Tag Archives: Henri Cartier Bresson

Captions and Other Words in Photo Narratives

Smokey Mountain, Manila1989, Metro Manila's largest garbage dump was home to 30,000 people who made their living searching for saleable items in the rubbish. 50% of Manila's 11 million population live in slums.

Smokey Mountain, Manila1989, Metro Manila’s largest garbage dump was home to 30,000 people who made their living searching for saleable items in the rubbish. Ineffectual government policies leading to the repeated failure of re-housing schemes means that even now 50% of Manila’s  population of 11 million still live in slums.


Researching narrative has revised my interest in how words and pictures work together and it is obvious that there are a number of different ways to incorporate words within a photo essay ranging from their complete absence, through captions, cutlines, appropriations, to written essays.

The history of the photo story and photo essay is closely linked to photo journalism, magazines and newsprint so it is no surprise that many such narratives are published with text but it is also common for photo books to use captions, cutlines or editorial text to support the photographers’ work. So, whilst some photographers’ work is inevitably destined to be published with associated text because they are working for news or magazine publishers it is clear that many photographers with editorial control are still making the decision to incorporate text with or within their work and it interesting to look a little more closely at why and how this is done.

When first researching  narrative photography it became clear that there is the photo journalist’s and news editor’s view on one hand and the photography critic’s and writer’s view on the other and an attempt to simultaneously consider both views is often trying to square the circle. It also leads to a semantic debates on the meaning of story versus essay and documentary versus journalism and so forth. It could be that this difference of opinion has its roots in what Graham Clarke *(2) describes as the “extent to which photographic practice has been haunted in its development by what has been termed the ‘ghost of painting'”. In simple terms “great art” before the invention of photography rarely, if ever, resorted to using captions beyond assigning a title so, perhaps, great photography is expected not to need or use them.

Absence of Words

It can be argued that the perfect photographic narrative needs no words and many such narratives exist. Richard Billingham’s Rays a Laugh *(6) tells the story of life with his alcoholic father and was published with only a short photographer’s statement on the inside cover to introduce the characters in the photographs, after which there are no captions of any kind, not even the place and date form of captions found in Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston or Stephen Shore’s work. These works are not lessoned by a lack of captions, the photographers felt no need to offer Cartier-Bresson’s “verbal context” and this approach is clearly highly effective in a photo book or exhibition context where the story can be completely communicated through the images.

A further argument would be that the “norm”, the standard starting point is for there to be no words. The pictures speak for themselves and the photograph only controls the content of the image and the context in which they are made available to the audience. The audience is left to interpret the pictures. If we accept that is the status quo it would appear that we are only looking for arguments for why we would use words.


After assignment 3 I looked at the work of Victor Burgin (Victor Burgin and Appropriations) who has produced a number of series where his photographs appropriate types of words, such as marketing-like slogans, or pieces of text from other sources. In Burgin’s case he is placing an image into a context where we would not normally expect to see it and thereby unsettles the audiences expectations and interpretation of that image.

Anna Fox used the same idea in Work Stations by selecting extracts from corporate “literature” as ironic texts to accompany her images of office life in the 1980s. I had adopted Fox’s approach to my own assignment 3 and attempted to highlight issues with the fashion industry by using their own marketing material as ironic captions.

Fox and Burgin both use appropriation by juxtaposing text and image that are in conflict with one another. For example a piece of fashion speak that celebrates the virtues of a pale skin with a photograph of a black women in a bus queue. (Burgin “Life Demands a Little Give and Take”) *(1).

Appropriation could be a valid technique to use in a photo story or essay and I am considering using it in assignment 5 but, this time, in a less ironic manner by combining the written words of a late 19th / early 20th Century writer who published several books about the village in which I grew up, combined with current images of the same village.

Other Examples of Combining Words and Pictures

Research into narrative has led me to several other photographers who use text as part of their work, or who have produced work that is nearly always seen with the original magazine text in place; I have previously made notes on:

Photo Journalism

Although I can’t find the origin of the quote Harold Evans *(3) quotes Cartier-Bresson as saying “The who or what and the why are incorporated in the subject – or should be – and the how is unimportant.” However, in The Mind’s Eye *(4), Cartier-Bresson also says “in A Picture Story, the captions should invest the pictures with a verbal context, and should illuminate whatever relevant thing it may have been beyond the power of the camera to reach.” It appears that even Cartier-Bresson had more than one view on the role of the caption.

Evans is less ambivalent believing that the idea that words “pollute photographs” is “a piece of intellectual debris from the early idea that photography was art or it was nothing” and, in his world of newsprint, we would expect no other view. The typical process of understanding a news photo is to first look at the picture, then read the caption and any short descriptive extension to the caption (what the American press calls the “cutline”) and then to return to the photograph for a second look. This process builds an understanding by ‘reading” and absorbing the information in the picture, reading the caption and its associated text to gain any helpful explanation or additional data and then revisiting the image to use the context provided by he caption to reveal any nuances missed on the first visit. Newspapers and magazines are expert in the field of caption writing because they know that only headlines have a higher readership that photo captions *(5) and readers are drawn deeper into the editorial or news text through the process of reading photographs and their captions.

Photo journalism, photo stories and photo essays as published in magazines and newspapers are rarely offered as stand alone pictures, in fact, it is so rare that it is only a slight exaggeration to say that this type of photography always includes a caption and is often linked to a more detailed descriptive context or, is providing a visual context to the text.

Not surprisingly, as a newspaper man, Evans, is an advocate for words; he believes that, by adding text, the editor can enhance both the emotional and cognitive experience of viewing a photograph or a series of photographs. In the world of newsprint the aim of this text is to add to and explain the story by providing descriptive detail although Evans recognises that too often it repeats the facts we can see on the photograph because it has been badly executed or is unnecessary but this doesn’t detract from the fact that many news photos are enhanced by their relationship with text. When this is done well the photograph and the text each contribute to the story and the relationship is inevitable, it is a known result that both photographer and writer are working to.

Summary and Next Steps

The two ends of the spectrum are the pure visual story and the story embedded within and closely related to text. In the middle there are a significant number of photo books that extensively use text to provide context, additional information and explanation and, whilst assignment 5, is set as a “magazine cover and article” and therefore inextricably  linked to text if it is to be authentic, it is this middle ground that interests me most. Why does a photographer choose, in Evans’ words, “to pollute” their images with text?

The relationship between words and pictures in a photo book is complex and not inevitable. Anna Fox explains that, whilst she knew that she wanted to use text from the corporate world in a association with her photographs in Work Stations, she collected the pictures and text quite separately, only selecting combinations when she was collating the final presentation. I followed this approach in assignment 3 by collecting phrases during the same few weeks that I was taking the photographs but selected the pictures and decided on my final sequence before starting to look for, what I saw as, natural matches from my collection of quotes.

To explore how text is used by different photographers I have looked at three books.

Koudelka’s Wall –  that I have looked at twice already once as a general review (here) and once in the context of how he used olive trees as a metaphor (here).

Josef Koudelka and the Use of Captions in Wall

Philip Griffith Jones’ Vietnam Inc. that I have looked at in the context of The Engaged Photographer

Philip Jones Griffith and the use of Captions, Cutlines and Other Text in Vietnam Inc.

Tong Lam’s Abandoned Futures that I have not previously reviewed previously in this blog.

Tong Lam and the Use of Text and Appropriations in Abandoned Futures


In each case the photographer has decided that his photographs only tell part of the story. Koudelka provides short captions that explain and educate to ensure that we see past the beauty of his images. Jones Griffiths is constantly explaining “why” so that we understand the history, the back story the broader context of he Vietnam war and its impact on the people and their culture. Lam is offering us two ways to see and understand post industrial landscapes, the words and essays are blended but neither fundamentally relies on the other, they are two parallel data sources.

These different approaches show that words and pictures can be successfully integrated in media other than news or magazines. In the case of Jones Griffiths his book is a direct reaction to the what he sees as the way that the news editors take photo journalist’s work out of contact to illustrate the story they want to publish.

My final conclusion is to agree with Jones Griffiths when he says that we live in a literate society so, if we believe we have a story to tell why would we limit ourselves to using pictures as a complete narrative form? It is essential that the words compliment the photographs, they must add to the story and not be simple and redundant descriptions of the image. The ideal is for the photograph to be strong enough to provide the majority of the information and for the caption or essay to provide the context that explains why the event is happening, or how others events have unfolded to lead to this moment. The two forms of communication need to work together to gain an emotional reaction.



(2) Clarke, Graham (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(3) Evans, Harold (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(4) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture Foundation

(6) Billingham, Richard (1995) Ray’s a Laugh. Books on Books Edition (2014). New York: Valerie Sonnenthal


(1) Zero Focus – Victor Burgin – Life Demands a Little Give and Take – http://shihlun.tumblr.com/post/84456144504/victor-burgin-poster-life-demands-a-little-bit

(5) University of Kansas web resources – A picture is worth a thousand words (but only of it’s got a really good cutline!) – http://web.ku.edu/~edit/captions.html


Steal Like an Artist and an Audience with Anna Fox

Having had a week away the last week has been one of catching up at work and home and this has left little or no time for photography, course work or progressing assignment 3. This morning I planned to focus on assignment 3 or to write up my notes from Anna Fox’s excellent lecture that I attended on Wednesday. However, whilst having my coffee I started to read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon *(1) and ended up reading the whole book before even getting as far as my desk. Austin Kleon describes himself as a writer who draws and as well as publishing his own creative work he has begun to write compact little books about how to make progress as an artist, Steal Like an Artist, which is about inspiration, became a New york Times bestseller, not because thousands of artists purchased it but because the ideas are as applicable to being in business or designing a web page as they are to art. Show your Work *(2), his latest book which I have on my Kindle but haven’r read yet, is about how to get out there and begin to influence others.

Anna Fox and Austin Kleon are quite different sources of inspiration but having been exposed to the ideas of both people this week I have found some common themes that are helping me organise my own thoughts and put a number of diverse strands into some sort of framework. This is distracting me from finishing assignment 3 but might be helping me find the right context for what I am trying to do.

The fundamental idea behind Steal Like an Artist is that all art is based on ideas stolen from other artists. The book is filled with pithy quotes from sources as diverse as T.S.Eliot and David Bowie but, in many ways, they are all variations on the theme of Pablo Picasso’s “Art is theft”. Kleon’s main point is that we must find an artist whose work we love, study this artist in depth, discover who inspired them and, in turn, study that person identifying where they acquired their inspiration and by doing this open new leads to investigate and so on ad infinitum. His thesis is that by taking other people’s work apart to see how it works when you come to put it back together in your own work you should have found something of your own.

After assignment 1 my tutor pointed me towards researching the banal and the mundane as explored by the American “New Colourists”.  William Eggleston led me to Stephen Shore and I spent time first, looking at them individually and then, at the similarities and differences in their work. Whilst their work is exciting I found myself being more interested in the thought processes behind it than in the end result. It took time for me to understand why that was the case and concluded that it was because the locations in William Eggleston’s Guide and Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places are alien, too specifically American. The photographs that have the most impact upon me depend upon these locations and at this stage I cannot, to use Kleon’s concept, steal those ideas and use them on the Surrey Hampshire borders.

