Category Archives: Context & Narrative

My Learning Log for the Open College of the Arts’ course, Photography 1 – Context and Narrative

finis – looking back at Context and Narrative

Out of all the topics covered in this course, which felt most comfortable to you? Why?

Part four, where we had to look at and analyse other people’s pictures was probably the most comfortable bit of the course for me. My original degree (in English Literature and Film & TV Studies, at Glasgow way back in the 80s) had introduced me to critical theory; it was not a great stretch to look at still photographs from  the position of someone trying to establish a meaning beyond the simple surface one of “this is a view,” “this is Uncle Albert,” “this is me at the pyramids” and instead to try and tease out what it is that they mean, culturally. I also think that this has fed into how I look at other people’s photographs, whether they are in books or on the wall at exhibitions or encountered in the wild as part of my day to day life.

Near the time when I started this course, iI went a few times to see the Shirley Baker show at the Photographer’s gallery; last week, I went for a second time to see the Roger Mayne pictures in the same venue. Where I had looked at Baker’s pictures from the outside, relating what they depicted to my own experience of childhood and of the north of England and memory, I was aware that I was looking at Mayne’s pictures trying to identify his thought process as he lined up objects in relation to the frame in some of his wider photographs of the Park View estate in Sheffield; I looked at the slide show from the 1964 Milan Trienalle and found myself analysing how the five streams of colour pictures combined to produce meaning as much as I was thinking about what the showed.  Parallel to my development as a photographer, there is a related development as a viewer. The two feed off one another.

This is, I think, quite important and can only become more so, as i process not only what photographs I want to take but also what I want to do – to say, rather – with them.


Did you discover anything completely new to you? What was it?

Before I started the course, I had had little experience of making pictures in a studio. The closest I had come to this had been some of the exercises for part four (lighting) of TAoP, but these had been mostly concerned with the technical aspects of working with artificial light, rather than using a studio set-up to construct meaning. I have never even sold anything on ebay,  in part because I have never got round to making good pack shots for sale items.

So, the work I did l for assignment 2 and assignment 5 was a much greater departure for me than it might at first seem. Likewise, the self-portraits that form the centre-piece of assignment 3 required the creation of a space where I could take head and shoulder self-portraits with a plain backdrop. All this was achieved up in the attic where I have my study. I learnt a lot, I think, and intend to go on and learn more.

Then, putting the resulting pictures together – either by assembling them into individual composite images or arranging them in series – seems to offer a way to create a more controlled meaning for my work than would be possible with streams of “reality pictures”. I would appear to have found a parallel method to augment the diary sequences that were also produced during my work for part three.


Which area enabled you to come closest to finding your personal voice?

As mentioned above, taking photographs in a controlled, studio situation (and sometimes combining them into composite images) is opening up a new area of photography that I would like to examine further. However, this has yet to be fully assimilated into what I am still learning to call “my practice”. So, the area of the course which saw the biggest change in what I am doing with photography was probably Part Three where I think I took several steps towards its stated aim, of putting more of myself into the picture.

In particular, the streams of diary pictures I took on trips seem to describe my experience of being in different places, with different people much better than previous series of pictures taken in similar circumstances. They are less concerned with technique (and equipment) and more focused on the place i was moving through and the people I was travelling with or meeting. They also allowed me a space where I could try out things I had noticed and liked in other photographer’s work. Finally, I may have found a way of maintaining a photographic sketchbook!

A few weeks ago, I jotted down in my notebook a phrase to describe what I think I may now be doing: “I take photographs to locate myself within time and within change.” I realise this all sounds quite portentous (and indeed the spell check just suggested “pretentious” – ha!), but amongst it all I hope there are things I can begin to identify as characteristic: humour, a certain distance, an interest in the world around me as I move through it…


Which area seemed furthest  from who you want to be as a photographer? Why?

To find something I have no desire to pursue further, I’d need to go back to my strong negative reaction to the extreme pictorialism of Geoffrey Crewdson’s tableaux.

I find his pictures as unconvincing in their attempt to control every aspect of their of their meaning as the Victorian story pictures by the likes of Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson which seems to be their direct ancestors. Equally Victorian, they seem melodramatic in their approach – using heightened colour and ‘strangeness’ to signify a preferred emotional reading that leaves no space for any form of intellectual analysis – and in no way seem rooted in the society and the world which we inhabit. They are static and – ultimately, i feel – a little shallow.

