Sunday, 29 June 2014

Intersection of gazes

Exercise 37 - read the article 'The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The example of National Geographic' by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins.

In what way does the idea of the gaze apply to your photography? What are the implications of this for your practice?

The article states that there are seven (different) types of gaze, namely:

  1. The photographers gaze (the act of looking through the view finder)
  2. The magazine gaze (the 'view' of the editor, in terms of selecting or rejecting from a portfolio of images, then further physical manipulation by means of cropping the images or implied relationships between images due to placement within the article)
  3. The readers gaze
  4. The non-Westerners subjects gaze 
  5. The explicit looking done by Westerners who are framed together with the locals (subjects) in the picture
  6. The gaze returned or refracted by the mirrors or cameras (that are shown) in the hands of locals
  7. The academics gaze (our own gaze).
This article was written in 1991 and took the National Geographic magazine as its particular reference. Times have moved on and views have changed, however, I would speculate that all seven views still apply to and influence photography and photographic practise - not in the way they did, but in a way that fits within our world view currently. 

1. I am a photographer and I have a 'view', this view may be directed by me in terms of a personal project or directed by a company in terms of a specific brief; but the result is still my view - my take - on a given set of circumstances. With regards to a specific brief, I also accept that my view today could be very different to my view tomorrow - I am a product of my life experiences and will continue to have new experiences and therefore evolve. I would expect this evolution to be reflected in how I view the world and also in the images I produce.

2. I have no doubt the role of the editor has become more challenging, especially today in the saturated digital arena of mass media; nonetheless the function of the role remains the same - to sell magazines. A fundamental change here being the fact that 'the media' not only scrutinise the newsworthy events and celebrities, they also scrutinise each other.

3. Our world is getting smaller and we have the Internet at our fingertips; it is hardly surprising that our readers are more demanding in terms of immediate access to information; are generally less inclined to believe what they see (or hear) without the requisite proof; at the same time as becoming very fickle in where they get their information. That is not necessarily to say that the reader is any more educated, only that they are generally more aware of their surroundings because of the collective nature of their communication - we are The Borg, you will be assimilated, resistance is futile! (from Star Trek)

4. The gaze of the subject - and we may not want to limit this to 'non-Westerner' - is as troublesome today as it was in 1991. Nat-Geo was originally looking at 3rd world and emerging cultures - anything that was new and original; there is less new and original today because of television, the Internet and the tourist industry. Historically, like it or not, there was a style and a hierarchy to the image and the composition of the image and looking back through these images this cultural discrimination can clearly be observed. I believe, today that the image code is none-existent, the use of the images taken is less controlled and more manipulated for the benefit of the 'story' and the 'gaze' of the individual rarely considered. 

5. In this instance I would suggest swap 'Westerners' with 'tourists' and the situation is similar. In this type of image I (would like to) think there is less racial discrimination and more genuine interest in the difference in the cultures and the image taken as purely an aide memoire to a great holiday experience! I would concur that the tourist does not seek a relationship with the 'native', but at the same time is happy to accept them as an individual with an interesting and different ethnicity. 

6. Of the seven gazes identified in this article, I believe this is the least relevant in today's society - in this modern era of social networking and camera phones, there is a global obsession with 'selfies'! In the past people may well have been self-unaware and camera shy, today it is basically unacceptable not to take your photograph and communicate your activity with your friends and followers - no matter how inappropriate the situation.

7. I suspect this is the one gaze that has not changed - no matter how much society changes; academics will always be there to analyse and speculate... 

Taken slightly out of context from the article, but fitting nonetheless regardless of which gaze applies and how they intersect:

"It would seem to be fact that the seductiveness of pictures both captures and instructs us."

Gaze and control

Exercise 36 - read the article 'On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography' by David Green (The Camera Works Essays, 2005) and summarise the key points.

Green's article goes a long way to breaking down and explaining Foucault's writing in layman terms. He starts by stating by defining the two central interconnecting themes:
  1. The development of certain forms of rationality which posit man as both the subject and object of knowledge
  2. The complex relations bonding power and knowledge which are implied to such forms of rationality.
He then walks us through the development of man's developing understanding of himself as an individual and as an integral part of the individual society in which he lives, thus leading to and furthering his understanding of the existence of other and different 'societies'.  

