OCA Level 3: Body of Work/Contextual Studies

Tag: Assignment 1

BoW A1: Hidden Stanley

Obscured behind large blocks of text, the photographs in Hidden Stanley show banal everyday locations, seemingly removed from the lurid descriptions inscribed onto the images. The text is appropriated from newspaper headlines and describe such sensational events as a sweet shop used as a front for the distribution of drugs, a bus station that was the scene of a pitched battle between a gang of youths and the police, and a former pub that is now a swingers club with a dungeon. 

The words and pictures sit together in precarious tension, each questioning and throwing doubt on the truth of what can be seen and read. The photographs are benign, boring even; the text lack context, giving only a partial insight into what has happened. The viewer is left to fill in the blanks and complete a story that is barely suggested – and to decide whether to believe what they see and read.

BoW A1: Development and Approach

See:


A1 developed out of an experiment developing my methodology for DI&C A5 – a project based around walking the same route each day and photographing without preconception. The images were raw material with the final shape of the project only coming through in the editing process.

The idea for Hidden Stanley came from a memory that returned to me during one of my walks – a sweet shop that had been used a front to distribute drugs. Passing the shop, now closed down and shuttered, I was struck by the banality of the building and how there was no way of knowing the illicit history without local knowledge. The sensational headlines from the time seemed far removed from the reality of the scene. From this I began to think about other stories from my local area that had featured in the news over the years but were similarly banal on the surface despite the sensational and lurid headlines of the time. I identified 7 stories which I could also back up with news articles on the web. (See here.)

Next, I walked a route that went past each of the sites and took some initial photographs. In the brief for A1 we are encouraged to limit the amount of images taken through strategies such as using an analogue camera and a single roll of film. Having recently been gifted a 35mm camera, this seemed like an opportune way to test it out. I also had a Holga camera that had not been used for a number of years, so decided to experiment with this at the same time. I completed the route twice, taking a roll of film with each camera on both occasions. The final selections were made from these – a mistake with the initial roll of 120 film in the Holga meant I did not have a set of images I wanted to use from this so the final selections were made from the 35mm photographs. It had been many years since I had shot film and the physical process of doing this along with the anticipation of waiting for the film to be processed filled me with nostalgia. Having had the photographs developed, there was something I found attractive about the aesthetic – the grain and imperfections of the black and white images fit with my ideas about exploring the everyday nature of these sites. There was also an authenticity about the look of the photographs because this was a direct result of the process of making them rather than being achieved through post processing. The imperfections present, particularly on the Holga images, also appealed and could be something to explore further.

The genesis of the idea coming from newspaper articles meant that I always intended text to play an important part in the project. I experimented with a number of ways of doing this, firstly through captions and then by overlaying text directly onto the images. (See here and here.) Making the text an integral part of the image seemed to work past and brought these two elements into direct dialogue creating a tension. Initially, I envisaged smallish text (12 pt) in the centre of the image, but this seemed lost and too subtle. Increasing the size to 120 pt and choosing a bold font (Mono 45 Headline) made the text dominant, or at least equal in importance with the image. There was something about the way this made image and text relate to each other that seemed to work – the first thing the viewer is faced with is the text which they then need to almost look behind to reveal a scene which does not seem to reflect the content of the words at all. Perhaps this could be read as a comment on the heavy handed simplicity and lack of nuance that is typical of these sort of articles?

Context and Influences:

Contextually, I had the work of Tom Hunter (see post here), John Kippin and Karen Knorr in mind. 

From Belgravia (1979-1981) ©Karen Knorr (reproduced with permission)

The meaning of much of Knorr’s work, in series’ such as Belgravia, relies on the interplay between image and text with captions both enabling the reader to understand the photographs and opening up many more themes than either would show by themselves. Knorr’s accompanying text for Belgravia describes the relationship like this:

“Historically, portraiture of the upper classes has tended to be flattering but the combination of image and text brings this work closer to satire and caricature, without losing the strong effect specific to photography. The meaning of the work can be found in the space between image and text: neither text nor image illustrate each other, but create a “third meaning” to be completed by the spectator. The text slows down the viewing process as we study the text and return to re-evaluate the image in light of what we have read.” (Knorr, s.d.)

‘Lover Set On Fire in Bed’ from Living in Hell and Other Stories ©Tom Hunter (reproduced with permission)

In Living in Hell and Other Stories, Tom Hunter, influenced by the approach of Thomas Hardy in gaining inspiration for his novels from newspapers of the time, staged scenes based on newspaper headlines. Hunter needed to imagine the each scenario based solely on the salacious headlines he came across and the images are a mixture of reality and construction. Tracy Chevalier, in an essay about the series, asserts that the project succeeds because there is an everyday recognisable, believability evident in the images which becomes memorable because of the way this is disrupted by the extraordinary events depicted, shaking the placid nature of everyday life. (Hunter, 2006: 10-12) It is this sense tension between the mundane and the sensational that I wanted to achieve in my images, the difference being that this is amplified by the banal nature of the images and the imposing overlay of text. 

