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.






Talk by Chloe Dewe Matthews at UCA Farnham on 18th February 2016

I first heard Chloe Dewe Matthews talk at the Brighton Photo Festival in November 2014 and wrote about it near to the end of this post here. This new talk was arranged by John Umney, Level 3 student, organised by the OCA and then, through collaboration with UCA, Farnham, held in one of their lecture theatres . UCA students were also invited and three of the UCA Photography Department staff were in attendance.  The advertisement for the talk on weAreOCA included a link to this excellent video on the Vice site .

In fact, her talk very much covered the same ground being about her evolution as an artist using the medium of photography from being a Fine art Student studying conceptual sculpture at Ruskin College, Oxford. She recalled asking herself, after three years’ study, “What do I want to say about the world?”. After then working in the  Film industry for four years she left because she didn’t feel she was doing anything creative  Matthews became an assistant to some photographers  and it seems that not having a photography education somehow left her freer to take photographs and trust her own instincts rather than worrying if she was doing things the right way. She discovered there was a group of Hasidic Jews who spent holidays in Aberystwyth, Wales and her fascination with this, and how different people lead their lives, led to her creating a series Hasidic Holiday (2009). From there she created another series Banger Boys of Britain, being attracted by the sculptural aspects of the cars, and set up an exhibition in a car spraying workshop to create a ‘finishing point’. There ensued a period where she was trying to find a photographic language, teaching herself along the way and photographing things that caught her interest. She continued taking photographs during a long journey in 2010 hitchhiking with her boyfriend  from China to London – in China’s Wild West Xinjiang,  attempting to portray the lives of its minority population of Uighur Muslims  who were constantly ‘watching their backs’;  Kazakhstan workers constructing mausoleums for the rich class and holidaymakers along the Caspian Sea visiting Sanitoriums to have oil treatments.

As she became better known there were Commissions and a residency in St John’s College, Oxford to produce the work Shot at Dawn around the story of the British, German, French and Belgian soldiers shot for desertion during World War I. There was a lot of research involved in uncovering these hidden sites and histories as there are no monuments and families were shunned. The archives on German sites have been lost. In fact she said the series was actually 90% research. Matthews visited sites where this happened producing ‘late’ photography and creating a visual archive, as form of restitution, that evokes the tragedy of what happened. She achieved this through photographing this hidden history in dawn’s early light, in cool pale tones. Different outcomes were planned including a book and dedicated website and the series was included in the Exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography, shown in Edinburgh and Tate Modern, London.  Matthews explained that she was unable to speak to families so could only talk about the people by the places and  captions were essential

In addition to a long term project along the Thames Estuary (with an Exhibition due later this year) Matthews has been back to the Caspian region to do further work (with a book  due later this year) and most recently has undertaken a commission for Tate Modern responding to the Southwark area which she has discovered has the highest density of African Christianity. She talked of how the visual and audio landscape changes on Sunday. There are eleven churches on an industrial estate and she has kept going back to one particular church. The work produced includes video screens installed in a gallery in an ex-church, showing layers of church happenings (2015).


Chloe Dewe Matthews is a very interesting and engaging speaker and her enthusiasm for photography shines through. She made her development and recognition as a professional photographer sound an easy process but I think this probably belies a great deal of hard work, networking and communication of her ideas. It was interesting for me to see the difference in her images as well from the exuberance of Hasidic Holiday , Banger Boys and Sunday Church in Southwark to the quiet solemnity of the sites in Shot at Dawn. Here website is here  and her talk to us was also videoed and can be accessed here by OCA students



Reflection on Assignment 5

I decided to wait until I had received some feedback through blog comments before writing this Reflection as I wanted to see if I had met my stated intention:

I am much taken by the concept of the “uncanny” where we see a world that resembles ours yet appears to have been replaced by a substitute. With this photograph I aim to depict a moment in time in a domestic setting. Real people in a real place but constructed to convey something unseen. My hope is that there is enough of an ‘open’ narrative to interest the viewer and evoke a response’

I’ve been so pleased and encouraged by the comments I received indicating how the composition and various signs within it connoted a range of narratives.