I think the engagement with society found in the constructed realities of Jeff Wall (in The Mimic, say) or Cindy Sherman’s series of Untitled Film Stills is much closer to where I would like to go with my photography.

Of course, I will go and see Crewdson’s upcoming show at the Photographers’ Gallery, but it will take a lot more to convince that there is much more to them than their (admittedly highly accomplished) surface!


What were the main things you learnt? Were there any epiphany moments?

There were, I think, three things that were central to what  I “got” from Context and Narrative:

  1. It doesn’t have to be ‘true’! I am not taking pictures that will be used as evidence in any court; rather I am making pictures with a machine; they may show traces of the things I choose to point my camera at, but they also show traces of that process. I can use pictures to say subjective things, but I cannot say simply, “This is definitely a pipe”.
  2. Picking up on some of the exercises from Part 2 as well as a re-reading of Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, I have moved closer to a position of seeing that photography has a greater affinity for poetry than it does for prose.  Alec Soth puts it well in this quote from the 2006 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize catalogue: “I see poetry as the medium most similar to photography […] What is essential is the ‘voice’ (or ‘eye’) and the way this voice pieces together fragments to make something tenuously whole and beautiful.” To that I would add that poetry does not have to be etherial or ‘soft’; it is possible to use it to engage with the society we inhabit and to try and tease out stuff that has meaning now, and hopefully in the future as well. And this is much more to do with making images rhyme with one another or to provoke associations than it is to illustrate poems.
  3. Two years ago my thoughts on what constituted “good” photography were based on things I had absorbed while I was growing up; somehow I had stopped actively seeking out what was happening now and as a result my idea of what constituted “cutting edge” photography was getting increasingly blunt. Now, I think I have a much better idea of what  people who are working today are doing and am beginning to make a parallel move forward in my own work. Before starting with the OCA, I may not quite have entered the 21st century photographically, but I certainly am making an effort to do so now!

None of this came to me in the blinding flash of epiphany, instead, it was a steady accumulation over the course of the module. As described in my posts detailing what I was doing with assignment 5, I felt each section of the course built on the previous ones with ideas developing and changing as I moved (horribly slowly) forward. And of course, it is possible that the slowness was essential to this process.

But now, I really do need to speed up a bit…


Will you return to any of the assignments from this course at a later date? Did you feel as if you were on the cusp of anything?

I hope so! I have already committed to having another go at the still life that forms the heart of the final assignment.

For this assessment, I have reworked both of Assignments 1 and 2 and, having found a way to address the problems I had with assignment 1, would like to take that one a bit further towards being a completed work. Assignment 2 is finished really, but has allowed me to find a working method – specimen photographs of personal objects taken under controlled circumstances, compiled into larger compositions – which I am sure I will use again.

Taking objects and turning them into photographic ‘scrapbooks’ is something I would like to try with – amongst other things –  the stuff you collect over the course of a trip away from home, which could then be used to augment further series of diary pictures (something else I’d like to carry on doing from time to time) or to catalogue the clothes worn by my daughter since her birth and providing a record of the way she has grown over the past four years.

Assignment 3 has gone as far as I really want to take it photographically but, when I have time, I would like to work on using it as the basis of a web application that could cycle through the full 32,400 combinations of my self-portrait. I am rusty with javascript and php but it shouldn’t be beyond me to something in this line. On a number of occasions now, I have been frustrated by my inability to go much beyond a very straightforward presentation of a number of photographs on a page or in a basic slideshow; I would like to create something a bit more presentationally complex from time to time and this would be a good project to experiment with.

