Sunday, 2 June 2013

Post Winter Reflections

I'm back. Apologies for my silence and absence.

I'm not going to focus too much on what I have been up to over the past six months but instead pin down my thoughts as they are now.  As always, any points I make are personal reflections. I try to be honest, occasionally provocative, so please feel welcome to offer any views...


I want to make reference to this article on the old Joerg Colberg site.
For me, process alone almost never makes a good or interesting photograph. Process is not enough. Sure, it might take you months and months mastering it, sure, getting your photograph might involve all kinds of tricky aspects. But at the end of the day, I look at photographs as, well, photographs.
As students we are encouraged to experiment with the technical process of taking a photograph particularly traditional methods. This is no bad thing, although I do think there will come a time in the not too distant future when this is no longer valid or plausible. There is a notion that we can 'elevate' our photography from 'mainstream' to 'artisan'. We can take our art and ourselves seriously and differentiate what we 'make' from the photos 'taken' by the 'unwashed'. I'm making henious assumptions of course and reflect the implied criticism at myself. By using film, old film cameras, toy cameras, wet film or collodian processes we add a level of complexity to our photography that evidences our commitment, interest and passion.  These are the processes with an eye on the past where you find the 'connoisseur' photographers hanging out, including some big names in contemporary photography Dijkstra, Crewdson, Soth amongst many more. So we are in good company...but for how long?   
Do not rely on the process as that which solely determines the quality of the work. If your process is prominent use its strengths. But at the same time push against the process itself, so that the end result is a good photograph - and not some photograph produced with some process. 
Joerg Colberg and indeed I recall Roger Ballen saying as much at his masterclass, that the technical process is inconsequential...a good photograph is a good photograph. There is a danger that the level of technical complexity is positively linked to its perceived value, particularly in the eyes of an impressionable student...such as I!

In a discussion with my tutor following my submission of assignment two sometime ago now, I recall lamenting about the fact that if the images I took were too easy to take, they held no value to me...I needed it to be difficult to achieve. Like a painting that has taken hours and hours of toil, an image seems like child's play in comparison. His response to this was, quite rightly, the actual taking of the photograph was the final step in a process that required a significant investment in time that should be considered within the making of the image. 

But I do wonder whether other photographers, such as myself, who wish their images to be viewed alongside paintings in an art gallery feel the same. The hours needed to make a painting far outweigh those of a photograph and therefore reducing its perceived value. And that by adding a level of technical complexity to the taking of the image, it enhances its inherent value, craft or otherwise. From what I know of galleries and the esteemed photographers of the day, it seems so. But I am not convinced that heading back to the past to demonstrate our commitment or 'seriousness' has longevity for budding photographers of the future. For a start it isn't at all practical, it is costly, and supplies are becoming scarcer by the day. And more importantly, we are denying ourselves the technology that our forebears would most certainly have used if it had been invented.  We don't use typewriters anymore, we use computers and for good reason. I think common sense should prevail really. Or am I missing something? Please convince me otherwise.

So what will the post-contemporary photographers be using to demonstrate their conviction to the sport? Or will they lie in fear of being marginalised as an art-form as I fear we are today. Perhaps we will differentiate our prowess within the content or the context of the photograph. I'm too much of a 'laggard' to capably predict the technology or trends of future art photography. But still, my hunch is the emphasis on the technical aspects will need to be reduced to an absolute whisper. Photography needs to lose its imperialism, believe in itself as an art form, integrate amongst other mediums and stop getting hung up on the mechanics. 

Based on what I have just shared and bringing this back to my own study, you will not be surprised to hear that I will not be pursuing photography with the large format camera anymore. I don't quite get it anymore!

I would prefer to invest my energies, as I tend to do naturally anyway, in the deliberating of life issues that seem impossible to unpick and that I endeavour to respond to through photography.  And indeed how I can expand the limitations of the camera to enable me to visualise my thoughts in pictures will continue to be one of my greatest challenges. But as mentioned above, I do think if I can view photography as an artistic pursuit and 'park' its worth as an indexical medium, there is lots of scope for me to explore.


By 'working process' I mean the bit from idea conception to taking a photograph.  The bit the course demands much evidence of. I sometimes feel that the image, through the process of academic study and mentoring is lost...the process and evidencing is valued greater than the end product.  And that is perhaps where I feel a little at odds with the academic route of studying photography. I think it is great that we are encouraged to study, read around the subject and visit galleries, but at the end of the day, I don't want to be assessed on my book-keeping...the bottom line should be the image.