This added impetus to finding more local inspiration and led me to look at Tony Ray-Jones and then Martin Parr. There is a neat line connecting these men as, on the evolutionary tree of photography, Ray-Jones and Parr are on the same branch as Eggleston and Shore along with Garry Winogrand and many others. Parr was influenced by Ray-Jones and is currently curating a joint exhibition of their work.

There are clearly common ideas behind Ray-Jones and Parr’s work and whilst their end product is quite different this commonality of idea underlines one of Kleon’s other key points in that we should not “just steal the style but steal the thinking behind the style”. To steal an idea is harder than copying a style because we have to invest time into researching the artist, finding interviews with them, reading their essays, finding informed reviews and curator’s remarks that provide the backdrop to their work. In essence looking at an artist’s work is not enough, we have to try and understand their thought processes and their intent if we wish to adopt any part of their style.

The strongest link between the work of Ray-Jones, Parr and Anna Fox is their focus on leisure. Although each has worked abroad it is their work looking at the British at leisure that closely connects them not just in subject matter but in the way that they see humour and quirkiness in the British at play. In his introduction to Resort 1 *(4) David Chandler refers to the subject of the “British at Leisure” as a defining one for British Photography for the last forty years and he suggests that the baton has passed from Hinde to Ray-Jones to Parr and on to Fox.

Anna Fox studied under Parr and there are a few other very obvious links. Both work in strong colours, both look at the world with the critical eye of a documentarist and both bring humour to potentially mundane subjects. Another link is that they both have worked at Butlins as photographs (rather than as Red Coats). Parr worked as a Butlins’ employed photographer in 1971 and 1972 before he moved from black and white to colour. I have seen very little of his work from that period but there are a few prints from Butlins by the Sea (1972) in Val Williams’ book Martin Parr *(3) and it is easy to place them into the ancestral lineage of The Last Report which was first published some fourteen years later and collected photos taken from 1983 to 1985.

Anna Fox first worked at Butlins in 2009 on a project approved by, but not soley funded by Butlins. Resort 1 *(4) is the first of two collections of the photographs taken for this project and whilst any stylistic link to Butlins by the Sea would be tenuous it is much easier to connect Resort 1 to Last Resort. Fox uses colour in a bold way, like Parr she takes the ambient lighting conditions out of the equation by, in her case, using lighting rigs with strobes. As a result she creates that same sense of near 3D that is a notable feature of much of Parr’s work. The foreground, and thereby often the main subject, is always slightly brighter than the background and this brings a film set feel to many of the pictures in Resort 1.  Like Parr she explores the extraordinary that, to the less observant eye, is so often masked by the ordinary and has an uncanny knack, which is of course in reality is a great skill, of finding compositions that use colour to link the various components.

Anna Fox Leaving Day 2010

Anna Fox Leaving Day 2010

Anna Fox Wooden Donkeys 2011

Anna Fox Wooden Donkeys 2011

In both the examples above there is an interesting and consistent colour scheme. In Leaving Day the reds in the two foreground childrens’ clothes are picked up by the chalets in the background and this gives the picture an overall impression of reds. In Wooden Donkeys there are a selection of blues, the small boy in the foreground, the girl behind and to the left, the banners, the saddle cloths and the sky, there is an overall impression of blue.

This is not true of every picture in Resort 1 but in many there are one or more pieces of detail colour that carry through to the background and give the overall composition a sense of there being an overriding scheme.

Another link between Parr and Fox is their common interest in the work of the John Hinde Studio who photographed and published postcards of Butlins in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Parr discovered Hinde’s postcards whilst working at Butlins and, according to Val Williams, this was the beginning of his interest in collecting postcards. Fox, on the other hand, directly acknowledges that the style she developed for Resort 1 was influenced by the work of the John Hinde studio. The hallmark of Hinde’s postcards is that they were stage managed productions with lighting, direction and, often, actors in the shape of Butlin’s redcoats pretending to be guests. Fox had started at Butlins taking pictures of adults enjoying themselves on adult only weekends, stag nights, hen parties and the like, and for this she had worked with a portable camera and flash. This approach fitted her subjects and the parties that were unfolding in front of her but when she started to work with family holiday makers she discovered that her subjects were uncomfortable with the street photography or  “paparazzi feel” of this approach. In response she started to use a static 5 x 4″ camera with a lighting system and a team of assistants. This “film set” method, similar to that used by Hinde’s photographers, encouraged her subjects to participate and capture this unique view of modern day Butlins.

I have deviated from my narrative to look at the work of Parr and Fox because it is through these examples that I hope to describe how style theft is good. Kleon makes the point that plagiarism is passing off other people’s ideas as one’s own but imitation is an essential part of the process of developing a style. Anna Fox openly credits Parr and Hinde as influences, her use of daylight flash is “of Parr”, her big production studio sets “of Hinde”, for her subject matter perm any of Ray-Jones, Parr, Hinde, and many others. In Kloen’s terms she has stolen these ideas but there is no doubt that Resort 1 is Anna Fox, not any of the above, nor is it a homage to any of the above. Fox has taken ideas and style and through imitation she has transformed it, we can see the heritage, but her work is distinctly different because she has remixed and reworked, blended and merged, invested her own personality and through all these things created her own unique style.

Steal like an Artist was the right read at the right time partly because I find it reassuring. He describes ways of working that I already follow such as Google everything, read, find as many diverse sources of knowledge as possible, take endless notes, draw pictures, sketch ideas, use the computer as a way of editing, finalising and presenting and not as a way to develop ideas. He says “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” Kloen presents some key words which need to be born in mind when we steal ideas. We should honour not degrade, study not skim, steal from many not one, credit not plagiarise, transform not imitate and remix not rip-off.

Kleon’s book is, in many ways, about research with the objective of developing a style and his ideas can be expanded upon and taken forward as a framework for study. When I first started with OCA I had no idea on how to research or study photography, instinctively I started looking for photographs I liked and then began to study the photographers who took them. This led me every which way and exposed me to a few new ideas but nothing was exciting me to the point that I wanted to go out and take a “Henri Cartier Bresson” – too black and white, too stuffy, or a “Koudelka” or a “Salgardo” – too dark. I found Camilo José Vergara and immediately wanted to “take photos like that” but I needed to have started thirty years ago as the whole point of his work is the long term documentation of change. Eventually I arrived at Eggleston and Shore that I loved but felt were too American and then I came upon Parr. In one direction this led me to Winnogrand and in the opposite direction to Fox and I have a list of names of other photographers which are still on the research list who are mentioned by or in the context of Parr.

Salvador Dali said that “Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing” so Kleon urges us to copy, copy, copy and through this process, and because our copies will not be anywhere near perfect we will find and produce something that is uniquely us.

I have spent a lot of time looking at Shore and Parr and now having been introduced to Fox’s work through the OCA Study Visit I am in the process of adding her to the list. The are many aspects of their work that I want to be take as direct influences or, is it steal?

  • The saturated colours
  • The bold, uninhibited use of colour
  • Working in sets or series and not on individual images
  • Daylight flash
  • Parr and Fox’s types of subjects
  • Fox’s stitching of individual photos to create a memory of a place over a period of time
  • Fox’s idea of collecting text and images separately only bringing them together in the final edit
  • Shore’s use of deep depths of fields making every piece of the frame equally important

The list is longer but the point is made.

From my experience of working with GCSE and A Level students and my own studies I know that subject matter is always a challenge and, in the age of Flickr, there is an over emphasis on “wow factor”, what Roland Barthes might have seen as all studium and no punctum. Anna Fox, in her lecture, talked engagingly about her career which started photographing Basingstoke, a notably un-interesting new town, her project in offices which was published as “Work Stations” and documenting her mother’s cupboards and her local village. Her point is that photography starts at home, She described documentary photography as recording something to give it historical significance and to have it remembered and her photographs of mundane offices in the 1980s, village life in the early 90s, Butlins in the 21st century and her current project in a small French city all fit into this description. Few people would identify any of these subjects as exciting, there is no “wow factor” but she creates compelling and memorable images that will stand the test of time and offer an insightful description of their place and time.

One of the reasons that her work has value is that she has constantly developed her style and used new techniques. She made the point that the fact she had used a technique or was using it now did not mean she would continue to use it so there is obviously an evolution of style in her work. One of her current techniques is to use a static camera to take snapshots of a fluid scene like an airport arrivals hall or a retail shop and then to select several moments from different raw images and to stitch them together to form a memory of a place over time.

Kleon offers similar advice to the artist about subject selection as the better we know and understand something the more easily we will interpret it for others. I am finding it increasingly important to take photos for myself or as Kleon puts it, to write the book we want to read. Bringing these ideas together I conclude that we can pick any subject close to home to document, to give it historical significance and to have it remembered; we can use flash like Parr or static cameras like Shore or Fox or white backgrounds like Bailey as long as we understand why we are using them and that we are using them as part of a process of finding our own voice.

My favourite quote amongst the many in Steal like an Artist provides a fitting conclusion.

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening everything must be said again.” Andre Gide.


*(1) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.

*(2) Kleon, Austin (2014) Show Your Work. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.

*(3) Williams, Val (2002) Martin Parr. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

*(4) Fox, Anna (2013) Resort 1. London: Thames and Huson Limited.

Roland Barthes Camera Lucida

It was suggested that I should read Camera Lucida (1), the last work of French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes. I had previously heard of “studium and punctum” but had not read the original book.

I think of myself as an avid reader, fiction, history, photography, sport, even literature but I found this short book difficult to break into, in fact, often quite impenetrable. Taking the man’s cleverness as a given I can only assume that this book was written for himself or for people skilled at translating the philosopher’s thoughts. I find his style rambling and confusing and his key ideas appear hidden behind a fog of words that, in fairness, might have lost sometime in translation.

At the outset Barthes tells us that he wants to learn, at all costs, what photography was in itself and he goes in search of the fundamental feature that is the basis of all photography. He questions whether photography has a “genius” of its own, something that would set it apart from, what he calls, the community of images. His tone might be interpreted as generally one of disappointment with photography, a medium that he feels  “crushes all other images by its tyranny” and that fails to capture the essence of his dead mother.

Perhaps the genius of photography lies hidden amid his criticisms. If in 1980 he sensed that photography was overwhelming other art what might he think in 2014 when photography has become so overwhelming that we have invented on-line galleries that probably have more images uploaded per day than there are paintings on display in all of galleries in Britain or maybe even Europe yet has it really crushed the other communities of images? The genius of the medium might lie in this accessibility . According to Digitrends (2) every fifteen minutes users of Facebook upload the same number of photographs as are stored in the New York public photo archives. One might argue that the ordinary is swamping the extra-ordinary but this is true of any art form, just travel any distance in a taxi playing Euro pop, or listen to piped music in a shopping centre car park. Barthes appears to argue that quantity, in itself, diminishes an art form and that the quantity in one art form threatens to crush other forms. I do not accept this argument. Graham Clarke (3) in describing the development of the modern camera describes photography as “the most mobile and the most available of visual forms” and the “most democratic art form” and I subscribe to this view. By making photography possible from a telephone, an instrument designed for verbal communication people with no particular technical skills can communicate through images, even moving images. A biscuit tin of dog-eared, black and white family photographs has been replaced by an ever expanding library of photos of family, friends, places and events. The many can now document their lives to a level of detail that was once the preserve of the very few. Some of these pictures will match someone’s expectation of art – Ai Weiwei’s iPhone photo of the Forbidden City springs to mind – and many will not but this should neither diminish their role as a diary of memories, nor as an expression of current emotions, nor as a form of communication. “Look,” “See,” “Here it is,” as Barthes puts it, has value in its own right and who is to say that a cave painting of a bison ever meant more or that Holbein’s portraits say more than “Look,” “See,” “Here he is.”

