Ray Bradbury on writing
As many of you know by now, I am currently studying for a BA(Hons) degree in Photography. It’s part-time so a long old course, but I am meeting and working with some very interesting and talented people along the way. During a recent student meet-up, we started discussing the idea of ‘liking’ a photograph. Our course leader had previously, and light-heartedly, banned the word ‘like’ from our discussion, noting that it had no relevance to a structured analysis of the potential meanings of an image. We were well aware that very few people consume photography in this way, I mean imagine if you stopped to study every image you were presented with, nothing would ever get done! The idea of ‘liking’ a picture for some reason vs. the artist’s intended and deliberate messages contained within it, is something that interests me because I occasionally run into the sometime conflict between them. I have to say that it still frustrates me, although I am getting better at appreciating where my influence ends and the viewer’s ‘ownership’ of the interpretation begins.
A good example was during a recent course exercise where I had to recreate an image in particular genre (see my previous post The Importance of Method, published in March). I chose an iconic portrait by Elliott Erwitt from his book Dogs (2008). The picture had to break down the elements of the portrait and recreate them in new composition.
The main difference between the original and my shot was the reworking of the ‘American-ness’ of the image. Erwitt’s was shot on a New York sidewalk, which contributes to the scale relative to the dog and his owner. With the best will in the world, I couldn’t make a street in Malvern look anything like New York, so instead I changed one of the other elements; the owner’s shoes. In using my wife’s outrageous Stars and Stripes heels, I could introduce the ‘place’ without spoiling the composition. In every other respect I tried to make the image a recreation of Erwitt’s, despite it being shot with different technical approaches, technology and being separated by some 76 years. When I shared the picture around social media, the first (and most popular) reaction was to the shoes. I had messages asking who made them, where they could be bought etc, which for me missed the point. However, it was clearly what resonated with them, and I have no right to be grumpy about it. We look at a picture and we are struck by any number of elements that mean something to us. It could be a memory, or something that we are currently familiar with, or it could just simply make us smile. Whatever the thing we see, it’s as relevant as artistic analysis of composition and the reading of a picture using semiotics or other analytical tools. Analysis allows us to gain an understanding of the many connotations or meanings that an image may have. We can recognise how the photographer has included their own personal perspective on a subject, whether emotional, social or political, but fundamentally it is the viewer that develops and completes their own narrative. In my picture, I unintentionally added a new element of glamour that wasn’t in the original. The chihuahua is the same breed but looks very different and almost complements the elegance of the legs and shoes. While it’s not what I was trying to achieve, it’s interesting to hear what people see. In considering this, I was reminded of a great piece of advice that I was given by a previous tutor. He had criticised me for only researching artists whose work I ‘liked’ and disregarding those that I did not. He pointed out that this habit doesn’t lead to any kind of expansion of our understanding or appreciation of art, instead keeping us comfortable with what we know. I am definitely a creature of habit, just ask the Indian restaurant where I order the same thing every time. I started to look at artists that I wasn’t keen on and carefully studying their pictures. I was pleasantly surprised how I gained more of an appreciation and respect for their work.
What’s the big message from all this? Well, even in a world where we are surrounded by imagery 24/7, it’s only when we take some time to look at a photograph, do we derive a more enriched sense of its meaning than a casual glance affords. Clearly, we don’t want to put the rest of our lives on hold to do this, but next time you’re at a gallery, art fair or just cruising Instagram (lots of famous photographers use that platform), pause for a moment to ask yourself “What are the elements in this picture?” “Do any of them resonate with me?” and “what might this picture mean to me?”. You might not initially ‘like’ it, but you may also be surprised as you grow to appreciate it. I’d like that.
Thinking of taking up photography as a hobby? Have you bought a new camera and are stuck on Automatic? Tuition could be the way forward. My beginner’s tuition takes you through the basics of how the camera works, which mode to use, lens selection etc, all aimed at helping you take better photographs. Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.
