still unsure if this adds much)
    • Assignment 5: redo a couple of image choices, add list of illustrations, re-record voiceover
    • Assignment 6: rework central section to reduce breadth and add depth of visual analysis
  • Complete feedback responses for Assignments 5 and 6
  • Upload 6x tutor reports to blog and OCA account G drive
  • Research presentation materials and methods (more to follow)
  • Add introductory static page to blog posting to assignments

Offline

  • Order book for Assignment 1
  • Decide on presentation materials and method
  • Order presentation materials
  • Print sample images
  • Design supporting collateral
    • Covering letter (or similar)
    • Section introductions
    • Photo labels
  • Decide method of displaying academic assignments
    • Assignment 5: DVD, memory stick, other?
    • Assignment 6: printed essay
  • Decide and source any other packing materials
    • Outer box
    • Foam etc to secure internal contents
    • Ribbon?
  • Collate everything
  • Send it off!

Assignment 6: essay plan

I believe the research phase of my critical review has come to an end, and it’s time to corral my thoughts into shape. The first step of this is to draft out an essay plan, to give a sequence to my line of argument and to assign approximate word counts to each section.

Working title

Stretching the Moment: overcoming photography’s temporality problem

Essay plan

  • Introduction
    • Establish argument
    • With quote? tbc
    • 200 words
  • Define terms
    • Narrative
    • Narrativity
    • Ambiguity
    • Fact vs fiction
    • 200 words
  • Narrative theory
    • Dots vs gaps – cognitive effort
    • cf literature
    • Mental modelling  (Shore)
    • Encoding/decoding (Hall)
    • State-process-event (Wollen)
    • 250 words
  • Topical time techniques
    • Long shutter
    • Multiple exposure
    • Composites
    • Examples
    • 150 words
  • Contextual techniques
    • Supporting text
    • Caption
    • Embedded text
    • Juxtaposition (series / pairs)
    • 250 words
  • Intrinsic / formal techniques
    • Composition
    • Directional reading
    • Tableaux
    • 250 words
  • Extrinsic / cognitive techniques
    • Lending a past / future (Berger)
    • Signification – metaphor / metonymy
    • Cultural references – identification
    • 250 words
  • Application to own practice
    • Past
    • Future
    • 200 words
  • Conclusion
    • Refer back to opening argument
    • 200 words

Total word count based on this plan = 1950, so I have a little wiggle room built in.

Next steps

I’m going to do a first draft of all of the above sections today, with the possible exception of the introduction and the conclusion as I may add these in at a subsequent draft.

Assignment 6: research and preparation

I’ve spent most of this last week trying to wrestle the subject area of my critical review (in short: overcoming the limitations of the still photograph for narrative) into some kind of shape, as it is potentially a little sprawling. I needed to get my thoughts down in the form of a mind map and then start honing it down into a line of argument.

Mind map

I’ve been using mind mapping for assignments for a few months now, and I’m definitely a fan. They help to capture the breadth and depth of a subject, and help me to identify connections, overlaps and gaps. To some degree they help with the essay structure, although that’s maybe more a function of the essay plan (to follow).

I usually do my mind mapping straight into an iPad app, but for the first time the subject area felt so vast that I started on an A3 pad:


Once I felt this was as full as it needed to be, I transferred it onto the digital format. Maybe it’s psychological, but even just repeating the same words in a neater format feels like progress :-)

Line of argument

There are a few different ways I could structure this essay, and to be honest right now I’m not completely sure which way to go. It will depend on the hypothesis I choose: what angle I’m taking, the point I want to make – this will help me to determine the ‘backbone’ of the essay. The sequence of arguments and the introduction/conclusion bookends will fall into place from this backbone. My approach here is influenced by the fact that my last essay, for Documentary, went through a complete re-write when I conceded that my first draft did not have a strong core hypothesis. I am trying to avoid repeating that mistake.

