Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Review Assignment Two

I was reasonably happy with the work that I submitted for Assignment Two; and the feedback was good, too.  So, in many respects, there isn’t much to say that I didn’t say at the time of submission.  I considered some different options for the book cover at the time, and some ways in which I could present my chosen concept differently.  I’m not sure there is anything to be gained by pursuing any of those further at this stage.  The ‘coffin/texting’ combination was a good one and would probably have good potential, but as I concluded at the time, it would require a lot of organising.  I don’t see that as a worthwhile investment at this point.

I did, in my initial reaction to the tutor feedback, compare what I’d done to the ‘still life’ genre (which I also reflected on in my response to an exhibition at the National Media Museum). I might have been stretching the definition of ’still life’ somewhat, but I do find the whole idea of constructing conceptual ideas in a studio context quite interesting – which certainly fits with what I did on Assignment Two.  Consequently, I have done some further experimentation, following a not dissimilar approach with light, scale etc. In fact, it is entirely about experimenting with light, shadow, colour and form – a true abstract approach.  I’m not really sure what these are or what they’re about, beyond that idea of abstract experimentation.  But I find the work interesting and have printed a couple at A3 size and hung them on the wall – just to see how my and other people’s responses develop over time.  Here are some examples.

If anyone seeing these does have any form of response (whatever it might be!) I would be interested.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Part 3 – Publishing II – Essay on Photojournalism

‘Photojournalism & the Tabloid Press’ - Karin Becker
(in “The Photography Reader” ed. Liz Wells, pub. Routledge)
Summary of basic contention & conclusion
·     That photography is not taken as seriously as it might be in western journalism – particularly in the tabloid press; verbal forms of journalism are viewed as more serious.

·     That, within the tabloid press, both the presentation of the work, and of the photographers themselves, serve to undermine the ‘seriousness’ of photography by seeming to work against standards & practices of elite journalism.

The conclusion expands on the opening statements by developing reasons for the phenomenon identified in the opening, based on the analysis in the middle section of the essay – the nature of the layouts; the nature of the photographers; the serious/emotional nature of the photographs; the lack of ‘systematic critique’; and the tendency to undermine journalistic standards.  These are the factors that mitigate against a serious attitude to photography in the tabloid press.

The development of the argument
·     Illustrated magazines, which first appeared in the mid-19th century, featured engravings that carried an ‘aura of quality and distinction’, and the first photographs that were se4en later in the century were not necessarily regarded as a true replacement.

·     The first widespread use of photographs was associated with the tabloid press between the wars and was used in a ‘sensational’ fashion to help boost circulation in a highly competitive environment.

·     That approach was associated with low journalistic standards by the daily news press who began to use photographs in a different way, developing higher production standards in their weekly supplements that were designed to ‘complement’ the regular news.

·     This early divergence of approach may partially inform later attitudes and practice.

·     Mass circulation picture magazines also developed between the wars but, at a time when photography was also making its first appearances in the art galleries, managed to combine popularity and respect, leaving the tabloids excluded on the margins.

·     Analysis of contemporary tabloids (not set out in any detail) leads to a three-way classification of their use of photographs:

§  Plain pictures of ordinary people in ordinary situations whose newsworthiness is defined in accompanying text and whose ordinariness equates then with us.

§  Photographs of celebrities, often also presented in ordinary circumstances that make them ‘just like us’; frequently in the form of performance shots i.e. their recognisable ‘public face’; and occasionally (though these images are more associated with the weekly popular press) in candid shots, caught ‘off guard’ and presented as ‘stolen images’ that might reveal a ‘higher truth’.

§  The photo of a ‘news event’, which often involve ordinary people caught up in the event; frequently have ‘technical flaws’ that seem to enhance the candour; and are accompanied with words that often transform coverage to the ‘first person’, with the photographer becoming the subject and an implication that a truth is being revealed.

·     In the tabloid press, the accompanying text framing photographs is generally more dramatic than the photographs themselves and we need to recognise that what we are seeing is the work of the tabloid editor rather than the photographer.

Comparisons with other publications
There are two main, historical, comparisons made. a) The weekly supplements, which worked to weekly (not daily) deadlines; used quality paper; raised the quality of photographic production; complemented the daily news and prevent it from being ‘degraded’; and showcased ‘good photojournalism’. b) Picture magazines, which established new genres, such as the photo essay, with formal structural properties; helped bring about the acceptance of photography as popular art; made photography both popular and respected; raised the status of the photojournalist.