Henri Cartier Bresson is famous for his “decisive moment” (4) and this is an idea that feels right to many photographers. It is the answer to Barthes’ question as to why we photograph an object at this moment rather than some other because this is the other genius of photography. The art of photography lies in, selection versus exclusion both in terms of subject and time. Stephen Shore, in The Nature of Photographs (5) discusses how we create order out of disorder by selecting a tiny moment in time and freezing it in a photograph. What we select as our subject and what we exclude from our frame is a hard, learnt skill for many of us.

There are clearly many insightful ideas in Camera Lucida , none more so than his much discussed concept of the studium and punctum of a photograph, but there are other truths here that are worth considering. He points out that all photographic portraits are posed because we adjust ourselves in some way when a camera is pointed in our direction and that, to manage this, the photographer becomes involved with manipulating the subject, using props, choosing meaningful backgrounds and that these actions move the portrait even further from the truth. It is of course an equally valid argument to say that the subject manipulates the photographer and the image by posing. He therefore believes that, if the subject is a person, no photograph is a true image capturing inner emotions and feelings. His argument contains some truth but not enough truth to make it a absolute. At one extreme we could look at a selection of Don McCullin’s (6) war photos where the subject is so deeply submerged in their private horror as to be oblivious to the camera, in “A Grunt Suffering Severe Shell Shock” I believe we see in his face a fleeting sense, of what he is feeling. McCullin offers many similar examples that could be categorised as people being so overwhelmed by their circumstances that the photographer is all but invisible to them. On the other extreme we could look at the work of David Bailey whose minimalistic portraits are repeatedly described as capturing the essence of his subjects. If Barthes was to visit the Stardust exhibition (7) would he agree with this view or would he say that the photographer was only capturing what Lennon or Caine or Beuys wanted him to see and that their pose hides the inner man? With Bailey’s portraits I believe there are nearly always two inputs, the visual document as put before us by the collaborative efforts of the subject and the photographer and all the other knowledge or perceived knowledge we have of the subject outside of the photograph, we put these together and might say that he has captured the true image but perhaps only the subject can say whether we are right.

His analysis of why we like or dislike a photograph is at the heart of this book and he takes this thought forward to look at why some photographs have no impact on us at all, leave us so unmoved that we neither like nor dislike them, we are simply unmoved. This was obviously true for Barthes forty odd years ago and is true for us today. We are exposed to countless photographs every day, the internet is so image heavy we are shocked to see a page with more text than pictures, no television news item can just be described, a photograph must be displayed over the newsreader’s shoulder, they arrive unsolicited on our phones, in our email, on every page of the newspaper both in paper and on-line, they adorn every billboard and many shop windows; our world is wallpapered with photographs, so many that it is far too exhausting to take a position on even a small percentage and certainly not all of them so we subconsciously categorise photographs into “like” (a few), “dislike” (a few) and                                                                                                                                                completely ignore all the rest (the many) – the wallpaper? Bizarrely, in a world of too many, I go seeking more, buying photo books, hunting down websites, scouring the bookshelves of every charity shop I pass and in my work for assignment 3 I am even seeking out and photographing photographs; it’s bird spotting in an aviary, or looking for a square inch of art on the wallpaper. Barthes is looking for “adventure”, to be “animated”, to decide whether a photograph “exists” for him and this is his far more elegant way of expressing my “like”, “dislike”, “ignore”.

Barthes is searching for logical rules that explain why we make these choices. He recognises that many photographs are generally interesting and have, what he calls “an average effect” when we look at them in the context of what else we already know. He calls this the studium of a photograph, the photograph is of value, the viewer will have some enthusiasm for it because it documents a subject in way that seems “all right” and communicates, or provides an insight into the intent of the photographer. Beyond that it passes information, we learn something we didn’t know and in that we see that studium is related to study. He points out, that in journalism, the photograph can be interesting without any specific detail interrupting our reading. In effect the studium of a photograph provides a background, in many cases there is only this background but in some cases there is the punctum.

The punctum is the sharp point that pricks our attention and lifts a photograph to another level above just interesting. Barthes describes many examples of photographs that include a punctum and from this analysis we can readily see that, for him, it is a very personal response. In Barthes’ view the photographer cannot insert a punctum, if he or she does he rejects it. “I refuse to inherit something from another eye than my own”. This idea challenges the photographer to capture a subject with enough studium to hold the viewer’s initial interest and to unintentionally include a punctum, not an easy rule to follow. If we believe that the punctum is only ever a highly personal point of detail we, the photographer, will probably search for it in vain. If we believe that it is a point of detail that lifts the photograph to another level and that will be identified and recognised by most viewers we will fail his test but might have succeeded in creating a better or more exciting photograph that stands out from the crowd.

On finishing the book and after writing up my notes I remain a little frustrated by Barthes. I still think that he is very selective in the evidence he submits to prove his arguments and that he looks for rules when perhaps the whole point is that there are non. However, he offers a number of valuable insights that have a practical bearing on the study of photography and beyond that his writing is provocative and demands argument and this alone makes Camera Lucida a worthwhile read.



(1) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

(3) Clarke, Graham. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(4) Cartier-Bresson, Henri. (1999), The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York:  Aperture Foundation.

(5) Shore, Stephen, (2007) The Nature of Photographs: Second Edition. New York: Phaidon Press.

(6) McCullin, Don, (1990) Unreasonable Behaviour: 1992 Edition. London: Vintage.

(7) Bailey, David. (2014) Bailey’s Stardust: Published to accompany the exhibition Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 6th February to 1st June 2014, London, National Portrait Gallery


(2) Digital Trends www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/nearly-300000-status-updates-are-posted-to-facebook-every-minute/#!Eo6mQ 

Planning Assignment 3 with Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

Fig. 1 Cafe in Aldershot 2014 - Primarily influenced by Vegara in the sense that I am drawn to capturing the changing shop fronts of Aldershot head-on but with a touch of Parr in that I am interested in the two customers who represent the changing population of the town. 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720. 50mm prime lens.

Fig. 1 Cafe in Aldershot 2014 – Primarily influenced by Vegara in the sense that I am drawn to capturing the changing shop fronts of Aldershot head-on but with a touch of Parr in that I am interested in the two customers who represent the changing population of the town. 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720. 50mm prime lens.

Working through the exercises in the third section of the course I have been thinking about my approach to assignment 3. Each of my shoots for the part 3 exercises has given me one or two pictures that fit into a pattern that is leading me towards a potential assignment 3 submission. I am not quite ready to finalise my plans and start shooting but my current idea is to find my colour combinations by photographing people in front of contrasting and colourful backgrounds. I am not certain whether the backgrounds are shop fronts or cafés or beach huts  or a combination of all three but I am looking for significant blocks of colour to contrast, compliment or clash with people’s clothes. I am putting this post together to help me crystallise my thoughts and to bring together some test shots in one place.

People and place will be the most important elements but the colour cannot be incidental, it needs to play an essential role. I have reached this point partly because I have found a selection of shots that hold some promise and partly as result of the work of a number of artists who are influencing the way I am looking at locations.

Since Christmas I have become increasingly interested in the American colour movement of the 70s and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the work of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and their approach to documenting a time and a place by focusing on the ordinary,  this has influenced my thinking and hopefully in time will influence my work. I have also drawn inspiration from Camilo José Vergara whose work documenting the changing infrastructure of urban America is a refreshing approach to street photography where the street is often more important than the people in it, I like the way he allows the architecture to dominate the image. so that he photographs the influence of people more than the people themselves. Each of these men work in colour which is appropriate to this part of the course and, more importantly, is my favoured medium but their work is fundamentally about America which is not an issue in terms of appreciating their art but, culturally and locationally is removed from where I want to focus.

Fig. 2 Polish Deli in Aldershot - Similar to fig. 1 with the shop providing a colourful backdrop to a lone Nepalese passerby. In 1975 Ray-Jones could view the English as a, generally, single race, in 2014 we are a much more exciting cultural mix so we have a Polish Deli in a Hampshire town with a Nepalese resident. - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 200. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 2 Polish Deli in Aldershot – Similar to fig. 1 with the shop providing a colourful backdrop to a lone Nepalese passerby. In 1975 Ray-Jones could view the English as a, generally, single race, in 2014 we are a much more exciting cultural mix so we have a Polish Deli in a small Hampshire town with a Nepalese resident. – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 200. 50mm prime lens

The test shots I have included here do not represent the work of the artists I am mentioning but it is work that is coming from the same direction or where I feel the result is a direct result of having explored the work of Eggleston, Shore, Vergara, Ray-Jones or Parr. Most of these photos are current test pieces for assignment 3 and I want to take some of these ideas further over the next few weeks as I build towards that assignment. Some are older photos that I have gone back to as a result of studying the aforementioned artists but are photos where I feel I was on the edge of the kind of observational skills I need to move forward with assignment 3.

Many of my photos here are taken with deep DoF, this is a very conscious decision based on the work of Shore and Parr, I am actively seeking detail and am willing to sacrifice a bit of quality and use a higher ISO to be able to pack as much focussed detail into the frame as possible where all the information is playing an active role. I have some ideas that will be best achieved with a tripod and playing the waiting game al la Shore but when I am working hand held I will accept the high ISO.

Since starting this course I have held back on getting too deeply into Martin Parr’s work because I felt that a time would come when his approach and his subject matter would be especially relevant. I thought this might be towards the end of TAoP but I sense the moment is here and now because my embryonic ideas for assignment 3 have strong links to his exploration of Englishness and the types of locations that he has often been drawn to.

Fig. 3 Man In Cafe on Rainy Day Clevedon - Typical English seaside resort on a wet cold day, there will alawys be someone having a cup of tea in the rain. 1/125 at f/8, ISO 400. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 3 Man In Cafe on Rainy Day Clevedon – Typical English seaside resort on a wet cold day, there will always be someone having a cup of tea in the rain. The lack of colour makes it a poor image for assignment 3 but I like the empty café and the wet pavement. 1/125 at f/8, ISO 400. 50mm prime lens

I can see Eggleston and Shore’s influence in Parr’s work, especially in his indoor shots of cafés, meal tables, cups of tea, the trivia of everyday life but more than that it is his intent to document a way of life more than to take photos of places or things or even people. However, I think that there is a fundamental difference in his work and that is his sense of humour and his ability to gently poke fun at something that he is part of, his Englishness. This desire to photograph the English being English is something that Parr shares with Tony Ray-Jones and to understand Parr’s work better I started by looking at Ray-Jones who Parr cites as a major influence.

