Assignment 1: Photograph as Document – Reflection


1: Demonstration of Visual Skills

I don’t think these are the best pictures I have submitted for an OCA assignment and feel that the overall presentation is more of a sketch than it is a finished piece of work. I think it works, but more as a pointer towards what it could be than as the thing itself.

After hardly touching a digital camera in the 5 years leading up to me starting the OCA BA, I used little else for my work on The Art of Photography. This was mostly due to the need to establish a quick turnaround of pictures as I went through the exercises, without needing to wait for processing and then undertake the work of scanning and cleaning up the resulting files, but it also I think freed me to experiment more with what I was doing.

It therefore seems a bit odd to return to using film for an assignment that will not result in some physical artefact but I think the need for square images at least goes some way towards justifying this change in my working practice. Certainly, as I would like to carry on using film for some of the work I do here, it is a good thing that it points up a need to get better at scanning and at colour correction.

In the middle of trying to get this assignment into some sort of shape, I emailed Garry, my tutor to let him know I would be late. At that point, I didn’t think it would be this late. But anyway, I included some pictures as evidence that I hadn’t just been sitting doing nothing, Garry’s response was marvellous:

I have to say I have had a little look at the work in the dropbox you sent me. This is a really interesting and effective look at the street and the social changes/prejudices happening. […]
Take your time with the colour shop frontages. Try to make them square front facing. I understand this is problematic as you don’t want to be seen or impose yourself.

I had sent in the contacts of the 3 rolls of MF film I had taken on the high street. They were all shot from further back than would have provided an uncropped square of the shop front, so I had always expected to need to adjust the framing a bit. Where I was surprised was with how many of the pictures were not parallel to the shop – I thought I had managed to get this better than the developed pictures showed that I had.

Rather than do a reshoot at that point, I worked with the scans of the negatives and straightened the images out where possible and cropped in to create a standard view of a shopfront. Mostly i have been successful I think and this allowed me to move onto the main thing that has got in the way of submitting the assignment – finding a way to present the images so they could articulate the idea I was working with to express what it was that I was trying to say.

The various methods i have used to try to refine the layout of the sets of images has always returned to some sort of physical presentation – I have stood and looked at prints laid out on the floor, I have blutacked prints to the wall. I have looked and looked and then tried to replicate the results here in WordPress.

This has thrown up a variety of things that I hadn’t thought about earlier:

  • In the “swamped” series, it would be better if I had managed to choose shops that had similarly configured doors and windows to replace the ones that were being edged out.
  • I could have done a lot more with the people between me and the shops. There’s a couple of ones I really like – the cluster of people in front of the newsagent; the man seated outside Iceland – but I could have done a lot more with this, changing the directions people were walking and matching (or mismatching) the sort of people pictured in front of the different sorts of shop.
  • I should have paid a lot more attention to where a cropped version of the picture would place the bottom of the wall and the sign space above the door – the constructed “street” could have a much greater sense of continuity to it.

So now, I think I should go back and do a total remake at some point before I put this module in for assessment. I should pay more attention to the internal geometry of the images and I should work knowing what will lead to what in the finished presentation. I also should be much more rigid in choosing the lighting conditions for when I shoot the pictures. The contrasts in the pictures used here are generally to high to allow a clear view of both the inside and the outside of the shop, particularly when there is sunshine involved.

Possibly the reshoot should take place, before the end of winter between four and five in the afternoon. The shops would be open with their lights switched on. I would be forced to use a tripod as well, which would certainly help with keeping the geometry of the shots constant throughout the series’.

Then, I should have a go at finding a better way of presenting them online…


2: Quality of Outcome:

I think this is ok (if you ignore my issues discussed above with the photos themselves). The idea is a good one for the assignment, and I believe I have gone some way towards realising it.

The problems I have here are in the main to do with the extent to which I had the idea and then tried to take pictures to illustrate it. By knowing very early on what I wanted the finished thing to look like, I probably short-circuited processes of evolution that may have happened if I had had less of an sense of “I’m taking pictures that will go together to look like this, and say that” and instead let something happen over time. Instead, I seem to have always been trying to push anything new back towards the idea I had when I started.

Based on this, I maybe should wait longer before going out to do my reshoot…


3: Demonstration of Creativity:

I think the idea at the heart of this assignment – that the belief that we are being flooded with incomers is wrong and that instead, new people, new ideas and new things invigorate the way we experience our day to day surroundings until they become almost invisible to us to the extent that chicken tikka massala is our national dish while we speak an odd hybrid of latin, german and french, with smatterings of colonially appropriated words thrown in – has been translated into a visual form.