The salient points to this development of understanding being:
  • Knowledge is indeed power, but only if (1) 'man' is able to convert his understanding into knowledge (knowing something is in itself not knowledge) and (2) 'man' is able to wield that knowledge as power.
  • The term 'power' in the statement above (at the time of Foucault writing his book) was not what we consider 'power' to be today wholly negative - it was also considered to be a positive enabler, an understanding that enabled the society to move forward progressively.
  • Knowledge is also truth - truth here being a set of rules or politics that enable a particular society to behave in a way that is acceptable to those wielding the power.  The odd think about truth is it is only the truth because we all say it is the truth! Nonetheless, knowledge does enable a truth to be developed and at the change or power, a new 'improved' truth to evolve. 
  • The key to knowledge is understanding the good and bad influences in society and then to harness both 'sides' of power constructively - positive power to aid social development and negative power (or domination) to subjugate the disruptive elements.
  • Continued gathering of information, led to 'benchmarking norms' and a greater understanding of what power meant to an individual and how that power worked. This in turn led to a more tolerant approach to the application of negative power - rather than domination and physical retribution, society moved towards reform through training and education.
  • Identification of 'norms' enabled the exclusion of individuals outside those norms. This led to the reforming of those individuals so that they could fit within the norms and could be useful within society. 
  • The ethos was very much about optimisation of society - if a society was to be efficient and effective then everybody associated with that society needed to perform optimally. As well as physical attributes, various other categories (norms) of research were investigated (mapped): physical health, mental well-being; right person, right job; work ethics; moral stability. 

How does this relate to photography? 

Without discussing the existence or not of specific body markers that relate to behaviours, the majority of the information gathered (re above) was via close observational study. Similarly a significant amount of the data gathered today, regarding antisocial behaviour, is gathered via CCTV. Regardless of this and all of the historic data, the fact remains that photography is an unreliable mechanism for pre-determining behaviour. It is also unreliable in determining how power 'works'; power is pervasive at all levels in our society, but only pertinent locally and often transient within a specific group of people during a specific situation. Thus if power only exists locally, as and when it's required, it can only be challenged locally at the time of its existence. 

Therefore, photography cannot be a strategy for opposition even though it can/could be used to further inform decisions globally. To effect change and effectively use information gathered, any strategy and methodology must be able to influence at a global level - at the same time - as being applied locally. 

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Assignment 4 planning (part 1) - options

PART 1 - Write a 2,000 word critical essay on one of the many debates you've explored so far in this course. 

The aim of the critical review is to demonstrate your awareness and understanding of how your own and other photographers' work and ideas relate to the wider cultural picture. 
This is an opportunity to:
  • Explore in depth a topic or theme that has informed your journey throughout this course
  • Engage with some of the theoretical issues explored in the course
  • Demonstrate that you've developed academically.

PART 2 - Write a 250 word proposal for a project with enough scope for you to work on it while you study part four and five.

Initial thoughts for part 1:
Thought 1:
The transparency of pictures by Kendall L Walton, this article still irritates me. Feedback from my tutor (some time ago) mentioned about our changing attitudes towards subjects as we developed on our journey through the course - I guess in this particular stretch of the journey I haven't developed very far.... Nonetheless, Walton did enable me to take a strong viewpoint on a subject (that until that point) I had no previous knowledge about. In terms of additional reading, Walton also irritated me enough to read more about Bazin and Barthes - this would have happened as part of this course, but it enabled me to be a step ahead by the time the exercises arrived.

I also wonder if my newly acquired understanding of people like Sontag and Foucault may be rooted in my irritation of Walton? Perhaps this even extends to my acceptance and use of the "language" to communicate my thoughts in my blog?

Thought 2:
The responsibility (moral obligation) of the photographer; yes or no to image manipulation; the camera never lies; ... the list is endless! This should be a relatively simple subject to put to bed, but the debate rages on and on. Basically we all have a moral compass and we all know right from wrong, its just my wrong might be a little further down the wrong path than yours. The first time we break a rule we wait in trepidation for the sky to cave in; when this doesn't happen the next we break the rule it becomes easier until it becomes normal practise. With photography, this does not just apply to the photographer, but also to all the other people in the chain until we get to the final 'published' format of the image - so a minor tweak by each person may well result in a grossly altered image.

To compound the matter further, there are no clear guidelines as to what constitutes acceptable manipulation. Let us take sharpening as an example.

Basically we all sharpen images, unless of course we're in fashion or portraiture - then we soften images. Is this just harmless 'tweaking'? How can it be harmless tweaking if it sells millions of copies of fashion magazines? I suppose the concern here is, what happens if we sharpen the celebrity images? In this day and age it's likely to sell even more magazines!
In our media saturated environment, soft has lots of additional meanings such as sensitive, feminine, relaxed and romantic; whereas sharp means edgy, dynamic, aggressive and even dangerous. So this harmless tweak, not only changes the look of the image but also changes the atmosphere and therefore the narrative of the image.