The basic ‘bookends’ of hypothesis I have in mind is something like:

  • Introduction:  (phrased as a question) Can a photograph tell a story?
    • Alternative phrasing: start an appropriate quote and interrogate it
  • — [middle bit] —
  • Conclusion: no, a single photograph cannot tell a story in and of itself
    • But there are clever ways of working around it

It’s the middle bit, the line of argument, that can be organised in a couple of different ways…

  • Address the subject from a point of view of a fundamental genre split
    • Fact (documentary)
    • Fiction (art, advertising)
    • Discuss approaches that are appropriate to each genre based on their inherent characteristics
  • Address the subject from a point of view of the different types of approaches employed
    • Internal i.e. within the frame
    • External
    • Mental modelling
  • Address the subject from the point of view of characteristics of narrative
    • Temporality
    • Transition
    • Characters
    • Apply each to single image photography and discuss techniques for working around them
  • Narrow it down to one major limitation to address: temporality
    • Examine techniques employed to lend a sense of time to the still image
    • Look at it from either genre-first or approach-first point of view, per options above

Next steps

  • Make a decision on the central line of argument
  • Write up an essay plan
  • Send to my tutor for comment

My 2017 eureka moment – photography as a language

This was triggered by a request on the OCA Photography Level 1 Facebook group for people to post their 12 favourite shots of the year. I did this last year and so I first looked back on my 2015 set and thought, yeah, that’s still a pretty good bunch of photos. Then I pored over the images I’ve produced this year while I’ve been studying full-time on two Level 2 courses and after a while realised something:

I don’t think I’ve produced 12 great standalone images this year.

At first I was a little taken aback; I’m supposed to be getting better as time goes on, right? Then I looked back over my assignments in 2016, plus my work on ongoing personal projects, and came to my second realisation:

I’m proud of my project-based work that I’ve produced this year.

These two realisations together led to my third:

I’ve been moving away from trying to make inherently interesting images and towards using photography to ‘say something‘.

The work that I’m most proud of this year needs its own context to be appreciated (even by me). The images tend not to ‘work’ so well as standalone images.

This is a double-edged realisation!

  • On one hand, it’s good that I’m learning how to use photography as a communication medium and not just a purely visual aesthetic one
  • On the other, I do feel like I should be able to do this without losing sight of what makes a good standalone photograph. It feels like the balance is a little off, like I’ve lost something…

I need to find the balance…

Photography as a language

All of this reminded me of a post I did a couple of years ago based around a David Alan Harvey quote that I will repeat the salient points of here (my own emphasis), as it was a turning point in my understanding of the medium:

You must have something to ‘say’. You must be brutally honest with yourself about this. […] Today, with everyone being able to easily make technically perfect photographs with a cell phone, you need to be an ‘author’. It is all about authorship, authorship and authorship. […]

Without having tangible ideas, thoughts, feelings, and something almost ‘literary’ to contribute to ‘the discussion’, today’s photographer will become lost in the sea of mediocrity.

Photography is now clearly a language. As with any language, knowing how to spell and write a grammatically correct ‘sentence’ is, of course, necessary. But, more importantly, today’s emerging photographers now must be ‘visual wordsmiths’ with either a clear didactic or an esoteric imperitive. Be a poet, not a technical ‘writer’.” (Harvey 2008)

I understood the theory of this notion at the time of writing that blog post in 2014, but it’s only now that I’m starting to feel like I’m learning how to put it into practice, albeit still rather clumsily.

At the time of the earlier blog post I made two observations:

  1. The possibilities of using photography for capturing something beyond ‘pretty pictures’ [have] opened up in front of me, and this is quite exciting;
  2. The realisation that I’m not yet sure that I have much interesting to ‘say’, and this is quite dispiriting!

