OCA Level 3: Body of Work/Contextual Studies

Tag: Body of Work

BoW A2: Tutor Feedback


Very helpful and motivating tutorial and feedback, Les was encouraging about the various ideas I have for A3 and their potential for development. He did strike a note of caution however that the time for experimentation and making decisions is limited – I need to narrow my focus in order to interrogate my theme of consumerism – essentially discarding elements that are not working.

Here are some further thoughts on comments made:

  • Aesthetic of A2 could prove useful later:

I perhaps have been too quick to think only of the use of the Holga for A2 as a workflow strategy rather than considering if this is a way of working that could be developed further. I like the idea of mixing different outputs, the most obvious of which is digital and analogue, so I should maybe experiment further with this.

  • Cost of living discussion:

Since my tutorial, the rapid increase in the cost of living (inflation, energy costs, petrol/diesel etc.) has become even more topical – if I am interested in trying to make a body of work that responds to the realities of life at this very moment then this is the ideal subject matter. How to do this however is a major consideration – the idea of focusing on commodities (with bread as a starting point) was received well so perhaps this is the way to begin.

  • A personal project about the experience I have working in retail:

This is not something I had really considered until I discussed it with Les, but the more I think about it, the more I think the access/knowledge I have about the realities of working for a large supermarket chain could lead to something that is both personal and meaningful.

Do next:

I plan to experiment with each of the approaches I have detailed in the tutor report as a way of arriving at the project I am going to take for the rest of BoW. It is important not to analyse these too much initially and concentrate on making images and consider which of these have the potential to develop further.

BoW A2: Self Reflection

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Background:

I used a methodology of walking/exploration and memory for A1 and I wanted to continue and expand this for A2. I also wanted to continue to experiment with using a film camera as I found the limits that shooting analogue presented appealing – making images this way forced me to work differently, and perhaps most importantly, made me consider my editing choices more closely as I had a smaller amount of images to make my selections from.

Having decided on the subject of consumerism for CS I wanted to investigate what I could find on the high streets of the towns closest to me. I am interested in how the retail environment is in a state of accelerated change with many chains going out of business in recent years. Received wisdom suggests that the high street should be full of empty retail units and I wanted to investigate if this was the case. Rather than using a 35mm camera, I shot the photographs on a Holga ‘toy’ camera. The camera produces extreme lo-fi results – exposure control is minimal, framing is difficult and haphazard and the lens is made of plastic. Yet, the strong vignette, soft focus and scratched negatives create a distinctive aesthetic that I felt would fit my aim of photographing empty shops. I shot in seven locations – Stanley, Consett, Gateshead, Metro Centre, Newcastle, Durham and Sunderland. Despite finding empty shops in each of them, I would not describe any of the places I visited as being defined by this. Choosing to photograph and present only empty shops suggests otherwise, and while I am not attempting to provide a document of impartiality or truth, there is a strong question mark about these images and what they are saying. Focusing on dereliction and decay is something of a photographic cliché, superficial and only gives a partial representation.

Presentation and selection:

Originally I planned to include text as part of the images as a continuation of the strategy I had employed for A1, albeit in a more subtle form. I had the idea of including part of the now closed retailers advertising strategy as a way of drawing attention to the gulf between the hopes and promise of their advertising/brand message of the past and the reality of today. Toys R Us was the stimulus for this – whenever I think of the brand I recall the song from the advert “It’s a magical place/we’re on our way there/with toys in their million all under one roof.” (See here.) The word “magical” superimposed onto the image of the empty and decaying store was a prospect that seemed too good to miss. Unfortunately, when I tried to research advertising from the other retailers I struggled to find the information I needed so had to put this idea to ones side.

Text has been an important part of the last few projects I have made. Having to discount my original idea made me think more about this and wonder what the effect of using no text or captions with the images would be. Despite not imposing text onto the images myself, the signage present on each store front is integral to the reading of each photograph. 

Context:

I approach most projects with a strong idea of the artists that are influencing and informing my work. Here, I was driven by an idea and methodology rather than having any particular artist in mind. In retrospect I can see how similarities with the work of Eugene Atget both in terms of aesthetic and subject matter. The photographs could be classed as documentary, but the use of film and the Holga mean they are no longer straight documentations. (Alternatively the indexical nature of film could be read as more truthful than digital.) As I reviewed the pictures, and also considered work that combined image and text, I was reminded of Martha Rosler’s ‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Methods’ and her essay “In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)”. In ‘Bowery’, Rosler chooses not to include humans. Jeffries (2021: 33) describes this as a “poignant absence [which] haunts each of Rosler’s shots”. While my images also exclude people, something which accentuates the emptiness of the shops themselves, it does not have the purpose and intent of Rosler. Indeed, what if anything do the images say except there are some signs of dereliction on the high street? While the aesthetic created by the camera and film is initially appealing to me, the more I consider this the less comfortable I am – is this an affectation or even fetishistic?

