Tuesday, 5 August 2014


Well, the results came through recently and I was over the moon with both my mark and feedback for this module. I received 83% for PWDP which is my highest mark for any of the OCA modules so far. Of course, it's all about development with any degree programme but I can't help but feel elated anyway. The assessor feedback was very encouraging, stating that I was highly creative and had a strong sense of voice. My ability to analyse and research was praised and my academic ability was also noted as strong - phew! the academic side (particularly the critical essay) was something I worried about and struggled with for ages.

Anyway, as usual I am already working on my next module. I had originally planned to take the 2nd level Landscape course but changed my mind. I think Gesture and Meaning is more suited to my style of work and interests. The link is here:

a partial moment

Saturday, 14 June 2014


This final, reflective, post is an attempt to signpost the learning points that I have covered throughout the course. In completing this module I have developed and strengthened a way of expressing my photographic voice. I now realise that through the use of staged images and everyday found objects/scenes I can create complex scenarios and narratives that explore my ideas and emotions. Using this narrative technique I place my work in context of other photographers such as Christina De Middel. Assignments 1, 3, and 5, strongly reflect my personal approach to investigation of an archive or memory through narrative storytelling.

I've learnt how to approach a project more systematically by gathering material from the historical archive in order to thoroughly research a subject. The sourced information provides a thinking space to explore ideas and more importantly jumping off points for photographic projects. I used this technique after prompting from my tutor to 'dig deeper' on assignment 1. The research into the local history archive certainly proved fruitful in inspiring me to move my project further. I think that the revised work for assignment 1 is much stronger than my initial output. My notes on the revised project can be read here.

I've spent some time looking at practitioners that investigate hidden histories and archives. E.J. BellocqWilliam E Jones and Nicky Bird have either created secret archives or re-interpreted existing ones - sometimes making new work in response. I've learnt through reading Keith Jenkins that history is only an interpretation of sources by historians and as such can be open to cultural and political bias.  This has helped to strengthen my approach when reading and analysing critical texts. I've learnt how to consider both the bias of the writer and to weigh up both sides of an argument. Here I've analysed an essay on photography.

I continue to try and pre-visualise my work and often sketch out a rough shooting script for my projects. This is something that my tutor has encouraged me to keep up and the sketches for some of my assignment work can be seen here.

I learnt how to take into consideration the use of text and fonts from a design perspective. I learnt how to make magazine spreads for commercial use to a professional standard here.

I've visited a number of galleries both on official OCA study days and by myself. I have tried to review the exhibitions and reflected on how the work made me feel and if I was inspired to make any work in response. Home Truths & Omer Fast.

Looking back on this years work I can see that I have moved a long way, both creatively and academically. I feel confident about moving forward although I know that I still have a lot to learn and, in particular, I want to get a much better understanding of the language of visual culture and how this influences contemporary photography today.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Assessment Preparation

I've spent most of the last month preparing for assessment. Pulling together all the work from the module and presenting it in a coherent and easily navigable manner is a crucial final step - one that shouldn't be taken lightly. I had a phone chat with my tutor, Keith Roberts, about my presentation plans and I explained my approach. I want to make envelopes from thick tracing paper for each of the assignment's printed output. The reasoning for this is because of the different sized formats that I used over the course of the module. They would all rattle around inside a portfolio box big enough for the largest piece of work (A3). I had two different sized photo-books for assignments 1 & 5; an A4 printed image for my assignment 2 book cover, assignment 3, as mentioned, is printed on A3 sized photo paper. Hopefully the envelopes would help to pull the visual look of the presentation together.

To accompany each envelope is a wire-bound A4 binder containing my essays, original images sent to my tutor, the tutor feedback, my response, and notes and sketches for each assignment.

The whole lot was to go into a bespoke portfolio box to keep everything held in place but I was cautioned against overworking the presentation. This is good advice (I tend to tinker far too much) along with the caution to not present with material that looks like it came out of Rymans. I guess it is up to me to decide where on the spectrum my presentation will sit.

I ditched the bespoke portfolio box idea and the separate envelopes and binders will now be packaged up securely in bubble wrap and boxed for transit by courier. I'm not sure how assessment material is dealt with exactly but I'm hoping that an assessor will find all my materials laid out neatly on a table rather than having to unpack it all themselves.

I had a few false starts with the making of the envelopes but once I got into the swing of it they didn't take too long.

