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Context and Narrative

© Maria Short 2011/AVA Books

Writing a review of a book which features one’s work may seem a rather cheeky and unintelligent attempt at self-promotion. But Maria Short’s new book Context and Narrative, recently published by AVA Books, is the kind of learning resource that many OCA students will want to have on their bookshelves. In any case my participation is modest enough compared to that of other contributors and I don’t receive any royalties from the sale of the book.
I like this book for many reasons. In terms of its layout and design this is a book that boasts a consistent visual style where different design solutions are artfully combined. Framed images, full-bleed photographs, white backgrounds, black backgrounds, this book demonstrates how to combine images and text in a visually engaging and reader-friendly way.
The deceptively concise style that this book shares with other titles in the Basics series is an excellent example of how to write analytically, which we positively know is one of the greatest challenges for students at OCA’s level 2 and 3. Each chapter has clear and well-defined topics and includes case studies which support the author’s opinions. At the end of each chapter there is a brief summary and some suggested exercises to consolidate what the reader learned.
© Charley Murrell

However, it is the the subject matter that the books deals with that I find particularly appealing. It is refreshing to read a book which is concerned with key tenets of photography such as context and narrative, which, regardless of the technology that we use, are crucial for photographs to act as more than just records or evidence. In the first chapter Maria Short takes the opportunity to discuss the function of the photograph. She comments on the value of photographs as documents regardless of whether the realities that they portray are ‘real’ or constructed, which acknowledges current contemporary practices. An example of the later is Charley Murrell’s Constructed Childhoods , an original take on the ‘real or fake’ theme our students are familiar with, but redolent with social commentary. Murrell’s photographs, the result of an idea brilliantly conceptualised and executed, show us that Photoshop can also be legitimately used in the field of social documentary.
© Eleanor Kelly

The next two sections, ‘Audience and Intention’ and ‘Narrative’ are the key chapters of the book. The author identifies that elusive skill she calls ‘gut instinct’ which every photographer needs to develop. Short acknowledges that “…one of the greatest challenges facing a student photographer is to translate ideas into images…”, which is the main hurdle between the student’s intention and the realisation of their work as a communication device, and offers valuable advice to that effect. The author also recognises that photography is a dialectic process which incorporates significant input from the viewer. The photographic image is inherently ambiguous, as Short demonstrates by referring to the project The Bedrooms, by Emma O’Brien, a photographer with a marked conceptual approach. The notion of ‘narrative’ is also explored; the author emphasises that narrative in photographs doesn’t necessarily work like narrative in text. Narrative in images doesn’t have to be linear or be restricted to a fixed sequence of images. On the contrary, it can be be multidirectional and also be embedded in a single image, which expands creative and communication possibilities. The Devil’s Garden project by Eleanor Kelly has a strong and fluid narrative which works in a multitude of directions.
The final two chapters turn up the critical discussion several notches and revolve around the use of symbols and text in photographic images. Short argues that visual metaphors tend to be present in narrative-rich portfolios, and that how symbols are read depends on the sociocultural context that both the photographer and viewer belong to.
But the most interesting aspect of this book is that the images that Maria Short selected to support her arguments were not primarily taken by iconic and well-known photographers but by a collective of new photographers who have a fresh look at the world. In doing so they have the potential to inspire established and aspiring photographers. And that’s the main reason why you should buy this book, particularly if you are doing People & Place, Social Documentary, or are in the transition between levels 1 and 2. It won’t make me rich but it will make me feel good to know that some of you think of photography as a vehicle for communication.

Posted by author: Jose
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46 thoughts on “Context and Narrative

  • Thanks to Amazon I have now reached page 42 Jose, where Maria Short says ‘To be a photographer, you need to passionate about communicating ‘something” These words resonate when you look at Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project or listen to Jan Engström when he says ‘I’m still there in this confusion about humanity’

  • I couldn’t agree more Gareth. That’s something that we tend to forget, and photography has to be, necessarily, a reaction to how we feel about something and a vehicle to express it. It is that feeling that we should strive to communicate. It could be a feeling of awe in the presence of a beautiful and wild landscape, or indignation when confronted with sheer poverty, or, in the case of Briony, the deep love for someone who is not going to be around for long.
    Communication without that passion demotes photography to a mere record, pure evidence. Doesn’t it?

  • This nicely fits into a how I have been rethinking my approach to the overall course work… or current lack of it due to the outside world taking up my time 😀
    Adding it to my Amazon wishlist as well 😀

      • Just felt I was being too literal and disjointed in my approach… for example photograph a curve – so i went out in search of a real curve.. not an implied curve … just to photograph a curve. But suddenly when looking back through the exercises I started thinking about the whole lack of narrative in the images. Many many disjointed images that I find collectively jarring that don’t seem to have any structure.
        This is not what I set out to achieve from starting the course. You can take a million pictures and still not create a defining image, but if you stop and look you can.
        I need to start finding the narratives around me , look beyond to see the story.
        So even if I am still having a personal struggle to walk again within the structure of TAoP it’s still making me think and consider my images. Sometimes you have to climb into the box to be able see out of it.