Fig. 5 Café in the Sun Clevedon - Another person wrapped up against a cold wind enjoying a cup of tea at the seaside - 1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 4 Café in the Sun Clevedon – Another person wrapped up against a cold wind enjoying a cup of tea at the seaside, the colour of the sign works well but there is not enough human interest – 1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Tony Ray-Jones tragically died very young and, as a result, there is a limited amount of his work available to see and much of it is in black and white. A small selection of his colour work can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24142421 * (1) and Martin Parr’s selection of his black and white pictures can be seen at www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24826739 * (2). In the context of this discussion the black and white prints are the most relevant but I was very interested in some of his American colour work especially where he is using shop fronts as a backdrop to his studies of people. Parr says that Ray-Jones approached his project, that was posthumously published in 1971 as A Day Off, with “anthropological skill and rigour” * (3) and this phrase reveals something of both men. They both worked to document a place and a time and approached their work as a study. The power of their work partly lies in the sets of the images and the context of the sets. We are used to seeing individual Martin Parr photos in isolation but they lose something when they are extracted from the context of the set and this appears to be equally true of Ray-Jones’ work. In A Day Off he sets out to show, in his words, “the sadness and humour in a gentle madness that prevails in people” and he focusses his attention on his own race to communicate “something of the spirit and mentality of the English”. To achieve this he visited places and events in the late sixties, traditional and ritualised events such as Glyndebourne, one off events such as the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival and places where the English were being very English such as on the beach.

Fig. 3 Dog in Rome 2008 - As an ex-resident of Italy I find this very Italian, a stylishly dressed couple photographing their dog at the Trevi fountain. 1/200 at f/5, ISO 140

Fig. 5 Dog in Rome 2008 – As an ex-resident of Italy I find this very Italian, a stylishly dressed couple photographing their dog at the Trevi fountain, this is sort of lucky shot I need to find to explore Englishness, more colourful clothes would help assignment 3. 1/200 at f/5, ISO 140

He captured people dressed in strange costumes for competitions or because a specific mode of dress was the uniform for a particular event or because a visit to the beach was such a special occasion for the working classes that they sat in the sun in their best suit and tie. This is so emotive for my generation, my mother would insist my father wore a tie to dig the garden in case a passer-by mistook him for a labourer. Ray-Jones photographed a lot of people drinking tea and often this very act was totally at odds with the backdrop. The well-to-do couple drinking tea at Glyndebourne with cows in the adjoining field and people on deck chairs drinking tea from china cups. This gentle madness documents a generation who were constrained by convention and by custom.

Many of Ray-Jones’ compositions are crowded, even cluttered, packed with information and this style is important with this type of documentary photography. An interesting beach, festival or street is often a busy place and to capture the sense of place the image needs to contain plenty of information. The skill of Ray-Jones is to make sense out of all this information. A good example is his photograph of the Salvation Army on Brighton Beach * (3) where the frame is packed with people but the composition is designed to carry the viewer deep into the group and focus on the flip chart before spreading out to all the band members. Parr said of Ray-Jones’ pictures “They had that contrast, that seedy eccentricity, but they showed it in a very subtle way. They have an ambiguity, a visual anarchy. They showed me what was possible.” * (4)

Parr picked up the baton and has been running with it ever since. His earliest black and white work published as the Non-Conformists documented a small Northern industrial town with sympathetic humour. I have read blogs where writers find Parr’s work distasteful and, in some cases, offensive; they interpret his photos as being cruel, suggesting that he is laughing at his subjects. I believe that this is far from the truth, I think Parr is comfortable with being British and that there is affection in his portrayal of, what he sees as, people being British.

Another aspect of Ray-Jones’ work and Parr’s early work is that in the 60s and 70s Britain was becoming a multi-cultural country but most, if not all, the photos in The Last Resort and those that I have seen from A Day Off and The Non Conformists are of Anglo-Saxons. 40 or 50 years later we live in a different England where being English means something quite different and this is something that I want to explore.

Fig. 5  - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 360. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 6 Indian influences in Aldershot, a Nepalese women walks past two Indian restaurants, I was looking for colour combinations and found them in the women’s clothing, the signage and the yellow and black scaffold poles and it further explores modern England,  there is no clue that we are in Hampshire – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 360. 50mm prime lens

I am going to write up a review of The Last Resort in the next few days but, here I want to concentrate on how Parr’s approach can influence me in assignment 3. In Last Resort there is the same warts and all feeling that I see in Eggleston’s work, the same acceptance of seediness without focussing on it in the way that many modern street photographs tend to do. Parr shows that observation needs to have no boundaries. Looking back at my own work I see that, whilst living in Asia, I saw and photographed the world as it was but in England and when living in Italy my photographs have been about the way I want the world to be. In the Philippines I wanted to capture a real sense of place and its people but in Italy I appear to have wanted to produce calendar shots. There is no doubt an underlying reason for this but I now want to get back to observing and photographing what is there and not what I want to be there.

At this stage I am letting myself be influenced by the small group of photographers who have really caught my attention and am consciously letting their ideas impact the way I work. For example Cartier-Bresson and Eggleston work with compact small cameras and by using a 50mm prime lens much more often I am realising that I work faster, less intrusively and with less distractions that I did with heavy zoom lenses. Vegara has taught me that the architecture tells an important part of the story; Parr and Ray-Jones are great observers and work in sets and I can see that a good set is worth far more than the sum of its parts, five photos working together to tell a story is far more exciting than one great picture. Shore shows that you can pick a good spot, compose a picture, thereby creating a stage and then wait for the players to enter.

Fig. 7 Dogs Waiting - A man waits with two dogs outside a shop , the colours in the window display drew me to this shot but it is the man and two dogs both looking in the same direction that makes it interesting - 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 7 Dogs Waiting – A man waits with two dogs outside a shop , the colours in the window display drew me to this shot but it is the man and two dogs both looking in the same direction that makes it interesting – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

At this stage assignment 3 is probably a progression of the type of images I have used here. I am not satisfied with any of them which is okay because they are only test shots. There is too much empty space in too many of them and because of that they lack the punch of Parr’s New Brighton shots and I have to work on my angles when trying to include shop or café fronts, the lines of doors, signs and pavements need to work better with each other to avoid becoming a distration. I need to use the architecture as a structure to frame the people more effectively.

However, on the positive side I feel the idea developing:

  • background colour from shops or cafés and I still want to explore beach huts
  • foreground interest and colour from people
  • explore modern Englishness
  • concentrate on observation and capturing the sense of a place and its inhabitants in a positive way without being judgemental
  • create a set


Parr, Martin (1986) The Last Resort. Revised edition published in 2013. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Parr, Martin (2007) Martin Parr. 2013 Edition. london: Phaidon Press


* (1) BBC News – Tony Ray-Jones in Colour  www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24142421

* (2) BBC News – Only in England: Photographs from a bygone era (Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones) www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-24826739

* (3) BBc News – In Pictures – The English by Tony Ray-Jonesnews.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/04/in_pictures_the_english_by_tony_ray_jones_/html/6.stm

* (4) Amateur Photographer – Tony Ray Jones, Iconic Photographer http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/how-to/icons-of-photography/534741/tony-ray-jones-iconic-photographer#JWIau4qOtRYovXFo.99

Black and White Caribbean

I set myself the objective at the end of assignment 1 to improve my black and white processing skills. Whilst in Turks and Caicos I endeavoured to “see” in black and white which, as might be expected, is challenging in a place where colours are typically strong. There are a few obvious characteristics of a landscape that impact whether a black and white shot will work, the most obvious being the sky. A single coloured flat sky is even less dramatic, if dramatic is the aim, in black and white than in colour, this is even more true of pale skies. My single Ansel Adams reference book is a collection of his portfolios *(1) that I purchased in the Philippines over twenty years ago and has moved around with me ever since. It is noticeable that most of his skies are either deep blue, rendered as nearly black, or, when cloudy, often rendered in more subtle tones of grey.

The second characteristic is that the shot needs strong contrasts to work. I have found that I can’t force this contrast. It is either there and can be used to good effect or it isn’t and I achieve a flat looking image. I am not suggesting that this is rule for black and white photography just that I do not achieve a result that is satisfactory to my eyes unless I start with a contrasting scene. Using Adams as a benchmark tends to push me towards seeking a high contrast result and I think it is fair to say that Koudelka’s *(2) and Cartier-Bresson’s *(4) images, whilst very different in subject matter, also lean towards high contrast. I also find Koudelka’s images dark in tone (and content) and so far I have not been brave enough to process towards such dark tones but this may change if I start to shoot grittier subjects.

On my trip to Turks and Caicos I took very few books but one that did travel was Michael Freeman’s Black and White Photography Field Guide *(3) which I referred to frequently when trying to think in black and white. I have generally found this little book helpful as it is a very practical guide and quite appropriate reading for a beginner.

I had considered using a small number of black and white prints as part of assignment 2 but having asked about mixing media on the OCA forum the advice was to not mix black and white and colour in the same assignment. In the same vein I have been advised by both my tutor and some answers on the same forum to avoid mixing vertical and horizontal frames. I understand and accept the reasoning but this leaves me slightly disappointed as I feel I have made some progress in black and white processing and using some in an assignment would have given me the chance to hear my tutors views. I did consider submitting a complete black and white assignment but I felt that, whilst this might help me focus on the elements of design, it would be a perverse decision when attempting to document a place with so much colour.

This post is therefore an opportunity to record that progress and the thought processes I have gone through so I can refer back here when I next attempt a collection of monochrome images.

Sky at Chalk Sound - 1/125 at F/11, ISO 100

Fig 1 Stormy Sky at Chalk Sound – 1/125 at F/11, ISO 100

Fig 1 was taken on a perfect day when there were rain clouds blowing across the islands at some speed. I have an emotional attachment to this view as it is a familiar sight for any sailor sailing in bright sunshine whilst watching squalls only a short distance away. I have processed to maximise the contrast between the white boat on the right and the dark landmass in the distance. It was important to leave some sense of the rainbow in the image as this is an important curve linking the two boats. The sky is the real subject so I have framed it to dominate the composition.

Fig 2 Beach Bar - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig 2 Beach Bar – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

In complete contrast to fig. 1 The Beach Bar in fig. 2  is an interior to exterior shot and as such quite challenging to process. I have used HDR Toning in photoshop to get detail into the shadows and to preserve the definition of the woman on the veranda. I am pleased with this shot which was taken in a locals’ bar well away from the tourist areas. The women was very interested in something that was happening out of my view and I was taken by her pose and the fact that she continued to eat whilst looking out of shot. The old-fashoned wall paper and the advertising on the drinks cooler seem at odds with one another and add some tension to the scene.

Fig 3 - Sapodilla Bay - 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100.

Fig 3 Sapodilla Bay – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100.

Fig 4 Sapodilla Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Fig 4 Sapodilla Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Fig 5 Sapodilla Bay - 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100

Fig 5 Sapodilla Bay – 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100

With the three images of Sapodilla Bay I wanted to test whether I could create strong images from sea, sky and beach scenes. Before starting TAoP I would not have looked for a black and white answer to the question of how to make a beach scene more interesting but I reached a point that I was comfortable with after quite a lot of experimentation with the multitude of variables offered by Silver Efex Pro 2, which I purchased after reading about its possibilities in Michael Freeman’s Black and White Field Guide *(3). It appears to offer more creative control that the black and white layer in Photoshop but it is tempting to go too far and drift towards a HDR look which is not what I wanted.