So I reckon today I started feeling more comfortable that I’m getting there with point 2 :-)

The writing analogy

I like the analogy with written/verbal language and so will stretch it a little to close off this post:

  • Some good writers can come up with great, self-contained one-liners
    • funny, wise, concise, simple, insightful
    • jokes, sound bites, slogans, catchphrases
  • Some good writers can tell a fantastic story
    • with interesting characters, plot twists, growth, development, moral messages
  • Great writers use language to not just produce great stories…
    • …but also to fill them with quotable paragraphs, sentences and words

I want to find a better balance between the standalone image and the project – the pithy quote and the novel…!

An interesting insight. I hope that when December 2017 comes round, I will have a dozen images that both fit into their respective project contexts and stand alone as striking images!

Sources

http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/09/26/35-magnum-photographers-give-their-advice-to-aspiring-photographers/ (accessed 05/12/2016)

https://robtownsendpp.wordpress.com/2014/07/13/photography-is-a-language/ (accessed 05/12/2016)

Assignment 4: tutor feedback

I had the video tutorial on this assignment with my tutor Helen a few weeks ago, so this is very belated due to various delays between me and my tutor, plus a holiday in between. Better late than never.

I will post the full report as part of my submission prep but here I summarise the key points from the feedback.

Assignment

  • Generally successful online presentation
  • Print submission had acknowledged colour matching issues (printed by external lab)
    • Lessons already learned in terms of mistakes made
    • e.g. colour profiling, soft proofing workflow
  • Calendar construct distracted from images a little, maybe work better as standalone images
    • Tweaked to lead with standalone images in online presentation, with calendar format pages as a secondary presentation
    • Will determine combination of standalone and calendar format prints before final submission
  • Cover image needs some rework re sensitivity of subject matter
    • Re text presentation and in terms of its tone jarring with the inside pages
    • Need to prepare the viewer better for inside concept and tone
    • e.g. phrase ‘Wish you were here’ needs to come across a less tongue-in-cheek – try different typeface styles
  • More information needs to be provided about the planning and production process
    • Need to provide more preparatory information, more “layering up the pathway to the final work”
    • Particularly around the post-processing work to embed the name text into the images – very important, as the method of producing the digital manipulation was not initially clear
    • I did a post explaining how I’d planned and constructed the images, after posting the assignment itself (I wanted to see how successful the image manipulation was…)
  • Research into external context and related works needs to be documented:
    • other responses to tragedies (generally)
    • other responses to Nice attack specifically
    • text embedding/manipulation techniques
    • visual language of calendar format etc
    • I wrote this up after the tutorial and it can be found here
  • Generally – need to see more reflection on assignment-specific:
    • Planning
    • Ideas development tests
    • Workflows

Coursework & research

  • Good to see exhibition reviews but must make sure that standard of visual analysis evident in section 3 is maintained
    • e.g. Eggleston review could have featured deeper analysis of observations made: he’s “good at capturing facial expressions” but why, what’s the evidence/ examples – how does he achieve this? what does it tell us? etc
    • Identify different qualities of photographs and photographers and draw conclusions
    • Identify commonalities with contemporary practitioners e.g. some of Eggleston’s portraits resemble Alec Soth’s aesthetic – analyse how and why E. might be an influence on S., etc
  • Keep the same (high) standard of visual analysis and level of detail of ‘enquiry’ throughout all research work
    • Try to carry through the standard of stronger analysis posts across to all research

We also briefly discussed Assignments 5 and 6 and agreed that these are progressing OK at this stage (indeed, Assignment 5 is already submitted).

Assignment 4: context and inspirations

Whilst I tried to avoid any direct, conscious influences on this assignment – as it was a very personal project that I wanted to deliver in the way that felt right to me – I am aware that it exists in a context of related works and it is inevitable that some will have provided some inspiration to me.

In this post I look at such context and inspirations under four headings:

  • Photographic responses to tragedies
  • Artistic responses to the Nice attack specifically
  • Concept of embedding realistic text in photographs
  • Calendar design

Photographic responses

Whilst there is a significant body of work built up over the years around the response to, of aftermath of, specific tragedies, I was more specifically interested in those that are in some way centred around the people impacted by such events – either in terms of honouring the direct victims or examining the impact on those left behind. My project is intended to be simultaneously a memorial to the dead and an expression of the emotions that the survivors and the bereaved might be going through.

