Category Archives: Part 5

exercise 5.3 – a journey

Note the journeys you go on regularly and reflect upon them.

Now photograph them. Remember to aim for consistency in your pictures […] This will help keep your project honed to the subject matter rather than you, the photographer.

IaP Coursebook, p.112

1: Some everyday journeys:

From the bedroom, down to the kitchen to make tea (and while my mug is brewing on to the downstairs bathroom to empty my bladder) and then up to my study in the attic to write up posts.

From the house to school with Alice – three options: on her seat at the back of my bike (although she’s almost too big for this); on her bike; on her scooter. The route for the days when Alice has her own transport is: down to Boundary Road, up St Barnabas Road, turning left half-way up and going straight on into Thomas Gamuel Park, round the corner by the play park and the exercise gear and straight on up the back of Reina’s and into the school play ground at the top. This journey is done in the morning with the light coming from the east.

This is of course totally different from (but with the same endpoint as) the journey with Alice to school from the old house.

The journey home again in the evening, either from Reina’s (Monday and Tuesday) or the school itself (Wednesday and Thursday). There may be a stop off at the playpark if the weather is right. Evening light – from the west. Mostly, I pick up on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when Fiona is on shift, but every four weeks, I do Thursday and Friday. On Friday Alice has a dance class in the village, so we head there instead, rather than home.

And after dropping Alice off at school, the trudge (route 1) or cycle (route2) to the station.

Saturdays to Sainsbury’s and George Monoux (pronounced Monucks, in the same way locals call the town Worfamstow) Academy for Alice’s gym class.

To Stansted. To Heathrow. Sometimes to Luton. On to Glasgow. Or Elsewhere (I did quite a bit of work on this set of journeys as background for part three of Context and Narrative)

The journey to work (cf assignment 3) or indeed assignment 5

The journey in to my workplace – through the barriers, up in the lift, go to the place I regularly hotdesk (fig. 3.3, here) plug in my laptop and then – while it’s booting – off to make coffee and to eat the samosa I bought at the station newsagents as I left the tube from this man:

When the coffee (‘real’ not instant, in a cafetiere cup) has brewed and the samosa has been eaten, I’ll go back to my desk, log on and begin my day.

From the station to home. Via the pub. Via Sainsbury’s. Via the Post Office to pick up a parcel.

If I were to pick one journey to tackle for this exercise from the list above, it would be the new journey to school with Alice. However, as mentioned above, I have already done a number of journeys in a number of treatments for various parts of my OCA courses to date, so I’ll revisit one of them and try to do something that ties in to the work on Still Life from earlier in this section of the course,


A flight into Russia

It’s not ground-breaking to take pictures of airline food; it probably was not ground breaking ten years ago. However, a large part of my time travelling by plane is taken up with eating and drinking. The last time I flew to Moscow, I flew with Aeroflot to Sheremetyevo airport to the north of the city. For my dinner, I had the meat option, not the fish; this sequence –  made in a style I have used many times before – shows my progress from receiving my meal tray through eating my main to being replete. I at the chewy bar on the airport express that took me into the city.

On the way home, i probably had the lamb again (I know not to have the fish) but this time, I slipped the paper cup that my glass of wine came in into my cabin bag. Back home – and months later –  i subjected it to the same treatment as I did to some of the objects on my mantelpiece.




Removing an object from its context, interests me at the moment; I have a second airline cup – Loganair; Kirkwall to Glasgow in August 2018 – sat next to me as I type. Once I have got the workroom in my new house set up, I’ll take a matching picture of it. I will gather more detritus from journeys as time goes on and photograph them once I have returned home. This will give me another way to picture my travels and present them to others…

exercise 5.2 – exhausting a place

I thought the premise of this exercise was so interesting – ‘Choose a viewpoint, perhaps looking out of your window or from a café in the central square, and write down everything you can see. No matter how boring it seems or how detailed, just write it down. Spend at least an hour on this exercise’ – that I never quite got round to doing it, as I was so interested in working out where  – the threatened open space beside Walthamstow Central? staring out of the window of The Chequers as the market packs up for the evening? somewhere in Orkney? somewhere in Glasgow? somewhere in Salford? – however, I did manage to publish my jotted notes from a train journey.