Within the landscape module in particular my feedback has been 'process-centric'. The advice was sound and helpful and indeed has influenced my method of working, but it seems that the academic pursuit judges the final images on the systems/processes that are in place...and this is the bit I don't get, well I do, but I don't. There is a mild air of institutionalism that is bothering me. Perhaps I'll under-perform and regret writing this. But you know, changing spots at forty isn't easy and I'm going to stick my head above the parapet on this one and follow my instincts. I work hard, I do my homework, my work should be underpinned by this grounding and be reflected in it.

It is also worth mentioning, whilst I accept we're not in school, I do think there should be more guidance on the theory we're expected to know about, without feeling obliged to embark on UVC. For example, three intensive days of theoretical desk learning or some kind of face to face would bottom it out...I do think it is unfair demanding students to find it all out by themselves...we can of course pick it up as we go along, which we do...but as I have heard more than once, 'we don't know what we don't know'. So help us out!! Photography is a living, breathing thing and this seems a fundamental aspect that I think needs either less emphasis or more resources.

This kind of corroborates the comments Sean O'hagen in the weareoca article
JA: How important is it for students to be able to write about their practice?
SO: A student in Belfast asked me that last year. Plaintively. In fact, he said, could you give a talk about how we could write about our work? I thought that was revealing. They need practical help on this sort of thing. I think a lot of visual people find it difficult to make their ideas concise. I’ve also noticed a lot of pseudo-conceptual blather at degree shows and when I did degree show selections for Source magazine and the Photographers Gallery. Paragraphs of ill-digested theory and really mundane or derivative photographs. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I sometimes think there is a bit if a crisis in the teaching of photography. I really think po-mo [post modern] theory should be held back to post graduate stage. Learn to take or make good pictures first, then you can theorise all you like. And read Robert Adams: Beauty in Photography or Along Some Rivers. (A lot of photographers are great writers – Adams, Arbus, Shore…) Or read Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language. It’s full of practical tips on how to write concisely and directly. It’s important. Or, if you are really no good at it, get someone else to do it.
I don't necessarily agree that the theory needs to be delayed to post graduate study, but equally it is clear that in many institutions we're not getting it right. And I must admit, in my case at least (I am slightly OCD, but I'm sure many enthusiast could be defined as such) I over-read, over-analysed and stopped taking photographs.

Also, much of my reading is/was of contemporary theorists...that's what seems relevant to me. Yet, a reference I made by a reputable online blogger wasn't valid in an academic context and I was advised to source the theorist who originally came up with the concept. Current musings versus the classics from the one more relevant than the more valid than the other and if so, at what point can current musings count. Is there some kind of theoretical elitism, again it maybe necessary to qualify in an academic context, but not at all helpful!

Right now, John Stezaker and Kurt Schwitters.

Well, I have done an about turn, twice...I decided to put this online blog on hold as I was concerned that not unlike 'the gaze of a camera' I was progressing in a self-conscious, committee-driven way.  I was becoming too self-aware rather than allowing my images to mature.  So I made the decision to write a digital diary (written blogs haven't worked for me in the past) and develop ideas without the temptation of seeking approval to bolster my conviction. I have to make the work regardless of whether others like it and I was worried by developing projects and sharing online it was going against this notion. So a digital diary seemed a good solution...and provided the proof that the course required. This worked to start with, but I found it difficult to contain it...I couldn't close out a topic, kept continuously adding to posts/ none of the subjects ever really finished, and the whole thing got bigger and more unmanageable.  So I'm back online and I will share musings and thoughts but not the images until I've reached a point of finality.

It's pointless publishing what I plan to do because I rarely keep to plan, but having said that, all my efforts over the next few months will be preparing material, particularly written material, for assessment.

After that, and if I make it to level three...its annihilation!


  1. It's great to see you back posting Penny - I have missed you.

    I agree completely with you about process - to me the current obsession with medium and large format film cameras seems at best anachronistic. It makes it easier for galleries to sell photographs to those who need to feel that they've made an good 'investment' but this isn't my idea of good justification.

    Looking forward to continuing to follow your progress!

  2. And welcome back from me as well. I was thinking of pinging you soon - and here you are with more stuff to think about. It'll be good to have you around again.

  3. Thanks John and Eileen...and apologies for being a crap cyber pal. Will hopefully be around a bit more now.

  4. Welcome back Penny.

    I agree with you about the theory aspect. The Course materials give a list of essential reading but then there's nothing in the projects/exercises, let alone the assignments that asks us to integrate this reading into our 'process'. One book leads to another and the pile grows!

