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.


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.


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


Research: semiotics

This is a quick post – little more than a link and a brief mention of a book really – but I wanted to demonstrate to tutor/assessors that I haven’t completely overlooked the Semiotics section of the course notes!


Last year on Context & Narrative I spent quite a lot of time getting to grips with semiotics, followed by some further investigation into structuralism and poststructuralism – detailed in this post. Rather than repeat or summarise here I thought it best to refer back to this analysis.


The best book I have found that explains semiotics in a straightforward way is Sean Hall’s This Means This, This Means That (2012). Every concept is given a visual example and clear explanation.

My current reading (Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements and Packard’s Hidden Persuaders) is helping me to apply these concepts to advertising in particular.

That’s all I intend to write up specifically around semiotics in this section, although it will no doubt be relevant throughout the rest of this part of the course. I just wanted to document that I have a reasonable understanding of the subject!


Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Reflection: Advertising photography

I’ve had a few weeks off Gesture & Meaning while I caught up on Documentary, and came back to it a few days ago starting with some reading.

The course notes start this section with good and clear statement of intent (my emphasis):

“Part Four looks at how advertisers make use of photographic representations of the human form and condition to sell products.” (course notes: 120)

It’s good to be reminded that Gesture & Meaning is supposed to be about the representation of people in photography, as sometimes it seems that both the course notes and my own research and practice can drift away from that somewhat (case in point: the whole of my Assignment 2 had no people in…).

‘What does advertising do?’

I’m not going to write reams and reams for this project that opens the Advertising section, as it covers a lot of ground that is familiar to me already.

My first degree was in Business Studies, specialising in Marketing, and my first three post-graduate jobs were traditional marketing positions, so I am reasonably well-versed in the origins and objectives of advertising.

One line for my studies that always stuck with me is usually credited to Theodore Levitt, but he was actually quoting Leo McGinneva, about why people buy drill bits: “They don’t want quarter-inch bits. They want quarter-inch holes.”(Levitt 1983).

Similarly, in my first marketing job, for a furniture company, I was told to not sell the features (‘bi-fold reclining mechanism’) but the benefits (‘effortless relaxation’).

More recently, I really loved the quote from marketing website User Onboard:

“People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.” (User Onboard 2013).

The picture says it even more clearly:


That’s what advertising does!

How advertising does it

The how is the interesting part.

Decoding Advertisements (original: 1978) by Judith Williamson provides an excellent analysis of the processes behind advertising. I had previously read and enjoyed Williamson’s analyses of specific ads such as those in her column in Source magazine, but the book goes into great detail about the framework within which she is able to perform such analyses – it’s an initially complex yet ultimately comprehensible breakdown of the mental processes of both constructing and receiving visual advertising messages.

Reading this made me realise that advertising is probably the purest form of authorial photography – it is entirely based on constructing imagery to communicate a very specific message to the viewer. It is loaded with highly targeted visual cues that drive towards a very clear goal. An advertising image itself can be mysterious, even oblique, yet its intent is unambiguous: to make the viewer want to buy the product.

With this revelation in mind, I am slightly in awe of the power of truly great advertising imagery, and almost grudgingly respect the practitioners that are able to part consumers from their money with their subliminal messaging.

Williamson looks critically at advertising through the prism of ideology: the pre-existing systems of ideas – about life, society, relationships, nature, science, gender, success etc – that both form the context of receiving the advertising message and are in turn formed (reinforced) by advertising.

“Advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves.” (Williamson 1983: 13)

She describes four kinds of processes that typify advertising and generate or reinforce ‘needs’ that can be met by the products/services being advertised. They are not mutually exclusive and can operate in combination in photographic advertising.

  • Currency of signs: viewer creates the meaning of the ad
    • Referent systems / linking signs / transfer of meaning
    • Semiotics: signifiers and signifieds, denotation and connotation
    • This is the most purely photographic of the processes, the others depend to varying degrees on copywriting
  • Interpellation: viewer is created by the ad
    • ‘Hey, you!’ – personally addressing the viewer so that that they see themselves in the ad
    • Paradoxically, addresses a mass group with similar characteristics but as an ‘individual’
  • Identification / mis-recognition: viewer creates themselves in the ad
    • Aspiration: the ‘better version of yourself’ concept
    • The ad constructs a ‘lack’, a ‘gap’ that owning the product will fill and complete the mirroring of viewer and ad-subject
  • Totemism / social differentiation: viewer takes meaning from the ad
    • Ads encourage formation of ‘tribes’ based on consumer behaviour
    • Alignment with similar people / distinction from dissimilar people
    • Used for products/services with limited real differentiation, where ‘difference’ needs to be constructed

Williamson’s ideologies (that advertising both feeds on and forms) could be viewed as a component part of Guy Debord’s ‘Spectacle’ – a false, constructed set of cultural systems that determine to a scary degree how the majority of the population lives their lives (Debord 1968). Decoding Advertisements has improved my understanding of The Society of the Spectacle, for which I am grateful!