        • Thanks Graeme, that’s the kind of reflection on your own work that will surely take your photography to another level. Connotation, non-literal information, is fundamental for photographs to convey complex information. Well done.

  • This is a really good book, I can’t tell you how helpful its been to me to put all sorts of bits and pieces of previously acquired knowledge and information into a proper structure and to have it contextualised for photography. I’ve read it twice now:)

  • Having just read this I would say that there is a real case for including this with with course notes on enrolment rather than Clarke’s “The Photograph”. Whilst I accept that they are two entirely different books, Short introduces some basic and fundamental concepts of artistic approach and reflects on the vernacular of the art-form. Whereas Clarke is at best confusing for the novice photographer and at worst, confusing and contradictory. I would have only two concerns regarding this as a set text; firstly, that it focuses on the student within the typical environs of student life – i.e .at a college or university; not that that should be an obstacle. However, more importantly, there is a strong recognition that image quality is also one of those fundamental concepts and this course has no means by which a student gets to the technical excellence Short speaks of. In the second chapter she writes “Technical execution is vital in supporting the conceptual approach and the viewer’s reading of an image” p48. This course is more about enabling it’s students to become more thoughtful photographic artists, not about more technically competent. Not a complaint, just a comment. I particularly liked the chapter on semiotics and I thought the exercises would be fun and probably very good experience.

    • Thanks for your comments and your feedback John; your arguments are sound are well-informed. Personally, I wouldn’t consider ANY book as a canonical guide. In fact, I encourage my students to challenge established views, particularly those from well-known thinkers and essayist. Both texts you are referring to are useful and informative in their own right.
      Now, as for the comment on p.48 in Short’s book…I’ll illustrate my position with an anecdote.
      Sometime ago I went to a conference on new documentary photography in Cardiff. To cut a long story short, I, like the rest of the audience, had to endure dozens of dull, technically-substandard images shown by equally dull, pedantic and dry speakers. Fortunately, one of the speakers had the guts to speak his mind and tell how he felt about the photographs we had seen so far. This particular speaker, whose name I can’t remember, came from the National Media Museum in Bradford and had pretty impressive credentials. And the first thing he said in his presentation was that the work that had been shown in previous presentations “failed to visually stimulate him”. He added that for an image to work as a communication device it has to succeed at that very first aesthetic level before it can operate at a higher, more complex level where information is shared with the viewer. The other speakers at the conference weren’t amused.
      And that’s exactly how I feel about Maria Short’s comments: I totally concur with her.

      • “Technical execution is vital in supporting the conceptual approach and the viewer’s reading of an image”
        While I would agree with you, and that statement, I would qualify it by saying that the photographer should have the technical skills at their disposal to select the most appropriate approach in any given situation; lest the statement should encourage those that fetishise technical quality at the expense of content and meaning.
        Sometimes a less than text book execution can enhance the communication; knowingly flouting technical standards, as cinematographers are wont to do, consciously degrading the image, can signal a more sophisticated appreciation of technique than adhering to expected technical standards.

        • Clive I think the exception would prove the rule – quoting again from the book p.110 McCullin states..”Even in battle photography, I go over on my back and read the exposure. What’s the point of getting killed if you’ve got the wrong exposure?” Yes, there is a difference between art and craft and the one is amplified by the other. I would contend though that the one without the other is less than the half of the two combined.
          Jose, but I though Hedgecoe’s “Introductory Photography Course” was the seminal work?? I have mine – 1st folio.

          • If I was in that situation I would want to make damn sure I got a good exposure. ‘ }
            The key here is ‘knowingly’, having the sophistication to realise that a little bit of camera shake or flare can enhance the image and having the knowledge and skills to make the choice, both when shooting and in editing.

          • talking about war photography…how about Capa’s photos of the D-Day landings? The most ‘visually stimulating’ ones, those which most successfully convey a sense of action and the intensity of the battle are actually those which are blurred and out of focus. These are technically flawed images by many standards, including Hedgecoe’s…or are they?

          • How funny I was thinking about mentioning those then decided to keep it short.
            But the technical cock up actually enhanced them greatly as very immediate, hard won, both in shooting and printing, images.

  • There was the issue, regarding Mr Capa’s photographs, of them being somewhat damaged in the dryer. I agree that the effect of being under fire in the landings is amply displayed, but maybe not through intention to add drama, more of a desire to survive? I would say that Capa’s more technically correct images in the streets of Paris have an emotional intensity on more than one primeval level – but also about survival in a wider sense- the girl who had a child by a German soldier is fighting for her life and her child’s and look at the baying crowd!

    • OK. But what if the effect is intentional and not accidental? Does that make the image less technically accomplished, or the photographer less competent?