This does not mean it won’t be something I try to do in the future and I may even try and insert it into a suitable place in a later course. The subtitle of Christian Licoppe’s 2015 paper on exhausting an augmented place – Georges Perec, observer-writer of urban life, as a mobile locative media user – could fit with Digital Image and Culture; using the exercise as a starting point for an examination of space could be applied to any number of landscape, documentary or ‘self and other’ situations. Indeed a quote jumped out at me this morning from an article found by fellow student Nuala Mahon and linked on the OCA Photography facebook group page:

“Whenever Frank went into a new town,” Greenough said, “he tried to find one or two objects or scenes that for him symbolized that place.” That doesn’t mean he was cozying up to the diner counter and getting to know the locals. “You don’t get the sense that he’s really talking with people,” Greenough added—but rather drifting in the background, shooting in hotel lobbies and bars, at funerals and political rallies and outside auto factories”

– Scott Indrisek: Why Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ Matters Today

As for photographic treatments of places that might complement Perec’s short book, I found myself pondering three different approaches:

1 – Stephen Shore: In Uncommon Places (known to me from the expanded version published by Thames and Hudson in 2014) Stephen Shore collects pictures taken with a large format camera on a series of road trips he made across America in the 1970s. They are very different to the photographs he took on an earlier series of trips out of New York that are collected as American Surfaces. These pictures are much more carefully composed and framed; obviously they took much more time to envisage and set up. The idea of taking a ‘screenshot’ of what was in front of him (as Shore describes himself doing in the introduction to American Surfaces) is gone; these pictures are not spontaneous snapshots; something vernacular has been superseded by something more coolly calculated.

While you certainly feel as if you are able to get to know his viewpoint and subject, there is little sense of Shore’s exhausting a location in  Perec’s sense. They are static scenes, isolated in time. This doesn’t mean that I dislike them (or that I will not try to emulate them) but that they do not really fit the brief here.

2 – Chris Dorley-Brown: I used to live about ten minutes up the Dalston High Street from the Rio Cinema, so when I saw its unmistakable facade taking up most of a double spread in the Observer, I was naturally going to read the whole article and then to buy the book it came from. Unlike Shore’s single, large format pictures, Dorley-Brown’s are composites, designed to resemble LF photography, but made up from many individual photographs: ‘a simultaneous snapshot of events that happened over an hour’ (Bromwich).  The pictures are assembled seamlessly, in the manner of Andreas Gursky’s massive panoramas. The effect is strange – a number of people cross the farm in each picture, but none of them seems to be aware of the others (obviously – they were not occupying the same point in the space-time continuum when they were photographed) while the perspective has the same strangely precise linearity that estate agents’ perspective corrected cramped interiors have. There is something up with them, but – without having the trick explained to you, you might not quite be able to put your finger on it, 

3 – David Hockney: At the huge retrospective of Hockney’s work at Tate Britain last year, one of his photographic collages  – Pearblossom Hwy. 11–18th April 1986, #1 (1986) offered a model for a picture which would not try to ape a single photograph. Where Dorley-Brown’s pictures are taken from a single point of view, Hockney moved in and out of the scene before him. He describes the process of making the 850 exposures thus:  ‘[each] was taken close to the surface of every element. I was up a ladder photographing the road sign or the cactus. We always took a big ladder, because I knew I needed the ladder – otherwise you have a standard, lens perspective of the object. The markings on the road were done from a ladder, you had to be up above them looking straight down. How do you look at it otherwise?’ (Tate) The effect is an obviously authored view of a space and would be a tremendously complicated (and expensive – 850 prints, even if struck from files made with a digital camera, would cost in the region of 250 pounds) thing to do; you could try it in photoshop for much less money, but I suspect it would drive you mad! A nice thing to try though, if possibly on a smaller scale and budget.