Add to this another standard form of manipulation - straightening (horizons and verticals) - and you have all the makings of a real cinematic photo-shoot. Look at the way Hitchcock uses jarring angles to create tension and suspense! Think back to TAOP and the importance of perfectly flat horizons so it didn't feel like your image was going to slide off the page - the entire point of these frustrating pieces of tutor feedback was to ensure you engaged with your audience rather than making them feel sick!

Thought 3: 

Internalising thought 2 - photographic objectivity. If we ignore the deliberate manipulation of the image via the dark room or with software and look at the subjective (or subconscious) manipulation of the image before and as we take it! As with thought 2, add to this the subjectivity of the others in the production chain and then relate this back to Bazin "for the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man."

But did Bazin go far enough? Let us add further to this layering of subjectivity - the viewer is not an innocent party in this scenario. We will assume for the purposes of discussion, that all parties involved in the 'publication' are attempting to work objectively towards a common goal. The viewer on the other hand can come to this work tangentially and take it wholly out of context! This brings me back to the very first exercise of this course and Miranda Gavin's concerns as to how we manage "the impact on the relationships between the photograph and the audience in this new age of digital technology". This undoubtedly remains a fair question, eight months later I find myself asking - have we ever successfully managed this relationship, did we really manage the relationship when it was just a black and white picture in a newspaper?

Initial thoughts for part 2:
Nothing distilled enough to write about currently...

Bazin, A (~1945) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ OCA download

Assignment 3 planning (part 3)


A draft of my assignment 'book' was submitted to my tutor - the feedback was positive and encouraging.

Following through with the concept of a paired-pages: Primary pair - information (narrative) LHS and main image RHS; followed by Secondary pair - linking images to move the viewer from one 'section' to the next.

Below are a number of screen shots for the book as it was being developed - some the are pages are completed, similarly the sequencing is incorrect.

Completed 'Primary pair'
Incomplete 'Secondary pair' for milking parlour
Completed 'Secondary pair' for milk intake
Completed 'Primary pair' for process
Completed 'Secondary pair' for trollies
Incomplete 'Primary pair' for store - information missing
Completed 'Secondary pair' for store

Specific feedback from my tutor:
  1.  With regards layout - some pages could be improved by not varying the size of the images
  2. Showing sequences e.g. buying in a supermarket, is a really good idea for the shoot though
  3. Think about how the subject matter of the image is constraining the type of image.


There is no doubt that mixed sized images are jarring when you look through the pages - originally my images where the same size and I felt they looked a bit static, but at that point I hadn't printed the document. Viewing the printed document, it's almost as though your eye 'stumbles' over the images when they are different sizes. 

The sequences in the linking pages do what they are designed to do, flow from one section of the narrative to the next.

The subject matter is certainly contraining the type of image I am taking for this project - my initial thought on this was "shouldn't that be the case?" However, if I substitute typical for constrain, then yes I'm taking typical (stereotypical) images - so, time for a fresh look...

Assignment 3 planning (thoughts about photography)

With my PC out of action for a while and me out of the country (travelling light - iPhone only)  I've had time to think about my photography rather than do my photography.

I realise that might sound a little strange, because without a doubt, this module of the course has for the first time truly made me think about my photographs; how I develop my images and how I want to communicate visually. I have been doing this module for eight months (since November 2013) and I haven't changed my working methodology between this module and the last module. Therefore, the only conclusion I can draw is that my thinking methodology must have changed. Until now I had never even considered that there was such a thing and a thinking methodology...

I was warned by my tutor before I started this module that there was a significant jump between first and second year modules. I have found it to be very significant, in terms of both volume of work and standard of work required. Not least of which is the amount of philosophy included in this module. Like most people, my first module was TAOP and the reading list included "On Photography" by Susan Sontag. I enthusiastically bought this book but failed miserably to read it several times. Lurking around the OCA forums, I heard mention of Foucault and also failed to read his work - that is, until now (chapter 4, exercise 36). Not only could I read it and understand it, I knew what he was saying before he'd finished saying it.

David Campbell in his talk on Narrative, Power and Responsibility mentions Tod Papageorge and a lecture he gave to his students about developing narrative. Stating that the oft repeated quote from Robert Kappa "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough" was no longer valid and the new mantra should be "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not reading enough".

I think this is especially true in our media-saturated environment. Historically, photographers have always developed their own voice by understanding, interpreting and modifying the voices of other artists. Today, to stand out in the crowd it's not just about good imagery, it's about effective communication through the development of strong visual cues that narrate events.

Simply put, a good photograph is fine for stock but has limited appeal elsewhere. However, a good photograph that is anchored and referenced; adds to and further expands an existing debate; provides an alternative view point or is intentionally controversial and challenges the status quo - these are the images of the future and without sufficient depth of knowledge, photographers will not be given the opportunity to engage with tomorrows audience.