Reviewing Context and Narrative

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I began this Module at a time when we had recently moved house and I was slowly unpacking boxes of possessions including the family ‘archive’ of photographs and letters.. This fitted very well with the Module introduction and thinking of context.  I began with an intention to work with this archive in some form but, although I did do some initial work during preparation for the final Assignment, the archive still awaits me and now accompanies me into Level 2.

I felt the most comfortable with the topic of narrative. Maybe comfortable is the wrong adjective to use but I do want to tell stories with my photography and so thinking about narrative felt like coming home. The area that seemed furthest away from me was my usual one of portraits. I enjoy looking at them but I just don’t have this concept of myself as a ‘portrait’ photographer and have no desire, at this stage, to be one. So far as self-portraits are concerned, I hadn’t felt a need to explore myself in this way – preferring to write, talk to someone else, or self-reflection to clarify how I think and feel about myself and the world. Part 3 of the Module was therefore a struggle, even though I kept telling myself that I didn’t need to actually take a photograph of myself to put myself in the picture.

I met my own challenge though and proved I could do it. Creating duplicates of myself was absorbing and interesting but I became stuck in conceiving how I could further this. Instead, I turned to exploring my place in landscape and what it was that attracted me towards those small pieces of green in urban spaces. Setting up my tripod and photographing myself in public seemed quite a risk-taking exercise for me so it was rather a shock when my tutor challenged me to go further and also thought there was a performative aspect in my photography. This didn’t fit my self-concept at all but I decided to trust his judgment and gained a lot from that.  I enjoyed creating small pieces of art in the landscape and later felt confident enough to take the risk of setting up my mini-exhibition. The connection with created art led me into joining in with the Collaborative Art Swap – something which was completely new to me.

I enjoy the idea of collaborative work and had participated in the “My View” project and also “The Nearest Faraway Place” – contributing to a world-travelling concertina book.  I wanted to extend this, though, to working with artists from different disciplines and the ideal opportunity came when the OCA Art Swap was mooted by another student. I felt both challenged and stimulated by my involvement.  Receiving those special pieces of art, created in response to my words, made me realise how much I missed the tactile aspect.  I usually print my work because to hold a print in my hand is very different from viewing on a screen, and I experiment using different types of paper but now I would like to do more than that.

Reviewing Context and Narrative I have had an epiphany moment regarding personal voice.  In my first Level 1 Module, “The Art of Photography”, my final Assignment was about looking for love. In the second Module the final Assignment explored a concept for living, yes, but it was also about bereavement. It seems to me that in different ways, as I have worked through these Modules, my personal voice has been about relationships – between people and also between myself and my environment –  and I have found different ways of portraying this.  Putting oneself in the picture isn’t only making actual self-portraits but expressing myself through my photography.

With “Photographing the Unseen” and Narrative – portraying an obsession with a relationship, something unfinished. I knew that I was stepping into a fairly stereotypical male view of an ideal relationship but the ‘feminine’ stepped into the picture. I gave myself the opportunity to explore layers of narrative with influences from a range of sources and using mixed genres of photography. I value the leaps of spontaneity, beginning to make photographs, seeing what arises, but recognise that I do need to become more focussed in my ideas and so, In the future, I intend to both extend and refine this approach. Reviewing this Module I have reminded myself that photographs can be layered in many different ways intrinsically and also visually/physically. They can form punctuation and chapters in creating a narrative.

At times I tussled with the question as to whether it is possible to tell a story in a single image and how text and image interact. The reading on analysing photography/visual art and then analysing one image for Assignment 4 made me realise that, yes, one image can tell a story and there are many ways in which this can be achieved. I think what happened during preparation for and completion of that assignment was a more integrated consolidation of learning from the earlier parts of the Module. Creating work about a relationship; becoming more confident in self-portraits and looking at the ways in which images can be constructed led me towards the staged image for Assignment 5 where I was able to tell a story in one photograph without the use of text.

Looking to the future

 I have now begun the new Level 2 Module Digital Image and Culture which I know will give me the opportunity and stronger incentive to get to work with my personal archive and also other photographs I have collected. There was a lot of encouragement during Context and Narrative to play around with ideas and I know that the same is true of Digital Image and Culture. I’m looking forward to it.





The Archive

I am very interested in the idea of using Archives – whether found, appropriated, created or mine. I have already written about found photographs here referred to the created archive The Fae Richards Photo Album here and the created archives of Joan Fontcuberta here  .

I was looking at Facebook yesterday and saw an item about the Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, his novel Museum of Innocence, and an associated ‘Collection’ he put together – a set of vitrines containing everyday objects that each represent a single moment within the relationship of a young couple’s fated romanace. This collection of The Museum of Innocence  is being exhibited in Somerset House from 27th January to 3 April this year and so I must go to see it. The film-maker Grant Gee has also created a cinematic extension of the novel using the sights and sounds of contemporary Istanbul alongside new text from Pamuk. Here is a trailer from it published on 11 August 2015.


A wonderful idea for connecting found objects, film/photography and literature. I am always looking for these.

Another artist who has come to my attention recently (the joys of reading the blogs of other OCA students) is Christian Boltonski who has spent much of his career examining issues of loss, memory and death. Boltonski creates mixed-media installations using everyday documents, items such as passport photographs, school portraits, family albums and worn clothing to memorialise ordinary people, unknown children killed in the holocaust, local working people and also people’s heartbeats  – a collection that is now housed in a purpose-built museum on an uninhabited island off the coast of Japan.

I am slowly collecting a ‘found’ archive of a variety of photographs obtained from sites such as eBay as I have in mind a project which, alongside my own photographs, could connect with my Assignment 2 “Expressing the Unseen”, where I created a fictional blog with associated photographs. This could provide Paul Dumont with an extended family.