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills

I think my technical skills have improved during the past two months. Dealing with lighting and setting-up equipment always seemed a difficult task to me but I learned just to see them as tools during the Studio Photography day instead of foreign objects so I can now put everything together reasonably quickly. Additionally I now have a better idea of the steps I need to take to get the type of light I want at least to a reasonably competent level. Gels and green screens etc will have to wait awhile.

In terms of composition – I was clear that I wanted tight framing – as can be seen by the lighting set-up photograph I included that actually shows what was outside the frame. I left just enough in the frame though to draw attention – the cards at the end of the cabinet and the dog’s bone.

I chose the photograph I did despite the dog stepping into the scene – unknown to me because I was focussing inwards at the time. When I first looked at the image on the back screen I thought, “Oh! No!” but looked again and realised that she had introduced that random element – choosing her own decisive moment – as does life in general. This also created a disconnect from the ‘perfection’ of, say, a Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson scene which meant that I wasn’t ‘copying’ either of them.

Quality of Outcome

The comments I received did indicate that viewers read a variety of narrative into the scene and even those who know me were able to suspend disbelief. Indeed, some of them saw more than I had intended, e.g. the matching clothing indicating a couple who are confluent in some respects, despite appearing to be detached and withdrawn at times.

There were times when I was concerned that I was spending too much time reading and reflecting, allied to my anxiety at meeting the Module deadline, but it did work for me because I think all this was a strong foundation for what seemed at the time to be a spontaneous impulse to make a photograph. I wrote several blog posts leading up to the assignment expressing my thoughts on “uncanny’, and the frozen aspect of staged photographs, yet I also knew how this intrigued me and that I was drawn to the psychological undercurrents of Gregory Crewdson’s work. I knew there was something I was struggling with and then an apparently fleeting thought occurred to me.

It seemed to me that, whilst Crewdson might be creating photographs that were eerie, unsettling, difficult to understand on the surface of it, he was speaking about them in a way that pointed towards the existential anxieties that we feel as human beings and usually work to ignore/overcome. – the purpose of life, the push-pull of yearning to be free against the yearning to belong, the uncertainty of being alive and facing the knowledge that we all die one day.

I could well be wrong about Crewdson, but I think that my recognition of my own feelings, especially at that time of year, enabled me to express some of this in the photograph and for it to be seen by viewers. This was the first time I had written a more formal statement. I know this is expected at the next Level and that I need to refine and improve my skills in this respect.

Demonstration of Creativity

I took a risk in enacting a domestic scene and undercurrents in a relationship in my own home and with my own partner. However, he was very willing to collaborate, even though slightly puzzled as to what I was aiming for at times. I think the experiment worked and I was able to transmit something normally ‘unseen’ and not always talked about. I’ve written above about our dog, how she stepped into the scene and I’m pleased this happened because although I do plan photographs I think I do more creative work when I leave myself open to serendipity and her presence serves as a visual metaphor for that.

I’m also pleased that I have managed to encapsulate some of my learning through the Module in this final Assignment. When I look back at my original intentions, here  I see that I met several on the list. The photograph showed a relationship in time and place and conveyed something unseen through using signs, symbols and visual metaphors. I put myself well into the frame and this has been a gradual process since first declaiming that I did not like self-portraits. I think I achieved the “uncanny” in a constructed scene that evoked narrative interpretations in viewers without the use of a caption or textual descriptions. 


 At the time, I know I was anxious about meeting the expectation of the brief and unsure what I might produce but now, looking back, I enjoyed the whole process.

All my reading, research and thinking has been documented along the way and I believe I have increased my understanding and use of constructed photographs within my own practice.

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




Research and Preparation for Assignment 4

In the feedback for Assignment 3 my tutor suggested I have a look at the work of Joanna Vestey (Custodians) and Andy Freeberg (Guardians). I think this was to encourage me to look in more detail at placement of subject in the frame as a follow-on from my assignment work. He also suggested later that I might use one of these as a subject (amongst other photographers mentioned) for Assignment 4. I looked at both series which are similar in intent, except with locations in very different places and with different intentions.