The writer seems to be using these comparisons to establish that the photograph can be used in a journalistic context and still retain qualities associated with a ‘serious’ approach operating within the standards of quality journalism.  The argument would be that, if it is possible for these publications, why not the tabloid press as well.  Photography’s acceptance in these serious journalistic contexts suggests that it is not, of itself, ‘sensational’ but is rendered so by the setting/manner in which it is presented.  She is supporting her main argument by confirming that it must be something other than the inherent qualities of photography that leads to it being taken less seriously in the tabloids.

Overall assessment of the article and the argument presented
This is, on the face of it, a coherent and well-structured argument, supported, apparently, by ‘evidence’ and ‘analysis’.  The notes at the end indicate that this is a shortened version of a paper presented at a seminar.  The sections beginning with ‘The contemporary domain of the tabloid’ are where she develops the ‘evidence’ and performs the ‘analysis’.  Whether or not the original version of the paper contained more information about her approach, we don’t know – but on page 297, the article refers to “The present investigation found ...”.  We have no information about how many tabloids were studied; how she approached the research; what formal analysis was undertaken; and so on.  Without that information, one could dispute the descriptive nature of what follows in her commentary on the use of photos in tabloids and the categorisation of the images.  Since that forms the evidential basis for supporting her article, one could say the whole conclusion is flawed.  That said, if we work on the assumption that this is an academic piece, which has been subjected, at some point, to adequately rigorous interrogation/qualification, then we can follow and support the basic structure of the argument.

Karin Becker, the ‘Photography Reader’ tells me, is Professor of Visual Culture Studies at the College of Art, Crafts and Design, Stockholm, Sweden, and is on the Journalism, Media and Communication Faculty.  She expresses thanks, in the notes, to nine people who have supplied her with examples of tabloids from USA, England, Australia, Austria, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  In another note, she acknowledges some national/cultural differences of style between tabloids in the countries studied.  Once again, the indications are that this is a serious piece of work, conducted by an experienced academic, working in her field of specialisation; and one would be led to accept her argument on that basis.  But, as with the Berger essay earlier in the course, I do find myself reflecting on the extent to which ‘values’ seem to be present in critical writing on photography, even when they’re not stated.  Her opening statements make some bold ‘claims’ about the inferior (my word) position of photography in the world of serious journalism.  Even if that were true in 1990 (and perhaps other commentators my start from a different viewpoint), is it true today?  Although she makes some comparisons with other publications and their use of photographs, there is no indication that she has undertaken the same analysis of photographs in the ‘serious’ daily press as that undertaken in the tabloids.

If, as I do, one approaches an essay such as this from the viewpoint of concerns and issues with the standards and values of tabloid press, one is likely to be inclined to accept the logic of Becker’s argument and support it.  If it were being read by a tabloid editor, he/she might well question the quality of the research, the assumptions and values behind the analysis, the motivation and interests of the writer, and so on.  He/she might well conclude that this is just another overpaid and underemployed academic making a lot of noise about something that is none of their business and which they don’t really understand! (Presumably accompanied by a series of ordinary-looking photographs of Becker, each captioned and headlined in a suitably sensational manner!)

So I find myself, as with the Berger essay, concluding that much learned writing on photography – perhaps on visual culture in general – is ‘value-led’.  If it is well-informed, well-structured, well-written and open in its values, then it can still be valid, relevant, interesting and perfectly acceptable.  But the ‘slipperiness’ of the world of the creative arts does take some getting used to!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Back to Assignment Three – a theoretical context