For Elliott Erwitt’s original image https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/art/elliott-erwitt-dog-dogs/
I was watching the news recently, something I try to avoid doing for long periods these days, because of some of the truly awful things going on in the world. The ongoing news item that has taken on the name Partygate was being discussed and I found myself looking at the viral video footage of the Labour party leader drinking a beer in an office. Now, I’m not discussing the political issues at the heart of this story, whether any of the politicians broke Covid restrictions etc as that is for others to write about. What interested me about this piece of video was more about the way it was being used in the news broadcast. The video, around 30 seconds in length, shows Sir Keir Starmer standing by a window, drinking a beer. There are other people present in the room, but the video is of fairly poor quality they are more difficult to see clearly than he is. We can see their positions relative to Starmer and, apart from recording them having some form of conversation, there isn’t much else of interesting in the video. On the surface, the video shows a gathering indoors during a time where the rules in the UK stated that we couldn’t do that – this rule-breaking is the whole premise of Partygate. However, the news item made the claim that the video ‘proves that rules were being broken’. Leaving aside the politics of the news outlet, this is clearly not the case. On its own, it merely shows an event happening without context, whose legality or otherwise is the subject of an investigation. This got me thinking about how we increasingly take visuals at face value, extrapolating what we believe to be obvious when paired with a persuasive argument. I wondered how we got to this point and whether it’s a symptom of the modern age.
We’ve all heard the saying ‘the camera never lies’. This myth has its origins in the very beginnings of photography, with the early pioneers like Fox Talbot and Daguerre seeking to faithfully produce ‘drawings’ of things. In Fox Talbot’s case, he was frustrated by what he saw as his lack of drawing skill, producing early photograms of plant structures using his new photographic technique before considering the camera. Photograms involved placing a translucent subject on a piece of photo-sensitive paper and illuminating it with a light source. The light passing through (and being obscured) by the object creates an image of the structure of the object onto the paper as highlights and shadows. This idea of the photography producing accurate images was the dominant view of the art world at the time, with many disregarding the medium as being mechanical and therefore not art.
In the early 20th Century, the use of photography to record events gave birth to the ‘documentary’ genre, which is where some of the most noticeable doubts about photography’s ‘honesty’ can be seen. In the 1930’s the US Farm Security Administration embarked on a project to document the migration of farm workers from the deprived rural areas to the cities during the Great Depression. The series that was produced included works by many famous contemporary photographers, perhaps the most famous being Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. The series sought to show the US people and the states legislature that there was this huge suffering in large sections of the rural population in an effort to get them help. It’s said that the publication of the photographs and accompanying writing ultimately helped thousands of impoverished farmers. What wasn’t common knowledge at the time was that the narrative was very carefully managed. The editor, Roy Stryker, was known for his close attention to editing the pictures in such a brutal fashion that those not fitting the narrative were badly damaged using a hole punch so that they couldn’t be printed. The discovery and subsequent printing of the destroyed negatives gives us an insight into what Stryker was trying to avoid, including images of farmers smiling at the camera, children at play and compositions that showed the defiance of the poor. None of these things supported what Stryker wanted to say. The camera then, was accurately capturing what was put in front of it, but the use of the results was tailored for a target audience with a very specific message. That message wasn’t necessarily the whole truth, particularly in the case of Migrant Mother, but that didn’t matter. The camera didn’t lie, so the readers took the pictures and the accompanying narrative at Face Value.
When we think about Partygate in the context of ‘documentary’, this use of the visual being bent to suit a narrative is no longer a surprise. Starmer has been highly critical of similar behaviour on the opposing benches so, in a way to balance the argument, certain press outlets are bound to use a video like this one in their counter-argument – who wouldn’t?