More importantly, I am constantly promising myself that I will create a series around my personal archive of photographs, letters and other documents – maybe more than one because I can think of at least three at the moment – the women in my family , a wartime childhood and my father’s letters. I used a few photographs in previous blog posts in People & Place here and during this current Module here.  I have also referred to my idea of using the metaphor of an apple tree and have been taking photographs over the past year.

One of the ideas I had for Assignment 5 was to either construct a photograph of my archive or, more complex I think, to construct a tableau around self and identity. During experimental practising for Assignment 5 I created some self-portraits of myself looking at some of the material I have.  In the event I decided that my archive merits longer term work following more reflection on the idea but, as a promise to myself (and, hopefully, my next Module) here are some photographs:-



Hannah Starkey

My tutor recently suggested I look at Hannah Starkey’s work. I remember seeing some a while ago. There was some work in the late 1990s that very much appealed to me with its soft tones and girls/women in everyday locations. Starkey works mainly with women, using actresses and acquaintances – collaborating with them to develop her scenes. Her images might be staged/constructed but they seem very natural to me.Charlotte Cotton (2009) refers to this photograph in describing Starkey’s use of the device of photographing subjects with their faces turned away from us so ‘…. we are not given enough visual information to make characterization the focal point of the image. Instead we make meanings from a dynamic process of connecting interior space and objects with the possible characters of the people depicted’ (Cotton, 2009:60). The compositional device itself reminds me of the work of Elina Brotherus, with the difference that we know who Brotherus is and can access considerable personal information about her. Starkey also uses reflections in mirrors as a reminder that we are not being reality, merely a reflection of something existed. This can give a brief hint of what lies behind the person in the mirror

Starkey had a solo exhibition in the US in 2013  of a new series In the Company of Mothers. A variety of scenes with the women’s eyes diverted from the camera, looking away or shielded with sun-glasses. Again, the colours, are soft and subtle and evoking a contemplative mood for me. I missed another, more recent  solo Exhibition in London of photographs where Starkey’s camera is focussed on the individual within a city environment. The associated press release comments that Starkey’s ‘interest in street photography and its ability to portray society within an art-historical and documentary context can be traced back to the flâneuse – female writers of the mid 1800s, such as Frances Trollope or George Sand – ‘who embody a feminist alternative to the male-driven tradition’. There’s reference to a book written by Lauren Elkin,  Flâneuse: The (Feminine) Art of Walking in Cities (2016). There is no information on Amazon so perhaps the books hasn’t yet been published.  I have emailed the publishers to make enquiries.

At the moment I am not envisaging using actors or acquaintances in my photography. I think I need more technical skill and general experience as yet although I hope that this something I can do in the future.




Cotton, c (2009) The Photograph As Contemporary Art, London: Thames & Hudsonâneuse-feminine-art-walking-cities



The Still Film and Gregory Crewdson

Context & Narrative Part Five
Constructed Realities and the fabricated image

Reading, Research and Reflections

David Campany writes, ‘The stark superficiality of film sets has attracted many photographers independent of the industry. In general, the results tend to be meditations on artifice’ (Campany 2008:120)

Later, Campany refers to Barthes argument that only when a film is stilled, ‘do we have the necessary distance to contemplate the filmic-ness of film. (Campany, 2008:135) and how this idea has appealed to artists and photographers. It enabled the term ‘narrative’ to become more of an adjective than a noun so that, ‘An image could simple be narrative without belonging to a narrative. ‘ (ibid). I have referred in my previous post to Jeff Wall’s comments regarding this and, of course, both he and Cindy Sherman took advantage of this concept to create staged photographs that hinted on hidden action both before and subsequent to the image – something beyond the frame. It could be said that Sherman’s photography is a meditation on artifice, although I view it more as commentary on stereotypes of the ‘feminine’ as shown through the cinema.

Campany argues that Jeff Wall’s version of ‘cinematographic’ takes advantage of Barthes’ opinion only in the terms that the techniques of creating films can be applied to still photography – the large productions, post-processing and collaboration, with the staging of ‘moments’ evoking reality yet being semi-fiction. Campany refers to the way in which viewers can be swept along by a film’s narrative, whereas this is suspended in a ‘still’ photograph.

‘Consequently, the staged narrative photograph that pretends the camera is not present, that depicts action in the realm of fiction, never quite achieves cinema’s naturalism. It is always haunted by movement and estranged by its own fixity’ (ibid p139 ).

I think it’s fair to say that Campany has a pretty low opinion of staged photography! It’s that very fixity and frozen stillness though that interests me whilst keeping me at a distance and that’s why I continue to be intrigued by Gregory Crewdson’s work.

Gregory Crewdson

Background information

Gregory Crewdson was born in 1962 in Brooklyn, NY Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters. He made a decision to study photography at the age of ten when his father, a psychoanalyst, took him to see a Diane Arbus Exhibition at MOMA, New York. Crewdson studied photography at SUNY Purchase (graduating in 1985), NY and obtained his MA from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut where he is now Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Photography (as here).  He is represented by Gagosian Gallery  worldwide and White Cube Gallery in London.

I have accessed a variety of resources online, watched recorded interviews, viewed his work, and also acquired two books. The book Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005 (Berge, 2005) was produced to accompany a touring retrospective Exhibition of his work up to 2005.   His Series Beneath the Roses (2003-2005) was the subject of a 2012 feature length documentary and, after this Crewdson said he would not return to series characterised by massive production crews, custom built sound stages and hired actors. Whilst visiting Rome he toured the Italian film studio Cinecitta and became captivated by the beauty of elaborate film sets there that had fallen into ruin. He returned to Rome with a small team and, working with mostly available lighting,  produced the work Sanctuary. The book Sanctuary (Scott, 2010) records this. The black and white images of the decaying streets and buildings have a haunting, melancholy effect – very different from the earlier work. I would imagine that working with a smaller production team and no actors enabled him to become more attuned to the atmosphere of the environment during filming.