(And – by way of digression – I should note here that typing the word “incomers” reminded me that that is one of the ways Orcadians refer to people who originated out of the islands, as my family did; while I was born in Kirkwall, my accent marked me out as being “other” to some extent; while Orkney is deeply embedded in my consciousness, there is always a sense in which I have felt an outsider looking in; at its worst, this can lead to a sense of superiority, at its best, this can give interesting – exciting sometimes – perspectives on things which others may find normal; probably, this is worth examining…)

I have tended here towards the cold end of the engagement spectrum; my assignment is definitely a lot more head than it is heart. And I suspect that this is a general tendency in my work overall: the idea that are beginning to form for Assignments 2 and 3 are similarly distanced from the emotional experience of being me. While I don’t think they are any less true for this, it may be an idea to try and think of something a bit more visceral for one of them. Certainly I should try for something more steeped in emotion for some if not all of the exercises…

4: Context:

I think this is where I have been experiencing the most difficulty with this part of the course. I have been taking photographs, I have done a lot of reading, I have been quite a few exhibitions and I have thought a lot about what I have seen, done and read. It makes sense to me and I think I have a much better understanding of the issues around truth, documents and documentary and around the relationship between subjectivity and the object than I did four months ago. The issue lies with those four months: it’s taken me far too long to get to the point where I am typing this…

My ability to turn thoughts and ideas into writing (or at any rate finished, polished writing – there are screeds of notes in the margins of books, on exhibition guides and in at least two notebooks and my diary) has been woefully slow and I’m not really sure why. When I read what I have written it is generally good and seems to make sense; it appears to be heading towards the conclusions I want to reach; the difficulty is in finishing it off and hitting the WordPress publish button. Likewise, I am generally happy with the pictures I am taking, but again getting to the point where I make them publish is taking longer and longer.

In other words, I appear to be developing an editing problem. This must be nipped in the bud, I think, starting with part two. I think I need to write shorter posts and not aim for a definitive summation of my position each time. It worries me a bit that the more certain the idea I have of what it is I’m trying to do, the harder it seems to put it down as complete.

If no work of art is ever finished, rather it is cast aside in disgust (a paraphrase of someone’s statement which I could spend a fair amount of time trying to track down for attribution) I must find a quicker route to dissatisfaction, or at least recognise when the returns on further work start to become marginal at best.

Much more so than with the art of photography, this feels like it’s about learning to learn and learning to process. There is not so much practical taking photographs, and an awful lot more sitting and reading, sitting and thinking. I have found it quite hard to turn the ideas that are churning around in my head into some sort of output.

Twice now, i have managed to grab an idea from something I have been reading and then later, when I want to find it again, to get its attribution correct, or just to remind myself of what had actually been said or who said it, I have not been able to relocate it. I have been taking notes while reading, but obviously not enough of them, or the right sort. Or something.

(The missing ideas, incidentally are:  a counter to Barthes’ characterisation of photographs as memento mori, holding the opposing view that instead photographs can preserve the past as a continuous present, adding immortality rather than being a presentiment of death; the idea that the instant of an event in the news is now captured by video, while stills do the more considered follow up stuff.)

I will try to finish off the remaining draft posts from this section of the module, but it is not my priority at the moment. Rather, part two shall be done (if not perfected) by the Ides of March.

Watch this space…

3 thoughts on “Assignment 1: Photograph as Document – Reflection

  1. Judy Bach

    Really thoughtful reflections . I can empathise with your ‘editing problems’ , I spend far too long over blog posts and assignments frequently going round in ever decreasing circles getting nowhere fast. I think your assignment is a really interesting study of social change , something you can continue to investigate . Well done.

  2. schirgwin Post author

    Thanks Judy! I think I need to concentrate more on the log aspects of this, rather than trying to come up with finished essays. Something written every time I do something course related, even if it’s just a note for myself really. Using the “Notes” category more and just getting used to generating output.

  3. schirgwin Post author

    And from today’s edition of Today (Radio 4) – Nick Clarke was talking to people in Dunstable who are leaning towards voting no in EU referendum and, at last, I got a perfect quote to be cut down and used as the caption for the first series/sequence of pictures when I rework this for assessment:

    “The high street is no longer English; and the foreign people do not shop in English shops so the English shops will slowly die down as the Eastern European supermarkets expand” (Today, BBC Radio 4; 5/2/16 08:15)


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