Exercise 2.1

The following notes summarize my reflection on how Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project compares with W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor. I have made notes on each of these two essays separately in previous blog entries (see links to my notes on Country Doctor here and to The Dad Project here).

Both The Dad Project and Country Doctor attempt to document a series of events but while the former has a clear chronological feeling to it, Smith’s essay is presented as a series of vignettes or mini stories that are chronological within themselves but that could come in any order within the essay without altering the end result. In that respect, Country Doctor feels more like snapshots at a specific point of somebody’s life, rather than a path along it.

W. Eugene Smith made the effort to be invisible in the scene and consequently Country Doctor is a detached, cold account of the events and consequently, feels objective. At no point in the series one feels that Smith is emotionally affected by what is happening in the frame. His point of view and execution feels like that of a press photographer. His pictures are dramatic, contrasty and skillfully composed and angled to maximise impact. While the pictures, as originally intended for magazine publication, are accompanied by captions, many of them are very clear and unambiguous on what they are portraying and it would be fairly straightforward to follow the story even without the written aids. This contrasts with The Dad Project, which feels a lot more ambiguous and difficult to understand as a sequence. The story in The Dad Project was not about the photographer’s dad, but more about her relationship with him at the time of his terminal illness and death, and as a result she appears in many of the images. The involvement of the photographer with the subject and the difficulty of the circumstances being portrayed makes the photographs in here more subtle, indirect and more subjective. Yet, while it is harder to follow than Country Doctor, The Dad Project still makes visual sense when viewed in sequence.

The format and presentation of Country Doctor was somewhat pre-determined at the time of shooting. W. Eugene Smith was working on a commission from LIFE and the photographs were always intended to be published as a magazine feature. The pictures are also available now on their own, online and in book form, but they seem somehow to have left W. Eugene Smith control once they were shot. As I mentioned previously in my separate notes for Country Doctor (link), it feels like the editorial team in LIFE had a great deal of control over which pictures were included and how they were presented or captioned. I could not find any evidence that Smith made any further attempts to recycle this material into other projects. This also contrasts with Briony Campbell’s approach in The Dad Project, as the material has been presented in a multitude of formats and media, including magazine / newspaper features, exhibitions and in book form. In addition to photographs, Campbell also makes use of video in the project, which altogether enriches the experience. Because the The Dad Project is not merely a chronicle of somebody dying, but instead tries to explore the relationship between the photographer and her father, the project does not feel as if it was complete. The photographer seems to be using this material as a way of continuing that relationship, beyond her father’s passing, and the project seems to be morphing over time to explore different aspects of this. In fact, looking at Campbell’s notes (1), one gets the impression that she only began to figure out how to use the photographs and video footage she captured long after she finished principal photography, and she has allowed the material to be shaped not only by herself, but also by others. This continuous exploration, all of which is happening after the photographs were taken and without any possibility of re-taking them, is probably what Campbell refers to when she mentions that The Dad Project “is the story of an ending without an ending”

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(1) Campbell, B. (2011). The Dad Project. [online] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017]

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Research notes – The Dad Project

The following notes are made after looking at The Dad Project by Briony Campbell. Some images from this project, as well as a video edited for an article in The Guardian are available from her website, together with notes in connection with the project (1).

The Dad Project started as a project for Campbell while she was completing her masters studies, shortly after her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. While various people cautiously encouraged her to document her father’s final days, she was initially anguished by the idea, doubting at various points whether to go ahead or not, and not knowing for a long time how to approach the project or when or what to photograph.