My reflections on Assignment Three included an open-ended question about the theoretical context of my video output.  In my reflections, I did, briefly, compare what I was doing in my short, two-minute piece, with the music video and with the world of advertising.  In reading the final chapter of "Visual Culture" by Richard Howells & Joaquim Negreiros, which discusses New Media and explores what visual texts within that ‘new’ context might genuinely be regarded as new visual media as opposed to new methods of delivery, I have found some useful discussion around the ‘music video’.  Howells & Negreiros do conclude that this form “... is a new addition to visual culture”.  Without going through all of their justification, it is worth exploring in outline because it does, from a number of angles, confirm a kind of theoretical context for the piece of work that I have produced.
They refer to work by Andrew Goodwin on the theory of the music video, including specific reference to his "Dancing in the Distraction Factory".  I don’t have the time or inclination to go back to that source just now, so what follows picks up their representation of Goodwin and all quotes are from their book.
  • Goodwin refers to putting pictures to music as ‘synaesthesia’ and says that it is something composers and audiences do mentally.
  • Music video (like television) takes its fundamental vocabulary from film.  Howells & Negreiros suggest, specifically, that music video (and also the TV advertisement), by “... making great use of editing”, is referring to the ‘montage’ techniques advocated by Sergei Eisenstein (again, no time here/now to explore that further – but accepting the secondary source).
  • Goodwin argues that music video derives its structure from the song it illustrates and takes its tempo and cutting themes from the music, with which it must be in visual sympathy.
  • A narrative, such as it is, is frequently fractured and “... lacking in both linear and temporal development”.  The viewer makes sense of it within “... the conventions and culture of pop”.
  • Although the music provides the structure, “... new meanings can be created by the confluence and juxtaposition of images.  Montage theory, it seems, may help explain the music video and not just the music alone”.
  • Howells & Negreiros use the Aerosmith music video ‘I don’t want to miss a thing’, which is also associated with the film ‘Armageddon’ (USA 1998), as a case study.  They conclude that, in this music video, “... we are perpetually aware that what we are watching is a formal construct that draws attention to its own artifice”, and note that “... the narrative ... is deeply and repeatedly fractured”.
  • A pop music video, they suggest, “... is more likely to visualise the form rather than the content ...” (of the music).  They compare it with abstract painting, where an image can communicate its own meaning regardless of references to conventional narrative or the physical world.
  • This takes us back to Eisenstein’s ‘montage’ theory and a meaning derived over and above individual references to narrative associated with individual shots/images – “... meaning is suggested rather than stated”.
  • They refer to the term ‘video’ and note that viewers understand this as a type of text rather than simply as a means of delivery.  Hence the ‘music video’ as a new addition to visual culture. (I wonder whether, in the days of YouTube etc, it would be more appropriate to consider the wider concept of the ‘video’, as an addition to visual culture, rather than focusing on the specific – the ‘music video’?)
  • They also refer to the ‘iconology’ of the music video – “... the relatively short running time suggests that every aspect of the music video must be considered in detail if the maximum meaning is to be condensed into only a few minutes”.
  • In reflecting on the semiotics of the music video, they remind us that “... the music video is essentially an advertisement ...”.  “As with other forms of advertising, the perceived and actual values of the product might be far from identical”.

So, considering that background, what conclusions and additional reflections can I derive in relation to my ‘Paris Photo 2012’?
  • It might best be described as a ‘montage’ of still images and sounds, fused together in a manner intended to imply meaning to the viewer over and above the individual content of the images or elements of the soundtrack.  Suggestions of narrative and references to specifics in the words, music or sequence of images are, in the main, subsidiary to the over all meaning that I hope to develop in the viewers’ responses.
  • Viewer response (in the context of my intended meaning) does require reference, in reading my ‘visual text’, to other outside factors e.g. some knowledge of the art world; some cultural awareness of ‘the market’; some knowledge of French; and so on.
  • When the soundtrack comprises music, that does drive the rhythm and structure of the visuals; but that may not be the case when the soundtrack is speech.  And the overall ‘form’, because it is a fusion, is my own construct.
  • But it is fair to say that this form is carefully structured to achieve my intended meaning and to ensure that all opportunities to derive meaning are fully utilised within a short 2-2.5 minute timespan.
  • It is probably also fair to say that, like the abstract painting, it is the ‘form’ that is this ‘montage’ through which meaning is derived.

There, I feel happier now!  I have found a cultural theoretical context for my video; and it does fit well with my earlier observation that I felt I was working in a manner most closely allied to advertising and the music video.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Paris Exhibitions – Belated Notes

Assignment Three has gone off to my tutor; I have caught up with the reading/writing exercise on photojournalism; now my last bit of catching up is to blog some notes on the exhibitions I visited in Paris.  Embarrassingly, that was way back in mid-November!  I did write up notes by hand immediately after the events, but I just haven’t got round to transposing them and blogging in here.  Time to put that right!