Each envelope and binder has a matching Polaroid indicating it's number.

I'd bought a wire binding machine earlier in the year for making these binders. All the material for each assignment is neatly held together and hopefully will be easy for the assessor to navigate. The black covers match my physical learning log which will also be submitted.

Print outs and notes from my learning log. I've also put small numbered tabs against pages which directly relate to assignments.

There is also a small navigation card to direct the assessor through the presentation and providing the URL for my blog. The fourth assignment is the critical review and the final revised version has a clear facing cover to visually connect with the opaque envelopes.

Seeing it all laid out on the table it looks quite simple and not over fussy. This is the overall look that I'd planned for. The sheer amount of work that is contained in those binders and envelopes (not to mention my blog) is quite staggering now I think back on it. I've found working at level 2 quite a jump. It was worth it though. I've really enjoyed working on this module and the help from my tutor has been exceptional. I really hope I've managed to find a path through the pitfalls and avoided overworking the presentation - time will tell.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Berenice Abbott

I've been reading about the photographer Berenice Abbott and looking at examples of her body of work. I knew about her place in photographic history as the rescuer of the Atget archive but not much else. The two books I've managed to obtain give some very good examples of a number of portraits from her time in Paris and documenting the changing face of 1930s New York City. 
The two sets of work, to me, seem quite different in style. When Abbott was in Paris she was well established, had exhibited her portraiture alongside Man Ray and Kertesz, and many famous people sat for her. The portraits do look very much of their time - quite formal. There is also an air of theatricality to them. This is probably due to the 1920s Bohemian culture in Paris at that time. As with any portrait, particularly of famous people, there is a need for the sitter to project a persona and, in Abbott's images, some very strong personalities appear to gaze back at the viewer. There is also a Modernist element creeping in with very strong shapes made by the pose, limbs, elements of the background, etc.

Julia Van Haaften, in the introduction to the book "Masters of Photography," makes a statement that is confusing to me:

Abbott permitted each personality she photographed to project outward to the viewer. Even in the studio, where a photographic artist has the most opportunity for manipulatory control, Abbott preferred realism to guide her style." (Van Haaften, 1997).

I don't really see how a famous person projecting an 'idea of themselves' for the camera, for that is all they are doing, can be called 'realism.' But, to be honest this is an issue I have with portraiture in general and probably why I sometimes crop the heads off my portraits. But, even putting the issue of projection aside, how can a staged portrait in a studio with lights and pose and composition be described as a realistic style?

Abbott eventually left Paris, closed her portrait studio, and returned to her homeland in America to set herself up in New York. She had become enamoured by the buzz in the city at that time. As neighbourhoods were torn down to make way for ever more skyscrapers Abbott hoped to make a body of work in the same way that Atget did for Paris. Abbott set up her portrait studio in the city and in her spare time would meticulously plan every element of her New York City project. As it happens, the portrait business never achieved anywhere near the success it had in Paris. Abbott had a lot of spare time on her hands (I find her lack of success with portraiture in America intriguing and the reasons are not really given in the two books that I've read so far.) Although Abbott was known to be quite scornful of the likes of the Modernists, Alfred Steiglitz, his contemporaries and proteges, who dominated the photographic art scene in New York during her crucial decades there.

Abbott's New York city work is, to my mind, easily some of the best images of the city I have seen. When I look at her work I can see the influence of Atget in some of the close-up street scenes particularly when depicting store front reflections in glass. I can also see a Modernist influence that reminds me of Rodchenko with tilted verticals on buildings or roads to create strong diagonals in her compositions. In amongst these there are also what could be called 'straight' scenes that reflect her 'realistic' approach too. From the perspective of the 2010s Abbott's work screams 'machine-age Modern'.

Again, I come back to the perplexing notion of Abbott's claim to a realistic approach to photography. It is interesting how many different perceptions of an image there can be. It is so true that once an image is made and released into the public domain the photographer's intent can no longer be the only deciding factor in its analysis. Atget himself was held in high regard by Man Ray and the Surrealists in Paris even though he claimed himself to be a maker of 'documents'. Is Abbott consciously or unconsciously taking the same artistic stance? I'd also be interested to know why Abbott has ended up in New York so vehemently opposed to the Modernists. After all didn't the American style grow out of the early Avant Garde and Surrealist movement in Europe? Abbott was close to Man Ray and his circle of friends during this time. How did she come to turn away from all that these styles represented in favour of realism? Maybe I am missing something or have misunderstood an element of the history of photographic art culture. I have ordered a biography of Abbott in the hope that it will pin down and explain some of my questions.