Campbell explains all of this in very extensive notes (2), providing not only details of her state of mind when approaching the subject, but also giving very interesting insights into what a photographic project of this type entails and how her feelings and thoughts ended up being inseparable from the shape the project would eventually take. There are various moments in which she seems to be taking pictures without a clear plan, and feeling unsure about whether she is repeating herself or not . There are three crucial points for me in her account of the events. The first one is the moment in which she realises that “The fact that I couldn’t shot everything was the story” (3) , rationalizing her hesitation about taking pictures when her father lost his balance and dropped a glass full of milkshake on the floor. This to me represents the insight process that is necessary in photography, but that is often elusive and can pass us by unless we make a conscious effort to be open to ideas and thoughts that may be unfamiliar. Campbell makes good use of this idea (ie not shooting everything) in some of the images, particularly towards the end, when she decides to focus on parts (like hands, throats, partially obscured headshots – see for instance here and here) in a way that deflects her grief. The second point I found particularly interesting is how she consulted with other practitioners (such as fellow photographer Leonie Hampton and her master’s tutor) as part of the project process. This may seem like an obvious point, but is one that I have personally overlooked too often, particularly out of fear that by sharing ideas the project may somehow be diluted or become less personal. The truth of the matter is that without an exchange of ideas the insight process that I alluded to in my previous point may never happen. I must make a mental note of this for the future.

The final point which I found interesting was the process of transformation of the project after shooting, to final selection and presentation. Campbell makes reference to her being unsure about how put the pictures together at first, agonising about the difficulty of presenting “…our story from every possible perspective” (4). She then finds inspiration from one of her late father’s ideas, that one has to take a position in order to understand others’, in order to move ahead. I quite liked the analogy she used for this, based on shoes:

we shouldn’t feel tied to one pair of shoes just because we have stepped into them. We shouldn’t worry that we’ll become know as someone who wears only that type of shoe, and have to wear them forever to maintain our identity. But we should choose a pair and walk around in them for a while. Once we’ve gained an understanding of what the world looks like with these shoes on, we’ll be better equipped to try on another pair, and to understand that what we see wearing the second pair is richer for having worn the first pair. Unfortunately, we can’t wear all the shoes at once, but if we chose one pair to start with, we can begin to see. (4)

Campbell initial presentation of the project, which she called “The First Edit” (5) was in the form of a book, but she subsequently adapted this to other means of presenting the material, including various exhibitions (as part of her master studies, and then subsequently in the Photographer’s Gallery in London together with other artists), magazine and newspaper features, both within the UK and internationally, and even through radio interviews. Through this process, Campbell has allowed part of the material to fall outside her control, with mixed results (at least from her perspective). She seemed to be particularly upset about Die Zeit’s editorial treatment in one of the magazine features, which added their own interpretations of Campbell’s views on the project (6), but at the same time she mentions that the supportive reaction of the public to the material has encouraged her to go further and eventually muster the courage to share the more painful pictures, which were initially excluded from “The First Edit”. The process of presenting, reshaping and presenting again the material that she describes is quite fluid and clearly illustrates the point that a photographic project can constantly be revisited and reinvented, and in reality never ends.

The photographs that Campbell includes in her website to illustrate The Dad Project are a mixture of portrait and landscape shots. All the images were shot in colour and they do not seem to have been heavily edited, with the colours and the lighting being relatively flat in many pictures, some of which have uncorrected colour casts. Campbell makes use of very shallow depth of field in some of the images, particularly towards the end of the series, and this, together with the use of flare and reflections, gives an aura of otherworldliness to some of the shots (see for instance here and here). Some of the shots are out of focus or appear to be misfocussed (for example, this and this other one), but I do not believe this deliberate in any way, but more the consequence of the uniqueness of the circumstances, which probably did not allow for second chances when taking a shot. I presume that the photographer prefered to include these pictures, even with their technical imperfections, because they serve the dual purpose of illustrating both a moment, and the difficulties the photographer faced on a personal level, confronted with very painful circumstances while also trying to capture such moment for posterity.

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(1) Briony Campbell. 2017. The Dad Project – Briony Campbell | Photography & Film. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/?overview. [Accessed 08 August 2017].

(2) Campbell, B. (2011). The Dad Project. [online] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 16 Aug. 2017]

(3) Idem, p. 5

(4) Idem, p. 9

(5) Idem, p. 10

(6) Idem, p. 11

Exhibition notes – Benedict Drew at the Whitechapel Gallery

The following notes are written after visiting the exhibition by Benedict Drew entitled The Trickle-Down Syndrome, staged at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London. The show comprises various installations spread across 5 separate spaces and according to the exhibition notes, these continue “…the artist’s exploration into materiality, where the physical and digital meet” (1).