Five or six years ago Crewdson went through a difficult period in his life at the end of his second marriage and moved to his permanent home in Massachussetts. He produced no work for the first two years but began to walk the Appalachian Trail and take long swims in a lake called Upper Goose Pond. One day he saw a sign for a trail named “Cathedral of the Pines” and he realised the idea for a new body of work with this title. There is an interview here where he explains more about the work. Having looked at the series it seems to me that, whilst being similar to the work before Sanctuary, it is more intimate and thoughtful, with softer, almost shadowed colours.

Some Reflections

In the mid 1970s the teenage Gregory Crewdson was one of the founders of the power pop band “the Speedies” and their song “Let me Take Your Photo” was later featured in a Hewlett Packard commercial. There’s a web site here that gives more information and a video of the song  . I did this screen grab that I think is him.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 15.53.51

Why bring up this early incarnation of him? Well, it’s such a contrast – the young lively, vocal and energetic musician, in front of the camera – as compared to the director behind the camera producing his large, carefully planned, staged, silent images, where people and landscape are frozen into pictures created from his psyche.

There is a plethora of information available about Crewdson’s background as the son of a psychoanalyst; how this influenced his thinking about people’s lives and then re-imagined this and his artistic influences into his own version of American gothic/film noir, using actors, large sets and abandoned buildings. I write ‘actors’ advisedly because in one interview (about the documentary film) with Alyssa Loh and Alma Vescovi of American Reader , published online here, when the word ‘actors’ is used Crewdson responds

‘I never know what to call the subjects in my pictures because I’m uncomfortable with the word actor. I think maybe subjects might be more accurate –or maybe even more accurate is objects (Laughs) I’m just kidding. But what’s important to me is that there’s a necessary alienation between me and the subject. I don’t want to know them well. I don’t want to have any intimate contact with them ….’

If this is an underlying attitude then maybe this also acts to the sense of disassociation and lack of apparent connectedness in his photographs. Yet – his ‘productions’ are very much based on collaboration with his production team who, as in films, are given full credits in his published books, with production stills included.

Amongst Crewdson’s influences are said to be the painter Edward Hopper (I can see his eerie silences in Crewdson’s work); the author Flannery O’Connor who wrote in the American Southern Gothic style; Alfred Hitchcock and films made by David Lynch. The use of dreams and associated imagery is one of the recurring themes in Lynch’s seemingly ‘uncanny’ films, together with the subversive and violent impulses that might often lie beneath the apparent normality and conformity of small town life in America. Crewdson’s images are unsettling with his subjects, often women, appearing to be transfixed wherever they are, gazing into space and seemingly frozen in the act of some inexplicable behaviour. I am reminded of the 1950s science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) where alien plant spores develop into seed pods that reproduce emotionless duplicate copies, replacing humans whilst they are sleeping.

Crewdson’s work is deliberately cinematic, ‘Crewdson falls back on the popular myths of Hollywood cinema and uses them to create suggestive pictures of an American society that is alienated from itself and looks into the abyss of its own damaged collective psyche.’ (Berg, (2005:11)   ‘From the beginning he understood photographs in a particular way and sees photography as a process of cinematic compression” (ibid p. 13) He moved from designing model sets in a studio to his large scale outdoor sets and locations. He uses light in a variety of ways with windows frequently serving as an inlet for light beams. In outdoor scenes warm light can be seen radiating through windows that are often veiled by pale coloured drapes, ‘… highly evocative of the quiet and unspectacular life led by the inhabitants of a standard, single-family dwelling in an archetypal American suburb’ (Hochleitner, M. [2005:151]). Unlike the more overall quality of Jeff Wall’s shadowless light, Crewdson’s light is more focussed, directional, spotlighting different aspects of a scene in varying intensities. Crewdson’s images become more filmic and, I think, also enable him to create more three-dimensional images. I think this is also a result of his production techniques doing different takes of the same scene, (but with different lighting and focus points) that are then composited in post production. Although his work cannot be said to be ‘documentary’ he does introduce a documentary element by always including production stills.

One of the videos I looked at was the one suggested in the C&N Handbook (p. 116) Gregory Crewdon’s photography:Capturing a Movie Frame|Art in Progress|Reserve Channel (pub 16 July 2012).

We see him talking about his approach and also in midst of directing the scene and actors (from a local college). Crewdson talks of wanting to first and foremost make a beautiful picture but, if it’s just purely aesthetic it’s not good enough. That beauty needs to be undercut with something psychological and he refers to his interest in the dark side (c 8:45 in) and creating an ‘uncanny moment. He talks of his controlling aesthetic to make a perfect façade and then a deep undercurrent of what lies beneath the surface. Crewdson later talks of psychological mirrors (19:08) a world that feels familiar, timeless, but also emptied out with a lot of aimless people wandering around and that’s what he wants to create in a picture.

There are juxtapositions here between the apparently perfect surface/façade, a need for control and subversive, chaotic impulses clashing together with a rigid force field that resists all. To me this combines into frozen images that keep me at a distance and yet, somehow, beckon me forward. In this respect, I am also transfixed by Crewdson’s intention, as he explains in an article in Aperture, published online here .