There is also the question of Abbott's sexuality, her life-long partner Elizabeth McCausland and her left-wing politics. I obtained most of this information from internet searches as both books are pretty sparse in regards to these areas. As a member of a minority and an 'other' I think it is pretty important that these aspects of Abbott's life are analysed in relation to her influences in her work. They may shed some light as to why she was always on the outside of the artistic establishment and rarely ever received a paid photographic commission in America - was Abbott and McCausland too Out? Too Lefty for the establishment?


Van Haaften, J. (1997) Abbot, B. (1997) Berenice Abbott: Masters of Photography. London, UK: Aperture Foundation Inc. UK, Robert Hale Ltd.

Abbott, B. (2010) Berenice Abbott: Photofile. London, UK: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

E J Bellocq - The Storyville Portraits

The Storyville Portraits are a fascinating insight into the world of New Orleans prostitution in the early 1900s. The Storyville district was designated as a legalised area for 'whorehouses' as they were usually called. A place where sex workers were gathered together usually with a madam in control of the house and earnings. The term 'whorehouses' sounds quaint to my ears and conjures up images of gaudy, tasselled, interiors with cushions and silk scarves draped over table lamps - in other words, the scenes usually depicted in TV and film. Storyville survived for about twenty years contributing much wealth to the local economy. Eventually, changing public morality and the US Navy (stationed nearby and preparing itself for the First World War) began to campaign for legalised prostitution in the district to be shutdown.

The portraits are printed from around 89 glass plate negatives discovered decades after the death of the photographer, E J Bellocq. They had mostly been kept secret and shown only to a few close friends until the plates were discovered in the drawer of a desk belonging to Bellocq. Photographer, Lee Friedlander, bought the plates from a local art dealer and printed up many of the negatives onto gold tone printing out paper. The images were finally exhibited for the world to see in the 1970s at the Museum of Modern Art. The portraits comprise of women posed nude, partly and fully clothed, or sometimes naked except for facial masks. The backgrounds are usually bedrooms or parlours (now mostly attributed to Lulu White's Mahogany Hall). The interiors are just like I imagined them to be - patterned rugs, pictures in heavy frames, fancy wallpaper and carved mirrors over mantelpieces. I can only guess at the rich colours of the interiors.

What is intriguing about the images is the relaxed manner in which the subjects pose for the camera. They lean against furniture, recline on couches or stand on temporary backdrops and appear to be completely at ease with the photographer. Bellocq was known to be a frequent visitor to the Storyville brothels although (according to the testament of one of the surviving women) apparently never for sex. It has been suggested that the images may have been intended for commercial use in one of the "Blue Books" that were in circulation at the time - a sort of directory of Storyville brothels and their occupants. This has never been proven though and the images remained hidden until after Bellocq's death.

An added mystery to the Storyville portraits is that some of the faces of the women have been scratched out. Stories had arisen that Bellocq's brother, a Jesuit priest, had done this upon finding the plates. But, if done for reasons of morality, then why scratch the faces and not the naked body? Had one of the women themselves scratched them to obscure their identity at a later stage in their life? Friedlander claims that tests on the plates show that the scratching must have occurred when they were still wet. But, how rigorous in his testing method was Friedlander? His claims could be just one of many that surround the Storyville portraits and, over time, have proven to be incorrect. Did Bellocq scratch the plates for jealous reasons? Had he quarrelled with one of the women?  One of them is featured both scratched and untouched on different plates and for me the logical conclusion is that at some point in time a "selection" of the plates were discovered and scratched for whatever reason - by persons unknown. Maybe even someone connected to Bellocq in a less melodramatic manner than his religious brother; A housekeeper? I guess we will never know the answer to the scratching but it does raise again the issue of the representation of women in photography. For now though the mystery and intrigue around the Storyville portraits remains intact and somehow adds to their allure.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Re-thinking History - Keith Jenkins

This book was recommended to me by my tutor in his feedback for assignment 4 - the critical essay. It has been a fascinating read. The author reminds us that 'the past' and 'history' are different things. He wants the reader to see history:

"as a 'Field of Force'; a series of ways of organising the past by and for interested parties which always comes from somewhere and for some purpose and which, in their direction, would like to carry you with them." Jenkins, (1991).