It was quite hard to find a benchmark for this type of shot, I wanted to make the sky the dominant feature because it is the shape of the clouds and the varied tones within them that lift the image beyond “yet another” beach photo. I looked at the sky in Ansel Adams’ “Pinnacles”, Alabama Hills, Owens valley, California 1945 and the sea in “Dunes”, Oceano California and used his processing as a loose guide. I recognise that he would have looked for greater contrast between the foreground objects and the sky and I might have made more of the beaches in Fig. 4 and 5.

Old Timber Taylor Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Fig 6 Old Timber Taylor Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Broken Screen Taylor Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720

Fig 7 Broken Screen Taylor Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720

Post and Rope - 1/125 at f/f11, ISO 100

fig 8 Post and Rope – 1/125 at f/f11, ISO 100

Old Timber Taylor Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig 9 Old Timber Taylor Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Ruined Roof Emerald Point - 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100

Fig 10 Ruined Roof Emerald Point – 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100

The last images, figs. 6 to 10 are all part of a study of decay. Turks and Caicos is in the hurricane zone and even when the weather is more peaceful it is still an environment of harsh sunlight, frequent rain and strong winds. Ruined houses, weathered timbers, washed up wreckage and a few sunken boats were evidence of nature’s fight-back.

Fig 6 and fig 9 are the remains of a washed-up door and frame from something large, I am not sure whether it is from a ship or something like a barn door. It was weathered and sea rolled before ending up at the back of the beach at Taylor Bay.

Fig 7 and fig 8 are details from a large, abandoned house overlooking an idyllic beach. It appeared to have been deserted quite recently as the main fabric of the building was still sound but I was intrigued by the weathering on the details such as the fly screen and the posts that lined the path to the beach. These might be the first signs of the eventual demise of the whole structure.

Fig 10 is more dramatic showing the sky through the roof of another large abandoned house at the other end of the island. I think this was probably first damaged in a hurricane and is now well on the way to collapse so, in some ways is a natural progression from 7 & 8.

Overall I have found these exercises in black and white useful. I feel that I have learnt a little about what works in black and white and I am more confident in using this medium. My tutor suggested that I needed to have a position on the black and white versus colour debate but I am not ready in my own mind to take a position. I have enjoyed my forays into black and white processing and am very interested in the work of the many masters of the art, I see it as a valid medium in the 21st century and would respect anyone who chose to work entirely in this way. If I had to choose I would stay with colour but I would prefer not to choose and to use both. I am increasingly finding situations where I find black and white works best but the majority of the time I want to capture the colour of both the natural and the man-made world.



* (1) Adams, Ansel, with an Introduction by John Szarkowski. (1981) The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, New York, New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company.

* (4) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999), The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers. Aperture Foundation, New York

* (3) Freeman, Michael. (2013) Black and White Photography Field Guide, The art of creating digital monochrome, Lewes, The Ilex Press Limited.

* (2) Koudelka, Josef. (2007) Josef Koudelka: Thames & Hudson Photofile with an introduction by Bernard Cuau. London: Thanks and Hudson.

* (5) Eggleston, William, (1976) The Guide with an introduction by John Szarkowski, New York, The Museum of Modern Art

Banal and the Topographical Movement

This post is continuing the process of reacting to the comments made by my tutor is his feedback on Assignment 1. He said:

“… I’ll also try to get you to accept the banal and bland as we venture further down the line with this module !  I don’t necessarily expect you to like it, but I’ll need you to know about it and who was involved and why they have approached image making in such a manner etc.”

This was an intriguing comment calling for early investigation as I had not heard of “the banal and bland”  in the context of photography. Little did I realise that this comment would lead me into hours of on-line reading and the introduction to many contemporary photographers whose work I had not seen before. In fact the topic is so large that I have only started to skim the surface both in terms of the people involved and their work. My tutor said that he didn’t necessarily expect me to like it and after about three weeks of intermittent study I can safely say that I do and I don’t but I might have begun to understand some of it.

The more I researched the topic the more photographers names I noted down. Looking for some of their work often led me to other photographers, essays and exhibition reviews which led to more photographers and so forth. After a while I realised that I had to narrow down the research if my aim was to write an essay not a book.

Until the 1960’s the art world mostly had photography placed in a neat box. First and foremost “photographic art” was expected to be presented as black and white prints and those prints would typically display the attributes most closely associated with the medium. Steven Skopik, in his lecture to the National Conference of the Society for Photography Education (Chicago), March 2013 (*1), calls this “hyper-availability” and defines these attributes as deep depth of field and luscious and unrealistic exaggerated tonal range which could only be achieved by difficult-to-master large format cameras and complicated dark room processes. Seeing what was to follow I would add to this list that much of this work also conformed to compositional rules inherited from the wider art world.

At some point in the 60s a number of American photographers began to question whether there was another path. In his Hasselblad Award essay in 1998, Thomas Weski (*2b) tells the story of William Eggleston’s visit to a an industrial photofinishing laboratory where he watched an endless stream of amateur photos being processed and printed by machines. This was to be his Damascus Road experience and led to a radical shift in his style from being a disciple of Henri Cartier-Bresson to becoming a pathfinder in the world of colour photography. But this new style was more than a change of medium, it was a move away from photographing the magnificence of the landscape or the decisive moment, he started to photograph the everyday world around him, mundane, common place, ordinary America in all its normality.

Eggleston was by no means the only photographer turning their back on conventional wisdom and creating serious and thoughtful work away from the main stream. In 1972 Stephen Shore, who had  already made his mark with his black and white photos of Andy Warhol’s factory, photographed a road trip across America in a series of images that were later to be published as “American Surfaces”. To look through these images today they might be interpreted as a nostalgic look at Middle America which would be to miss the point. In an interview with Rong Jiang in 2007 (*3) Shore makes a number of points that define his work in the early 70s. “I wanted to see the ordinary things that were not the news”, “I wanted to see what our culture was really like”. Shore’s early colour photographs of America are what he saw without edit and without embellishment. They range from, what can only be described as snapshots, of people he met, beds he slept in, meals he ate to more carefully composed urban landscapes that faithfully document 1970s America, and therein lies the link to Eggleston. Both men were working in colour, both were photographing a time and place in its entirety, not just beauty nor just ugliness, but just what was there. Shore explains that the beautiful landscape is not difficult to spot, “anyone would notice it” but he believes that you have to be paying close attention to notice the ordinary.

Early in the 1970s tiny, but influential corners of the art world began to notice this new wave of colour photographers. It is important to understand that taking colour photographs was anything but new; magazines, postcards. amateur photography, advertising was all in colour, in fact as Shore points out the only photographs not in colour were in newspapers and art. It is equally important to recognise that whilst Eggleston, Shore and others were photographing the  mundane, ordinary and banal side of America in colour other highly influential photographers were choosing similar subjects to capture in black and white. The “New Topographics” exhibition in 1975 at George Eastman House in Rochester NY was, according to Leah Ollman (*4) of the Los Angeles Times and writing in 2009, “a landmark show”, and Sean O’Hagan (*5) writing in The Guardian in 2010, said that it was “not just the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject, but when a certain strand of theoretically driven photography began to permeate the wider contemporary art world.” All but one of the photographers exhibiting in that exhibition presented their work in Black and White; Stephen Shore was the notable exception. But at the time the critics were less complimentary, Ollman says that one of the artists, Frank Gohlke, remembers “that almost nobody liked it”.

In 1976 The Museum of Modern Art exhibited 75 “selected” William Eggleston prints. The prints selected by John Szarkowski, the museum’s Director of the Department of Photography, were in colour. This was the first time the museum had presented a colour photographer’s work and as the exhibition was supported by a catalogue which was also their first publication in colour the art world sat up and took notice. However, it quickly sat back down. Hilton Kramer in the New York Times described it as “perfectly banal, perfectly boring ” and went on to consign Eggleston’s work “to the world of snapshot chic” (*2b). My reading tells me that John Szarkowski was a progressive and far-sighted man who could see that photography as art was hidebound with rules, many of which dated from before any living photographer had been born because they had been passed down from the wider art world. In his press release for the 1976 exhibition, which can be found on the William Eggleston Trust Website (*2a) he talks about a new generation of photographers who were using colour with “a confident spirit of freedom and naturalness”, I especially like his comment that they work in colour “as though the world itself existed in colour”. In the context of banality he makes the key points that Eggleston work is about how he sees the world, how he interacts with his personal world and that his photographs are “fixed facts of the real world impartially recorded by the camera”.

I have focussed my attention on these two men, not because they were the first people to capture the ordinary, the mundane , the banal without comment and without gloss but because at every turn in my research they are named time and time again as major influences on a whole generation of contemporary photographers. Given my objective to write an essay and not a book these constant cross-references led me to mostly spend my time with them and their work. A valid judgement I think as In The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Charlotte Cotton (*6) tells us that their greatest contribution was to create a space within art photography to allow a more liberated approach to image-making.

So, that is the history and the on-going influence that is felt by a connected but not formal movement of photographers who moved away from photographing the majestic, the beautiful, or the important and, instead, turned their cameras on what was on their doorstep or what they saw when traveling through America. But, what of their images ? Steven Skopik (*1) argues that the image of a banal subject can become an art form when it is approached in a certain way. He believes that either the banal subject is transformed by the photographer’s technical skills in composition, management of tone (or I presume colour) and lighting so the subject is transformed by the actual process of being photographed in a meticulous manner; or, the photographer can discard technique and form in the service of content which is effectively banal technique, a sort of considered casualness.

Whilst I take his point and can see these facets in some of the work I have reviewed I am coming closer to knowing which style of work appeals and that I can relate to and where I am a lost soul desperately wishing someone behind me would explain why I am looking at “this” photograph.

To return to Eggleston and Shore, or Bernd and Hilla Becher for that matter. Much of their work fits into Skopik’s category of technical skills pointed at a banal subject but it goes much deeper than that. They were consciously documenting a culture by capturing the details of life, whether they were large details such as power stations or small details such as what they ate for breakfast. By its very nature photography captures what has passed, it may have only passed 1/2000 second ago but it is now part of a greater history, by pointing their cameras at mundane, ordinary, day-to-day and banal subjects they were recording the details of life.

I see a parallel with archeology, in the early days of that science the focus was on the huge, the magnificent, the great stories of the world. Troy, Athens, Stonehenge, the Colosseum, empire and great events. The early archeologists were in such a rush to get to the big story, the great find they ploughed through and often discarded the detail, their big questions were about where people lived. The modern archaeologist is more interested in how people lived and why they lived there and why they made “this” or how they made “that”. The form of banality in photography that I have enjoyed getting to know are Eggleston and Shore’s images of an America that, to my generation, was very recent but has already gone. I know that Shore does not want nostalgia to get in the way of appreciating the image but with this work from the 70s and 80s it is unavoidable.

