Our coursework activity this week was to post a brief commentary that identifies the inherent characteristics and context of the ‘photographic’ nature of our own practice. We were asked to specifically refer to one of the case studies, referred to in our lectures, in order to critically contextualise our work, consider how the case study might not fully represent the nature of the photograph within context, and demonstrate how certain characteristics are more or less important in our practice.
In my Research Proposal I described my photographic practice as phenomenological photography, where what matters is not the object of my experience but my experience of the object:
“I will record my experiences and recount them through my images and words and through them will present not only what I saw but my experience of what I saw.” (Price 2019:2).
Phenomenology offers a route to reflection on the authentic nature of our experience as we recount it through action, speech, text or the image. Its origin is in the transcendental idealism of Emmanuel Kant although Edmund Husserl laid the foundations of the subject and the method of phenomenological reduction.
I do not consider myself a landscape photographer but someone who spends time in and uses the landscape to reflect on the dark memories and images of my early professional photographic career. I see my work as autobiographical, metaphorical and symbolic.
In an earlier post in my Critical Research Journal entitled Thinking about “Modern” photographic influences https://photographytoinspireblogspot.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/thinking-about-modern-photographic-influences-week-2/ I talked about the “modern” influences on my work and specifically John Swarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966). My early police training and its emphasis on technical excellence had similarities with the “modern” interest in shape and form and I continue to hold these characteristics important in my work today.
Szarkowski’s view that a photographic image is either a window on the world or a mirror reflecting back on the photographer or viewer holds true for me however I believe very strongly that the camera looks both ways and that an image says as much about the photographer as it does about the subject and selection of the image.
For example, Don McCullin’s landscape images, on the face of it, are moody landscapes that preference tonality and light. However when you know they are by Don McCullin you are invited into his interior life and the dark memories he harbours.
One of Szarkowski’s inherent characteristics in the photographic medium is the frame. He describes it as follows:
“The photograph’s edge defines content. It isolates unexpected juxtapositions. By surrounding two facts, it creates a relationship. The edge of the photograph dissects familiar forms, and shows their unfamiliar fragment. It creates the shapes that surround objects. The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame.” (Szarkowski 1966:70).
As a police photographer the edges of the images I was taking were crucial to retaining the evidence in relation to the scene. To this day, I continually review the frame and re-frame and concentrate on the edge of the image until I press the shutter. In my current image making I continue to see the edges of the image and where my choices about what is selected and rejected as crucially important, and figure also in any minor cropping decisions I make in post processing.
Szarkowski also sees the frame as being significant in its meaning:
“The photographer edits meaning and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame.” (Szarkowski 1966:70).
I have already mentioned that I see the input of the photographer in the images they make as more important than either Szarkowski suggests. In Mirrors and Windows Szarkowski established a binary view dividing those photographers that used photography as a means of self expression and those that preferred the exploratory aspects of image making. Durden confirms my sense in Fifty Key Writers on Photography:
“Szarkowski’s aesthetic allegiance, of course, has remained with the latter, the idea of photography as a window rather than a mirror of the artist.” (Durden 2013:232).
An image in Szarkowski’s terms is either a window or a mirror – for me it is always both. It mirrors the inner world of the photographer (and also the viewer) as well as opening a window to the subject of the image. Within this context, visual metaphor is, in my view, the most powerful way of relating not only the subject but also my experience of the subject.
Visual metaphor in my images work both at the conscious and non-conscious level and allows me to penetrate the intrinsic nature of things.
The images below are an example of conscious metaphor in my image making and representing my feelings about the vulnerability of man in the natural environment.
For example, The Little House in the Cuillin involves conscious decisions about the placing of the house in the frame, the angle of view, and the level of detail in the Black Cuillin behind.
Similarly, the image of Niagara Falls below was a clear reflection of my fears and vulnerability of being close to the Falls and, for me, the birds being included in the image was a conscious decision to give the sense of vulnerability.
However, the next two images below exemplify where my decisions were not conscious and revealed themselves when I reviewed the images for processing.
The image below demonstrates the multi-layered approach of my practice. The reflections of the Cuillin cast a dark shadow over the surface of the loch. The reeds present a delicate reflection. The shafts of light from the sky suggest a sense of hope. However, the line and shape of the reflection of the Cuillin hints at a female form lying lifeless:
And again, in the following image I was drawn to this window on the world in the Church at Cill Chriosd because of the dramatic sky and the stark outline of the cross in the foreground. I did not see the demon-like cloud to the right of the frame:
To summarise, I believe my image making to be significantly influenced by the “modern” characteristics that Szarkowski wrote about in The Photographer’s Eye and in particular the frame. However, for me, although he acknowledges the part the photographer plays, he does not go far enough and indeed preferences the window. My image making is driven consciously and non-consciously by visual metaphor that allows me to share my experience of the subjects recorded in my images.
DURDEN, M. (ed.) 2013. Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Oxon: Routledge.
SZARKOWSKI, J. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye, New York: Museum of Modern Art.