  • Perec, G (1975) An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris
  • Indrisek, S (Sept 2018)  Why Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ Matters Today Published Online by Artsy.Net (accessed 16/9/18)
  • Licoppe, C (2015) An Attempt at Exhausting an Augmented Place in Paris; Department of Social Science, Telecom Paristech, Paris. (accessed online – 15/9/18)
  • Shore, S (2014) Uncommon Places; Thames and Hudson, London
  • Dorley-Brown, C (2018) The Corners; Hoxton Mini Press, London
  • Bromwich, K (20/05/18)  The Big Picture – Chris Dorley-Brown’s surreal street corner photography (The Observer, accessed online, – 30/09/18)
  • Gayford, M. (2017) Hockney’s World of Pictures in Tate Etc. issue 39: Spring 2017 – accessed 30/9/18)

exercise 5.1: still life

fig.1 – a pair of converse; a couple of summers

Create a set of still-life pictures showing traces of life without using people.

You could do this with your camera phone to reflect the vernacular and transient nature of these moments or you could choose to use high-quality imagery to give these moments gravitas, like Nigel Shafran. Your technical decisions should back up your ideas, so write a short reflective commentary detailing these decisions and the reasons for them.

– IaP coursebook p.105

1: Moving House:

For most of the time I’ve been working my way through this module, I’ve have also been in the process of selling my house and buying another with my partner. Last month, after various false starts, all the process turned into reality and we actually moved. I had lived there for nearly ten years and it had been home to Fiona and our daughter Alice for the last five. It’s amazing how much crap you can amass in that time…

I didn’t want to move a load of junk from one house to another, but I didn’t want just to bin it before the move either. I set up a simple plain backdrop (a roll of paper) and lit it with a diffused strobe in my attic workroom. I used this to take photographs of a lot of the things that had been put aside for one reason or another and then even managed to bin some of them. The pair of shoes at the top of this post are one example.

Then,while a lot of the stuff that had built up in corners or on top of wardrobes or in the attic had no real structure to it, other areas had been put together in a considered way. There was the shelf at the top of the stairs up from the front door, the pin board covered in local announcements and post cards sent by friends, the magnets commemorating journeys stuck to the fridge, the galleries of pictures on Alice’s bedroom walls and there was the living room mantelpiece. I wanted to record these carefully, as they had a lot of potential to describe who we were and what we had done while we lived in the house. The living room mantelpiece had the best mix of all of us, so it is the one I include here.

fig.2 – fiona, alice and simon (after mass observation)

This is the mark two (or maybe even three) mantelpiece – I had cleared it before using it as a stage upon which to construct a still life for an early Art of Photography Exercise four years ago and since then the objects on it have shifted and grown in number. I’d tied in the exercise to Mass Observation’s 1937 directive to new observers: REPORT ON MANTLEPIECES which used the objects found on mantelpieces (the idea was you would do your own and then repeat the task with other people’s) as a way to describe the people who lived in a house – picking up on the surrealists’ interest in objets trouve and tying in intriguingly with the idea examined in my previous post of using objects as metaphor. It ended with an exhortion to ‘If possible, also take photographs of mantlepieces.’ So I did.

I wanted the resulting photograph to be detailed and able to be printed pretty much life size. I put my DSLR on a tripod, aligned for a portrait. I fitted my shift lens (which – as well as allowing in camera perspective correction when you’re photographing buildings – allows the lens to be moved to make stitched together panoramas without moving the camera itself. I set up a pair of speed-lights on either side of the mantlepiece, angled fairly flatly along the chimney breast and firing through umbrellas to diffuse the light a bit. I stopped well down to increase the depth of focus and upped the stobes’ output accordingly.

The final, landscape panorama was stitched together from three images in lightroom – one with the lens centred and one each with the lens shifted to the left and the right. You can clearly make out objects and associate them with one or two or all of us. Our new house has no mantlepiece; perhaps this picture could be printed and hung on the wall where one once would have been. Perhaps though, we may just let  a new set of expressions of who we are build up and keep this (and the other photos from Hibbert Road) as a record of what was.