My tutor Helen gave me a few pointers. Paul Fusco’s 1968 RFK Funeral Train series is perhaps a touchstone for this kind of photography.

NYC2635.jpg
RFK Funeral Train, 1968 by Paul Fusco

It focuses on the mourners lining the route more than it does Robert Kennedy, and the movement of the train gives a motion blur to the images lends an air of bewildered sadness, whilst simultaneously speaking of the transience of life. It’s hard not to see the people mourning not so much the death of an individual but of an ideal, a potential future.

OCA student Stéphanie d’Hubert (who coincidentally commented on one of my preparatory posts for this assignment) did a photographic and video project The Crowd about her individual response to the Paris terror attacks in January and November 2015. It’s a very personal reaction to being away from her home country at the time of the attacks, as evidenced by the subtitle Je suis trop loin (I am too far away).

Stephanie Dh.jpg
The Crowd (2015), 2016 by Stéphanie d’Hubert

Stéphanie uses photos and video to communicate “the profound sense of disorientation and disconnection that ensued in the aftermath of these events”. It’s expressive, visually poetic and experimental. It is though a very different approach to the one I ended up taking. It’s good to see however the many different ways there are to react to events such as these.

These two examples both express the emotions of the bereaved, the left behind, the indirectly rather than directly affected. I wanted to dig further to find examples of work where the victims themselves are more prominently referenced.

Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder series (1988) came to mind. In this he does not name the victims of the murders but describes them using text from newspaper reporting of the time. Each image is about a particular murder, and the text description is key part of the photograph.

Man+in+Bushes.jpg
Sunday 9th July 1972 (1988) by Paul Seawright

As an aside, one of the most powerful aspects of the presentation of the images is the deliberate use of white space around both the image and the text; it gives a sense of silence and thinking space that enhances the sensation of considering the death of an individual.

Faces of Srebrenica (2015–ongoing) is a collective project by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty to bring together photos of those killed in Srebrenica in the massacre of July 1995. So far photos of about 2,400 of the estimated 8,000 men and boys have been collected.

srebrenica
Faces of Srebrenica, 2015-

It’s an extremely simple but potent device. Each image is cropped to a headshot (with a few exceptions) and the name and age of each victim is given. It’s the accumulation of similar-but-different faces that gives this its power. One can simultaneously consider the scale of the massacre (and therefore the wiping out of a couple of generations of a community) and of the individual stories behind each picture, since these are predominantly edited from family snapshots donated to the project.

Responses to the Nice attack

There were (still are) a huge amount of memorial responses around the city itself, most of which are individual spontaneous expressions of grief (flowers, candles, toys etc) –  in huge numbers though they form a kind of accumulated visual expression of public and private grief, almost sculptural in look and feel.

Some more intentionally ‘artistic’ works also started appearing:

The city’s official response was a pair of banners outside the mayor’s office listing the victims’ names.

ATTENTAT DE NICE
Banners at the Nice Mairie, August 2016

Though very simple and without any particular artistic intent, it was the only act of memorial I saw that was built around the victims’ names en masse*. Looking back, I think seeing this is most likely what planted the seed of the idea of using the names in my project. I had seen individual names as parts of the huge public displays of grief, but this was where the scale of the attack really sunk in.

* EDIT: the Nice football team subsequently designed a commemorative shirt with the names of the victims formed into a heart:

nice-1-480x279.jpeg
OGC Nice football shirt design

Aside from the inclusion of names, the other thing I took from the public memorials was that I didn’t want to produce work that actually depicted these memorials themselves – I wanted to perform a kind of temporal shift to depict a future Nice where these memorials are no longer in sight but the victims are still being remembered.