I’ll stop there so this doesn’t turn into a précis of the entire book. Suffice to say it has opened my eyes as to the cognitive processes that underpin good advertising imagery. I may return to the book later in this section.


Levitt, T (1983) The Marketing Imagination. New York: The Free Press

Features vs Benefits (accessed 15/06/2016)

Williamson, J. (1983) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (4th ed). London: Marion Boyars.

Debord, G. (1992) The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press

Photography as art

I’m starting section 2, Fine Art Photography and have read through the notes and started thinking very tentative thoughts about the assignment. The content of this section is somewhat curious, with a significant chunk focusing on photography and feminism, which is undoubtedly an important subject but covered here in such depth to the exclusion of other topics that it had me scratching my head a little. I’m sure it’ll make more sense when I’ve done it.

The other thing to get off my chest early so I can move on is the selection of example photographers: mostly good, appropriate, inspiring but occasionally baffling. In the same way as I was bewildered by the inclusion of art-photography pioneer Stieglitz in the Social Documentary section, I find myself wondering why Eugene Atget and Richard Billingham (Ray’s A Laugh) are included in the Fine Art Photography section – I understand the interplay between documentary and art but feel that the inclusion of these ‘edge cases’ is mainly to provoke this kind of response in the reader…! Presumably there’s method in their madness and at the end of this section I will come back here for a mea culpa moment.

Appreciating art

I recently read a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting book, Hugh Moss’ The Art of Understanding Art (2015) which has turned out to be a very useful context-setter for this part of the course.

The course notes include a couple of lines that summarise the point well, although I confess it wouldn’t have meant quite so much to me if I hadn’t read the Moss book: “[A]rt is a sensual experience – both for the practitioner and for the receiver. Art is created when work is done on or to objects that interact with one or a combination of the senses to promote an emotional, and/or intellectual feeling or reaction.” (G&M course notes: 54)

The premise of the Moss book is that art is a process not a product (Moss 2015: 45) – and a process with the lofty aim of enhancing consciousness (ibid: 48).

The artwork itself is only one part in what he describes as a 5-stage process:

  • Artist vision
  • Artist technique (creation)
  • Art object
  • Audience technique (reaction)
  • Audience vision (translation of reaction into enhanced consciousness)

This view of appreciating art is both simple and quite profound. It puts a framework around the often-repeated claim that art is a ‘dialogue’ between artist and audience. It also de-emphasises the art object itself; it is not the end point, merely a conduit for expressing the artist’s ideas. It places as much emphasis on the audience as the artist or the object. I like this.

‘Audience technique’ and ‘audience vision’ might seem like strange concepts but they correlate to the course notes’ description of the role of the ‘receiver’ in processing and experiencing “an emotional, and/or intellectual feeling or reaction“.

This world view reframes the question: “But is it art?” (and it does usually start with “but”…) away from the object and onto the message. Better questions are: Why do you think the artist chose to do this? What is the artist trying to express?How does it make you feel? Will you remember it, and if so, why?

Reading modern and contemporary art through this lens is very enlightening. One can stop over-thinking whether an unmade bed is art and engage with the ideas it represents.

Anyway, I thought it was a highly appropriate book to read before starting on this section.


Moss, H. (2015) The Art of Understanding Art: A New Perspective. UK: Profile Books.

Research point: Robert Frank’s The Americans

Whilst lauded as a classic now, Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) divided critics on its publication as it eschewed the photographic conventions of the day and pushed people’s perceptions of what ‘good photography’ is. It is hard to truly experience the ‘shock of the new’ looking at it decades later, when these once-revolutionary aesthetics and vision can be seen echoed in the work of countless subsequent photographers. You have to try to put yourself in the shoes of the late 1950s viewer. Through this virtual lens it becomes clearer how much of a break from the past this collection represents.

A different kind of photography

Frank’s work is, at first glance, frustrating (well it was to me anyway). At first I couldn’t really see what the big deal was. But this is one of those collections where the more you look, the more you see.

What comes across is a set of images that place feeling/mood/emotion over technical quality. His work is often blurry, loosely composed, with tilted horizons, with unsure focus, with people’s faces obscured… in some instances I found it maddening that he hadn’t straightened up, cropped closer, refocused to get a better shot. But he seemed to select the exposures that conveyed the right feeling to him, not the ones that were technically the best. This in itself was revolutionary at the time.

Almost all photography up until this point (and much photography since) was edited for aesthetic quality; but if photography has a documenting role, it needs to be able to capture a moment that may not be technically perfect, but get across what was happening at that split-second. It is, as Cartier-Bresson says in The Mind’s Eye (1998), about getting the “essence” of the situation.