“Usually in my pictures there’s nothing out of focus, there’s no blurring, no grain. Anything you associate with anything photographic, I don’t want in the picture [……] Because when somebody is looking at my picture, I want them just to fall into the world of the photograph”

If a picture of Crewdson’s represents a fragment of a dream it is not a dream I have ever had. I don’t seek absolute perfection. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever believed in absolute perfection, although I do like to achieve the best I can. Yet I do ‘fall into’ the photograph despite myself. In many respects I think Jeff Wall’s work has more depth because it shows the weight of his scholarship despite the fixed quality of his composite images. Crewdon’s work seems more glossy, inhumanly perfect. The image comes into my head of thin ice over a shallow pond, and yet something reaches out to me from beneath its surface. I think much of it might be to do with the combination of the image and all that is written and spoken about psychological depths by both Crewdson and his commentators. Within all the reading about, and looking at, his work , I did become more lost in thought than normal and I am sure this contributed to the photography I have been experimenting with alongside the readings.


Afterthought: Reading Crewdson’s comment above regarding aimless people wandering around etc I just wondered if some of his work concerns existential anxiety around “What is the purpose of life, why am I here, going through the motions”?



Berge, S (ed) (2005) Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005. Hanover: Hatje Cantz, bi-lingual version
Berge, S (2005) “The Dark Side of the American Dream” in Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005. Hanover: Hatje Cantz, (pp 11-21)
Campany, D (2008) Photography and Cinema, UK: Reaacyion Books Ltd.
Hochleitner, M (2005) “On the Iconography of Light in the Works of Gregory Crewdson” in in Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005. Hanover: Hatje Cantz. (pp 151-157.
Scott, A.O. (2010) Sanctuary. Italy: Harry N. Abrams Inc.





















Film, staged photographs and Jeff Wall

Context & Narrative Part Five
Constructed Realities and the fabricated image

 Film, staged pictures and Jeff Wall

Exercise : Goodfellas [accessed 21/01/16]

My pattern notes are attached.

Goodfellas notes

I was surprised how much information I managed to gather about the main character in such a short space of time. Of course, I was probably looking more closely than I would normally but, even so, the piece creates an impression of a young man who is quick-thinking; smooth and slick. He is a hail-fellow-well-met kind of person who is at ease; well-known and important in his habitat. Someone who is going places and yet unconfident enough to want to be impressing a new girlfriend. He chooses the ‘underground’ route where doors open silently for him and the redness of the walls there connote blood might be shed and evil prevail. This is a night world where he feels at home.

At first I queried “Why film” but then this is a wonderful example of how a scene can be constructed to tell a story – the colours, angles and range of viewpoints. I think I probably appreciated this more having analysed a photograph for Assignment 4 and seen how carefully it was composed.

Three photographers in particular – Jeff Wall , Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman are famous for staging scenes that look as if they are still images from films. Jeff Wall first

Research Point – Jeff Wall

Wall’s image Insomnia was included as a resource in Part Four of the Handbook (p. 104). I did not write about it then because I had previously contributed comments to a WeAreOCA post in 2012. I also attended an OCA Study Visit to the Exhibition Seduced by Art at the National Gallery in December 2012. I researched Wall’s work beforehand, including watching two YouTube videos, and wrote about his work the Destroyed Room which was one of his earliest conceptual pieces of work. My blog post for that can be accessed here . In summary, what came out of that for me was realizing the depth of Wall’s artistic knowledge, the extent of research that underpins his work, artistic and literary, and the way he collaborates with his models and team. Wall also tended to create images that allude to what is outside the scene, behind the edges of the frame. In general he creates very large photographs, using a large format camera, and produces large scenes/diaoramas that are often stitched together in post processing. ‘Large scenes are participatory – they thrust the image out into the spectator’s perceptual space. The scale suggests that what we see is more than just a picture on a wall; it is a window onto a real ‘scene’ (Kingsley, 2012:24). I will comment further on this below.

I have acquired the large book Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition (2009, reprint 2015) that contains a selection of essays and interviews by critics and commentators together with essays by Wall himself – all illustrated by reference to many splendid photographs that cover over 30 years of Wall’s distinguished career as an artist and academic. I can’t do justice to them here so will pick out a few aspects that particularly interested me.

An essay by Thierry de Duve (2012:28) compares Wall’s work with a variety of paintings. An early photograph The Storyteller (1986) as seen here  is compared with the painting Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. by Edouard Manet 1863 here,  stating that the painting comes immediately to mind in terms of the use of perpendicular and triangle. Two groups of people and a sole individual are separated and brought to attention through the use of electricity lines and a bisecting motorway bridge. However, what also interested me was the title given to the image. This title tells me how to regard the image and where to look  -bottom left corner, two men and one woman on the grass with the woman in front of the men, apparently speaking and gesticulating with her hands. I wouldn’t have immediately assumed she was telling a story; wouldn’t go so far as that, but Wall has now ‘instructed’ me to look at it in this way. To me this creates a ‘closed’ narrative and it would take me some time to make a leap into making a story to myself of what is going on.

I would far rather conjecture what is going on in the whole scene and why these people are sitting in that particular place. Perhaps that was intended – Wall wanted me to look at the trio first and then for my eyes to wander. In fact my eye was first caught by the man sitting alone on the bottom right of the image. Why is he alone? Indeed, why are these people there in the first place? Is it Wall who is the storyteller, not the woman? I am already beginning to build a story, thus disproving, the comments made by Tod Papageorge in an interview with Alec Soth on 11th July 2007 here . Papageorge refers to an earlier discussion on the blog regarding the set-up picture. He states that his argument against them is that they leave to much to the imagination of the photographer ‘ ….. a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad, swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis’.