In other words history is just an interpretation of the past by someone (usually historians) who, despite their attempts to remain objective, will be unable to set aside all sorts of political, cultural, and emotional baggage. This baggage will affect the way that they review and interpret facts about the past. Ultimately there is no one 'true' objective history - just lots of people/cultures constructing their own histories for their own reasons at different times. In most cultures there is also usually one 'dominant history' that interested parties attempt to place as the 'natural' history of a people/society and one that will squash all other attempts to assert smaller, more 'marginalised histories'. The reasons for this are usually political and in an attempt to retain power.

I'm reminded of that saying by Winston Churchill, 'History is written by the Victors.' I'm also reminded how easily our nation forgets that before WWII there was a significant anti-Jewish sentiment in the country and that national newspapers like the Daily Mail openly advocated Fascism. Now that we are on the other side of the war those unpalatable views are subsumed into the national consciousness and forgotten about. I wonder how the interested parties at that time went about using history to legitimise their own views.

From a more current perspective the book is very relevant to my essay on gender representation. My essay deals with the attempt by women photographers to write their own feminist history and assert themselves in a patriarchal society. I've made quite a few notes from this book to make some changes to my essay.


Jenkins, K. (2003) Re-Thinking History. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge Classics. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Ruud Van Empel - Photoworks 1995 - 2010

Ruud Van Empel is a photographer that works exclusively with Photo montage. His compositions are constructed from all sorts of items that have been isolated, photographed, perfected, and finally constructed into a themed image. His earlier works such as 'The Office' series portrayed people sitting behind their desks, surrounded by over sized accouterments of their trade. The series depicts groupings such as a photographer with a collection of flash bulb reflector dishes, or a haberdasher, with fabric templates and buttons on the walls.

There is an orderliness and neatness to the compositions, A theme that has progressed into other works.

'Study for Women' is a collection where the subjects begin to look strange. This is because not only the objects are montages but the people too. Van Empel has photographed his models in the studio -  taking an arm, a leg, the eyes, nose, from different subjects. Van Empel uses extensive Photoshop techniques to perfect the look of his subjects. The women appear to be posed and look vulnerable. There is an air of menace. They look directly into the (non-existent) lens as if awaiting an instruction from a fashion shoot photographer. They remind me of video game characters - empty and compliant. There is also a Shermanesque quality to them. These are types - in different clothes, settings, scenarios.

The strangeness continues in 'Study in Green.' This time the scenes are of a woodland setting thick with trees and dark shadows - all constructed from separate elements. The subjects are children with disturbing, mask-like, porcelain faces. According to The Guardian revue of the work. The children are 'Dressed in Dutch middle-class attire from the 1960s'. They look vulnerable in settings that are highly atmospheric with a dreamlike density to the images.

In the series, 'World/Moon' I am reminded of the fantastic junglescapes of the painter Henri Rousseau. Black children dressed in immaculate formal attire stand amongst exotic palms, trees, or are half submerged in lily-pad covered ponds. Most of the images are large and appear to bonded to some sort of acrylic material that gives them a luxurious gloss effect.

 'A perfect tropical paradise in the style of magic realism,' states the Guardian. And continues the revue with the author's words:

'To make something with beauty. Beauty has been taboo in art for such a long time.'

When I read this comment it was very interesting to me. It chimes with something photographers Tom Hunter and Jason Evans have said at talks I've attended recently. Is there a growing backlash developing against the more mundane works of art that have made up the bulk of conceptual art until now?

In the interview Van Empel goes on to say:

'Children are born innocent into a cruel and dangerous world. I wanted to do something with that idea. But, as an effect of the photo montage technique it ended up looking strange and frightening. I like this and decided to explore it further'.

I find my interest in constructing my own images has been growing for some time now. I've tried a number of ways of going about this, using real-life models and props, constructing sets at home, etc. My last piece of work on assignment 5 has drawn its influence partly from the photo montage technique of Van Empel. Although I've used the whole of the model in my work! I've pasted him into a number of different scenes and constructed bits of interiors or added birds to certain images using Photoshop.

I like the idea of putting together scenes that have popped into my head or from long ago memories that have significant meaning to me. Whether that will be by constructing sets, Photoshop montage or even going as far as making small scale models, like the 'Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,' by Corinne May Botz - I don't know. I am still trying to work out my thoughts on this.