Thursday, 23 May 2013

Assignment Four: a critical review (plus some “angst”)

I completed this assignment yesterday and submitted it to my tutor.  I’ve been very focused on that over the last month – together with work and family commitments, but I’m now taking the opportunity to reflect on the assignment, but also on a touch of “where am I” and “what am I doing”!

Starting with the assignment, I’ve quite enjoyed researching the still life genre and writing it up.  My title is “The still life genre is alive, well, and relevant to contemporary photographic practice”.  I think what I’ve done is interesting, in relation to current art photographic practice, and I’m broadly happy with the outcome. (Though I have to admit it’s about 10% over the word count.)

Thinking about the process, it has turned out to be more journal and internet based, in the research, than book based.  Most of all, that reflects a relative shortage of ‘serious’ written material on still life photography.  It certainly has, I suspect, in some peoples’ minds, connotations of pretty arrangements at the local camera club.  But I was focusing on “now”, which is another reason that the research was as it was.  There aren’t many books I could have consulted.  These two did feature : "Still Life in Photography" by Paul Martineau and "Stilled: contemporary still life phtography by women" - Eds. Newton & Rolph.  Gallery websites tend to produce quite a lot of good supporting material these days, of course; so I’ve also been sourcing material from National Media Museum, National Gallery, Photographers Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, to name just a few.

Essentially, the thrust of my Critical Review essay is that, despite having been seen as a ‘lesser’ genre than, say documentary or landscape, still life thrives and is, if anything, seeing a revival amongst contemporary photographic artists.  I’ve also sought to demonstrate that this is not so unusual or surprising.  The Dutch still life painters experimented with symbolism at a time when the reformed church condemned idolatry.  The early photographers experimented with still life, not least because it stayed still long enough for their long exposures.  The surrealists experimented with still life and collage as they explored the medium’s creative possibilities.  So, today, when the growth of digital and web-based imagery calls into question the whole notion of what a photograph is, no great surprise that many take to their studios and explore that very issue.

My essay makes reference to three artists in particular – Laura Letinsky, Ori Gersht and Lucas Blalock.  I’ve presented Blalock as a ‘typical’ example of a ‘younger’ contemporary photographer – but there are plenty of others.  He is the interviewer in an Aperture article featuring Jeff Wall.  There seems to be a degree of tension (perhaps a bit too strong a word) between Blalock & peers and the previous generation, such as Wall, Gursky etc.  Wall suggests that Blalock’s work demonstrates a degree of “angst”.  Now, I’m picking up on that word.  It’s something I feel I can relate to.

I’ve written in here before about the attraction of doing some conceptual still life work, and have even done one or two tentative experiments.  Researching and writing the essay hasn’t lessened that interest.  When I read about Blalock and others, I feel some affinity with what they’re doing – this video of Blalock and his "99c store still lifes", for example.  I do, genuinely, find the ‘intellectualising’ and ‘theorising’ interesting, too (feels like a confessional!).

But then, another side kicks in and asks the question “Am I in danger of disappearing up my own a***, with too much analysis and soul searching?”  There is a bit of me wonders if it’s really ‘copping out’.  Get out there and make some proper pictures, Stan!!  Push yourself into some documentary work; find some people subjects; get in touch with the real world; and various other such thoughts!

Assignment Five beckons; and it is going to force me to face up to this dilemma.  The brief, in the course notes, is very much directed towards photojournalism.  It is, essentially, about photographing an event and seeking to ‘market’ the outcome to publications and organisations.  It is a direction that goes totally against the grain of where I am just now (not the marketing bit, by the way, OK with that).

Part Five of the course is titled ‘Professional standards’, which is a wholly desirable topic and an area where I definitely have some developing to do.  But do I want to pursue it by covering some local event and marketing my photos to the local press or magazines?  I don’t.  But – would it actually be of more benefit to me if I did stick to the brief and make myself do it?  Yes, it’s been done countless times before by others and I may come away frustrated that I’m not doing something original or something that excites me – but that might do me good!

I can’t resolve this at the moment, but I’m going to have to if I want to keep up the momentum. I feel the “angst”!!

[Actually, I do have an idea washing around that might possibly get me out of it; though it isn’t an easy one and might be a step too far.  What if I produced a series of images about an ‘event’ without actually being there??]


  1. I think curating a set of pictures of an event could be rather an interesting way to do the assignment - and a comment/reflection on contemporary practice. There have been a number of discussions recently reflecting that a photojournalist's role now is not limited to attending events and taking pictures. I understand that the BBC employs 20 people to search sites such as YouTube for good footage of news events, and to check and verify their reliability.

  2. Thanks for the supportive view, Eileen; I'm reflecting & discussing with my tutor. Part of me feels it might do me more good to get out and take some photographs rather than researching in front of the PC!! But, yes, you've picked up the drift of my thinking - a comment on contemporary practice.