People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Assignment 5 research: cataloguing, memory, past, present, future

The subject I chose for Assignment 5 is “Disappearing Britain” and is in part an exploration of photography as a tool for cataloguing, and as a proxy (or aide) for memory. My intention is to record some specific objects that are at risk of becoming obsolete by the march of progress. The whole exercise made me think about who I was making the images for: contemporary viewers, future viewers, or both?

I revisited some of the core theoretical texts – Sontag [1], Barthes [2], Benjamin [3] and Berger [4] – for their analysis of the nature of memory in relation to photography, but by and large they look at it from the other end of the telescope – photographs from the past being viewed in the present, and the associations with memory, e.g. from Sontag:

“A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie.”

Barthes’ Camera Lucida in particular discusses the essential ‘past-ness’ of photographs and the melancholy that can accompany this:

“Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”

Capturing now, for future viewers

What I was interested in doing was kind of the other way around; photographing things in order to remember them later. It’s a form of cataloging these items, quite deliberately, before they are gone. I kept coming back to the premise that what I’m trying to do here is capture things before they become extinct. I can think of a number of projects that did this successfully for people-centric subjects (communities, tribes, enthusiasts, war veterans etc) and for places (towns and villages, city neighbourhoods), but not many for objects.

One of the contemporary bodies of work that I was pointed towards by my tutor was Julian Germain’s “Useful Photography” project [5], which catalogues specific categories of contemporary objects for future viewing. The description of the work is as follows:

“Useful Photography is a magazine which gives a platform to imagery that is part of our everyday lives but which is rarely studied or appreciated; for example pictures from catalogues, instruction manuals, text books, medical and scientific journals, packaging, CCTV, etc. Images that have been made for a practical purpose, whose makers remain completely anonymous.”

However, this is different again from my intent with this series; those images are collected and curated after the event, not taken for the specific purpose of cataloguing.

I went back to some reading I did last year in the early years of photography, specifically the ‘Photography and the Nineteenth Century” chapter in Clarke’s The Photograph [6], when one of the trends was for photography as cataloguing. Practitioners of what Clarke calls ‘mechanical photography’ would methodically record images of objects:

“The drive to collect and classify the world of objects and structures […] is reflected in such images as Daguerre’s famous Shells and Fossils of 1839, suggestive of an entire tradition and placing photographs in the context of this larger process of classification. It reflects both the developing museum culture, and the way in which the photograph was seen as an analogue of the real”

One interpretation of this is that it was the novelty of the medium that spurred this type of work, rather than the objective being the recording of the items themselves. Giving them the historical benefit of the doubt – that they were recording objects for posterity not novelty – I can see that this may be closest precedent to what I’m trying to achieve with my project.

Such ‘classification’ at the heart of photography is no longer an identifiable trend. Now that photography is not novel but ubiquitous, for what reason might one deliberately record an image of, say, a phone box? Aren’t there enough accidental (or incidental) images of such objects already in existence?

What I think is distinctive (and I’m not claiming “unique”) about this set of images is that I chose to photograph the specific objects; they are not incidental, they are the main attraction. Their impending obsolescence (and accompanying rarity) is reason enough to want to stop and capture them. I am curating – in advance – what I believe will be of interest to future generations.

Triggering memories of the past in contemporary viewers

Though this ‘future retrospection’ is my intention, I can see that there is simultaneously the nostalgic pull that reflects the theories of photography and memory outlined by Sontag, Barthes et al. Put simply, though my intention is to capture objects in 2014 for future viewers to see facsimiles of things that they can no longer see in real life, at the same time the reaction of seeing these images in 2014 will be, to some viewers, to take them back to a past time. So even though I may show a photo of a milk bottle in 2014, the image is – to the viewer of a certain generation – an incitement to reverie, an invitation to reminisce about the 1970s or 1980s. It is, in this sense, both contemporary record and ‘fake nostalgia’.

  • Viewers looking at these images now will experience memories of the past
  • Viewers in the future will be experiencing “now” as a (different) past, one which they may or may not remember

I found the whole thought process and research around this area fascinating. Considering the ‘lifespan’ of a photograph – how it can encapsulate both past and present, and how it may be viewed in the future looking back on both ‘pasts’ – was something that slightly made my brain hurt, but in a good way!

Forgive me the pretentious interlude, but a line from a 2014 Damon Albarn song “Photographs” [7] kept coming back to me:

“When the photographs you’re taking now / Are taken down again”.

To me this implies a potentially huge span of time: you take a photo now; you print and hang it; at some indeterminate point in the future you take the photo down, as it no longer holds enough meaning for you to keep it on display.

When you press the shutter, how far ahead are you thinking?

  1. Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
  2. Barthes, R. (1980) Camera lucida: reflections on photography. London: Random House Vintage
  3. Benjamin, W. (1931) A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
  4. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics
  5. http://www.usefulphotography.com (accessed 19/12/2014)
  6. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  7. Albarn, D. (2014) Photographs (you’re taking now). London: Chrysalis Music

 


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Assignment 5: revisiting the longlist

I’ve been looking back at the 300+ shots I’ve taken so far on this assignment in the light of my wobble and rethink following chats with various folk online.