Is 'face value' a modern affliction? No, of course not. Photography has been associated with the notion of truth for its whole existence, but the subversion of an idea such as the ‘perception of truth’ often creates the most interesting art (I’ll discuss the artists who inspire me in upcoming blog posts). What is a symptom of the digital age, however is the ease with which we can all ‘document’ something with our smartphones and instantly share it with the whole world. The seemingly infinite narratives that can be derived from one or more of these documents are up for grabs. In the case of the Starmer video, it offers a narrative to one side of the argument more than the other, one that suggests hypocrisy. This is why I’ve limited my consumption of the news, because it’s so easy to be taken in by a persuasive narrative that is not the whole story. Perhaps the consumption of many different news viewpoints on a subject is the way to combat the bias, but to be honest I personally find it to be anxiety-inducing and who needs that in their life? One thing is for certain, the camera is a tool who’s use in capable hands can be a little dishonest when needs be.
If you’re interested in the ‘truth’ of Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, my friend and fellow artist has posted a great telling of its story on his Youtube channel ‘Before the Shutter’:-
Similarly, the Killed Negatives exhibition mentioned can be found here:-
Finally, if you’re interested in telling your own stories, true or otherwise, through photography then why not start the journey with some tuition? My tailored beginner’s tuition will help you become familiar in the basics of photography and you’ll be shooting documentary in no time – just be careful shooting through people’s windows. Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.
A couple of months ago I started the next level of my degree course. It’s been an interesting ride so far, but the new unit promises to be much more involved creatively. In addition to this, the course is structured differently from the previous units, which I knew would present me with some issues. The main issue would be the dreaded procrastination.
When I don’t fully understand something that I have to do, I procrastinate to the extent where there have been times I just haven’t started. It’s not fear as such, but a need to completely understand the parameters that I am to work within. Once I get started on something, I usually fill in the blanks as I go along. During the first few units of the degree, I found that I would slowly make my way through the first assignments and hit my stride about halfway through the course. By the end, I would be completely comfortable with the subject just before the unit ended and the whole cycle started again. Procrastination, as Dickens put it “is a thief of time”, the main effect being that it increases pressure when we have a deadline we must meet.
It takes many forms but the main driver behind putting things off is a concern about a potential negative outcome. In my case, it’s about worrying about being on the right track or somehow ‘getting it wrong’. My most recent example was the preparation for the first assignment of this new course. The subject investigates the concepts of photographic genre and the conventions that each follows. If we consider portraiture, there are many approaches to representing our subject or model using their facial features, expression, stature, clothing etc. that are consistent across the genre. Some of these are rooted in art history, but some are unique to the medium of photography. Looking at each of the main genres involved a great deal of reading and individual research. The question that kept going through my head was ‘how much is enough?’ At what point should I draw a line under this work and write the essay that constituted Assignment 1? The answer was, of course, entirely up to me which was the main issue. Not knowing when to stop the one task and start the other led to my procrastinating. I found lots of other less important things to do and before I knew it, three weeks had gone by. It was my fellow cohort members that snapped me out of it as I was able to relate what I was doing to how they were approaching the assignment. I finally got the assignment finished and a great weight lifted from my shoulders. It’s not a pithy success story, though. I continually struggle with procrastination for the reasons mentioned earlier and I don’t have a magic bullet for avoiding it. There are a few things that I have learned recently that have helped, though. I include them here, on the off-chance that they help you in some way.
The first lesson learned was one that generally applies to people who manage their own time; having a plan. When I say plan, I’m not talking about a grand ambition like making that first million or retiring at 55. Planning in this case is merely a schedule of what to achieve during the day. In my case I have learned that progress, no matter how apparently insignificant, is still progress. If I make my objectives achievable each day, I stand a better chance of getting something done. The second was that the world is full of distractions, some positive and some not. To the procrastinator, a distraction diverts attention from both the task and the worry related to it. It’s easier to avoid something challenging by cleaning that camera/reading the news/looking at that funny cat video on Instagram. Most of us carry around a device packed with distractions which we find difficult to ignore. The same distraction issue occurs with people, who can easily derail the plan for the day without knowing it. I still need to be better at saying ‘no’, even if the distraction is a potentially enjoyable or interesting one. The final lesson was to stop worrying about failing. In the creative world, it doesn’t matter if that internet pedant corrects you or someone trolls your work when they don’t like it. The fear of people hating what we do almost paralyses us from a productivity perspective. Remembering that we do it for ourselves helps quash that anxiety, even if it doesn’t completely go away.