Le Bal Gallery - Paul Graham – ‘Beyond Caring’ & ‘The Present’

It’s worth mentioning the gallery itself, first of all.  It is at the site of a former dance hall/ballroom – hence the name – in Montmartre.  There’s a book shop, cafe, and some good exhibition spaces – smallish rooms at ground floor level and then a big space downstairs where the ballroom was.  Dedicated to photography and worth a visit.  There were two Paul Graham sets on show.

Beyond Caring – These are Graham’s images from DHSS offices in the mid-80s.

It’s hard to escape the political angle with these – for those of us who recall that era.  But. Setting that to one side, one observes the use of colour for ‘serious’ documentary photography images – not that common even in the mid-eighties. (Though I do seem to recall these photographs making it into the colour supplements at the time.)  As one would expect, the clothes etc are indicative of the time, but the themes are timeless.  Literally so, in the sense that the images depict waiting, wasting, emptiness, boredom, pointlessness.  They were shot surreptitiously, of course.  We get that sometimes, from the angle of the shot.  It does leave a bit of a sense that we’re eavesdropping.  And, at the time, it did lead me to compare this version of the surreptitious with, say, Bruce Gilden’s ‘in your face’ street shots.  I didn’t enjoy the latter but I mind Graham’s images much less.  ‘Beyond Caring’ is about the people and the situation they (and millions of others) were in.  Gilden’s approach, I felt, was about him.  Despite the colour, these do portray the drabness and the pointlessness – confirmation that gritty documentary doesn’t have to be in black & white.  In fact, if these were mono, they would feel separate, of another time – to me anyway.

The Present – And speaking of ‘another time’, these images are bang up to date – Graham’s relatively recent work from the streets of New York.  Pairs (and occasionally trios) of images made in the same location and separated by just a few seconds.

We see time shift on, slightly, from one fleeting moment to another.  Exquisitely printed and very large, they create a sense of being there, in the scene, but also, inevitably, a feeling of serious intent on the part of the artists.  The size, formality and pairings invite you to look closely and consider thoroughly.  The exhibition notes refer to ‘The extraordinary from the ordinary’ but I’m not so sure I agree with that.  It’s the monumental size and the pairings that are ‘extraordinary’, not the subject or content.  I would prefer to say that the images express the significance of the ordinary – but that it remains ordinary.  I like the undermining (for me) of the ‘decisive moment’.  Here are two, sometimes three, decisive moments presented one after the other, each no more or less significant than the other.  The exhibition worked well in this space, which was big enough to let you choose your own perspective – step back or step in, either worked well.  Certainly it worked better than the big Thomas Struth prints that I saw at the Whitechapel Gallery eighteen months ago.  For one thing the prints were much better, but also the scale was right for the images.

Maison EuropĂ©enne de la Photographie – ‘La Photographie en France, 1950-2000

Perhaps a bit of a misnomer, this, in that there were plenty of photographs from non-French photographers and plenty taken outside France, but it would be churlish to dwell on that.  Actually, it was a real ‘tour de force’ and impossible to encapsulate in a brief note.  Let’s start with the scale.  In what is an excellent building, devoted entirely to photography, this exhibition occupied 2 floors, with 2 landings on each floor, and multiples rooms/spaces on each landing – literally hundreds of images.

From 1950’s art photography and advertising images, through photography that questioned its own art credentials, to documentary, it spanned all genres.  Yes, eclectic and occasionally superficial, it was, though, well-presented, not overly curated/labelled, and a really interesting couple of hours.  There were four other, smaller exhibitions in the same building, but I didn’t have to take those in.  This is a place to visit again.

Jeu de Paume - ‘A Photographer on the Watch, 1902-2002’ – Manuel Alvarez Bravo

There were around 150 prints of Bravo’s work on show – mainly from c1926 to c 1945, but with a few examples of later work, including colour polaroids and 8mm film footage.  Having seen a Cartier Bresson retrospective at the National Media Museum a few years ago, comparison between the two is inevitable.  The similarities of formal qualities, in particular, is clear – as is the influence of Weston, the surrealists, and apparently, constructivism.  The exhibition certainly showed off an emphasis on observation (hence the title) – of form, abstract shape, tricks of the eye, conceptual opportunities and of the extraordinary possibilities in ordinary life.  As well as the beautiful tonal qualities that one associates with photographers from this period, I was definitely struck by the formal and the abstraction especially – which, of course, compares directly with Cartier Bresson.  In fact, the work seemed almost more poetic and personal in comparison to C-B’s intellectual approach, I would say.  The accompanying notes refer to his watchful process – setting up the camera and waiting for something to happen – and the work is watchful, even a touch voyeuristic at times such as the dead or the sleeping.