Continuing with my review of the book, Wall has often used transparencies in light boxes as the presentation mode. Reference is made to this in an essay by Boris Groys who points to the way in which Wall’s works glow in an Exhibition and the fact that ‘Glowing produces an aura’, even though Benjamin stated that modern art has lost its aura because it can be reproduced. Wall’s originals glow in a literal sense, like the haloes of saints glow in icons. However, it is a modern light and it is distributed very evenly . ‘It is the light of the modern enlightenment which leaves nothing in the shadows and shines through everything, makes everything visible’ (Groys 1996:55). The evenness of the light in Wall’s photographs has really struck me. It contributes towards ‘the uncanny’ in the way it can make room interiors appear similar to the shadowless light of a clouded sky and is different from Grergory Crewdson’s use of light, with it’s darkly lit and shadowy scenes that become almost like science fiction films.

Wall refers to cinematography in the final essay in the book (Wall 2005:259).

“A motion picture film is really a long strip of material on which many photographs are printed ‘the images are projected at such a speed that we cannot perceive them properly and think we are looking at ‘moving pictures’. But we are, in fact, looking at a large number of still photographs, and looking at them in a very peculiar way. That suggested to me that what is normally called ‘cinematography’ is something that can result in a still photograph; it didn’t have to result exclusively in what we call a ‘film’….’Cinematography’ also suggests that there is no dominant style in photography. It easily includes reportage or documentary but is not dominated by it. ….the cinematographer does not have to choose between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction…..”

A long quote but it links very well with the notion of documentary being a story about the truth. It also links back to an earlier interview with Arielle Pélenc (1996:48). They were discussing the violence that has sometimes been depicted in Wall’s images and Wall explained that he has rejected the role of witness or journalist, of ‘photographer’. Because he thinks this

‘ …… objectifies the subject of the picture by masking the impulses and feelings of the picture-maker. The poetics or productivity of my work has been in the stagecraft and pictorial composition – what I call the ‘cinematography’. This, I hope makes it evident that the theme has been subjectivised …. The [images] do not refer to a condition or moment that needs to have existed historically or socially; they make visible something peculiar to me. That is why I refer to my pictures as prose poems.”.

I had seen mention before of this reference to prose poems and puzzled over it. Whilst a prose poem lacks the line breaks found in structure of line breaks found in poetry it does use the techniques of poetry such as rhyme, repetition, alliteration, metaphor etc. How though could the term prose poem be applied to photography? I can see this possibility in a series – the pacing and flow of images, some used as punctuation to arrest the eye, use of colour and tones etc. How can this be applied to a single image though? I found a clue in an online version of an essay in New Left Review Museum Poetry and Museum Prose (Julian Stallabrass (2010)) that examines the career of Jeff Wall. The lengthy essay refers to the way in which Wall utilizes Lightbox transparencies to increase contrast and chromatic vibrancy. Whilst large photographs taken with a large format camera ‘… are well suited to giving a compelling, apparently comprehensive view of the mundane taken from a distance that is both physical and emotional’ Wall has been able to overcome these restrictions with his digital montage works. These techniques have enabled him to focus on incident and provide the semblance of a candid/decisive moment, albeit in a staged image. Stallabras refers later (p. 102) to Wall writing in 1991 that digitization furthered a ‘visual poetry or prose poetry’ which conflicts with the indexical aspect of photography. That moves me a little further but not by much so I will continue to explore this. Any suggestions welcome.


Postscript: I am continuing my exploration in ‘prose poem’ and have reminded myself of a video of Jeff Wall Pictures Like Poems on the Louisiana Channel where he talks about photographs and description – “Most people think that photographs are simple because they are accompanied by a lot of description, verbal. Take away the verbal description and get into the pure picture then you have to relate to it as a poem”



Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd.
De Duve, T (1996) “the Mainstream and the Crooked Path” in Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd. pp 10-36
Groys, B (1996) Life without Shadows in Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd. pp 55-63
Kingsley, H (2012) “An Axis Between Old and New” in National Gallery (2012) Seduced By Art: Photography Past and Present. London:National Gallery. pp 9-25
National Gallery (2012) Seduced By Art: Photography Past and Present. London:National Gallery.
Pélenc, A (1996) “Correspondence” in Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd. pp36-55.
Wall, J (2005) “Cinematography: A Prologue” in Chevrier, J-F. et all (2009) Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition. London:Phaidon Press Ltd.

Accessed 25.1.2016





“Theatres of the Real” and the ‘Uncanny’

Lowry, J et al (2009) Theatres of the Real. UK: Photoworks

When I first opened the book Theatres of the Real (2009) I was surprised to see how varying was the work of the eight featured contemporary photographers – Sarah Dobai, Annabel Elgar, Tom Hunter, Sarah Pickering, Nigel Shafran, Clare Strand, Mitra Tabrizian  and Danny Treacy. None of it is documentary photography as such in terms of authenticity or aiming to present some form of objective ‘truth’ (although I no longer believe anyway that such exists, certainly in terms of ‘truth’ about they way in which human beings act and interact in the world). However, the work covered does convey various aspects of contemporary society and it all shares a way of looking that portrays the world ‘as a kind of stage set in which we as actors play out our individual and collective stories’. In the Foreword (p. 4) , David Chandler and Inge Henneman suggest the term ‘post-documentary’ to describe these photographic critiques of traditional documentary’s claims of objectivity and truth. To me, these photographers here accept that documentary is a story about the truth, created from a subjective viewpoint and using certain strategies, including theatricality and staging, to denote this. I sometimes wonder if it is too mannered, too explicit regarding staging etc and I admire the skill and cleverness without feeling any emotional involvement with ‘the story’. Everything is too carefully arranged to bear much resemblance to ‘real’ life as I experience it.