All easier said than done and for me, definitely work-in-progress. My advice would be to plan small objectives and don’t forget to reflect on anything you achieve, turn off your phone and practice the ‘can we do that some other time?’ smile. Definitely don’t read ‘the comments’ if you do stray onto social media. I am committing to doing these things from now on…or will that be next week? Who can tell…
If you’ve been procrastinating about getting to know that new (or new to you) camera, why consider some beginners’ tuition? There is everything you need to get started, the key is just…well, you know. Check out the Tuition tab on this site or drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.
When I was a kid, one of my favourite subjects at school was physics. There was something about the need to be able to explain the tiniest physical actions, cause and effect, transfer of energy etc that appealed to me. More importantly, we had the chance to try things out to test a theory or demonstrate learning. Thing is, the experiments weren’t just random ‘playtime’, they had a system or method to them. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but what might do is the realisation that in photographic art, the same is true.
I’m not talking about the technical here, but instead exploring a creative idea within some form of structure.
I first learned this lesson in 2020 when I had a university assignment to complete which was about ‘photographing the unseen’. I essentially had to create narratives using contextual elements rather than including the actual subject of the story. My idea was to include pictures and text to describe the random, often bizarre thoughts that people have immediately after they suffer a trauma of some kind. I’d asked friends and family to contribute the thoughts as they remembered them, but planned to leave out their descriptions of the trauma itself in order to let the viewer make up their own mind. Emboldened with my idea, I went out looking for subjects and scenes to shoot and that was when the trouble started. Wandering around with a camera looking for inspiration is, it turns out, very stressful. The more you try to will a picture into existence, the harder and more frustrating it gets. This also has the effect of making you lose concentration when it comes to looking at a scene, which is kind of important in photography. When a close deadline was added to the mix, it all got a bit messy. With perseverance, I eventually managed to create the series and discussed my problems with my tutor. She pointed out that having a plan, far from being restrictive to the creative process, actually helps take care of the practical logistics. If you can plan these, there is less pressure on the creative phase of making the work. She told me of a wonderful series called Geolocation (2007), where artists Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman took a number of very emotional tweets from Twitter and made a note of their geotag data, i.e. the location where they were posted. They then visited the locations and made a photograph for each tweet. Combining the tweets with their images tells compelling, albeit fictional stories about the people who posted them (who remained anonymous) which are driven by the what the viewer brings to them.
From Geolocation by Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman
The point my tutor made was reflected in this series as the artists had the ‘where’ nailed down – something at that location would make the picture. They could still be creative, but the structure meant that they spent more time thinking about what they wanted to say.
This idea of having some form of plan has stayed with me in every constructed tableau or documentary image I’ve shot since, and was just as important when making my latest work for my course. The objective was to re-create a famous image using the conventions of the genre it belonged to. I chose a portrait image from legendary photographer Elliott Erwitt’s book Dogs, which is one of my favourites.
Chihuahua, New York City (1946), from the book Dogs, by Elliott Erwitt
If ever I needed a plan, now was it. Working with a very excitable chihuahua on a busy street? Once I’d planned out in advance the location, angle and the props (my wife’s shoes), it was simply a matter of getting the model to stay still. He was great, giving me a whole range of expressions and reactions to hearing his name etc. Taking out the practical considerations to begin with kept my blood pressure down as I tried to get his best side. We all want to make our lives easier, right?