2: Wherever I Lay My Laptop

My main place of work is a ‘hot desk environment’ – when you go home at the end of the day. you are supposed to leave the desk you worked at cleared of all evidence of your having been there, ready for someone else to sit there tomorrow (or later in the day, if people work shifts). I  spend a day a week working at home and when I am visiting my son in Glasgow, that home may not be mine. Sometimes I visit other parts of the UK and work at our offices there; I try to work on trains, or in hotel rooms. As well as my laptop, there is other stuff that is constant: I drink a lot of tea and coffee; there are notebooks containing relevant (and irrelevant) information; if I am not in a  conventional office, I need the single-use code generator that lives with my keys to connect to central servers over the internet. Where these sit in relation to the laptop changes from place to place as I build my working environment each day…

I could do more of these – there is not a picture made at the new house yet, and there are other premises, in other cities where I sometimes find myself working – but this selection gives an idea of something – my laptop and my view of it – remaining constant while the things around it change. It might be too grand to describe my daily construction of somewhere to work as making a daily sculpture, but there is certain degree of ritual to it and – if someone – an observer – looked at what I was doing, there could be seen to be an element of performance in this. These photographs,  taken with my ‘notebook’ camera – a fujifilm X100s, which lives in my work bag – form a partial record of these daily performances and begin to become a part of it. Continuing to take these over a period of time, a viewer could tell a lot about me; other people who have no fixed location for their work could identify with the viewpoint these pictures are taken from; day by day they would grow into a body of work…

And now, is this a still life?

fig.4 – isolated mantelpiece object #7 

I think it may be.

At the same time I was packing stuff away before moving, I set up a diffused stobe and a paper backdrop to act as a small ‘stage’ for taking photographs of individual objects, stripped of their context. This creature can be seen along to the right in the picture of the mantelpiece. Where fig.2 could be placed towards the documentary end of a spectrum running from found to constructed, this lies at the other extreme, tending towards the status of an advertising pack shot. Similarly fig.1 is devoid of context but perhaps alludes to such ideas as ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’ and life as a journey. There is scope for the viewer to inject some of their own sense of self into my photograph, or possibly just to identify something of me and the things I may have done while wearing my battered Converse.

In the chapter on Still Life in Bate (2012) there is discussion of how the blank background of this sort of commercial photography can be seen as representing  death or eternity while the object pictured stands between the viewer and their inevitable demise. I like this as an underlying concept, with its beginning of an idea of what certain strands of my photography may be ‘for’. I think I shall try and develop this further, but probably not during the time remaining to me during this module…



Bate, D. (2012) Photography – The Key Concepts Bloomsbury, London

Part 5: Research Point 1 – Metaphor and Photography

We are asked to read Chapter 4 ‘Something and Nothing’ of Charlotte Cotton’s  The Photograph as Contemporary Art and then to consider the following:

To what extent do you think the strategy of using objects or environments as metaphor is a useful tool in photography? When might it fall down?

– IaP Coursebook p.99

There is not a single mention of Metaphor  in Chapter 4 of Cotton, so I decided to do a bit of clarifying research. I found this online:

‘A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.

Here are the basics:

metaphor states that one thing is another thing

It equates those two things not because they actually are the same, but for the sake of comparison or symbolism

If you take a metaphor literally, it will probably sound very strange (are there actually any sheep, black or otherwise, in your family?)

Metaphors are used in poetry, literature, and anytime someone wants to add some color to their language’

– Alice E.M. Underwood, Grammarly Blog

While I’m not really sure whether a classical rhetorical figure that is primarily concerned with written or spoken language can be applied directly to photographs without some bending and twisting,  to return to Magritte and that pipe that is not a pipe, and the first of Underwood’s statements (‘a metaphor states that one thing is another thing’) every photograph could be seen as a metaphor. What you see is a photograph, not the object portrayed. This just takes us back to discussions of indexicality (the seeming ability of the object photographed to have made its own image) and ontology (what photographs are); but it does not move us any further forward than that.

Then, with a bit more thought, you could take most of the work considered in Cotton’s chapter as the photographer taking a thing (a collection of objects found complete or assembled over the course of the photographer’s day or some action carried out by them) and saying simply ‘This is art!’ or even better ‘This is my art!’ The metaphorical content answers the standard question ‘Why did you photograph that?’ or ‘What is that a photograph of?’