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

The first installation, welcoming the visitor into the first gallery, comprises a single flat screen TV set fixed to the wall. From the back of this screen emerge a series of hand painted thick lines, like a web, going in all directions: the floor, the ceiling and the adjacent walls. The lines immediately and effectively draw the attention of the viewer into the TV set, which contains a continuation of these lines, leading to a throbbing undefined item, resembling nothing I am familiar with. Sounds come out of the TV set, complementing the lines in grabbing my attention. I am somewhat looking at this strange shape, in the middle of the screen, for a good minute or so, like hypnotised, without really understanding much about what is going on. And then it came to me that this may be the entire point of this installation, to highlight how easily we are grabbed by the senses into a situation, object or person, almost unconsciously and without rationalizing why we are doing it or whether it does make sense to do this. I can relate that to many things I do in life these days, including taking pictures of objects that grab my attention but then mean nothing much.

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

On the corner of one of the rooms, the artist has placed piles of newspapers, some of them neatly folded and arranged one on top of the other, but other scattered around the place, either crumbled or simply displaced from the neat pile. People is invited to pick up a copy of the newspaper, and inevitably they all pick one from the neat pile. In the process, they may create a further mess, by displacing other copies. Eventually, if the exhibits goes for sufficiently long, I expect the neat pile to disappear and people will then have to grab a crumbled one, if they really wanted it, or just leave it there and pass. I, like many others, was attracted to the opportunity of grabbing a new copy of the newspaper, as a memento of the exhibit, but my reaction would have been different if there were only crumbled or used ones left. We are attracted to what is new and shiny, but sometimes pass on or deliberately avoid the unattractive aspects of life. Maybe there is merit in looking for those, and documenting them, even if only to be reminded that they also shape what we are.

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

Inside a very small room there is an audiovisual installation comprising three TV sets and a pair of speakers. The room is not bigger than about 30 ~ 40 square feet and comprises three walls and an opening covered with a plastic strip curtain rather than a door. There are no windows. A TV set is placed against each of the walls, with the pair of speakers being arranged on each side of the TV set opposite the room entrance. In the main set, we have two hands, with palms up, on which some sort of computer-generated animation has been placed. The cartoon comprises two rods placed on top of rectangular sheets about the size of the palms. The rods move together with the hands, while sounds come out blasting from the speakers. I spend a good time looking at this and nothing particularly came to my mind, other than to make the connection with the point made by Paul Seawright, in a video referenced in the course guide (link)(2), about the fine balance in art between giving too much meaning away to the viewer and being obscure. After looking at Drew installation it occurred to me that for some artist being deliberately obscure may be a valid strategy, particularly if the point that he or she may be trying to convey is the confusion created by the rapidly changing paradigms of human interaction in our age, which I believe is part of what Drew’s work is about. In the presentation to the exhibit, the Artist provided the following statement

The work contains a sense of the handmade, idiosyncratic, provisional and fantastical. I am interested in the feeling of submersion in social and environmental despair, being overwhelmed by images, confused by the shifting status of objects, disoriented by layers of history, trying to generate a state of being where you can escape, and seeing escape as a potent form of resistance, ecstatic protest.

Benedict Drew

If the point of this installation were that there could be so many different interpretations, all of them divergent but equally valid, would that be a valid point? Could the point of art be to obfuscate? These are the ideas that cross my mind when looking at this particular piece.

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

The final part of the exhibition has what I consider to be giant milk jugs, beautifully decorated on the inside and all of them adapted to work as lamps. The rooms where these are is large and dark and the jugs, which was on the floor as well as hanging from the ceiling, project something that resemble speaking bubbles, like the ones found in comics, but inside these bubbles we see no words, but the shadows of giant cutlery, also hanging from the ceiling.

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Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

The installation includes familiar items (the jugs) in an unfamiliar setting creating forms (ie the bubbles), which are also familiar, but are filed with incongruous objects (the cutlery), which are somewhat related to the original idea (ie the milk jugs, like during tea time). This seems to me like a metaphor of our way of thinking and the strange connections that happen in our head and in our interactions with the digital world, when searching for something leads to something else slightly connected and we may end up in a completely different place from where we started.