Thoughts on where I go next:

While the approach I have taken so far of engaging with place with an open mind and allowing ideas to form has served me well so far, this is something I need to develop in a more structured way as I progress my BoW. Now that I know what my subject will be I need to find a way to say something cohesive about this. My instinct is that a critique of capitalism and consumption is too simplistic – I need something more nuanced. I am interested in the state of retail now, but I need to be realistic and not try to be too all encompassing. Rather than branch out further, both geographically and conceptually, perhaps I should narrow my gaze and concentrate on what is closer to home? One of the themes I am exploring in CS is the tension between large, homogenous chains and small, independent retailers. The shops near to me broadly fit the second category and this is perhaps the direction I should take and explore further. 

A3 offers a final opportunity to experiment before committing to a direction for the final two assignments. I have three broad ideas currently:

1. Documentary approach:

Local Retailers:

As I allude to above, I am attracted to the idea of photographing local independent businesses. This could involve a collaboration with the owners, interviewing them to understand more about their business and the place it holds in the community. Text from the interviews could potentially be combined with the photographs to give context and provide a fuller understanding.

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s series ‘Byker Revisited‘ is an inspiration here. For this project, Kontinnen developed her earlier ‘Byker‘ work, a traditional documentary project shot in black and white, collaborating with the people she photographed rather than pointing the camera at what she saw. (This excerpt from the accompanying film ‘Today I’m With You’ (2010) gives a fascinating insight into the process, although it should also be noted that the final decision about image selection ultimately lay with Kontinnen herself, sometimes these were not the shared by the people in them.)

Shop windows:

The working title of ‘shop windows’ refers to an idea I have about photographing retail premises and presenting them in a way to compare and contrast the differences and similarities. The most obvious subject is shop window displays and how they are used to entice shoppers inside. Presenting these as together is a possibility and I am influenced by the work of Penelope Umbrico in this regard. (See ‘Suns from Sunsets from Flickr‘.)

2. Visual Culture approach:

The retail landscape is covered in imagery designed to appeal and influence the shopper, from signage to product packaging. The idea that these stay on the periphery of our perception is something I am interested in and I have made a couple of experiments taking still images from short sections of video I have made while walking around shopping centres. (See here.) I am not sure if this idea has potential, but it is something that keeps coming into my mind so I need to spend some time working further on it to see if it takes me anywhere. 

Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is a key influence for this idea, although the enigmatic pronouncements of this text, their opaque nature and the bleak outlook is becoming less appealing to me of late. Researching ethics recently I came across this podcast with Jennifer Good in which she discusses the importance of visual literacy and encountering images in the world:

“[T]he average person is…much more visually literate, than we even realise ourselves…when we encounter photographs, they shape our views in a split second. And all we’re doing when we try to analyse that process is just slowing it down, slowing it down and unpacking something that is already happening [we’re] trying to slow down and account for those very subtle ways in which images impact our politics and our ideas and our consciousness and our movement through the world.”

This notion that we are simultaneously reading visual culture in a sophisticated way while being only semi conscious of the process is fascinating, as is the debate about how much this changes our outlook, if at all. Rephotographing ‘found’ images, such as adverts, transforms them from ephemeral to objects of consideration. An example of recontextualising advertising and drawing attention to the subtext of the imagery is Richard Prince’s ‘Cowboys‘ series. Removing branding from adverts for Marlborough cigarettes, Prince drew attention to the myths of masculinity and the American identity that the adverts used to provide an aspirational lifestyle. Investigating the different types of imagery that are available in the real world could be something to explore further, perhaps presenting together by subject or type.

3. Cost of living/commodities:

Currently there is huge concern and debate about increases to the cost of living and the pressure this will put onto households. I have been wondering if I can make something from this and have been thinking about commodities that can be stripped of their marketing to be photographed. Food is the most obvious example of this, and bread a potential candidate because of the wide variety available and varying cost from mass produced factory loaf to a hand made artisan one. (See here.)

Bibliography:

Jeffries, S. (2021) Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Post-Modern. London: Verso.

The Messy Truth: Conversations on Photography (2020) [Podcast] Dr. Jennifer Good – On Ethics. At: https://play.acast.com/s/themessytruth/drjennifergood-onethics (accessed 30th July 2020)

BoW A2: Empty Shops

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Shopping centres and high streets were once the focal point of the community, but internet shopping and our 24/7 online culture mean one in five shops in North East England currently stand empty. (Butler, 2021) For this project, I have photographed some of these empty premises using a ‘toy’ Holga camera. The resulting black and white exposures are grainy, scratched and distinctly lo-fi which fits the subject matter, giving a sense of nostalgia and melancholy – potentially both misplaced and projected. 