There was one point of view that really interested me. Joanna Lowry’s essay “An Imaginary Place” refers to the concept of the ‘uncanny’:

‘…. We encounter the other and it appears in the guise of ourselves; the world is disturbingly doubled and the home that should be our source of security appears to have been replaced by a substitute that is the same in every way but somehow not the same at all.’ (Lowry 2009:82)

There is a link here with the concept of alienation and the way in which it has been linked, in turn, with ‘ the theorisation of modernity’. Anthony Vidler is referred to as being ‘Perhaps the most influential exponent of this idea’. The preface of Vidler’s book The Architectural Uncanny: Essays of the Unhomely (1994) can be accessed here. He uses the structure of modern architecture as a metaphor for this sense of the uncanny which is almost like Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum but not quite as Vidler appears to be including the psycho analytic component which was grounded in Freud’s theories on the ‘uncanny’ and the aesthetics of the ‘fearful’ with two opposing definitions of the German word Heimlich – the one belonging to the house, homely, friendly and familiar and the other concealed and secret.  Further information here.

Tom Hunter refers to ‘uncanny’ in his statement regarding Holly Street Voids with their sense of once being lived in but left hurriedly and I can see that in other images from these photographers. For instance, in Nigel Shafran’s kitchen, the washing up, categorised in terms of the meals the utensils were used for, is piled up just that bit too neatly for me almost like an advertisement yet not quite. The young people in Clare Strand’s series Gone Astray Portraits (2003)  (inspired by a Charles Dickens text) look uncomfortable and out of place in both their modern clothes and against the C19th style painterly backdrop. There is much about poses and how clothes define and perpetuate sense of identity – for the wearer and the observer.

Lowry refers to melodrama as underpinning photographic practices using the theatrical as a cultural vehicle for analysis of contemporary society, with the set becoming an ‘actor’ as well, even if it might be an actual room organised to look like a set.

‘Every aspect of the décor, the lighting, the furniture and the props is designed to express and reflect the social and psychological state of the characters and the position that they find themselves in.’ (p. 92)

She refers to melodramatic characters often having blank and unresponsive expressions, as in Sarah Dobai’s Short Story Piece (film and accompanying stills  ) and also Model 280 where two films are projected side by side – filmed landscape with a representation of a family scene in the interior of a car, the juxtaposition of a ‘real’ outside and a psychological inner space.

There is both closed and open narrative – static scenes that appear to have no precursor or onward flow as opposed to work such as that of Tom Hunter who references both painters and earlier stories with similar themes in his modern tableaux. I have written about Tom Hunter before, here. His Woman Reading a Possession Order references Vermeer, whilst the series Life and Death in hackney reinterprets paintings by Millais and Waterhouse, amongst others. There is an odd conjunction here because Hunter’s beautifully rendered images portray death alongside decaying buildings/architecture but in a landscape where greenery is endeavouring to take over remnants of buildings. The images are open enough for the viewer to place their own narrative over what can be seen and imagined.

Jan Baetens looks to this aspect of narrative in his essay (Baetens 2009:97 ) pointing out that film is expected to have a narrative flow whereas photography is associated with a moment in time. His exploration of this dichotomy is complicated at first reading (Baetens 2009:98) but he points to the tile of the book itself covering these two dimensions of , setting and staging – the stage where something can happen or is about to happen and the story being told. Baetens quotes John Grierson’s definition of documentary as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’, which entails ‘storytelling’, such that the viewer will be understand the content and ‘sympathize with it through a process of identification’ so that ‘the attention span of the spectator will increase dramatically’.

At the same time, Baetens points out that the photographers in Theatres of the Real , despite their differences, do suggest some common critical attitudes towards the use of staging – their various techniques include ‘enhanced artificiality’ and exaggerate storytelling devices ‘in the hope of short-circuiting’ them. ‘For if narrative and storytelling help the spectator to make sense of the real, this sense is always biased, it reflects the strong editorial intervention of the maker and thus a veiling rather than an unveiling of reality’. This point is taking me back to my comments in the first paragraph regarding ‘cleverness’.  These photographers obviously had a belief in something to be driven towards adopting this approach whilst making it clear that they are telling a story about some aspect of reality. This book isn’t a new book, and I accept the photographers covered will have likely moved on to other ways of portraying their view of contemporary life but, still, that notion of ‘the uncanny’ appeals to me and I am keeping it in mind in planning for Assignment 5.



Baetens, J (2009) “The Creative Treatment of Narrative: A Poetics of the In-Between” in Lowry, J et al Theatres of the Real . UK,:Photoworks. pp 97-101.
Lowry, J (2009) “An Imaginary Place” in Lowry, J et al Theatres of the Real . UK: Photoworks. pp 81-95.
Lowry, J et al (2009) Theatres of the Real, UK,:Photoworks
Vidler, A (1994) the Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely .MIT Press




Critical Analysis and Writing about Art and Photography


 I had a brief look, again, at Semiotics and also read two very helpful books. I’ll start with the more intellectually difficult.


In order to understand how something has been created you have to take it apart before you can put it back together. Remembering though that that will be based on my own understandings and assumptions that I will need to unpick at the same time.

Jacques Derrida

The inventor of “deconstruction” – an ill-defined habit of dismantling texts by revealing their assumptions and contradictions – was indeed and unfortunately, one of the most cited modern scholars in the humanities.
                                        (Obituary in The Economist 21st October 2004)

Surely this was a tongue-in-cheek! There was resistance to Derrida’s way of thinking but perhaps it was the way that he explained it that was too entangled in words to find a way through it all.

….one of the gestures of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn’t natural, to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural

That was the message I got from that short video and I almost felt that I didn’t want to research deconstruction any more for the time being because I didn’t want to get lost in a sea of words.

Another (long) obituary from The Guardian included

He argued that understanding something requires a grasp of the ways in which it relates to other things and a capacity to recognise it on other occasions and in different contexts – which can never be exhaustively predicted. He coined the term “difference” to characterise these aspects of understanding …

Intertextuality .