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(1) Whitechapel Gallery. 2017. Benedict Drew – Whitechapel Gallery . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/benedict-drew/. [Accessed 07 August 2017].

(2) Vimeo. 2017. Catalyst: Paul Seawright on Vimeo. [ONLINE] Available at: http://vimeo.com/76940827. [Accessed 10 July 2017].

Research notes – Country Doctor

The following comments are made after looking at the photo essay Country Doctor, photographed by W. Eugene Smith and first published by LIFE magazine in 1948. The essay, together with accompanying text and additional photographs were found in Time’s website (1)

The essay contains photographs taken by W. Eugene Smith chronicling the life and work of Ernest Ceriani, a country doctor working in a small Colorado town, during a period of 23 days. The photographs, which are all in black and white and were cropped to different sizes (possibly because of the way they originally fitted in the printed magazine), are all accompanied by a descriptive caption. It is not clear if the captions were written by Smith or the editors at LIFE, but they provide first hand information on what is going on at the time each picture was taken. Hence, the photographer must have provided, at least, a description of the situation to the editors. A facsimile reproduction of how the essay looked in the original publication can be found here (2)

As a whole, the images together with the captions provide a coherent account of what is like to be the only doctor in a small town, with a sampler of some of the cases he has to attend to and evidence of how his work affects his personal life. The captions seem to have been slightly romanticized or adapted to fit a certain value narrative that may be attuned to the editorial stance of the magazine or the photographer’s views. The themes of personal sacrifice, devotion to work and stoicism in the face of adversity are repeated throughout the text, alongside more subtle remarks underpinning other traditional Western values such as individualism and freedom. Looking at photograph number 7 in the series (link), for instance, the caption talks about Ceriani making less money as a rural GP than if he had pursued a specialist career in the city, nevertheless this seems to be acceptable to him because, among other things, “he is his own boss”.

The pictures themselves are quite dramatic in terms of angle of view, lighting and composition (see for instance this and this as an example. The latter image was not published by the magazine). W Eugene Smith manages to capture scenes which are quite intimate in a way that looks like he is not there. One of the captions mentions that Smith first accompanied the doctor with film-less cameras in order to allow him and his patient getting used to seeing Smith taking pictures. The result is a higher level of intimacy that we would expect to see from images taken by an outsider in just over three weeks.

As a contemporary observer, I have mixed feelings about this essay. The whole process feels slightly contrived and it is hard to ascertain how much of the final selection, presentation and accompanying text was controlled by the photographer himself, rather than LIFE’s editorial team. Was Smith comfortable about this? Would the end result be any different if he had done the series as a book in which he had more control over the process? My understanding is that he took in the region of 2000 photographs for this assignment, yet only 28 were published by the magazine (less than 2%). Some of the stories (like for instance the one about the patient with the gangrenous leg, images 18-20 in the sequence) are left inconclusive in the magazine article. The captions suggested the patient may be too old or frail to survive the amputation procedure, but an unpublished photograph (number 30 in the sequence) taken after the operation suggest that the patient may have survived the procedure. The selection seems to have been made to maximise impact and suspense, which is probably adequate for a medium like a magazine, but left me wondering if the original material could have been put to better use.

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(1) Time.com. (2017). W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’. [online] Available at: http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ [Accessed 3 Aug. 2017].

(2) W Eugene Smith ‘Country Doctor’ Life magazine-Kremmling Colorado- 1948- Slightly out of Focus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.slightly-out-of-focus.com/W_Eugene_Smith_Doctor.html. [Accessed 04 August 2017].