As such, any photograph that is not presented as a documentary record  (another metaphor of course) could be acting out the post-Duchampian  dialogue described by Grayson Perry in Playing to the gallery (2014) – ‘this is art, because I – as an artist – say it is’. Each photograph becomes Post-Modernism in action. Bam! Ka-Pow! (as Roy Lichtenstein might have said).

Traditionally, figures of speech are primarily concerned with the rhetorical use of language, with the creation of specific meaning for an audience. The most obvious way to perform this sort of linguistic task with a photograph is through the titling. The contrast between the words and what is depicted can be used in a way that is productive of a meaning.

As a title,  ‘Quiet Afternoon’ does nothing to tell you what  is literally depicted  (a courgette a carrot and a grater balanced  on a green tablecloth. against a green background) in Fischli and Weiss’ photograph depicted on page 115 of Cotton’s book; it does describe the circumstances that led to its production. As such you can easily imagine the scene – two men, bored, passing the time by making ‘a sculpture’ from things that are to hand. The photograph is a record of their activity during this ‘Quiet Afternoon.’

(Many years ago, during our long summer vacations, my friends and I would sit in the back bar of the Queen’s Hotel in Kirkwall, making towers of our empty beer glasses. A photograph of the tower, could be titled ‘An evening with friends (1983).’ As such, it could be far more evocative than any photograph we actually did take at the time. Other people would be able to extrapolate from it what had been going on and what was depicted. I wish I had taken the time to make that picture, then. Now, in the unlikely event of finding myself in similar circumstances, I hope I would.)

The title ‘Untitled’ takes this one stage further, inviting the viewer to provide their own title and association for what it is they are looking at.  The empty bed depicted in Felix Gonzales-Torres’ 1991 untitled billboard invites your own metaphorical meaning – it becomes a picture of absence, of someone who is no longer in the bed, of the effect AIDS had on beds all over the world. Or there is the ‘Untitled’ of William Eggleston’s Memphis (and elsewhere) prompting the viewer to help in the creation of his semi-fictional 1960s American south…

This is all quite dry and cerebral – I could be over thinking things again – so, by way of an example: in May this year, I was over in Belfast for a couple of days’ work and had the evening to myself. As is my wont, I went for a walk with my camera. I passed an Orange Lodge and a park named after a Presbyterian minister. A number of gable ends had loyalist murals painted on them.

I photographed the murals in passing but knew I would probably never do anything with the pictures. They would form another layer of digital silt (a metaphor, by the way) on one of my hard drives. From time to time, I might see them in passing and then move on to something that would hold my attention for longer. If I am honest, I take a lot of photographs like that.

Then the way the light was falling on some litter in a carpark caught my eye.

There was some tangerine peel. And it was orange!

fig.1: majority – belfast

A bottle, caught by the low light, was very green standing out against the neutral grey of the compacted gravel!

fig.2: minority – belfast

I changed my angle to put them together within a single frame  getting an awkwardly balanced composition!

fig.3: power sharing – belfast

And then of course, as I add the pictures to my blog, here, I give the pictures apposite titles. I don’t anchor the text, instead I try to create a relay. Let the viewer find the links. And there you are!

I have succeeded (I think) in capturing and presenting a train of thought. Which is of course, yet another metaphor. There is also the tension between what is actually depicted – rubbish, waste, redundant packaging that has been discarded – and the still all too current (undiscarded) associations of ‘green’ and ‘orange’ in Belfast. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever done, but nor is it the worst.

You can do quite a lot with three images and some words, if only you can find some way of activating their possibilities. Rhetoric and figures of speech can be a way of doing this.

The potential weakness with all this lies in the way that any metaphor’s meaning is both historically and culturally determined. They seldom achieve either universality or constancy over time. If the metaphor’s comparison is outside the viewer’s frame of reference it may go unnoticed or possibly simply be misunderstood. I’m sure there are things in Daido Moriyama’s photographs that I do not pick up on, because I simply don’t know enough about Japanese culture at the time they were produced. Also, metaphors – like radioactive elements – tend to have a form of half-life as they decay and lose their impact with the strangeness that is an important part of their impact dissipating into cliche.