Andy Freeberg,

Andy Freeberg was born in New York City, and now lives in the San Franciso Bay area. He has created several series centring on the Art world – Sentry large entry desks in galleries , serving as barriers , with only the head of the ‘desk sitter’ visible as a human presence and Art Fare – the art fairs where dealers are in plain view talking with prospective purchasers or working on their technology. He refers to these situations as ‘….. living dioramas, where the art world plays itself’. There is a sense of cynicism about his statements – well at least to me. Both these series were taken in the Chelsea neighbourhood of New York.

Guardians is different. The series was shot in the art museums of Russia and he directs our gaze to the women who sit in the galleries watching-over the pieces of art. Instead of the coolness and distance portrayed of the Chelsea NY galleries there is the vibrance and colour of the Russian Art Museums, and the ‘guardians’, although small in the frame, are distinctive, with the expressions on their faces, dressed as they are in their own choice of outfits and colours, and their seated posture. They stand out, which means people will notice them and know they are being watched.

Joanna Vestey 

Joanna Vestey has an MA in Anthropology and Development from the School of Oriental Studies, London in addition to her studies in Photography at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design (now incorporated into the University for the Creative Arts) and Bezalel Academy, Jerusalem. Her series Custodian looks at different subject matter from that of Greenberg– the relationship between the institutions of Oxford and their custodians in a dual sense – within each institution and between institutions. Colours and tones are more muted, human figures seem more distant and, more often than not, their clothes are a similar hue. The title of the series and Vestey’s artist statement invites us to look at the relationship between the institutions and the chosen Custodian – all of whom have different roles within them, some roles being named and others not. Her interest is in multiple time periods and how they can be expressed by a single image, ‘……. how permanence and transience can be seamlessly juxtaposed within the relationship of a custodian to the space they work in’.

Joanna Vestey’s website displays fourteen of the images. Costodians was exhibited at the Oxford Photography Festival during September and October 2014 . There was a further Exhibition during 2015 at the Ashmolean Museum with a book  published by Ashmolean Publications. The book contains 31 plates, with a Foreword by Dr X. A. Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum. In his first paragraph he writes ‘Athough we may fret about today we know our most profound responsibilities are to yesterday and tomorrow; preserving the past for the audiences of the future’ (p. 7 2015). There is also an essay Oxford : The Dark Interior by J. Russell Roberts (p. 9 , 2015), who is a Reader in Photography at the University of South Wales, that appraises the series as a whole and also comments on the relationship of the colleges of Oxford with photography. Joanna Vestey writes her Afterwords at the end of the book (p. 89, 2015). I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed in the book because I don’t think it is large enough, at 23.1×28.5 cm, to show these large scale prints at their very best. I am comparing it here with Peter Marlow’s book the English Cathedral (2013) which is 35.1 x 28.7 cm.

The colours, tones and use of light in the overall series reminded me of the works of Thomas Struth  and Candida Höfer, considering placement of people in the space, their relative smallness in relation to the frame, or absence of them. In an interview with BJP  Vestey herself refers to Höfer’s  monograph Architecture of Absence and the metaphysical aspects of empty buildings where you are dancing with ghosts. I felt curious about the process of the series itself. How did Vestey plan and organise it; what networks did she use; what was the effect of having her subjects chosen for her; how did the institutions choose; who chose; what was in their minds at the time? Indeed, what did the subjects think about being chosen and why were some just named custodian? So many questions that I knew couldn’t be answered because the focus was on only one photograph.

Choice of Photograph for Analysis

I decided to choose one Joanna Vestey’s photographs, rather than a photograph from Andy Freeberg’s Guardians for two main reasons, I thought that I would have more understanding of the culture of Oxford than that of Russia, which, for only a 1000 word essay, would prevent me from wandering too widely in my research. Secondly my eyes were drawn from the first to a particular photograph and I wanted to explore why that had happened

I had done a lot of reading around analysing photographs, see here and here and there are so many different strategies available and categories, approaches, theories to use. I decided to await my reaction to the specific photograph I had chosen. Firstly I emailed Joanna Vestey via her website on 2nd November to ask for permission to download the image for the Assignment and she agreed the same day. Subsequently she also offered to show me the final works but I was not able to do so at this stage due time available to complete the Assignment and her own work schedule. I would still like to visit her studio though to see the photographs in the future.