Embedded text

jc_www_714_408945412
Road safety campaign by Julian Calverley

I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with examples of where I’ve seen photographers manipulating images by introducing fake-but-realistic text into them. I’m sure I’ve seen projects like this (certainly advertising campaigns) but am really struggling to bring details of specific examples to mind… So I tried some research to come up with examples that I hadn’t seen before but illustrate that the concept isn’t entirely revolutionary. A fellow student suggested that some of Julian Calverley’s advertising work fits the description, although I think this is a little heavy-handed and I was looking for more subtle examples.

I did find Jenny Holzer’s 1990s Marquee images working in a similar visual style, but hers are examples of real-life text that she had placed there, then photographed – so a different execution, even if a similar outcome.

marquees-holzer-08
Times Square Marquee, 1993 by Jenny Holzer

Taking a sideways look at this, one of my acknowledged inspirations for this idea was the work of Charley Murrell in Constructed Childhoods (2010), in as much as that used the device of inserting a realistic element (albeit imagery not text) into a scene that on closer inspection is proven to be a composited construct to make a point.

murrell.png
from Constructed Childhoods, 2010 by Charley Murrell

This is the kind of thing that I’ve been calling ‘magic realism’ (a term borrowed from literature) in a photographic context.

Calendar design

The last context in which I position this work is that of calendar design. To me this is the least important context, as I see my main set of six images first and foremost as a self-contained art project, and a calendar as second priority to meet the brief. I am however aware that calendars do have their own visual vernacular that I should either follow or knowingly subvert.

In terms of photographic imagery, calendars – especially those pertaining to places – have a distinctive look. They are technically high quality, free of blemishes or other distracting elements, often feature quite bright and saturated colours and are generally aesthetically pleasing – an idealised depiction of the place being portrayed.

I did try to follow these norms, generally speaking.

In terms of layout, the predominant style for a wall calendar is that in which the image and the month data are the same size, as per examples below:

However, I wanted as much as possible to downplay the calendar aspect of the presentation and focus on the imagery. Also, the brief asks for one page to cover two months, which led to odd potential layouts bearing in mind I wanted to keep a standard (landscape) ratio for my images, as they are first and foremost ‘scenes’. Arbitrarily cropping to a non-standard ratio in order to fit in the month text wasn’t a viable option.

So I made the decision to deploy a reasonably unorthodox (but not totally unknown) design approach of having the dates run in a linear style rather than the more normal tabular one.

calendar-11-12

This was an instance therefore where I acknowledged the design norms of the medium but decided to deliberately avoid some of them in order to better achieve my communication objectives.

Sources

RFK Funeral Train pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx (accessed 12/10/2016)

The Crowd (Je suis trop loin) stephaniedhlearninglog4.wordpress.com/…/assignment-5-the-crowd-je-suis-trop-loin (accessed 12/10/2016)

Sectarian Murder paulseawright.com/sectarian (accessed 12/10/2016)

Faces of Srebrenica rferl.org/a/27114531 (accessed 12/10/2016)

Julian Calverley http://www.juliancalverley.com/commissioned/ (accessed 12/10/2016)

Constructed Childhoods charleymurrell.wix.com/charley-murrell-photography (accessed 12/10/2016)

Jenny Holzer http://interiorator.com/jenny-holzer-marquees/ (accessed 14/12/2016)

Assignment 4: the making of

I submitted Assignment 4 a few days ago but haven’t yet gone into any detail on my production process. There is a reason for this! The whole construct of my images is based on embedding text (names) into otherwise normal scenes, and I wanted to find out if viewers (including my tutor) had worked out how it had been done:

  • Was the text already there?
  • Did I vandalise public places?!
  • Or was it done in post-processing?

One of the responses I got in peer review was:

“I think it works very well. Am fascinated to know whether you inscribed all the names or whether they are what you saw when you went there?”

Also, even my tutor who looked at A3 prints thought that one of the images (Flowers) was real text that I had taken a photo of.

The actual answer is… all of the text in the names in the images is Photoshop work.