We all come to read a text or photograph from a very different place. I thought more about the photographers intention, the fact that the photographer is both ‘viewer’ of what s/he sees and also constructs the image. Example recently of another experiment. Six photographers were asked to photograph the same person but were told different stories about their backgrounds. How far were they influenced by this but, then, how much is a photograph a result of the photographer’s style anyway. See here 

The way something is presented visually can re-inforce or subvert cultural and personal assumptions and also manipulate our way of thinking . A recent Photoworks article by Helen Cammock gives the example of Clarissa Sligh and the books Reading Dick and Jane with Me (1989) where she juxtaposed cyanotype processes with crude ink sketching and text ‘to interrupt the depiction of a white middle class suburban family as normal for most Americans’ in the old school textbooks the Dick and Jane Readers”. I was interested as well in the work of the twin sisters Amrit and Rabindra Singh  they are contemporary artists, born in London, who have developed a genre that combines traditional Indian miniature painting with European aesthetics.

Semiotics and Roland Barthes

Regarding Barthes and the ‘death of the author’ , ‘author’ does not denote the creator of a book or photograph etc but the ‘Author’ the critical institution which maintains its control of the meaning of literary texts by making the author’s life and times the key to the only possible reading. This then closed down the possibility of new interpretations ‘based on attention to the signifiers themselves – textual characteristics, including the story, the images, the genre, allusions to other texts, or surprising breaks with expectation’ (C. Belsey 2002:20).

I have found Daniel Chandler’s online book Semiotics for Beginners invaluable in beginning to get to grips with semiotic theory and Barthes. Barthes applied Ferdinand de Saussure’s ‘dyadic’ model of the ‘sign’ (composed of a ‘signifier’ – the form the sign takes – and the ‘signified’ – the concept it represents) to images. Before going there – the relationship between the signifier and its signified is described by two terms – denotation and connotation. These terms cover literal obvious, everyday meaning of a sign (denotation) and cultural, personal associations (connotation). Barthes paid more attention to connotation and his model covered:

Sign : the overall effect of a photograph
Signifier : the actual picture, its formal and conceptual elements
Signified : what we think of when we see the picture – straightforward, metaphorical or conceptual. This can often be ‘guided’ by the photographer but, in the final analysis, is a product of the viewer’s perception.
Studum : the photographer’s cultural, political or social meaning
Punctum : an element within the picture that disrupts the narrative – punctures the meaning and takes off at a different tangent. It may even provide a contradiction or at least an alternative reading. May also be the point in the photograph that gives the viewer a personal connection with it above other elements.

Barthes illustrated this through analysis of advertisements and I think it does most suit them, rather than photographs. Perhaps this is because advertisements are more obvious in their persuasions. One aspect I have become increasingly aware of is how, now, advertisements also tell a story about a person (usually some kind of celebrity). A story that makes them more ‘like me’ and someone I could possibly emulate if I wished. I subscribe to Source magazine  and so regularly read articles by Judith Williamson, and also follow the blog Sociological Images that examines the way in which we are influenced by imagery.

The C&N Handbook asks us to look at an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and I used one from the Style Magazine of The Sunday Times of 27th September 2015.


I was so interested in how the ad paints the three rugby playing brothers as ordinary Yorkshire lads, whilst allying them with the more famous Russell Crowe with the back story that many readers probably know about how they love their mum (studum). I think women might be influenced to buy those products for their sons or grandsons. I also noted how obviously the products fitted the young men and also they reminded me of older images of Greek gods and Olympic athletes (signified). I was interested as well in how young people might be influenced by the ad and so asked my grandson and his girlfriend to look.

My grandson said the ad made him look because it was of rugby players (sign). If it was footballers he wouldn’t look twice, plus the timing was good for the World Rugby. He thought they had good physiques for a man and are doing a manly sport. The phrase ‘sexual tribe’ caught his attention – he could be a part of that (signified) and also the mention of the wet-gel look. His girlfriend said she was attracted by the good-looking men (sign) who look rugby fit and hunky (signified) (she prefers them to footballers). She likes to buy things for her boyfriend and liked the idea of the facial moisturizer and the fatigue eye gel so he would look less tired. (signified) She also pointed out how the visual simplicity of the ad might attract a young man – three sections of picture, text and product (signifier). I can see how Barthes’ theory fits here.

Chandler outlines criticisms of Semiotic Analysis and I was surprised to learn that it is ‘…now widely regarded primarily as one mode of analysis amongst others rather than as a ‘science’ of cultural forms’. On the other hand, Semiotic Analysis has its strengths as well

Semiotics can help us to make us aware of what we take for granted in representing the world, reminding us that we are always dealing with signs, not with an unmediated objective reality, and that sign systems are involved in the construction of meaning.


Barnet, S (2011) A Short Guide to Writing About Art Tenth Edition Pearson

This covers a variety of structures that can be used for writing about Art, e.g. comparisons, eflective Essays and Exhibition reviews. It looks at interpretation and asks the question, “Are All Interpretations Equally Valid?”. Barnet looks at style in writing, research and some critical approaches, e.g. Gender Studies and Psychoanalytic Studies, Iconography and Iconology.

Regarding the meaning of ‘Critical”

Critical comes from a Greek word, krinein, meaning “to separate” “to choose”; it implies conscious, deliberate inquiry, and especially it implies a sceptical state of mind but a sceptical state of mind is not a negative, self-satisfied, fault-finding state of mind. Quite the reverse: because critical thinkers wish to draw sound conclusions, they apply their scepticism to their own assumptions, to their own evidence, and indeed toward all aspects of their own thinking as well as toward that of others. (2011;14)

Barnet has much to say regarding art and culture, for instance, ‘white cube’ museum displays where objects are taken out of their original cultural context (and functional meaning) and presented as having a new value of artistic merit. “Some critics argue that to do this and regard it as an independent work of art by discussing it in aesthetic terms is itself a Eurocentric (Western) colonial assault on the other culture, a denial of that culture’s unique identity” (ibid p. 31). On the other hand, since the 1970s

… it is common for art historians to borrow ideas from a new breed of anthropologists, who tell us that we can never grasp the meaning of an object from another culture and that we can understand only what it means in our culture. That is we study it to learn what economic forces caused us to wrest the work from its place of origin and what psychological forces cause us to display it on our walls. (ibid p, 31)

 That’s two ways to look at art. The importance is to argue an interpretation rather than repressing a personal response. To support your interpretation with evidence, be coherent and use appropriate language.