Assignment 1 – Self-assessment

Following completion of my first assignment for this course, I have made some notes about how I feel the outcome matches the course assessment criteria

Criteria Self-assessment
Demonstration of technical and visual skills – Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills. I feel the images were harmoniously composed and finished to a reasonably good standard. When taking the images, I wanted to make them look as natural and straight as possible, using ambient (natural and artificial) light. This created in some cases illumination difficulties and/or colour balance issues. I have tried to deal with these issues in post-processing, but with hindsight, I would have recreated some of the shots with the aid of light modifiers (eg reflectors) or with fill-in flash.
Quality of outcome – Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas. I am reasonably happy with the overall outcome of the project and in particular, I am pleased with the way I am suggesting this to be presented. I feel that some of the images, particularly in the second series, could have emphasised the points I was trying to make slightly better under different circumstances or with a different set-up. For instance, for the second series I would have preferred the beard to have grown a bit more than just a couple of days, but this was not logistically possible during the timeframe I had for completing the assignment.
Demonstration of creativity – Imagination, experimentation, invention. These sets of images are not what I would normally feel comfortable doing as part of my regular photography and consequently, this assignment was quite experimental for me. Another aspect that required a bit of imagination was to recreate certain situations depicted with the limited resources available. One image I was particularly pleased with was the first one in the first set, emulating a taxi trip, which was taken on the back seat of a compact car moved to a back street near where I live.
Context – Reflection, research, critical thinking. This series was not directly inspired by any of the photographers I looked at as part of my research for part 1 of the course, but the concept and execution was heavily influenced by some ideas I got (link) from the essay “Inside / Out” by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, which first appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition “Public information: desire, disaster, document” held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art between January 18 and April 30 1995. In particular, I wanted to explore the limitations of photography, as a medium which is focused on the surface of things, when trying to express any meaning beyond appearances; while at the same time also exploring the ambiguity and lack of objectivity that may come from having an insider or compromised perspective on the subject.

Assignment 1 – Final set and presentation ideas

Following principal photography and the selection process, I came up with the following two sets. All images are meant to be untitled.

Set 1

Set1-1Set 1-2Set 1-3Set 1-4Set 1-6

Set 2

Set 2-1Set 2-2Set 2-3Set 2-4Set 2-5Set 2-6

I always envisaged these two sets to be joined at the middle. As indicated in my preliminary comments, aside from the personal connection that I may have to some aspects of these personas, I wanted to explore in this assignment the idea of ambiguity and duality and to dissipate any perception that these two characters could not coexist, to a certain extent, in real life. In order to do that, I envisaged the two series to be seen as a sequence of images, like in a book, that could be started at either end both ended together in the middle, in images that almost mirror each other. I have included here a link to a sketched presentation of how this would look like.

The summary notes accompanying my assignment submission can be found here.

 

 

 

Assignment 1 – Photographic process

Once the main idea was set, I though about what I wanted to show in each set. The brief mentioned about producing 5 to 7 photographs per set. I decided in the end to have 5 clearly distinct images for each set, with only two images being similar in content, and representing a “joint” between the two sets. From the outset I decided that I wanted these two pictures to be about shaving, as this is an aspect from my life that separates my work life from my leisure time: I do not normally shave during weekends or while on holidays. As photography is primarily about the exterior (link to some personal observations on this point), I though this was an important visual clue to equally separate and join the two sets.

For the remaining five pair of pictures I wanted to show myself doing similar activities under the guise of each persona: eating, working, relaxing, sleeping and traveling, and to try to separate them as much as possible. In addition to having separation in terms of the activities or the content of such activities, I also wanted the personas to dress differently, to accessorize differently (spectacles and watches are different) and to wear wedding rings in different places. A lot of what the images portray may be considered stereotypes, but they are not necessarily true or false with respect to the subject, or real for that matter, and I have left clues in some of the pictures to hint that all of this may be staged (as it effectively was). Some of the clues (like a text written in the computer screen in one of the pictures, or the use of a purple cloth to cover my jeans in one of the shots in which I wear a jacket and tie) were deliberately put there, while others were genuine mistakes that I decided not to correct (for example, in the picture showing myself as a darkroom worker, the trays shown in the background are simply too small for the size of paper I have under the enlarger, something that would be easily spotted as odd by those looking carefully).

Nearly all the shots were taken indoors, the only two exceptions being the taxi and bus scenes. All the shots were taken with a 28mm lens, as I wanted to include as much of the background as possible while still having relatively close-up shots. Because I took the pictures all by myself, nearly all done by setting the camera on a tripod and using a remote trigger application with a timer set to 10 seconds, in order to allow myself to recompose after pressing the trigger. The bus picture was taken with hand stretched as if I was taking a selfie, as it was not practical to set up a tripod there.