Before I go into that part, I’m going to rewind a little and explain the overall production process.

Research and planning

Once I’d settled on the concept the first practical piece of work was to compile the names of the 86 victims that I intended to honour in the images. A number of different newspaper sources had partial lists, some with first names only, some with initials, some with alternative surnames (a fairly common occurrence in France where women sometimes use married names interchangeably with maiden names for different purposes).

One thing that the newspaper reporting helped with was that they grouped together the victims that were connected either as family or groups of friends – something that I subsequently built into the final work (explained later).

The breakthrough came when I discovered that the mairie (mayor’s office) in Nice had put up banners to commemorate the victims. This became my official reference point to check the other lists against.

ATTENTAT DE NICE

This featured the initial 84 victims but two further people died later from their injuries, one that was named and one I had to include as ‘Anonyme’ (anonymous).

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-10-08-10Once I had a finalised and cross-checked the names (a surprisingly emotional experience to be honest – knowing that 86 people died is one thing, reading biographies of 86 individuals is another) I made a master list so I could work out which names needed to go into which photograph.

The family and friend groupings was the main method of allocating names to images – I wanted to present together the people that knew each other. It’s a small detail, and one not obvious to most, but I felt it to be more respectful than randomly scattering the names.

The secondary consideration in allocating names was that the images each had a slightly different number of text opportunities. Dividing 86 by 6 meant an average of 14 or 15 images per image. Some images had fewer or more spaces (Boats only accommodated 11 names, Postcards took the most with 17 names).

The final practical point was that some spaces allowed for long names and some only for shorter names, so this was a way in which I tweaked the naming allocation as needed.

Image selection

I had various ideas for usable scenes before I narrowed it down to a shortlist. The criteria were:

  • A touristic, representative scene of Nice that would not look out of place in a calendar
  • Where I could embed names into the image in a subtle way

A few ideas met the first criterion but stretched the second as too contrived:

  • Shutters with graffiti on the slats
  • Beach umbrellas with names stitched into the fabric
  • Shop/restaurant signs
  • Wine bottle labels

I eventually settled on six ideas, three of which I had candidate images (or at least test images) for at the point of shortlisting and three that I needed to go back to Nice to shoot – more detail here:

  • Flowers
  • Beach chairs
  • Postcards
  • Boats
  • Bakery / cafe / restaurant
  • Pebbles

This last one, the pebbles, didn’t make it into the final cut – it was replaced by Palm Trees. What’s interesting about its exclusion is that it was the only execution I did where the text was real – I actually wrote names onto pebbles on the beach with a marker pen and photographed the result.

Ironically, the only image where I had done the names ‘in real life’ is the one that I felt looked least realistic! So I’m glad I took the palm trees shot as a fallback.

Photoshop processing

I am not generally a big user of Photoshop. For general processing I tend to use Lightroom as it has enough controls to tweak images in terms of optimising colours, fixing highlight/shadow issues and simple cloning out of unwanted elements. I only use Photoshop when I really need to – and I really needed to here!

For reference, here are the original six images before Photoshop work (click for larger):

For each of the selected images I followed the following workflow:

  • General optimisation in Lightroom per my usual post-processing routine
    • Exposure, curves, little bit of vibrance boost, white balance adjustment etc
    • Until the image looks just how I want to it to as a ‘pure’ photograph
  • Import into Photoshop
  • Spot healing and cloning work to remove distractions
    • Small (dust spots, cigarette butts)
    • Large (bicycles, people)
  • If replacing existing text – remove existing text
    • Via a combination of spot healing and cloning
  • Apply new text layer
    • Matching font as appropriate to the context
  • Various layer adjustments in order to make the text look as realistic as possible
    • Decreasing opacity, applying patterns, adding drop shadow etc

Examples of the last three steps can be seen below.

I just had to do that 86 times…!

One more post coming on this assignment – a roundup of the visual and conceptual inspiration and research into related projects to place this work in a wider context.