Saturday, 18 July 2015

How do you spell ‘pretentious’ ?

In my case it’s spelled “Assignment 5”

It’s fair to say my tutor had a view on this assignment, and he was decent enough to spend considerable time discussing it with me to help me come to an understanding of his concerns. And before we go any further ‘pretentious’ was my final description of it, not his - he never criticised it, simply asked questions about it, and why I’d done it, in the way a good coach should.

So…time to ‘fess up’ to myself.

  • I expected to have difficulties with this course, and that became a self-fulfilling prophesy
  • I never really understood the difference between documentary and photojournalism, or between the latter and a photo-essay
  • In a nutshell I allowed my general dislike of the photo-story and of social documentary to colour my approach to the course.

Being less hard on myself, the course highlighted some things that really do interest me – not least the way in which curation and research allow archaeologists and museum curators (among others) to assemble an understanding of, or provide a reaction to, the material evidence they have available.

The end result of this is that whereas Assignments 2,3, and 4 were reasonably reflections of my interests the same could not be said of Assignment 5.In an attempt to provide a critique of documentary practice as Assignment 5 I basically lost sight of and stopped being honest about the things that interest me, which in this context is curation, archaeology and using my photography to look for meaningful (to me) patterns in the world. The outcome was an over complex idea, which basically made an obvious point – that all curation is subjective - in a rather pretentious way.

To quote my tutor after the discussion “If you are inauthentic about the true reasons or motivations behind a piece of your work, then this will be apparent to the viewer.”


A re-reading of Hurn/Jay On being a Photographer at my tutors suggestion was very helpful in cementing some of the ideas we discussed.

  • Photo-journalism carries an expectation of truth (or at;least some measure of objectivity), while documentary can be a more artistic or analytical response to information or situations.
  • There is a difference between a photo-story, which has a linear narrative, and a photo essay which admits complexity, reflection and non-linearity – it does not have to tell a story. Curation can be very similar – there is a curators gallery at Tullie House museum in Carlisle which I visited last week. I’m going to go back because it’s definitely NOT trying to tell a story.
  • In Hurn’s words a photo-essay is “…a group of images in which each picture is supporting and strengthening all the others.” It does not mean””…the sequencing of teh pictures can be read like a string of words.” He also notes that all he claims for his work is “..that is what I saw and felt about the subject at the time the pictures were made.”
  • All this helps make more sense of many of the photobooks I’ve looked at. I’ve struggled with the idea that I can’t find a story in them, when really I should have been looking for the feeling in them. I first struggled with this in the work of Moriyama, and – not before time – I now understand they’re a reaction not a story. Talk about slow!!!

Next steps

Well the first is to scrap Assignment 5 as it currently is – not the images – just the idea. I had a good discussion with my tutor about how to take this forward and how to capture my interests more honestly. A typology, with its formal ideas of collection and curation is one approach, but I don’t feel that in this context it’s the right answer – I’m not seeking an exhaustive record of everything that washes up – I photograph what feels interesting and relevant on the day. This means I have to capture the feelings (perhaps even pleasure) I get from the strange mixes and juxtapositions presented by the objects I find. I also needs to capture the sense of collecting and curating/studying that I take to my flotsam & jetsam photos. This seems to point to using one of the those photobooks that I’ve previously found rather baffling as a structure.

For the first time in a year I’m actually looking forward to Assignment 5 – it’s a shame I had to complete the course to achieve that.

1 comment:

  1. A good place to get and you've clarified a fair bit for me.