However, the banal image does not have to be of a time long gone to catch my attention. As a new student of contemporary photography I am not able to put photographers into the correct pigeon holes and I note that Charlotte Cotton (*6) says that she is at pains not to fetishise contemporary art photography into categories of style or heritage. Having looked at Eggleston and Shore’s work and come to understand a little of what they were trying to achieve I see relationships with photographers that I am already trying to become engaged with, Camilo José Vergara is systematically documenting the streets of urban America, his images often employ bold colours and strong shapes to present banal subjects such as shoes outside a street shelter. I also think that the banal found its way into the work of Lewis Hine who we can now look back on as a man who documented a specific facet of the American way of life but in his own time was photographing subjects that were common place and mundane. I think I see the point and understand what these photographers are showing me, I respond positively to many of the images and especially like when the mundane detail draws me into explore every corner of the frame.

But…… there is a lot of work that I have found by other photographers that I just do not understand and do not respond to on an emotional level. I am not intending to be judgemental but a series of photographs of concrete storm drain covers and the securing ring for an electricity pole leave me cold. I question why and I think it is a lack of context and a lack of composition that leaves me disconnected. If I pick, nearly at random, a Eggleston image of the detailed landscape, the piles of rubbish in “Troubled Waters” I am drawn in. I like the composition which is thoughtful and, to my eye, precise, it probably uses thirds but it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t. The splash of colour from the orange diamond and then all the detail of the bags. I want to know what is in them, I zoom in to try and read labels on the boxes, I am engaged. There is context, a story line and it is consciously composed.

I think my summary is that, if the photographer wants me to engage with his or her photograph, they are asking me to invest my time in understanding their art. I’m happy to do that if my sense is that the artist has invested at least as much time and hopefully more in putting his or her image in front of me. It can be consciously casual and seemingly unstructured, it can be formal and structured, it can be of mundane content (Eggeston’s rubbish, Shore’s meals) or nearly no content at all (Richard Misrach Untitled 2004 of a women in a vast sea) but I want to sense that the photographer is treating me, their audience, with respect, and that this image is the result of a train of thought and the application of conscious technique.

I have taken a lot from this little piece of research and suspect that I will sub-consiously use many of the ideas that I have read and seen. I have had a long term interest in photography as a record and as I get older often think about how my grandchildren will look at work when I am but a fuzzy memory. I think the process of documenting what is there before it isn’t is a valid contribution and, like the modern archeologist, the real interest may lie in the most mundane or banal subject just because I bothered to notice it and photograph it.



*6 Cotton, Charlotte, (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, New Edition. London, Thames and Hudson


*1 Skopik, Steven. Steven Skopik Photography. Lecture to the 50th National Conference of the Society for Photography Education (Chicago), March 2013 www.ithaca.edu

*2a Eggleston, William. Official website of William Eggleston and the Eggleston Artistic Trust. (First accessed 2014) www.egglestontrust.com

*2b Weski, Thomas. The Tender-Cruel Camera, Essay from the Hasselbald Award 1998. Published on the Official of William Eggleston and the Eggleston Artistic Trust.  www.egglestontrust.com

*3 Jiang, Rong. The Apparent is the Bridge to the Real. An interview with Stephen Shore, June 4 2007. Published at www.americansuburbx.com

*4 Ollman, Leah. ART : Banality, in black and white : Exploring the rise of photography’s New Topographics movement, whatever it may mean. Published on the Los Angeles website November 2009. articles.latimes.com

*5 O’Hagan, Sean. New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal. Published on the Guardian Website, February 2010. www.theguardian.com

Josef Koudelka and Composition

In his feedback on my submission for Assignment 1 my tutor recommended that I study the work of Josef Koudelka. This comment was made in the context of composition.

“The term ‘composition’ has been mentioned in your feedback and I cannot emphasise its importance enough at this level of study and in particular at this stage of the programme.  In order to help and support you making appropriate compositional decisions [IE: what you choose to include and exclude from the frame, prior to taking the image] you must closely study the work of other practitioners. I normally recommend the works and writings of Henri Cartier-Bresson to my new Level 4 students … but I note you are already fully engaged with this old master, which is very good to see.  I’d therefore like you to take a close look at another very prolific Magnum photographer called Josef Koudelka.  He rose to prominence in 1968 with his coverage of the Russian invasion of Prague.  He is still an active photographer and very worthy of your attention, especially in relation to his ability to compose an image.”

I have received the first of two books that I have ordered on Koudelka. Koudelka, Josef. (2007) Josef Koudelka: Thames & Hudson Photofile with an introduction by Bernard Cuau. London: Thames and Hudson.

This is one of the Thames and Hudson Photofiles which I am beginning to build a little collection of  having already acquired editions on Sebastiao Salgado and Henri Cartier-Bresson. These publications are a straight forward collections of photographs, 66 in the case of Josef Koudelka. The positive is that they are inexpensive, the disadvantage is that the prints are only 160mm x 106mm and therefore fail to present the artist’s work in the way they intended. However, they are an excellent way to study a series of images as a prelude to deeper research.

Koudelka is one of the many great modern photographers who have been invited to join Magnum and there is a portfolio of his work on their website.**

I wanted to look at Koudelka in the context of my tutor’s comments, that is to look at his compositional skills. There is no silver bullet as even the limited amount of his work that I have seen is varied in subject matter and in style. It would be naive to think that I could analyse a few of his images, identify his compositional techniques, note them down, use them and move on. My first objective is to look at as many of his images as possible and to try to absorb something of their magic, to add to my own mental library of compositional templates. These might be templates based on a single image or on several images.

He has been a prolific photographer and I am only seeing a fraction of his published work so I am not suggesting that my analysis is either comprehensive or worthy of anyone else’s attention but as a second objective I want to look closely at a few selected images to try and understand why he composed them in the way that he did and see whether I can learn anything from this.

Magnum break his work into four periods:

Theatre 1958 – 1968

Prague 1968

Gypsies 1962 – 1970

Exiles 1968 – 1994

Some of the theatre work is ethereal with silhouettes that might be reflections in a disturbed pool, they are dramatic and theatrical and whilst this was where he laid the foundations for his later work they are quite different in tone and atmosphere to Gypsies or Exiles. Bernard Cuau in his introduction to the Thanes & Hudson Photofile* makes the point that theatre photography involves watching the same scenes played night after night.  There is time to experiment and find the decisive moments, the definitive angles, the significance of the scene. Many of the images in his later work that speak most strongly to me have a sense of theatre about them. The man nearly sitting on the shoulders of the women in Slovakia 1967, the two women sitting across a table in Moravia 1967, the three men in Ireland 1978. I presume that Kouldeka was comfortable with posing his subjects and that the relationship he built with the communities he photographed meant that people were comfortable posing for him.

However, also included in his early work are landscapes that bear strong similarities to his much later work, “Chaos”.

Fig 1 Sketch of Josef Koudelka Slovakia 1958

Fig 1 Sketch of Josef Koudelka Slovakia 1958

In this photograph of an oxen car loaded with hay in Slovakia in 1958 he has used a panoramic crop. In Chaos he uses a panoramic camera to capture industrial landscapes. There are three main areas of composition that I can see in Slovakia 1958, tone, shape and line. Firstly to look at his composition of tone. Apart from the puddle in the foreground the lightest and darkest tones are in the oxen and cart. There is a strong contrast between the white oxen, the dark load and the deep shadows in the cart and these tones are not generally repeated elsewhere in the composition. As a result the oxen and cart stand out and are the sharpest part of the image because of these internal contrasts..

Secondly there are five large shapes, in varying tones, that are layered to the left of the oxen. The near white sky, the misty hills, the darker grassland and the mid-toned road make four large areas, each of a single tone. Rather than flowing towards the subject these shapes seem to start at the subject and flow out into the photograph. Apart from the small area of grass to the extreme left all these shapes directly connect to the cart.

Thirdly there are some strong lines created by the junctions of these shapes. the most important being the top and bottom lines of the central grassland which point away from the cart and out of the image on the left giving us a potential direction of movement for the cart when it restarts its journey.

Overall the image is balanced by the large tonal shapes which create four strong horizontal layers with the hills and the road being much the same size. The cart spans the layers and is therefore at the apex of everything.

This analysis makes the image seem complex, which it is not. Like much of his work, that I have seen, the composition is simple, the image uncluttered, everything has a purpose and the tones away from the oxen and cart are subdued and understated and as a result do not detract from the subject. This seems to be an important message when processing black and white. I need to ask myself what the subject is and balance the tones within the subject to make it stand out and then balance the tones outside of the subject to compliment and support the subject but not to distract from it and overwhelm or clutter the image.

Fig 2 Sketch of Josef Koudelka's Poland 1958

Fig 2 Sketch of Josef Koudelka’s Poland 1958

Another image from 1958 and another panoramic crop is of a nun standing on a beach. There are similarities to Slovakia 1958 in the composition. The main subject is in three tones, black, white and one grey. There is therefore a strong internal contrast which makes the subject sharp and defined. There is no other white in the image and the only other black or near black is the sharp triangle of sea behind the nun which points into the centre of the image. The beach has texture but is nearly featureless and at the end of the beach there are people, some sports facilities and, what looks like a small tower. The nun is looking down at her umbrella which lies at her feet.

Similar to Slovakia 1958 we have an isolated subject to the far right of the frame but it is dominant because of the strong tonal contrast and everything starts with her. The beach flows from her to the boats and people, the sea is behind her but points into the same place. You might have expected Koudelka to use eye-line to take us to the end of the beach but she is looking down so we are still led across the image, from her to the umbrella and then up the beach to the tower and striped post and then across to the boats.

Again very simple, nothing spurious, nothing wasted. A lot of neutral spaces and shapes layered from sky to sea to beach. The subject is in touch with the three major layers.

The other key aspect is that both Slovakia 1958 and Poland 1958 are telling a story and asking us to connect with the subjects. Where is the cart going, who is the tiny figure driving it, where did he come from in this empty landscape? Who is the nun, why is she on the beach, is she really all alone and, if so why, why has she dropped her umbrella when we can see it is a sunny day with the sun at its zenith, is she connected or isolated by her vocation from the people having fun in the distance?

The more I look the more I see this is as a theme of his work or maybe it is even the essence of his style. He tells stories, he asks us to connect and he asks us to question what we are seeing. His images do not seem to judge his subjects or pre-judge our reaction to them. He is not asking for our sympathy or telling us what is right or wrong, he is just saying “here it is, look at it, think about it and ask yourself some questions. I’m not giving you instructions or answers either in the images or my captions.” I ask myself whether this is the essence of documentary photography.

Sketch of Josef Koudelka Czechoslovakia. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967

Fig 3 Sketch of Josef Koudelka Czechoslovakia. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967

The next image I want to consider is taken nearly 10 years later and is part of his work documenting Gypsies. This image, Zehra 1967, is one of many Koudelka images that works in threes. He often photographs three individuals and is masterful in how he fills and balances a frame with any three subjects. The two men, one with a violin and a small child in Kendice 1966, the three musicians in front of a crowd in Moravia 1966, the three men with sticks in Ireland 1972 and many more.

In Zehra there are obviously far more than three people but has he arranged his subjects into three areas that balance and fill the frame. In the centre we see a small girl with a significant amount of space around her, to her right a tight group of three and to her left a tight group of 6. The tightness of the groups is important to the composition. It is not 10 people, it is three groups, three shapes that balance each other. Because we first see three shapes the eye is drawn to the centre and the girl surrounded by empty space. However, for me, the artist has created an image that gives one impression on first glance, i.e. we look at the centre but then has a totally different feel when we look at it more carefully.