    • ‘more of a desire to survive?’
      That’s exactly how I read them; as an every-man trying to survive, as they must have all been trying to do first and foremost.
      Horse for courses, of course if you were shooting in a Paris street then you’d probably want them to be sharp, correctly exposed and not melted in the drying cabinet.
      Although I have some images from the Parisian streets that I prefer slightly camera shook or less than technically correct.

  • If it was intentional then to Clive’s point ” that the photographer should have the technical skills at their disposal to select the most appropriate approach in any given situation” he has therefore a proven technical capability. My big issue with The “D-Day Landing” shot is that Capa was fairly well known for staging shots – take “The Ruins of Warsaw” it is likely that he had Fenton’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death” in his mind, such is the strength of similarity and Fenton wasn’t known for getting up close, and has had the accusation of staging levelled at him also. The difference between the two earlier images is that no narrative is needed for the street scene, whereas we need to be told that it was the Omaha beach – it could have been a beach in Dorset a week earlier.

    • It’s about using the language of the medium to your, or your client’s, purpose. The technical approach is part of that language that you can use to evoke a certain response. As I said elsewhere, tilting horizontals and telegraph poles growing out of people’s heads references the family snap shot for example.
      If something was staged then melting the negs would have been an inspired move! After you’d made copy negs of course. ‘ }
      There’s a tradition of despoiling negatives. Thomas Barrow in his ‘Cancellation Series’ produced technically high quality urban landscapes and then roughly scored an X over each negative before printing.

      • Ok, maybe not the D-Day images;-D
        On the despoiled image front, Sarah Moon did the despoiling as part of the process, it seems to me. I’m not aware of Barrow’s work, will go and investigate

  • In the Crimea, Fenton was the only observer (pictorially), he did have some competition with his depictions of the English Idyll, though he didn’t shirk from idealising that either, far from it he romanticised it. I fully appreciate that from a technical standpoint he needed to stage his shots, but was he a “Winner” or “Loach”?

  • “far from it he romanticised it” from our point of view but the Pastoralist tradition of the day would have dictated much of his idealistic view of rural life. It is not really possible to ignore the prevailing views of the day (‘dominant ideology’) even if it is only to oppose it and the view from the future is almost always different. The argument as to what constitutes truth, reality and so on rages and will continue to do so but the idea that the presence of the photographer/reporter has no influence on the events has long since been discredited in the eyes of most commentators and fiction (do I mean faction?) often tells more of the ‘truth’ of the event than raw facts (which anyhow need interpreting [mediating])
    Capa’s ‘set up’ shots tell the story and in the end that is what matters, Republican soldiers were shot, the Hammer and Sickle was hoisted as was the flag on Iwo Jima and whether the images recorded the actual event or merely reported on it is, I would suggest, of very little consequence.
    On the subject of the English Idyll, there is an excellent book by John Taylor called A Dream of England which is available second hand and deals with the history of photographing that idyll.

  • And I guess what I would challenge (albeit with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight) is that the pastoralist view of England was a view from a singularly one sided perspective – Julian Fellowes’ view, warm and cosy. But there was no need to only paint that side of English life – Dickens didn’t and he was direct contemporary, well the camera wasn’t a device of the populace, so why should they figure? Fenton had royal patronage and wasn’t going to record the life of the sapper, rather the landed gentry in the “field” doing the work of the Empire, where the only smoke was the officer’s smouldering pipe lit by batman. Of course there is another contemporary account of the the Crimean adventure that of Mr. Tolstoy; his sketches of Sebastopol, which later fed into War and Peace – especially the battle of the three emporers tell a different tale.
    I shall look into Taylor’s dream if I can get hold of it. At least this thread has more for me to think about, and I don’t only mean more space on the bookshelf.

  • I do not disagree with your analysis of the pastoralist view at all, it is just that that was the prevailing view at the time just as the, shall we say, cynical view is the prevailing one today and so yesterday’s ‘truth’ and today’s are different. From that I would suggest that the idea of the objective truth is mythical and so the idea of the purity of the objective image is mythical also. That does not indicate an objection to a photographer taking the moral stance to attempt not to set up images or to manipulate them, merely an objection to applying that moral stance as a judgement on the work of others who take a different view of how to tell their truth.

    • I didn’t mean this to get multi-threaded and it has strayed a distance from the book discussion. However, since you mention truth! My concern regarding the truth is that whilst it may be mythical is is certainly not without taint from so many aspects. Philiosphically the camera has no power to record the absolute truth, each frame (which is itself a censorious act) is a collection of brief moments in time. Post processing whether Woodburytype or C-type are additional abstractions from the truth all compounding to extract the viewer from the truth. But the truth that I refer to is the truth of the artist. The artist who decides to focus their lens on one aspect of a situation or another. The London riots – which way to point and for what effect. Fenton, Capa (as we have mentioned them) staged photographs to emphasise certain personal motives. The one being the depiction of the nation’s brave soldiary in defence of our royal majesty and empire; the other to depict the futility and waste of war. Both were not the “truth” in that they had large elements of fiction.

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