Professor Paul Smith, Director, Oxford University Museum of Natural History
© Joanna Vestey

It was the foregrounded figure of the dinosaur that called out to me as a punctum in the whole series. An obvious one at this point because of connotations with dinosaurs and large, cumbersome institutions. Having written that though I realise that someone from another country/culture might not experience that pull, so that immediately takes me to context and culture. The caption is factual and brief. The effect of this lack of textual narrative (apart from the relationship of custodian to institution) was to take me into the photograph itself for visual information.

My analysis of the photograph is in the Assignment here so I will not repeat it in this reflection. At first I had thought I might analyse the photograph in terms of Barrett’s suggested new six categories for sorting photographs (p. 63, 2006) and the series certainly fits into Descriptive, Explanatory. I wasn’t sure regarding Interpretative, although, having analysed the photograph I realise that the way it is composed lends itself to subjective interpretation. What I did find was that the way I approached the analysis was looking at its contextual information (ibid, p. 106). I was briefly comparing and contrasting with other photographers (as I have above) before concentrating on the internal context of the formal elements (ibid, p. 26) and describing and then interpreting what I was seeing. Seeing something unexpected in the image – how the objects were grouped and the scaffolding – led me to seek further information not available in the photograph itself. It was at that point that I experienced a dilemma, with only 1000 words available how far would/could I go because, here I was moving away from the photography into social and cultural concerns regarding the function of museums , history and funding? In the event I decided to briefly refer to this.

I enjoyed the analysis and exploring the connotations. To some extent I did wander off into looking for more information on Dr Paul Smithconservation and funding issues. There is an interesting video included in a report on a meeting held in November 2013 that discussed whether or not natural history collections were the poor relations of the museum world in terms of being funded. I did manage to contain my researches though.

Further thoughts

I enjoyed the analysis and exploring and interpreting the connotations that arose for me. I was intrigued by how this two-dimensional image drew me in to explore the photograph as if I was actually there and I think that the formal elements in the photograph contributed to this. This was a very good example of how one photograph can tell a story because there is such a wealth of visual information to explore. It has led me on to think about narrative – how the individual elements in the frame acted as relay and anchor as my eyes travelled the frame and stopped to reflect at various points.

Another aspect that occurred to me was, if it wasn’t for the Director in his modern suit, how would I know when this photograph was taken because it was history I was looking at. I opted for calling him ‘Director’ rather than by his name because I think he was standing as representative of all previous Directors and their care for the Museum.

I still have those unanswered questions about the overall series and it would be good to obtain some answers.

I have also since thought a lot about history and its role in all cultures carrying the stories of us as people, groups, nations and reinforcing cultural norms and expectations. How one of the first things that those waging war might do is to destroy the books and historical artefacts of previous cultures as has happened recently in Syria.Thinking about the dinosaur (and the dodo that also resides in the Museum) why do we gaze upon these whilst killing off so many species of animals over the centuries and continuing to do so now as some struggle to survie. What does the dinosaur represent for us?


Barrett, T (2006) Criticizing Photographs : An Introduction to Understanding Images 4th Edition, NY McGraw-Hill,
Marlow, P. (2013) the English Cathedral, London, Merrell Publishers Ltd
Vestey, J; Sturgis, Dr A, Roberts, R (2015) Custodians, Oxford Ashmolean Museum Publications (Accessed on 6 December 2015) (Accessed on 6 December 2015) (Accessed on 6 December 2015) (Accessed on 3 December 2015) (Accessed on 3 December 2015) (Accessed on 4 December 2015) (Accessed on 4 December 2015) (Accessed on 4 December 2015) (Accessed on 3 December 2015) (Accessed on 6 December 2015) (Accessed on 6 December 2015)