Jeu de Paume – ‘Between’ – Muntades

I went into this exhibition ‘blind’.  I have to admit that I had never heard of Antoni Muntades and had no idea what he does/did when I walked into this part of the gallery.  I now know that he is a Spanish artist of some repute, who specialises in installations using all manner of media - more here.  As such, presenting his work in a gallery becomes a bit of a challenge.  I would say that some of it worked in this context and some didn’t.  But I admit that it might have meant more if I’d known more myself beforehand!  I certainly enjoyed the simply subversive nature of his work, such as a series of plaques surreptitiously erected to commemorate urban planning disasters.
It’s also interesting to record my own, ‘innocent’ response to the first piece of work on display.  It’s called ‘On Translation: the warning’; and in the Jeu de Paume exhibition were a series of posters and leaflets in different languages, with photographs of where the posters were posted, so to speak.  They all read (English version) – ‘Warning: Perception require involvement’.  First thing to say – I liked that; its simplicity & then the potential it has to really make you reflect.  But because I had come to the exhibition ‘blind’, as I put it, I found myself wondering whether this installation had actually happened or whether the ‘art’ was the creation of these photographs and leaflets etc suggesting that it had!  The installations were real, I now know, but my own response demonstrates how the study of contemporary art plays with one’s perceptions of reality and truth.

Assignment Three - submission & reflections

Assignment Three went off to my tutor on Friday.  The previous posts in here chart its progress adequately, but I'm copying into here the Reflections that I included with my assignment notes, for completeness.

As an exercise in planning & implementing coverage of an event, it has been a useful learning experience.

  • It has been much more open-ended than a professional assignment – in terms of both the brief and the timescale – which has both pro’s and cons. Certainly, I suspect it’s the reason this assignment seems to have dragged on over a few months.
  • Ending up exploring a whole series of potential outcomes from the work is a useful piece of learning, too. It brings home the fact that there can be all sorts of ways to make use of a set of images, but also to interpret and present a particular event.
  • Editing and selection is, I suspect, one of the key learning outcomes from this assignment.  I have performed a 140/100/30/13 process, which I don’t seem to have found particularly difficult.  I’m reasonably happy with the nature of the choices I’ve made.  I am, still, a touch critical of the images I’ve produced.  The ‘30’ group would, I think, be a reasonably sound and solid set to present to a picture editor – but I wouldn’t put it any stronger than that.  They do the job; but I am a little disappointed that there aren’t more ‘stars’ in there.  That could well be the reason I’ve found the editing relatively easy.

Overall, I am, as I say, a little disappointed by the quality (both technical and aesthetic) of the images.  I don’t think that my handling of the camera was as smart as it might have been – probably better than using either of the other options in low light, but I did make errors of judgement.  My choice of theme was OK, but with hindsight, I could have been a little more creative in its implementation.

The video does represent my ‘take’ on the event, and is the most technically challenging of the various outcomes.  I do think that my combination of the Paris Photo images with other elements – different sounds, additional photos etc – has made for an interesting and effective presentation that succeeds in presenting my main theme.  In the context of this course and its objective of achieving professional standards of output, I am a little doubtful.  I have used free software and simple/consumer editing processes and effects; and I wonder whether the result, whilst effective, is a touch amateurish and lacking sophistication.

I am also conscious that I have not particularly conducted this assignment within a clear ‘context’.  It has led to a few reflections on ‘manipulating’ the viewers’ response and the difference between achieving that with a set of still images compared with this highly edited and carefully structured audio-visual combination.  To what extent am I very obviously driving my viewer down a particular route, as opposed to presenting him/her with something stimulating and thought-provoking but less directive?  And does that matter?  I produced it with the clear intention of making a point – so perhaps that is the basis on which to judge it.  Does it make the point successfully?  But if the result lacks sophistication and subtlety, that might detract from its aesthetic qualities and artistic merit – perhaps.  I am probably too close to it to make a clear judgement – but I am also conscious that I’m unsure of the context in which I’m setting out to make that judgement.  Is there a ‘theoretical’ context for this piece?

So, overall, I emerge with mixed feelings; a sense that I have done a job and produced a satisfactory result, but with questions remaining about its overall merit and just what I have achieved through it.