After Elliott Erwitt (2022), by Richard Fletcher
Interested in taking up photography or just starting out with your camera? Why not have some beginners’ tuition? I offer a structured series of one-to-one sessions aimed at getting you off Auto mode and taking better pictures. For more details, drop me a line at [email protected] or visit www.richperspective.co.uk.
 Geolocation: Two Photographers’ Heartbreaking Visualization of Tweets (s.d.) At: http://hafny.org/blog/2016/geolocation-two-photographers-heartbreaking-visualization-of-tweets
 Chinese Year of the Dog • Elliott Erwitt • Magnum Photos Magnum Photos (s.d.) At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/art/elliott-erwitt-dog-dogs/ (Accessed 13/03/2022).
I was talking to a friend of mine recently about a genre of photography that neither of us had really explored to date. We were trying to work out whether this was just a lack of interest or something else more rooted in our similar personalities. In the end, we concluded that it was just not in our ‘comfort zones’. It later dawned on me that this expression neatly describes what it is like for most people when they are trying to justify not doing something difficult and I realised that it’s actually pretty awful thing to say. The idea that we only ever do things that we are comfortable with inside some mythical boundary implies, for me, existing rather than living. It doesn’t lend itself to learning or making mistakes, discovering new interests or hobbies, instead just the notion of ‘same old same old’. This isn’t a particularly insightful thought, nor can it be considered a eureka moment, but it did get me thinking about what I am currently avoiding in order to stay ‘comfortable’.
It was always my intention to do three things when I changed career. The first was to pursue my artistic development through my continued studies on my degree course, the second was to help people get into photography through beginners’ tuition and courses and the third was to create a YouTube channel where I could share my experiences as a camera collector. The first two have had degrees of success, but the last one has been something I’ve almost completely avoided for the past 12 months. The reason? - appearing and speaking on camera has never been something I’ve been comfortable with. In my previous life I had no problem standing in front of large groups of people and speaking, whether delivering scripted training or ad-libbing a short-notice presentation, so I wasn’t sure why the camera made any difference. The answer, of course is that the camera presents us with a view of ourselves that we wouldn’t ordinarily see beyond looking at a reflection in the mirror. With video, we also get to hear our own voice in a way that differs from what it sounds like in our heads. If there is any level of self-consciousness about how we perceive both, it isn’t likely that we’d knowingly make such a recording of ourselves.
In my case, I am an introvert so the idea of sharing my thoughts and ideas in a way that I can be seen and heard is a pretty scary thing. Add to that the way that social media platforms have given everyone a voice that some often use without any restraint or consideration, and the whole idea of ‘putting myself out there’ goes beyond scary and on to terror. This free will to comment and criticise was brought home recently to me when I noticed a post by the RNLI which was, quite reasonably, trying to raise money. The comments below the post ranged from the admiration such an organisation deserves to the blatant trolling of their perceived ‘stance’ on rescuing immigrants from the Channel. I initially couldn’t believe what I was reading, but then it occurred to me that since all ‘subjective’ opinion is just that, needs no evidence to back it up etc., such people will always be there. In this case, though I was pretty sure they would be extremely grateful to be rescued by that fine organisation should they get into trouble at sea.
We can’t really control what people say, just accept or argue the point with them if we can be bothered. For me, remaining isolated from opinions that I might find hurtful or offensive isn’t conducive to building my tuition business, nor does it satisfy my need to pass on my knowledge and passion for photography and vintage cameras to others. I decided to think of things like YouTube as not being outside of some mythical bubble I live in called ‘comfort’, but instead something that I’d have a go at and, if I didn’t the result, move on to the next thing. There will likely be people who know more than I do, will pedantically point out any mistakes and generally not enjoy what I’m trying to do. However, there will also hopefully be some who connect with it. My perception of how people might react really shouldn’t hold me back. All of this reflection led to me posting my first video, which you can find at the link below. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges and yes, I don’t actually appear on camera… but it’s a start. I’d be interested in what you think of it, good or bad – I just won’t take it personally.