The speed of the decline of the high street has been accelerated by the Covid pandemic. What, if anything they will become remains uncertain. The vacant, decaying retail units seem to have little chance of being taken over by new tenants – they are an elegy of a time and way of life that is now left in the past.

Bibliography:

Butler, S. (2021) One in seven shops now vacant across the UK. The Guardian, 20th July 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/30/one-in-seven-shops-now-vacant-across-the-uk/ (accessed 5th August 2021)

BoW A1: Response to Tutor Feedback


Really useful and inspiring tutorial session. It was good for my submission to be well received and encouraging to hear that my idea to explore themes of consumerism, consumption and retail were felt to have potential. We discussed many different approaches for this and it is important that I start experimenting with these quickly so I can begin to formulate the direction of my final BoW.

I have summarised a number of action points from the tutorial below with the aim that this helps keep me focused:

Contact with tutor:

  • Monthly progress report.
  • Email links to my blog as I post development updates.
  • Agree deadlines for assignment submissions.
    • 1/1/22 has been set for A2, in my mind this needs a quicker turnaround to build momentum – my personal deadline is 14/11/21.

Ideas for A2:

  • Approach – photograph empty/closed retail premises using Holga camera.
  • Incorporate this with time exploring the retail environment in my local area as a source of inspiration.

Research/context:

Artists:

  • Willie Doherty
  • Ben Roberts – Amazon project
  • Led by Donkeys/Cold War Steve (particularly public display of work)
  • Memes
  • Valerie Berlin
  • Oliver Richon
  • Dawn Woolley
  • Laura Letinsky
  • Eugene Atget (promoted by Bernice Abbott and more recently Sarah Dobai)

Writers:

  • Bauman: Consuming Life
  • Debord: Society of the Spectacle
  • Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics
  • Berger: Ways of Seeing (consumer aspects/Marxist readings)

BoW A1: Development and Approach

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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. 

Research Task: Gregory Crewdson

See: Gregory Crewdson


In Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Michael Fried argues against a type of image that he designates as ‘theatrical’ in style, that is, obviously staged and artificial looking. Fried’s aesthetic preference is for ‘anti-theatrical’ images, and he argues that overt theatricality interferes with the viewer’s ability to identify and empathise with what is displayed in the scene. (Bate, 2015: 50) 

Although Gregory Crewdson is not referenced by Fried, it would seem obvious that his overtly constructed images are exactly the kind of picture that Fried would describe as ‘theatrical’. Fried does discuss the work of Jeff Wall at length, he views Wall’s strategy of creating images that he describes as ‘near documentary’ to be “fundamentally, an antitheatrical ideal”. (Fried, 2008: 66) On the surface this is an innocent enough comment – aesthetically Crewdson’s draws deliberate attention to the constructed nature of his images both in terms of style and staging, but also because of the way the people he shows in his constructed tableaux seem alienated from their surroundings. Wall on the other hand, more often than not, strives to present authentic and naturalistic scenes that initially seem banal, common place and everyday. The post production work that is employed by both Crewdson and Wall is comparably complex, yet, Crewdson aims to highlight this (the signature impression is that the images have an uncanny, hyperreal quality) while Wall strives to make his final composites appear as natural as possible. This is a significant distinction of intent with Crewdson deliberately foregrounding artifice  and Wall attempting to disguise the heavily constructed nature of his images. Instinctively, it is Wall’s approach that I prefer, even though I know that all photographs are illusion. With this thought in mind, I wonder if I have missed something about Crewdson’s work – although his images are clearly constructed they are also clearly real world settings that we can identify and recognise. As well as the many references that are present in his work, Crewdson could also be making a comment on the very nature of photographic representation and the false way this relates to reality. The relationship to reality that Wall’s work displays is now more than carefully a carefully considered application of the conventions of photographic realism. It could be argued that Crewdson, by drawing attention to the artifice inherent in his work, is challenging the viewer to question everything they see in the images.  

Bibliography:

Badger, G. (2001) The Genius of Photography: How Photography Has Changed Our Lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Bate, D. (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Berg, S. (2007) (ed.) Gregory Crewdson: 1985-2005. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Campany, D. (2013) Art and Photography. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Campany, D. (2020) On Photographs. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Colberg, J. (2020) Photography’s Neoliberal Realism. Mack

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson

Dyer, G. (2021) See/Saw: Looking at Photographs. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd. 

Crewdson, G. (2008) Beneath the Roses. New York: Abrams.

Fried, M. (2008) Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before. Yale University Press New Haven.

Scott, G. (2012) Gregory Crewdson. The United Nations of Photography. At: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2012/10/23/gregory-crewdson/ (accessed 27th June 2021)

Scott, G. (2021) Thoughts on Gregory Crewdson… The United Nations of Photography. At: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2021/02/21/thoughts-on-gregory-crewdson/ (accessed 27th June 2021)

Soutter, L. (2018) Why Art Photography? (2nd ed.) Oxon: Routledge.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th Edition) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

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