Is this ‘beat photography’? It’s telling that Jack Kerouac provided the introduction text. The style of photography has much in common with the ‘beat writer’ style and rhythm, which in turn was influenced by the musicality of jazz – disjointed, fragmented, staccato, improvised, seemingly stream-of-conciousness but with an underlying cohesion and rhythms, if you look for them. Specifically the road-trip format of the project echoes Kerouac’s most famous work – he manages to work the phrase “on the road” into the first sentence of the introduction.

Subjects and themes

In choosing what to shoot (and select in the edit), he set himself apart from his contemporaries; America as a broad theme had been done before, but not like this. He shot a huge variety of subjects, including many that others had not covered before: work and play, rich and poor, black and white, cities and wide open spaces. He seemed to be looking for a cross-section of subjects – people, places, activities – that together summed up America. His outsider status (he was a Swiss national) gave him both a curiosity about his adopted country and an empathy with the minorities he saw. This is not the America that a state-sponsored photography project would have covered.

From The Americans © Robert Frank

He was, with this set of images at least, more of an eye-witness than an artist. In choosing to cover subjects/events not normally photographed, he provided a record of the country at that time. Furthermore, in choosing the specific exposures that more technically proficient photographers would have rejected, he was giving the world a chance to see specific moments of life that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. Example: the Hollywood starlet on the red carpet at the movie premiere: she’s out of focus, the spectators are in focus. He chose to highlight the ordinary people over the celebrity.

Whilst he had a knack for interesting subjects, he clearly had some specific thematic elements in mind. Some of these are now considered so stereotypical of 1950s USA that you wonder if they already were clichés or if Frank captured them on their way to becoming iconic: diners, big cars, jukeboxes. Several images allude to the racial segregation that was still being suffered by minorities in the 1950s. Other elements are timeless Americana: the US flag is highly prominent, stetsons make a few appearances. A couple of less obvious thematic elements become apparent on closer examination: death is depicted or alluded to in several images; religious imagery, specifically the crucifix, makes a few appearances.

Looking at it again recently, a couple of other, more subtle themes emerged for me. I was surprised how many of the images alluded to class differences, and not just racially based. I don’t think of the USA as being as class-conscious as Britain, but there are a number of images of the ‘upper class’ at play that don’t paint them in a very sympathetic light. The other extra layer I spotted was the overriding sense of loneliness in many of the images; I always felt a sense of melancholy in the series, but more specifically I’m now seeing images that emphasised how alone people can be, even in crowds – looking different ways, not engaging with each other. It’s added a new depth to some of the pictures. Frank the outsider coming though the pictures again.

Meaning and intent

What was Frank trying to say here? It’s certainly not a linear narrative, nor even, for a road-trip, a geographic one. He criss-crosses the states and captures what amounts to a series of vignettes, not a neat story with beginning, middle and end. He seems to want to provide a snapshot, or rather a series of snapshots, that show what a complex, multi-faceted place the USA was. If anything, he’s saying: all this is America; America is all these things. He is capturing a mood, a vibe. Holding a mirror up to a nation.

It’s understandable now why this is such a pivotal photo essay. It used photography in a new way, it defied convention, it showed that photography can be raw, honest, unglamorous. It can capture seemingly mundane slices of life as well as grand events. It can evoke a feeling that is detached from the aesthetic beauty of the image. With the decades of photography that has followed, it’s easy to take those things for granted. With this book you can see the roots of a new type of photography.


Cartier-Bresson, H. (2004) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Woking: Aperture.

Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen: Steidl.


The following have either been of use to me as existing books in my collection, or have been specially acquired for this course. I will add to this as I progress. Essential reading from the course reading list is in bold text.

Text books:

Arden, P. (2006) Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite. London: Penguin.

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Benjamin, W (1972) A Short History of Photography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

Bertens, H. (1995) The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bordieu, P. (1996) Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bronfen, E. (1992) Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cartier-Bresson, H. (2004) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Woking: Aperture.

Cotton, C (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Debord, G. (1992) The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press.

Dyer, G. (2012) The Ongoing Moment. London: Canongate.

Garrett, J. (1990) The Art of Black and White Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington: Focal Press.

Lewis, D. and Ward, A. (1992) Publishing Photography. Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Poster, M. (ed.) (1988) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Williamson J. (2010) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars Publishers.

Woodward, K. (ed.) (2004) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2nd edition). London: Open University.

Photo books:

Angier, R (2007). Train Your Gaze. Lausanne: AVA.

Baker, S and Mavlian, S (eds.) (2014) Conflict – Time – Photography. London: Tate.

Erwitt, E. (2001) Snaps. London: Phaidon.

Eskildsen, U. (ed) (2008) Street & Studio. London: Tate.

Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen: Steidl.

Higgins, J (2013). 21st Century Portraits. London: NPG.

Howarth, S and McClaren, S (eds.) (2010) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Lubben, K. (ed) (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson.

Steichen, E. (ed) (2015) The Family of Man (60th Anniversary Edition). New York: MOMA.

Szarkowski, J. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MOMA.