My sense is that nothing has been left to chance in this composition, for example the eyes are remarkable, only the central subject is looking at the camera, the others are looking either out of the frame to the left or towards the bottom other than one boy who is looking up at his next door neighbour. I believe that these eye lines lead us around the image, Koudelka is directing us in every direction to explore every detail, to look at every face, nothing (and nobody) is unimportant in the frame and he ensures that the sight lines, the broom in one girl’s hands, the hand and arm shapes, even the base of the wall right and left point us to more information  and demand that we keep looking. Obviously we will keep coming back to the central figure who is looking right at us, and whom we are able to study in detail as she is the only person not interwoven with others,  but she is literally framed by all these other people.

Koudelka clearly had an emotional connection with these people, he must have been trusted by them to be able to direct a group pose of this nature. He does not polish them up for the photograph and nor does he hide them. They are shown as they are with empathy and dignity. The variety of expressions communicates individual personalities and I think that Koudelka wants us to see the humanity of these people, mostly children, to recognise some of the expressions and body language, to relate them to our children or grandchildren, to understand that these outcasts of the system are just like us so why are they outcast?

There is a strong contrast in style between these first three images. In the oxen cart and the nun we have a single subject in a large neutral background. With the gypsies in Zehra we have a main subject surrounded by 9 other people. The first two images have a landscape that seems to flow from the subject and there is a sense of space, of isolation that is key to story being told. Zehra is the opposite, we have a crowd, a large group that has been directed, in the theatrical sense of the word, into three distinct groups to give organisation and structure to the story. We see the central subject in the context of the people around her.

Sketch of Josef Koudelka's Czechoslovakia, Slovakia. Bardejov. 1967

Fig 4 Sketch of Josef Koudelka’s Czechoslovakia, Slovakia. Bardejov. 1967

The forth image that caught my eye is Bardejov 1967, another one from his Gypsies collection. Zehra hints of poverty, Bardejov shouts about it. We have a girl in her wedding dress with her bridal bouquet. Like any bride she is happy, perhaps it is her wedding day, there is a faint but distinct smile, a thing I have not see very often in his photographs. However, she stands amongst rubbish, perhaps holding the hem of her dress out of the mud and behind her is a wall of flaking stucco, gaping holes, exposed internal timbers and a damp looking foundation. The wall is pierced by two dirty windows in twisted and skewed frames, through the grime we can see two faces, one older and one younger. The brides’ mother and sister or grandmother and sister?

Looking first at the composition, we again have three subjects, they are spaced evenly and the bride is framed by the the two other women. A balance that is often seen in his images but the power of the photo is in its contrasts, the clean white dress against the dirty and dilapidated background, the bride’s smile set against the dire circumstances of her house and the expressions of the women watching her. The neat floral arrangement against the rubbish under her feet. She is dead centre in the image and the windows are not symmetrically positioned so we simultaneously have a neutral position for the subject and dynamic tension from the irregular shapes and their positions. I find the image to be unsettling, it needs organising, it needs tidying up and I think Koudelka is very consciously evoking that tension in the viewer. A happy bride in an unhappy setting.

The common theme is that we are being told another story, the caption tells us that this is a gypsy family and we can presume that they have been forced into a static settlement that is not part of their culture. The accommodation is dire, damp, dilapidated, nearly falling down. However, we can see that their traditions are not about dirt and neglect, the bride’s dress is perfect, she has a bouquet, her hair is brushed, her shoes are clean. We are being shown the contrast between their current reality and their traditions, she looks out of place because they are out of place. It is photograph of sadness on a day that should be about happiness.

Not all of Koudelka’s images from these early years are posed. The obvious examples being his images of Prague during the Soviet suppression of its bid for freedom in 1968. In the Gypsies collection there is an unposed trio, Spisske Bystre 1966, where a small boy runs from one women to another. This image is more Cartier-Bresson than Koudelka but there are recurring compositional themes. Again we have three people, again one of the subjects is central, again the background is dilapidated and untidy, again there is a sad feeling to the scene. Neither women shows any joy in the moment, no mother or grandmother’s doting smile as the child runs between the two women. The dwellings are of the slum and the earthen street is strewn with rubbish and all the signs of being dry mud.

Clicking through the Gypsy images on the Magnum site my overwhelming emotion is one of sadness. Even when the image is of strong men, posing in their smart suits as in Kaden 1963 (another trio) we see one man seemingly detached from the photograph, projecting defensive body language, looking on, not wanting to be part of the scene. His part of the image seems more run-down, dirtier. The strength of the other two men is being contrasted and through this contrast the overall impression is not one of strength and smart suits. I suspect that the two men in their smart suits believe that they are portraying a strong image, they are proud of their clothes and want to show that they are strong men. However, by showing them in the context of the other man who has not joined in with the display and the tired room we are being told that these are proud people who are not in a good place.

Another example of how Koudelka uses contrast to change the message might be seen in Romania 1968 with the photo of the women in a bright patterned dress in a bleak room with soot from an open fire and badly marked walls. She appears to be smiling, she is in colourful and probably traditional clothing, she seems to be striking a pose but she is in a bleak windowless room where a fire has be made on the floor and has created a large soot stain on the walls. The contrast seems to say that this person is not meant to be here, like a photograph of an animal in a zoo. Put this women in beautiful countryside and we have a classic gypsy image, her smile would become a statement of content. Here in this dirty and bleak room it is a sad contrast that tells the continuing story of displacement and misery.

There are several headlines that I would like to carry forward into my own work.

  • Do not be afraid to use the centre of the image. Koudelka often centres his main subject even when the space around the subject is quite neutral. (Half naked women Vinodol 1969, war damaged buildings and man Vinohradska Avenue 1968, handcuffs Slovakia 1963, hovercraft France 1973) He uses space to help tell the story.
  • Use three. A repeating theme of his work is the use of three people, or three strong shapes. (Half naked boys Slovakia 1967, men with sticks Ireland 1972)
  • Process to achieve more internal contrast in the main subject and less in the surroundings to emphasise the subject.
  • If the intent is to document do not shy away from arranging or directing the subjects for the best visual or documentary effect.
  • Documenting means photographing what is there without comment and without embellishment. (Rubble, Naples 1980).
  • Black and white photography lends itself to thinking in tone and shapes, maybe more than lines.
  • Use line (including eye lines), tone and shape to direct the viewer around an image. Consider how you want the image to be viewed and design around that idea.



*Koudelka, Josef. (2007) Josef Koudelka: Thames & Hudson Photofile with an introduction by Bernard Cuau. London: Thanks and Hudson.


**Magnum Photos, first accessed 2013, www.magnumphotos.com

Ai Weiwei

Last night I watched “Ai Weiwei Never Sorry”*, a remarkable documentary about an even more remarkable man. His art incorporates photography but, then, it incorporates just about everything else as well.

I was struck very early in the film that many of the things he said about art echoed the ideas of Henri Cartier Bresson. Two artists from diametrically opposed cultures, social back grounds, times and places.

Ai Weiwei talks of the simplicity of his ideas, a theme that Cartier Bresson often returns to in his writings, HCB says It is by “economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression”.** Ai WeiWei’s monumental work “Sunflower Seeds” exemplifies the simple approach, a startling 100 million porcelain “seeds” all hand made and hand painted and spread over a football pitch of a space at the Tate Modern in 2010/11. The message that each seed from a distance looks the same but close up is unique, an individual, and how the individual relates to the mass is a simple idea and a simple message about China. Obviously there are many other levels to this work, perhaps the choice of porcelain was important given China’s long standing love affair with this medium, perhaps there are messages about products made in China. The sun was the emblem of Mao Zedong, the seeds the people of China. Sunflower seeds were once the most important staple diet of poor Chinese. Layer upon layer but the basic premise is simple. This is part of the beauty of his work.

Ai WeiWei is, in his own words, engaged in a game of chess through his art. “I am a chess player…I make a move when they do…Now I am waiting for my opponent to make the next move.” In the greatest tradition of art he is trying to change his society through activist art. The dividing line between political act and artistic expression is blurred beyond identification. Were the names of the dead school children listed on his office wall art ? They were a simply made, strong emotional statement that communicated directly with the viewer. A statement that transcended the language in which they were written in as few people outside of china other than people of chinese heritage could read a single name. Calling it art or not art probably trivialises what we are looking at, the names of thousands of children who died needlessly. Children in a single child society who, as Ai Weiwei tells us, were the product of total and dedicated investment by their parents. Not just one only child but over 4,000 only children.

The most creative and moving piece on display was his mural of a dead child’s name constructed from student’s knapsacks and inspired by the photographs of knapsacks after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.

Another link to Cartier Bresson was the idea of a camera as a diary. Cartier Bresson saw the camera as sketchbook. Ai Weiwei sees it as a diary and his portal to twitter, banned in mainline China, where he maintains a running commentary on his activism and his art. He uses moving and still images to express himself as well as painting, sculpture and architecture. Extremes of artistic collaboration around a single artist.

His iconic photograph of the Forbidden City behind his middle finger is the ultimate “selfie”. It is a simple idea, great composition, grainy, a bit fuzzy and presumably taken with an early model smart phone, certainly not overwhelmed by technology. A message so clear and loud it makes sense to anyone who wants to look. Cartier-Besson said that taking photographs was a way of shouting, the middle finger is a shout.

At the end of the film I had filled four pages of my notebook, about a quarter was about Ai Weiwei and three quarters were ideas that he sparked. The strongest idea is not especially insightful – we see this man fighting a repressive, secretive, faceless, control-freak of a government with Gandhi-like calm and non-violent means. He is a man with little or no freedom of speech who has found a hundred ways to say what needs to be said. He tells us that your “acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.”**

Most of us live in a world where freedom of speech is overwhelmingly available and where most of us can think of nothing useful to say, not that this stops us or me. In 2003 Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until  when he was speaking.  According the Domosphere website there are 2.1 billion internet subscribers who are posting 6,725 Instagram and flickr photos every minute, that is another 4.5 million photos posted by the time I get up tomorrow morning. This post is just 1 of 347 WordPress posts every minute, 229 thousand before breakfast.

I find this totally overwhelming. Finding our voice is a key objective of this course, being heard is a whole different challenge.


* Klayman, Alison. A Film (2013) Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, United Expression Media,

** Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999), The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers. Aperture Foundation, New York

*** Robert Klanten  (Editor) , Matthias Hubner (Editor) , Alain Bieber (Editor). (2011) Art & Agenda, Political Art and Activism, Gestalten Verlag

Ai Weiwei official website (first accessed 2013) http://aiweiwei.com

Assignment 1 – Reflection and Objectives Going Forward

I found Assignment 1 to be challenging partly because I am quite literal by nature and nurture, forty years in IT has to have some effect.

To try and overcome this limitation I spent a lot of time thinking about and planning this project. I found that slowly leafing through the work of several photographs helped. I have mentioned Camilo José Vergara as a specific inspiration for my pair of graffiti images and, although I did not use the images as part of the assignment, I took several photographs in Aldershot that were influenced by his work.