In total, 193 pictures were taken for this assignment, over a period of 6 days. Some of the scenes were re-shot to compare alternative looks. The final images had basic post-processing adjustments, such as light / shadows adjustment, color balance and selective burning / dodging. Cloning was only used twice to remove extraneous spots, but otherwise, images were cropped to remove unwanted elements. In only one set of images, the ones about shaving, the transform tool of Lightroom was used to align certain elements (as these pictures will be shown side by side in the final presentation). All the final images were cropped on a 3:2 aspect ratio and presented on a landscape orientation. Annotated contact sheets can be found here.

Assignment 1 – Preliminary ideas / final concept

For this assignment I considered various options before settling on the final theme:

  1. Within the same area of London, take two series pictures including derelict and new buildings. respectively, to create the illusion of either well off / run-down areas (when the reality is neither of).
  2. A second idea, which followed from the first one, was to take alternative pictures of the north and south bank of the Thames showing derelict / new buildings on either side.
  3. The third idea that came to my mind was to identify something that was happening on the street (eg somebody doing road works, or taking a photograph) and then to split the scene into various shots, each showing incomplete information, with a final series including the complete scene. Each of these shots were then going to be part of a separate series, with the intention being that each series would mean something different when considered individually, as opposed to when the final series puts the series all together.

I considered the first two ideas to be too close to what I am normally familiar with my current photographic practice and only was willing to consider them as a last resort, as I wanted to try something new. For the third idea, I did some preliminary tests (see shots below), but quickly came to the realisation that it was going to be quite a challenge to find sufficient suitable situations in the limited amount of time I had available to complete this (about 3 weeks, as I started to work in earnest during the second week of July) and more importantly, I was not convinced I could build sufficiently cohesive sets. In the end, I decided I was risking too much of a departure from the brief, but this is an idea I would like to revisit sometime in the future, possibly as a long-term project (I envisage it will require many months, if not years, to build a cohesive set).

3rd idea tester – Series 1

3rd idea tester – Series 2

3rd idea tester – Series 3 (full scene)

In the end, I decided to do two alternative series about myself. This is quite a departure for my comfort zone, as I only occasionally do portraits as part of my practice and when I do them, they are rarely self-portraits. The idea was to create two separate sets which show me as two different personas, the “city director” and the “photographer”, both of which are loosely based on aspects of my life but that contain elements which are stereotypes of what we expect these respective roles to do or be. Although the personas are clearly different, I wanted to emphasize the point that they may actually coexist, to a certain degree, within the same person and that both may be simultaneously truthful and misleading. This will play an important role in how I will shoot and present the pictures at the end. The whole set was in part inspired by observations made by Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her essay “Inside / Out” (link to my comments on this), and the lack of objectivity that may result from being in an insider position, and the limitations of photography in showing anything but what appears on the surface.

Exercise 1.5 – The real and the digital

The following observations come from reading the section “The Real and the Digital” in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75.

The article discusses briefly the relationship between “the real” and photography, in the context of the technological advances that have made the manipulation of images ubiquitous in many of today’s photographic practices. One of the points made is that while we have always been conscious that photographic images could be manipulated or altered in a deceitful way, we have also “…been prepared to believe them to be evidential and more “real” than other kinds of images” (idem, p 74), and that it was “…possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography” (idem, p 74). In other words, the perception of authenticity in a photograph is perhaps more influenced by our understanding of the parameters of each type of photographic practice, than by the way its contents are presented or arranged. As an example, the ethical requirements of photojournalism would perhaps incline more people to believe that a press photograph is a more authentic representation of reality than the output of a conceptual artist using just photography as a medium. The article goes on to argue that “Any radical transformation in this [photographic practice] structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph” as a medium to represent the real (idem p. 74), a situation that was underpinned by recent developments in photography leading to the “…merging and lack of definition between photographic genres” (idem p. 75).