    Digital diary sounds a good idea - I started one but, like you, found that this sent me along many highways and byways and this was reflected in my Study Visit write-ups as well so that list grows also.

    Enough of that - I'm pleased you're back.


  5. Welcome back from me too. I used to enjoy reading your blog, not least because it made me realise I was not alone in sometimes struggling with the courses. Was about to remove it from my follow list when - ta da!!
    Couldn't agree more about process and do not understand the attractions of lomography (when did photography with poor quality kit graduate to genre of its own) or instagram filters. They're not a substitute for thought although sometimes they can contribute to a properly worked through concept.
    I have raised the issue of the reading list myself - it needs closer integration with the course material.
    Going to stop now before I write a post rather than a comment. Welcome back.

  6. Gosh!!

    It took you a while to come back, but now it looks that you are transfigured.

    I also enjoy your blog and I'm glad you are back........

    .......I can not say that I do not agree or disagree with you.....and I will not write anything I might regret later.....instead of that I'll think about some images I'd like to make tomorrow !!!!


    ...thanks for your post......

  7. Cheers Catherine, Nigel and Leo for making me feel wanted!! Hopefully back on the photography wagon now!! I'll try not to twine too much!

  8. Hi Penny
    Good to see you back online and to read your musings, with which I more or less wholly concur, being also currently caught up in a mire of thinking & theorising that pretty much brought the photography to a standstill. On the questions of current versus past, traditional methods versus up-to-date, theory versus practice etc; I find myself questioning whether so much thinking, writing, and perhaps teaching, of photography has yet come to terms with digital and with the final severing of the (supposed) indexical link between image and subject. It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but does anyone really know what photography is? In that context, we students are perhaps best-served if we follow heart over head - which I think is, 'kind of', what you're saying.

  9. Well Helllooo there Penny - so glad to see you back in the blogosphere. There's some very interesting points you've made there and you have obviously spent a lot of time considering the why's and wherefore's of what you do and how you do it... my philosophy is simple JFDI! Just ******** Do It! You don't have to justify what you do or why you do it (ok - maybe you do to your course tutors), we wast far too mjuch time discussing why we can or can't do something when the obvious thing is to just get on with it. Any art medium is subjective, some people like it, some people don't and there's always somebody ready to tell you what they would have done differently. I admit that I enjoy reading your blog posts and I'm glad you're back, but I will miss seeing your photographs as I always found them quite refreshing, sometimes personal, but always worthwhile.

  10. A big warm welcome back from me too! I agree with pretty much everything you have to say, and had a similar discussion with the OCA a month or two back. I have moved to the new Landscape course and whilst the reading list is still not integrated into the course at least the course itself is far better written and presented.

    Great to have you back :-)

  11. Last week I thought I must email Penny and catch up, and suddenly, there you are. Ive had a year off and will "have" to start again soon or I will time out but I have no idea where I want to go. Distance learning has one major draw back as I see it and its nothing to do with being alone. Its having too much time to think. I look forward to reading what you are getting up to.

  12. Stan, Adey, Dave and Nigel its so nice to hear from you all and thank you for the very nice comments and thought, it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling!!! Or maybe that's heatstroke...could be today!!

    Stan, Adey, I take on board all your advice and it is kind of where I had got to too...following your heart and just xxxxing do it, is right. I was in Liverpool yesterday for the festival study visit and have come away thinking, 'you know, these artists just did it, I just need to do it too, follow my nose and have the confidence to do it'...too much worrying about things...but when you look at 'stuff' in galleries no formulas exist, no conventional route of getting there and free thinking is the only commonality between all the artists/photographers exhibiting.

    Dave I'll be interested to hear how you get on on the new course...if I go on to level three I will certainly wait for the rewrite, I have missed both the documentary and landscape rewrites. And Nigel...guilty as charged...I'm a dreamer and think all the time...that's why I need to kick in to gear before I think up a reason why I can't progress!!

    Anyway, I'll be posting progress soon hopefully...enjoy the sun all while it lasts!

  13. Hey there Penny, glad you're back! I'm doing landscape (old version) now too:-)
    (aka anned)

  14. Echoing everyone else's comments here—so good to have you back. You've been sorely missed!

  15. Thank you Anne and Vicki. Anne do you have an online blog for your landscape course?

  16. Not at the moment Penny, I thought I might get a gallery style one going at some point as I don't like the new flickr interface for sharing images. But so far my blog has only one post on it and that was from ages and ages ago!

    Hope its going OK with you.