As for being on the cusp of something, I think Garry’s comment towards the end of our final tutorial – “You’ve turned into a conceptual artist” – encapsulates nicely my development during this module. On a first reading, Identity and Place looks like it will cover many of the same areas  (and draw its examples from many of the same photographers) as context and Narrative, but with more emphasis on looking out at other people rather than in at myself.It will be a challenge not to fall back into simply recording the surface of what I see but I hope I will be able to find strategies to get round this and work in a way that acknowledges the context that links me and the subjects that I am making pictures of. Let’s see…

Photographs for Purposes of Identification

Identification photographs have a number of strict rules. For example:

“The photo must be of the applicant: facing forward and looking straight at the camera in close-up of their face, head and shoulders with a recommended head height (the distance between the bottom of the chin and the crown of the head) of between 29 and 34 millimetres with a neutral expression and with the mouth closed (no smiling, frowning or raised eyebrows) with their eyes open and clearly visible […] free from reflection or glare on glasses, and frames must not cover eyes (we recommend that, if possible, glasses are removed for the photo) showing their full head, without any head covering, unless they wear one for religious beliefs or medical reasons with no other objects or people in the photo (this also applies to a photo of a baby or young child and babies should not have toys or a dummy in the photo)” – HM Passport Office – Passport Photograph Guidance

“…the photograph must have been taken within the last six months; the applicant should not look down or to either side [ …] angled views are NOT accepted; the photos must be clear, well defined and taken against a plain white or light-colored background; sunglasses or other wear which detracts from the face are not acceptable unless required for medical reasons (an eye patch, for example)” – Russian Visa Photo Specification

All of this should lead to something that is unequivocally me, but certain bits – in particular the UKPA requirement for me to take off my glasses – seem to make them remarkably unlike the Simon Chirgwin who looks out at me while I shave in the morning.

I find ID pictures suggest different personas – the harrassed middle-aged dad (my old driving licence) – or different fictional circumstances – me, chained to a radiator in Beirut (my pass for work). None of them are really me, but various officials agree to conspire with me that they are…


  • HM Passport Office – Passport Photograph Guidance –
  • Russian Visa Photo Specifications –

Links accessed, 8/8/16

Assignment 5 – Tutor’s Response

online tutorial – 21-iv-17

The tutorial was again wonderfully positive: “Well contextualised work on identity using a still life of groceries with a constructed strategy appraised from Barthes’ italianicity . Well referenced.” And then towards the end of the tutorial, almost as an aside: “You’ve turned into a conceptual artist…” Continue reading

NFTU #4 – A Blinding Flash!

Moscow – Hotel Warshawa, Room 518 (2016)

I was reading the chapter of David Bate’s book Art Photography where he considers “Archives, Networks and Narratives” and had reached the section that dealt with Sophie Calle’s Hotel Room photographs (pp 115-119). The work is made up of pictures taken by Calle while she was working as a cleaner in a Venetian hotel. They are a record of the possessions guests had left out, scattered around their rooms. The pictures are supported by Calle’s account of her employment and what she found in the rooms and when.  They allow you to construct a picture of the people staying in the rooms from the objects they have left behind. There is a distinct sense of surveillance and the collection of evidence. Looking at the pictures (I had first become daware of them in 2010 during the big Tate Modern show, Exposed ) you begin to wonder what the cleaner thinks of you as they clean your hotel room. Just what sort of person can be constructed from the things you leave lying around? Continue reading

photograph as document – general thoughts on C&N part 1

“But is is real, Simon?”

It is March 2003 and I am standing in the snow at the big crafts, antiques, art and soviet tat market at Ismailovsky Park in Moscow. Mike – a colleague from work – is holding a rather lovely bakelite radio that looks as if it is from the early sixties. In the end he will not buy it and then spend lots and lots of time regretting not having bought it, despite my answer that, a: it looked fairly real to me, and b: that it was a lovely thing and obviously gave Mike pleasure as an object. So what did its provenance really matter?

I thought about this exchange quite a lot during the first part of this course. Continue reading

Putting Yourself in the Picture: Project # 3 – Self-Absented Portraiture

after shafran – chirgwin, 2017

“Go to the artist’s website and look at the other images in Shafran’s series. You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.

Coursebook (p.87)

1: Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?

While I cannot think of any male photographer’s whose work includes large chunks of the sort of scrutiny of their (naked) self that you find in Woodman’s work, or who would document the way going through IVF-treatment with their partner (or even just ” trying for a baby”) effects them in the way Brotherus does, there are plenty of women who take pictures of mundane details from their lives. Indeed, there is a strand of this running through Brotherus’ Annonciation.

So, I wasn’t at all surprised that Shafran’s washing up pictures were taken by a man, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been taken by a woman either. Continue reading