In 1991, Gonzales-Torres’ billboards may have chimed with an atmosphere of AIDS-awareness messages; now, twenty seven years later, that isn’t necessarily the first thing you think of (and Cotton, half-way between then and now already needed to make this association explicit in her book). Meanings change over time; so do associations.

In the end, a metaphor is just another possible punctum consciously placed there for the viewer to find. It may work for individuals, but is unlikely to grab and hold everyone. Over time it may lose it’s impact, becoming a dead metaphor (black sheep of the family is a nice example of this). A metaphor’s strength sis derived from its strangeness. Over time clashing ideas may cease to chime in a viewer’s head; in the end the vivid rhetorical image may lose its tang. After the passage of enough time, you might end up with the photograph just being a photograph…


‘Colin – your muscles are like bands of steel!’


Your similes will get you nowhere, Sylvia – it’s metaphors or nothing with me…

Sylvia (Later, after some research):

 Colin – your muscles are bands of steel!


‘My Darling…’


Part of  a lesson on figures of speech given by George Rendall to class 1E at Kirkwall Grammar School, c. 1977. From memory.

If I remember aright, Colin was Colin Liddle and Sylvia, Sylvia Aim.


  • Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson
  • Underwood, A E.M (2015) Metaphor. Post On Grammarly Blog ( accessed 26/7/18

part 5 – project one: absence and signs of life

This section of the course opens on a quote by John Szarkowski from his introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide:

The real location, found objects and characters, combined with technology and the photographer’s eye, come together to create a new world, one balanced loosely between recognition and art.‘ (my emphasis)

On the cover of the book is (the famous) picture of a tricycle, with some anonymous bungalows and a big American car viewed across the street in the background. One morning, as I walked up Theydon Street to the bus stop, I saw a tricycle parked outside one of the houses. I have known about Eggleston for years and although I had not yet started upon this course of study, I recognised this as an opportunity to make some (referential) art, of entering into the Eggleston’s world and of transplanting a tiny bit of his Memphis into my Walthamstow. I reached into my jacket pocket for the Olympus XA which lived there…

fig.1 – walthamstow c.2013

…and click. Like Eggleston, I took a single frame. It’s not quite right. I couldn’t get far enough away from the trike to centre it in the image (and in the space). The tip of the handlebars is annoyingly cut off. Perhaps I should have put the camera on the ground and abandoned looking through the viewfinder. So, I’ve never done anything with the picture til now, but I always think of it when I see Eggleston’s original.

But I digress. After reading the quote from Szarkowsky, we are asked to reflect upon:

  •  Where does that leave the photographer? As a storyteller or a history writer?

A story teller uses narrative to make sense of the society where they live, as they see it. There may be a level of serious intent to their story telling or they may simply hope to entertain. People like stories. We’ve been being told stories since we were kids. When someone asks us, ‘How was today’ or ‘What happened’ we will generally reply by telling a story of some sort.

A historian is just a specialised type of story teller, telling stories that attempt to give a single path through the chaos of events. ‘History’ tends to exist at some point in the past (when I was at school, it became ‘Modern Studies’ after a hard cut off in 1945; now my son is studying the subject it includes events which I remember happening as news). ‘History’ is an academic subject with rules that historians are supposed to follow; it has sub-genres such as ‘family history,’ ‘local history’ ‘social history’ etc. When ‘history’ becomes about an individual it becomes ‘biography’; when history is about people known to the historian or the historian him- or herself, it becomes an ‘autobiography’ or a ‘memoir’.

‘History’ is expected to be made up from a consideration of ‘facts’ stored as such in archives (public, private or personal). These facts – often contradictory; often subjective; always positioned politically in their own time – are then sifted and sorted and hammered into a – supposedly – definitive ‘truth’. This ‘definitive truth’ is in turn able to be examined as – secondary – source material for later attempts to come up with another even more definitive ‘truth.’