Sweet Shop - 1/100 at f/8, ISO 125, 24 - 70mm zoom lens at 56mm

Sweet Shop – 1/100 at f/8, ISO 125, 24 – 70mm zoom lens at 56mm

Sweet shop is one of those photographs and shows two Nepalis outside an Asian fast food shop in Aldershot.

One of my earliest ideas was to base many of the images around an industrial theme. This led me to seek out artists who had used this theme extensively and this took me to Lewis W. Hine. I found a copy of  “Women at Work” second hand but I’m still looking for an affordable copy of “Men at Work”.

Hine’s work is remarkable, in his introduction to Women at Work, Jonathan L. Doherty points out that Hine saw the American Worker as a heroic figure.  Many of his photographs focus on the skill and application of his female subjects even though he is known to have held strong views on poverty and exploitation. As a result his images are very positive, I do not believe that he intends us to feel sorry for the workers, he wants us to see them as people with ability and strength, to celebrate and admire them.

I sought out Hine to see how he photographed machines but came away more influenced by the way he portrayed people in a positive light even if their circumstances were clearly unsatisfactory. An example of this is “Italian Immigrant, East Side, New York City 1910” which is of a women in a run-down district, carrying a heavy load but instead of this being a depressing image it emphasises her strength and purpose. His ability to emphasise the positives has made me think more deeply about street photography and how important it is not to fall into the trap of type casting people by the way you photograph them.

Overall I spent a lot of time looking at black and white photos from great photographers but lacked the confidence to bring much black and white to the assignment. My trip to the military cemetery in Aldershot was to look for many and few or large and small contrasts. I thought the gravestones and the memorials might offer these comparisons. But, I also thought that the older sections would provide strong gothic images that would work well in black and white so I could include this technique in my final set.

I think I captured several images that fitted those criteria but in every case I preferred the colour version.

Grave of a Small Child - 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Grave of a Small Child – 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Grave of a Small Child - 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Grave of a Small Child – 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel - 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel – 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel - 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel – 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

I found Michael Freeman’s Black and White Photography Field Guide immensely helpful and looking at the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Lewis W. Hine and Ansel Adams is also a great help but I have to make major step up in terms of technique to produce even average results in black and white.

As a result only high and low had a monochrome element and I feel those images have several processing flaws. I have asked myself why I included them if I knew they were flawed but I like them as images and believe a “good” print is hidden in there but that I don’t have the black and white processing skills to extract it. It is therefore helpful to post them as a marker that I can look back on to measure whether I am improving these skills.

My first objective moving forward is to improve my ability to capture and print work in black and white so that I am confident to present it in an assignment.

I am very conscious that I lost momentum in the course of completing this assignment. I knew that my instinct would be to produce very literal representations of the contrasts and therefore spent a lot of time looking at the potential meanings of the words, brainstorming ideas, planning locations, taking and analysing test shots and selecting images. This all sounds very positive and it would be easy to spin it as a diligent and efficient process but it wasn’t.

I actually used very few of the dozens and dozens of ideas I had on my mind maps. I spent a second day at Milestones Museum to get one usable image and know that most of the unplanned “test” shots were better than the planned versions. In reality the process was flawed and it took at least three weeks of elapsed time before I changed tack. I was far more effective when I picked locations that might offer opportunity and just went out and took photographs or by just having my camera with me when I had to be in places for other reasons. Italy, MC Motors, Salisbury and The South Bank were all places I went to for work or social reasons; the three locations I used in Aldershot were more planned and the trampoline photos in our back garden were staged.

Overall I feel that I have been working on this assignment for far too long, I was defiantly bogged down and have my daughter, who teaches photography, to thank for getting me out of a lot of blind alleys and onto a clearer path. It is hard to define exactly what I need to do to address this going forward but I do not want to move steadily through the exercises and then stall when I reach the assignments.

My current thoughts are that I need to carefully manage the time spent planning and the amount of process and get out there with a camera more quickly. I feel that my best work was when I put myself in a good location, with the assignment objectives in my mind, and just took photographs that felt right. By doing this I took some photos that I liked but that didn’t fit the assignment but also found photos that did both.

The desk work that really did help was looking at top photographer’s work. Looking at the thousands of images that Google can find only helped to confuse the issue. I need to focus my attention on gaining inspiration from great photographers and to strive to learn from their skills. Although it didn’t directly impact the assignment I felt that reviewing Vergara’s work on a Saturday led to me taking better photos on Sunday morning.

My second objective is to focus my research on gaining inspiration as a creative fuel and to use this fuel by moving quickly to capturing images.


Hine, Lewis H. (1981) Women at Work. New York, Dover Publications

Exercise 12 – Cropping

Fig 1 - Druid Original Image 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Fig 1 – Druid Original Image – 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Exercise 12 requires the re-cropping of a selection of existing photographs.

I endeavoured to select a variety of different subject types and to to try one or two different crops on each one.

This is an interesting exercise as it  forced me to look again at a small selection of old images. I did not want to just look at recent photographs and as a result they range from 2000 to 2012.

I have mostly restricted myself to 3:2 or square proportions whether landscape or portrait. The exception are two faux panoramic crops. I am questioning whether using traditional proportions is a sign of a lack of creativity or force of habit. Rightly or wrongly I have always cropped to 3:2 or square. This might be a bit of OCD, or we used to have the cardboard cropping guides to mark up 35mm transparencies for printing and they only worked in these proportions.

At the end of the exercise I can see that there were better crops available for at least 2 of the 4 images so I am clearly looking at these photographs in a different way. More telling was that I found a different and previously un-edited original of the sardine chef that would have be a much better edited image back in 2000. I see this as as more fundamental shift in my ideas, I was always seeking perfections and would exclude things from the frame that spoilt the image I wanted to see. I now realise that the litter on the ground, or in the case of the sardine image, the chef having a cigarette in the background, are the imperfections that potentially make the image. Studying the work of Cartier-Bresson, Lewis Hine and Sebastiao Salgado has been a revelation in this regard and I am now looking at opportunities and my old images in a very different way that I hope, over time, will lift my work.

My first choice is a picture of a druid, not just any druid but Rollo Maughfling, Archdruid of Stonehenge & Britain. I photographed Mr. Maughfling at the Stonehenge winter solstice in 2012 and originally framed the image as seen in fig.1.

I wanted to include his hands which I found interesting, to hint that he was in a crowded place but to isolate him as he appeared to be deep in thought.

Fig 2 - Druid Crop 1 - 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Fig 2 – Druid Crop 1 – 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

My first, alternative crop focusses attention on his face. I have positioned him to fill the frame from left to near the right hand edge.

Fig 3 - Druid Crop 2 - 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Fig 3 – Druid Crop 2 – 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

In fig.3 I have stayed in close but cropped into a landscape frame. The intent is to have him looking into space.

Fig 4 - Druid Crop 3 - 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Fig 4 – Druid Crop 3 – 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

The final crop is halfway between the original and the tight frame of fig.2. to show a little of his costume.

On balance I would be happy to use the original, or fig. 2, crop 1. The choice is between an interesting bearded face or a druid with an interesting face. I took the original as part of a study of people at the solstice so showing that he was a druid was important to that set. If I met him on the street I would probably prefer fig. 2, crop 1.

Fig. 5 Wreck at Anegada Original - 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 5 – Wreck at Anegada Original – 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

The second image, Fig. 5, dates from 2000 and is of a wreck on the island of Anegada in the British Virgin Islands. My original image was probably framed to put the wreck into the context of the beach and to include the windswept tree to the right which gives a sense of how strong the winds can be and why wrecks happen in these beautiful islands.

Fig. 6 Wreck at Anegada Crop 1- 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 6 – Wreck at Anegada Crop 1- 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

The first and most obvious crop was to try a portrait frame as in fig. 6. This focusses the viewer totally onto the wreck under a darkening sky.

Fig. 7 - Wreck at Anegada Crop 2- 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 7 – Wreck at Anegada Crop 2- 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 7 is tending towards a panoramic shape. I wanted to retain the sweep of the beach and to include the boat and the tree within the frame.

Fig. 8 - Wreck at Anegada Crop 4 - 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 8 – Wreck at Anegada Crop 4 – 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Seeing fig. 7 on the screen whilst writing up my notes made me realise that the wide expanse of beach was, in fact, un-balancing the image so I tried a tighter crop as shown in fig. 8 and I think this works much better than fig. 7. The boat and tree balance each other well and the sunlit portion of the beach still links the two. I did also try a square crop but this was uninteresting. I like fig.8 crop 4 as it feels a better balanced image than the original.

Fig. 10 - Sardines Original - 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

Fig. 9 – Sardines Original – 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

Sardines, fig. 9, also dates from 2000 and was taken in Portugal. The original image I found in my “portfolio” was cropped as a square. At that time I was still using a Bronica medium format film camera and although this image is taken with a Nikon D1 it is not unusual for me to crop images, especially portraits into square frames. I suspect my logic was to include all the sardines along with the chef and, as will be seen in fig.11, there was a distraction to the left. This is all about the chef and the fish.

Fig. 10 - Sardines Crop 1 - 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

Fig. 10 – Sardines Crop 1 – 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

In the interests of this project I tried a portrait crop as shown in fig. 10. It is workable but, of the two, I prefer the original. A few years ago I could have sounded very “grumpy old man” and said 1:1 was a very underused format and that it had a lot to offer as an alternative to 3:2. I do not, by the way, hold myself up as an expert in composing in that or any other format. However, since the advent of Instagram, there are now thousands of people successfully using the square format  everyday and there are companies printing Instagrams in the style of the old polaroid instant photos and sending them back boxed.

Fig. 11 - Sardines Alternative Original - 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

Fig. 11 – Sardines Alternative Original – 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

When I went back to my originals library to retrieve the exposure information for fig. 9 I noticed  this original image (fig. 11) that was never edited. I was obviously not interested in the chef’s assistant having a crafty smoke and took the next shot excluding him. Now I would choose fig.11 as the more interesting photo. I have used it here with no cropping and just the smallest tweak in photoshop. It might deserve a bit more effort to adjust the shadows and highlights.

Fig. 12 - Table Mountain Original - 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig. 12 – Table Mountain Original – 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

My final choice is a photograph of Table Mountain behind Cape Town taken in 2008. The composition is framed to include the cloud pattern that adds some interest to the sky and the transparent sea inside the reef. I have framed this to create a nearly symmetrical balance.

Fig. 13 - Table Mountain Crop 1 - 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig. 13 – Table Mountain Crop 1 – 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig.13 is a much better crop, less sea and more sky brings a better overall balance to the image  and the viewer is led in to the photograph more effectively.

Fig. 13 - Table Mountain Crop 2 - 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig. 14 – Table Mountain Crop 2 – 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

The panoramic crop in fig. 14 is also quite effective and would work well as an internet or blog header or a banner in a printed article. I cropped to try and make the breaking waves the key component.

Fig. 15 - Table Mountain Crop 3 - 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig. 15 – Table Mountain Crop 3 – 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

In fig. 15 I wanted to try a square format again. I have cropped to include the breaking waves to the left as this gives some life to the image. this has broken up the semi-symmetrical pattern of the clouds and moved the mountain slightly off centre. I don’t dislike it but feel more comfortable with fig. 13 which I think is the best balanced of the set.