Regarding photography, Barnet provides a list of questions to ask such as technical, physical and formal properties, and use of space and light. “What do you think the photographer was trying to say in this image? To ask myself what I think the photographer was trying to convey and what aspects are being accentuated. What seems to be the photographer’s attitude towards the subject and what is being conveyed to me now regarding a place, time, person, event or culture?

Critical Approaches – Headings to remind me

  • Social History : from a Marxist standpoint
  • Deconstructions : denies that the individual artist establishes the meaning of a work

The above – sometimes called the New Art History, cultural materialism or cultural criticism – often call a work ‘a text’ and studies it in terms of the conditions of its production and reception. “The interest is less in aesthetic judgment than in moral or political judgment, especially in matters of race, gender and class (2011:244).

  • Gender Studies: Feminist Criticism and Gay and Lesbian Studies
  • Biographical writing : the life and times of
  • Psychoanalytic Studies
  • Iconology : why images mean what they mean


Barrett, T (2006) Criticizing Photographs : An Introduction to Understanding Images, Fourth Edition, NY, McGraw-Hill

Reinforces the fact that Criticism is ‘informed’ and looks at kinds of criticism. I hadn’t thought about this before but really got the difference now between ‘subject’ and ‘subject matter’ (p.21) e.g. Tunick’s photo of 4,500 nude people in a park. The nude people are the subject matter, ‘ its subject is interpreted as a call for personal freedom’.

What do I see:

  • Formal elements : how the photograph is composed, arranged and visually constructed.
  • Medium : king of film and technical information
  • Style : can be more interpretive than descriptive.
  • Comparing and contrasting : other works, works by other artists. What’s in common and what differs. Compare to other professions, writers, artists etc.

Regarding Interpreting Photographs. Barrett provides some excellent examples of critical writing by different critics and a long list of Principles for describing photographs (p. 36). He also points out that feelings provide important clues to learning about the content of an image – how we need to relate those feelings back to the image, ‘…..if interpretation is snot references to visual properties [in the image] discourse leaves the realm of criticism and becomes conjecture, therapy, reminiscence or some other manner of purely subjective functioning’ (p. 58) .

Having provided an overview of Interpretive Perspectives and Strategies (pp 47-51) which are pretty similar to those Barnet uses, Barrett moves on to Categories of Photographs that have been proposed by different critics/curators, e.g. Szarkowski’s ‘window’ and ‘mirrors’ but then goes on to proposing new Categories (p. 63)

  • Descriptive
  • Explanatory : such as ones dealing with subject matter specific to a particular time and place and that can be dated by visual evidence in the photographs
  • Interpretive : personal and subjective, more like poetry. E.g. Duane Michals
  • Ethically Evaluative : how things ought or ought not to be, as Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange, FSA etc.
  • Aesthetically Evaluative : worth of aesthetic observation and contemplation
  • Theoretical : Photographs about photography

Of course, a photograph can fall into more than one of these categories.

Contextual information

Internal (descriptively evident); original (psychologically present to the photographer at the time; external (situation in which the photograph is presented, or re-presented. The external context affects how the photograph is understood, especially if text is added. Barrett (p. 116) provides a comprehensive interpretation of a Barbara Kruger photograph  based on contextual information to show how context can be used to understand photographs and goes on to consider the photograph against his six categories.

Judging Photographs

Judgments (statements about worth or value) are ‘appraisals that are based on reasons that are founded in criteria’ (p.128). There are different criteria (examples given p.133) that lead to different judgments of the same work. This took me back to the various authors I had read who commented on Francesca Woodman’s work. E.g. feminism; does her work show a disordered mind; her work is exploration of and an attempt to explore the two-dimensionality of a photograph and convert it into three dimensions.

Photography Theory

Edward Weston and Paul Strand implemented their theories in their photographs. In the 1920s Weston Weston accused pictorialist photographers of not making “photographs” but of ‘making pseudo-paintings’. Thinking of this – there is now criticism of ‘beautiful’ landscape photography that, in itself, has been subverted by some photographers e.g. Simon Norfolk. Historians of photography are influences by their theories. Curators build new theory and influence accepted theory by their choices. This particularly interested me Example given of how MOMA didn’t give Exhibitions to some Photographers who had widespread support in other museums such as the Whitney.

Writers who theorize about photography are not inquiring about a particular photograph, although they use particular photographs for examples. They are exploring photography in general, attempting to answer how it is like and how it is different from other forms of picturing.  (p. 178)


 What do I take from all this? Basically to describe how I view the photograph; look at i’s formal qualities and how the photographer is shaping my view. Look at the overall context – internal, original and external. Then to interpret the photograph what it connotes for me, the meaning I take from it and to provide evidence for this from within the image. Barnet and Barrett have provided a rich source of different ways in which I can approach the interpretation and the most important aspect of this is to be clear about the approaches I use and coherent in outlining my arguments.



Barnet, S (2011) A Short Guide to Writing About Art Tenth Edition, Pearson.
Barrett, T (2006) Criticizing Photographs : An Introduction to Understanding Images 4th Edition, NY McGraw-Hill,

(Accessed 24.11.2015)