This need for history to be written with a degree of hindsight seems to rule out any idea of the photographer working as a historian; possibly a photographer could view their work as parallel to that of a journalist – writing the ‘first draft of history’ – but I suspect that, for me at least, there is a less noble impulse at work than that. I think I take pictures of things that catch my eye and which interest me with a view to putting them together into more meaningful collections later.

We are not historians, but perhaps we are trying to second guess history and to capture things that later, after they have acquired the patina that time can bestow, will become its building blocks. We lay up images as if they were wines, or cheese, in the hope that the mundane facts that surround us will become objects of fascination later on. Some – holiday snaps, news pictures, fashion photography perhaps – like yoghurt or cottage cheese, can be served almost as soon as they are done (although they may of course become more interesting in time) while others will need to age for longer, like parmesan or stilton, in order to acquire the patina of history.

  • Do you tend towards fact or fiction?

Since every photograph I take is of a thing (or a number of things) that have existed in front of my camera – that old question of indexicality popping up again – the basic building blocks of my practice as a photographer can be seen as somehow factual.  But the real magic happens when I put these building blocks together, when I decide that this 30th of a second, belongs next to that 125th.

Since every photograph I make is the product of a string of my decisions – I should stand here, I should cut off the frame there, I should open the shutter… NOW! – these individual facts are formed of – at best –  subjective truths. I exclude much more of my experience than I include. Where I stand in relation to the subject – to use the famous example, when I photograph a demonstration, am I standing with the protesters confronted by ‘the pigs’ or am I standing behind the policemen, looking at ‘the mob’ – will determine the nature of the fact that I present.

The french word histoire has fewer connotations of an academic pursuit than it does in its modern English form. Henry Fielding’s most famous novel has the full title, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling; it is of course a fiction. It is also intended to be read as a story, with the reader aware that  – while all the things that happen in the book have probably happened somewhere, sometime – they are intended to draw lessons from it about life and society.

‘A fiction’ is not necessarily to be equated with ‘a lie’; but it does include an awareness of the extent to which it has been constructed from its elements. Eggleston painted a picture of a place that was very like the Memphis he lived in, but managed to distance himself (and the viewer) from any attempt to portray an all-encompassing portrait of the city. He is operating at some distance from W. Eugene Smith’s obsessive and doomed attempt to encapsulate all Pittsburgh. Eggleston tells his story (or possibly more accurately, recites his poem) about a place that is a bit like the real city of Memphis. I have seen him speak (at the National Portrait Gallery two Julys ago now) and when he does – even when he’s being probed by Sean O’Hagan – he’s giving nothing away…

  • How could you blend your approach?

I thinking blending could come from softening (or removing entirely) the relation between the subject matter and its original context. You can picture something in situ or you can take it away for photographic attention  later. If it is too large to move, you could picture it in some way that limits the clues about it circumstances from around it. The less there is to help ground something, the more easily it floats free in time and space. As such it becomes both more and less itself and less rooted in the specificity of where you found it.

The absence of people in Eggleston’s picture of the trike means there are none of the clues that we can read from people’s appearance. The title is vague – Untitled, Memphis c.1969-70. The (koda)colour palate of the film and the styling of the car glimpsed through the space under the trike’s frame help place the frame in time, but no more accurately than the title. The house in the background seems suburban, American. The tricycle, looming huge and abandoned, maybe says something about a type of childhood. Maybe the photographer’s, or maybe yours, the viewer’s.

Then you could take it one stage further and remove the tricycle from the scene entirely, putting it in front of a neutral backdrop. It would cease being something from the place that William Eggleston is guiding you through and become closer to occupying the space of an item from a catalogue of childhood.

  • Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?

Some things need to stick as close as they can to an objective reality; some things simply matter enormously in the here and now. These things probably will form part of histories yet to be written. Robert Capa’s Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936, still would be a striking photograph if it were a set-up, but once you start wondering about its provenance you have much less space in your head to consider what it means for people to be being killed, in Spain, on that hill at that time. This weakens its propagandistic value considerably. The title makes a huge claim for the photograph; if it is ‘a lie’ how can we trust the photographer? How can we trust the people who publish the picture? How can we trust the people who use the picture to gain our sympathy?