In looking at the arguments made by Wells, one has to wonder to what extent the technological advances are actually driving the changes to photographic practices that she mentions in her article. For instance, Wells quotes Campany to make the point that the definition of photography is less dependent on “…what it is technologically than what it is culturally” (idem p 75), but in the age of social media, how can we separate culture from technology? It is difficult to argue that the smart phone, which is the device most commonly used these days to produce photographs, doesn’t determine at the same time how we choose to consume, as a society, photographic images (eg via image sharing applications). This, in turn, is likely to have had a profound impact on our perception of the structure of photographic practices, as the same image repositories (eg Flickr, Facebook, etc) are likely to be used by diverse practitioners (photojournalists, artists, documentarians) to share their images, thus adding to the lack of definition alluded by Wells in the article.

At the same time, and while it is undeniable that image manipulation has always existed, it is also clear that the proliferation of image sharing apps in recent times, all of which offer image editing facilities, have not only made it trivial to alter photographs, but (by means of their social acceptance as the prime way of consuming images) have also contributed to the establishment of aesthetic codes that validate such manipulations. This may be initially circumscribed to a limited subset of photographic practices (eg vernacular photography, art photography), but the blurring of the corners between practices fostered by the sharing of technological platforms should have contributed, at least to an extent, to create an expectation of manipulation for most photographs.

A point can also be made more directly about the speed and ease with which image manipulation can be achieved in modern times. Without even seeking to compare the quality of output in either cases, it should be clear for most practitioners that software manipulation is significantly faster, and generally more consistently reproducible, than even the simplest of analogue photographic manipulations. This in itself is likely to have contributed to greater expectations, by the viewer, of photographic images departing more and more from reality; under the perception that the ease with which they could be manipulated creates ever-increasing temptation for undertaking seemingly innocent alterations. This seems to have been confirmed, at least anecdotally, by the numerous cases of press photographs being disqualified from industry-run contests in recent years (see for instance here and here). In this case, one could argue again that the technological advances have somewhat contributed to the altering of perceived social and cultural structures within certain photographic practices (eg photojournalism in this case).

 

Exercise 1.4 – Digital manipulation

The idea for this exercise came by while I was walking to work. There are quite a lot of road works along my regular route and in many of these there are quite a lot of manholes which are being re-made / repaired. While looking at some of the workers lying the pavement, I started to wander what would be like if somebody was trapped in any of these holes and emerged all of a sudden in the middle of the works, to the amazement of the workers. As I kept walking, I started looking down and paying attention to the rain water drains on the road and how these, even if relatively large (about a foot and a half on each direction), would still be too tight for a relativelly large person to be trapped in them. This is when I made the connection with the idea of documenting something that appears realistic, but on second though could never be: somebody trapped in one of these drains trying to escape.

I took all the photographs on that same morning to make sure the light was as similar as possible: a picture of the drain, two pictures of my hands and a shot of my head and shoulders from above (holding the camera as high as possible over my head). The original pictures are show below:

I started by importing all the images into Photoshop. With the aid of the quick selection tool, I selected the fingers from each of the two hand shots and copied each one into a separate layer. I then used the free transform tool to reduce the size of the fingers and move them around to the correct position and orientation on top of the drain. With the aid of a layer mask and the brush, I painted back the drain on top of the bits of hand that were not needed. Because the hands came out much clearer than the drain, I then added an adjustment layer for levels and another one for saturation in order to tone down the lightness and colour in the fingers (they became quite red when I darken them down). I subsequently selected the head and shoulders from the final shot, using again the quick selection tool, and added them on to the drain image. Free transform was used again to resize and relocate the head, with a layer mask being added to paint back the parts of the drain that I wanted to show up. I then added a bit of Gaussian blur to the head and shoulders to make them slightly out of focus (focus is clearly above the head, on the top of the drain grill). Additional adjustment layers for levels (to darken) curves (to control contrast) and saturation (to reduce redness) were added to the head and shoulders layer.

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Semi-finished image from Photoshop

Following the above, the semi-finished image (see above) was imported into Lightroom where additional adjustments were made to come to the final image: perspective was adjusted, the image cropped, further work was undertaken on the fingers to selectively darken them and to create shadows under them, as well as on the head and shoulders to selectivelly darken or brighten certain areas. The final picture is shown below:

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The photographer trying to scape from a drain