Two points are at the forefront of my mind in this revised version of the selection:

  1. Does the subject meet the criteria I set myself? (criteria stated in the brief and other criteria that I’ve added in my interpretation of the brief)
  2. Is the image successful at implying my intended message? (meaning, context, narrative, juxtaposition)

1. The criteria

The brief I set myself was as follows:

Provide 8-10 images (4-5 will be selected) that meet the following criteria:

  • Common 10-20 years ago, rare now
  • Particular (though not necessarily unique) to Britain
  • Reason for obsolescence is one of following factors:
    • Technological progress (engineering, IT etc)
    • Economic progress (capitalism, globalisation, infrastructural etc)
    • Social progress (behavioural norms, demographic shifts etc)
  • A combination of subject types, such as (not limited to):
    • Public objects
    • Private objects
    • Professions

Produce images that are creative and visually engaging in composition and style – otherwise we could just go to a stock library! The article is as much about the images as the words.

To this I have been adding more layers of suitability; subconsciously at first, based on looking at objects and images and deciding which were ‘right’ and which were ‘wrong’. I began to form these judgements into the additional parameters I was giving myself for the subjects:

  • Recognisable by any British adult
  • Evoke some kind of response – whether that be missing it, glad to see the back of it, pondering the reasons for its obsolescence etc

This was a very useful filter – it made me ditch a few images I’d shortlisted. For example, I had a (photographically) good image of a concrete GPO post, but who remembers / misses / thinks fondly of a GPO post?! Similarly the coal bunker had to go as it also failed both the above tests.

2. The message

The main insight from engaging with a few people on the OCA Flickr forum was that to be successful the images will need to evoke some kind of response from the viewer. Plain close-ups of the objects in question are unlikely to do that. My original thinking was a little purist with regard to the fictional brief: that the images could be quite close-up, almost bordering on abstract in some cases, as the words would provide the context. However, I must remember above all else that this is a photography assignment! The brief is simply the construct. I must produce images that stand alone without the context of the hypothetical magazine feature.

The ‘message’ (or meaning, or emotion) I wish to impart is simply: for the viewer to consider the subject and how/why it became obsolete. I want people to think about ‘the unstoppable march of progress’.

With this new-found enlightenment I came to realise that I need to think much more about what else is in the frame in each shot. What is the context? Are there other elements I can include in the shot that:

  • Show it in use by people?
  • Show it in its current state of disuse?
  • Juxtapose it with its ‘successor’?

One commenter used the phrase ‘mise-en scene’ and this stuck with me. Can I arrange a ‘tableau’ that carries the context and maybe even has some inherent narrative about the relationship between elements? Obviously this is easier with still life / posed setups than with found objects in public (I’m not about to move around the milk bottle I see on someone’s doorstep. for example).

So here’s a partial list of subjects and how I think I can treat them to get across the context and relationships better:

  • Old Mini: pic of owner polishing it (not got)
  • Milk bottle: on doorstep of run-down house (got)
  • Milk float: abandoned in yard (got)
  • Phone box: either: an abandoned one (got), or juxtapose one with person using a mobile phone
  • Hats: men wearing old-fashioned hats (got)
  • Guide dog charity collection box: juxtaposed with real dog (got)
  • Rotary dial phone: being used by someone (not got)
  • Old barrel pint pot: someone drinking out of (not got)
  • Bingo hall: with customers (not got)
  • Cobbles: with people (got)
  • Sweet jars: ideally with someone’s hand in shot (not got; got one with just sweet jars, might have to fall back on that)

So I need to do 5-6 more based on the above shooting plan.

I think with the above framing / staging decisions I will be able to better get across the context/meaning of each object in the way I want. Just need to get the total of good images up to ten…


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Assignment 5: getting back on track

So a few days ago I started sorting through the Assignment 5 images I’ve taken so far and had a bit of a wobble on my choice of subject.

In short: it felt too far removed from what I’ve enjoyed most on the P&P course so far, and missing something – namely People! I was pondering ditching the idea and falling back on a Plan B I’d already shot in case of such a wobble.

Well, after a few days thinking about it, talking to family and friends, swapping emails with my tutor Sam and chatting with a few kind folks on the OCA Flickr forum (thanks to semiotic, CliveDoubleU, anned003, thebaroncooney, russellthepaperbag and Eileen R) I came to the realisation that I should stick with the chosen concept (“Disappearing Britain“) but rethink what kind of images I need to produce.

The most interesting piece of advice was to consider the context and relationships of elements in my images more. The sample images I posted with my request for advice were mostly very close-up detail shots of specific objects… only in a couple of instances had I pulled back for a wider context shot. I now think I need to go back and reshoot many of the subjects, this time thinking much more about how to juxtapose them with other (background) elements in order to provide a more visually interesting proposition.

In many cases I do think the missing piece is the human element – my intention is to trigger memories of the objects in question, to evoke some kind of emotion (e.g. missing it, glad to see the back of it, thinking about the reasons for its increasing obsolescence etc), and this could be through showing the objects in use by people.

In summary, my problem wasn’t really with the fundamental concept, more with the images themselves.

So I think I’m back on track – albeit with a request to my tutor for an extended deadline if I have to do so many reshoots!