‘The camera never lies’ but if in fact it does (or rather the person wielding it lies about the photograph) how can we ever believe anything? We certainly can believe a little less in the cause of the Spanish republic and – if we were suffering this crisis in the nineteen thirties – become less likely to join the International Brigades or to donate money or to lobby our MPs to intervene.

To go back to Grenfell Tower and my previous assignment, it was important not to fabricate anything and to make sure that the pictures taken in the surroundings of the tower were not misdescribed by the words: the Avondale picture was taken from the Avondale Conservation Area; the Ladbroke picture was taken looking out from the heart of the Ladbroke Conservation Area. The blackened tower block with its empty windows needed no trickery in order to be recognisable as itself, even when partially hidden by trees of buildings. The words themselves are real sentences taken from the real planning documents, which are still available online. I have checked. I have been scrupulous.

I don’t think I would ask a militiaman to pretend he’s just been shot, but the way I presented my – verified, fact checked – words in the Grenfell assignment has no correlative in the objective world. I made those pictures from words printed in a ‘typed’ typeface scanned and then layered them onto a photograph of a record card; I rearranged the words from Gary Younge’s article in the Guardian so that they fitted the aspect ratio of my images, and missed out the other words that surrounded them. I tried my best (and I think I have succeeded) to hide my efforts to fabricate these ‘documents’ and, at their heart, the words – ‘real’ words, from ‘real’ records – are really true. The key thing here is that the viewer is not distracted from what the diptychs ‘mean’, by the facts of their construction.

In Barthes’ essay The Rhetoric of the Image, one of the things achieved by anchoring text is a reduction in the myriad number of possible meanings (the polysemous nature of the photograph) that an be drawn from a single image. It is this process of limiting meanings that allows pictures to be used as evidentiary ‘fact’

fig.2 – this is not my olympus xa

Most of the time it doesn’t matter a bit whether there is something made up about my photographs, any more than it does about the made up bits in novels which take place in the past and contain real events and real people – War and Peace, say or Pat Barker’s novels set  during the first world war that feature her imaginings of ‘Siegfried Sassoon’ and ‘Wilfred Owen.’ Where it does matter is when there are real (and notice I haven’t used inverted commas here) consequences to what the fiction means. There may well be corporate manslaughter charges as a result of the Grenfell inquiry; people have died; people may go to prison.

More trivially, a passport photograph has to look enough like the person holding the passport to allow a border official to identify them. While I would never cross a border without my glasses, I have to take off my glasses for a passport photo. I could  have recently grown a beard which will be shaved off years before my shiny new, ten-year passport expires. My passport picture both looks like me and it does not.

History is supposed to be objective; my experience of things that may form part of history is highly subjective, and rendered even more so by the set of decisions I make (consciously or subconsciously) as I take a photograph. All my pictures exist somewhere on a spectrum running from relatively uninflected to really rather constructed. If they seem to warrant a factual treatment, I’ll try to limit the range of available meanings to those that match my own take on the events; at other times, I’m happy to leave a much wider range of meaning for the viewer to piece together their own sense of what the picture is ‘about’ but even then, I try to limit the meanings to ones that fit ones that I’m comfortable with.

It’s all in the telling, I suppose.

When I look at my tricycle picture now, I still see Eggleston’s original, floating behind it (or maybe in front of it) but I also see a constellation of circles – the three wheels of the tricycle of course, three wheels on the cars over the street and the wheel at the side of the wheelie bin. And I really like the way the trike’s seat sits on the wheel of the black car. I don’t mind that it is an imperfect appropriation of Eggleston’s original. It is something else and that is just fine.

fig.3 – walthamstow c.2018

And, of course,  I still find myself thinking of William Eggleston from time to time, when I’m out with my camera.



  • Eggleston, W – photographs –  & Szarkowski, J – introduction (1976) William Eggleston’s Guide Museum of Modern Art, New York.