Industrial ©John Kippin (reproduced with permission)

John Kippin frequently overlays his photographs with enigmatic text that both affirms and questions their content, or as Alistair Robinson puts it “what we see and what we believe.” Kippin is influenced by semiotics and the language of advertising and how this “directs our ‘internal landscape’ of mythologies and aspirations.” He uses a strategy of “manipulating signs and symbols ‘against themselves'” to emphasise the ambiguity in both words and images. This can be read as a commentary on the fact that communication is seldom straightforward and the ideological nature of interpreting signs. (Robinson, 2018: 9-10) Kippin’s use of text and image is more subtle and ambiguous than mine, however, the intent is the same – for the reader to make a ‘third meaning’ from the combination of image and text and look for the ways these inform and refute their understanding of what is being shown. 

Bibliography:

Hunter, T. (2006) Living in Hell and Other Stories. London: National Gallery Company Limited.

Knorr, K. (s.d.) Belgravia 1979-1981. At: https://karenknorr.com/photography/belgravia/ (accessed 10th September 2021)

Robinson, A. (2018) ‘Negative Epiphanies’. In: Kippin, J. Based On A True Story. Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag. 

CS A1 – Response to Tutor Feedback

It was good to catch up with Andrew for this tutorial, and my mind is put at ease that it is the process of getting the work for CS underway by completing this assignment that has been the most important outcome. Despite this, I still feel frustrated that I have spent so much time on an essay that will not inform my dissertation, although I need to rationalise this train of thought and move on. The most surprising aspect of starting work on level 3 is how I have found having a blank canvas of opportunity to pursue has been quite paralysing – Andrew’s advice of ‘widen the research, narrow the focus’ is a key mantra to remember here. I am starting to feel more confident about where my research could be heading and themes to pursue are beginning to become apparent which is encouraging progress.

Thinking towards the literature review for A2 my approach needs to be – read, think, re-read and refine – by doing this I am sure that the themes I wish to explore in my extended project will come into focus. It is also important to note that the literature review is only a stepping stone towards the final piece and that I can still change direction afterwards and add further sources as I identify them.

The formative feedback from the tutorial (above) gives a good summary of both where I am and what actions I need to take going forward, so I will leave thoughts about this first assignment here and focus on the positive aspects that have come out of it rather than bemoan what could have been done differently.

CS A1

Self Reflection

The process of researching and writing this first essay has been much more difficult than anticipated, although I have quickly been able to reflect on why this is the case which will hopefully support my development through the course. The first obstacle I had to contend with is that I am still in the process of deciding what my Body of Work will be about so I am unable to base the essay on this. It is likely however, that my work will be centred in the real world, probably influenced by documentary, so I decided to focus my essay on the subject of photography and reality. My immediate concern was how I would be able to confine this subject within the small word count of 1000 words. I was conscious that I wanted to be able to choose a subject that fell under the umbrella of photography and reality, while being focused enough to be contained with the essay wordcount.

Approach:

Initial ideas I had as subjects for the essay were quite broad such as power relationships within photography, representations of the Other (particularly in terms of class) and the ethics of photography. I decided to approach research in an informal fashion, hoping that through reading a theme would emerge. I revisited some essays and books that had influenced me through my studies with OCA and began rereading and making notes. This was an enjoyable but fruitless approach which has resulted in the majority of material I have encountered being unused for the essay. The main issue here has been not having a working title or clear subject matter for the essay. As I started writing the essay, I had to spend some time rereading passages as the notes I had made were not necessarily relevant to what I had highlighted. This is something that could potentially be a major issue when I begin my dissertation, and looking forward, the literature review and question setting are going to be critical to my success in this area. 

Subject matter:

The choice of the FSA as the subject matter came as something of a surprise to me – I had envisaged discussing something much more contemporary. The decision was driven by pragmatism – I was not getting anywhere fast and needed to make progress. This assignment is about getting to grips with study and academic writing and I recognised it was important not to spend too much time procrastinating in order to move on with the course. Once I had decided on the frame of the subject matter I began to make much quicker progress reinforcing my view that understanding my research subjects will be critical as I work through the course. 

The essay:

For the essay I tried to keep my frame of reference tight, pairing down to a few key resources. Rereading, this is definitely a first draft that requires much work to improve. I suspect it is insufficiently academic in tone and although I have tried to give the essay a clear structure, my argument is unclear. I conclude the essay with an extended quote from John Tagg that seemed a fitting way to bring my discussion to an end, however, I am now  unconvinced that this is an appropriate way to finish. In the conclusion I also allude to themes of power, representation and ideology that were initially on my mind when I considered themes for the essay. There are other areas that I considered including such as theories of the gaze and semiotics but decided that bringing these in would complicate matters too much. I am going to have to become more comfortable in tackling these complex theoretical ideas while balancing this with including ideas that are relevant rather than attempting to show I have read difficult texts. On a technical level I hope that I have fulfilled the criteria required in terms of referencing and layout but recognise that this is an opportunity to gain feedback about this and amend accordingly.

Learnings:

Approaching level 3 the idea of being able to completely control my study was something I looked forward to. Having spent some time grappling with the course I recognise that this freedom is quite daunting and difficult to contend with. I feel I have been working hard but not really getting anywhere. I have tried to be disciplined and not focus on course exercises that are of interest but not going to advance my progress. Perhaps I should have been more focused on these however as a way of building up some momentum. How closely my Contextual Studies work needs to be aligned to my Body of Work is on my mind, perhaps too much. I am still in the process of experimenting with my BoW and I doubt the work I have done so far will form my final project, so again, this feels unformed and untethered. 

Despite the difficulty I have encountered with this first assignment, and my lack of satisfaction in what I have produced, this has still been a valuable exercise that I hope will help me gain some clearer and more efficient working practices going forward. 

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