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Research as Practice and Practice as Research

I have just received a copy of the latest addition to the series Basics-Creative Photography published by AVA Publishing. Called Behind the Image: Research in Photography it is the third volume in a series that already includes Design Principles and Context and Narrative.
Behind the Image, as with all the other books in the series, is aimed at students in the visual arts and combines explanations of the relevant topics with practical examples from real-world practice.
There are six sections each ending with a case study and suggested activity but scattered throughout are examples of how particular topics have played out with photographer’s practice.
It might be argue that there is rather too much reliance on the work of the two authors but it is equally possible that by referring to their own work they have a greater intimacy with the details of the projects and their own working methods.
The authors, Anna Fox and Natasha Caruana are both practicing artists and photography academics at the University for the Creative Arts, which is co-incidentally our accrediting university.
The opening sentence of the book sets the tone, ‘Research and exploration are vital elements of the photographer’s practice; together they form part of the process of making photographic projects.’ The book sets out to show how any photographic project needs to grow from an idea to a final outcome via well directed and documented research. ‘Documenting the process for the future enables critical reflection, and the evaluation of what you have done helps you to decide where to go next.’
For the student new to developing coherent projects rather than randomly taking photographs as the mood takes, there are a number of useful suggested formats for research and organising the results of that research. Interview techniques are touched upon and there is no stuffy academic shunning of contemporary communications media. The Internet, blogging and social networks are discussed and one of the activities is to start your own blog. Of blogging as a research tool they say, ‘Creating a blog allows increased functionality above simply digitizing and compiling your research material.’ But neither are the traditional research resources passed over; libraries and particularly archives are dealt with in some detail and there is advice on setting up your own archive to store the results of your own research and its outcomes.
They start their conclusion by saying,
‘The emphasis of this book has been on understanding, acknowledging and recording the research process in a way that enables critical reflection and evaluation, creating a rich and vibrant resource for continual use.’
For students at level 4 (our level 1 modules) this can be a difficult concept to grasp, there is sometimes an over emphasis on intuitive working and too great a reliance on inspiration but this book should go a long way to explaining why and how research based projects are likely to have better outcomes and how research can form the basis of a truly professional approach to one’s work.
Peter Haveland
Curriculum Leader: Photography and Visual Culture

Posted by author: Peter
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37 thoughts on “Research as Practice and Practice as Research

  • Just ordered the two I did not have, already got a lot out of Context and Narrative. Looks like an excellent series is developing

  • Great book for level one students, but perhaps also a good book for photography students at higher levels to read retrospectively.
    I’d also recommend ‘Basics Photography: Lighting’ by David Prakel which is in a related series on technical aspects. It is ideal preparation for the lighting assignment in TAOP. It is particularly useful for all those photographers who shoot by available light or flash on camera and have never previously thought about the role that light plays in making images.

  • Amano: A few months ago I would have agreed with you 100%, my photographs always had to be technically perfect; focus, DoF, colour, including the technical details; subject name, etc. However these turned out to be nothing more than ‘record shots’, nothing wrong with that but I felt I was missing out on the ‘arty’ wow factors I had seen in other peoples work. TAOP has taken its time but I am gradually coming around to as 10cc put it ‘Art for arts sake!’ where art can take precedence over the inclusion/exclusion of technicalities, there is however no excuse for technical errors, a picture of an egret should not claim to be a crane, that is just sloppy workmanship, information reliability is still paramount in my book.

    • Ray,
      I do not think there is such a thing as technical perfection and “arty wow factors” can easily be just another form of technique!? Yet this was not the subject of my post.
      The photograph is both art and document and I do not think one should compromise the other but that is not the point I am making here. Photography often does compromise truth, some would say owing to the constrictions of the photograph it can not do anything but compromise truth, but in Behind the Image I sense that the role of truth in research is being given rather short shrift.
      “Art for art’s sake!” That cry has been around since at least the early 19’th century, long before 10CC! What about “photography for photography’s sake!?”

      • Amano, leaving aside my lack of ornithological qualifications, if the author had said nothing about the species or had said something along the lines of “large elegant white bird” instead, would that have been ok? Also do we know that it was Knorr herself who nominated such? Interesting book all the same.

        • John
          The point I am making has nothing to do with birds rather the subject of truth in photography which is of course an ongoing debate.
          If the author had described the bird as large, white and elegant they would not have been misinforming the reader.

      • Amano: I have just had a look at your website, and can see where you are coming from, however, for example your 2 books will have demanded extensive research and accuracy would be paramount, but what if the book had been called ‘Moods of the River Thames’, that would have demanded a different type of research assuming that research was applicable at all.

        • If the book Moods of the River Thames included a photo of Vauxhall Bridge in misty morning light and the caption said it was London Bridge, might not the reader feel somewhat compromised!?

  • I have received my copy of this book. In spite of a tendency towards the academic, I like this book and find some of the advice helpful such as the suggestions for setting up a private blog!
    However, I do find myself questioning the book. This may sound pedantic but the photograph of the “white crane” (page 95) which has been digitally inserted into an Indian interior is also phoney because it is not a Crane at all but an Egret (a Great White Egret to be exact). Surely, an essential part of research is about recording facts so that one can provide evidence based work if and when required.
    I can however find no mention of the role reliable information might play in research at all in this book. For me, it is one of the reasons I do research!
    It would have been good to have seen a little exposition on Photoshop’s File Info. With Photoshop open, click on the File menu and near the bottom you’ll find the File Info tab that opens up a window into which one can store a mass of information relating to one’s work. URLs, blocks of text, etc can all be inserted.
    It seems there are those who feel that art should take precedence over technicalities but I think that this can undermine the role of the photographer.

    • “It seems there are those who feel that art should take precedence over technicalities but I think that this can undermine the role of the photographer.” – I suppose that it all depends on the purpose of the photograph. However except in forensic work, aesthetic considerations should never be ignored whereas there are times when technical ones may be immaterial.
      Discuss 🙂

      • Well, I agree with you completely Peter … but since you invite discussion … !!
        We are discussing research here and I consider for that one needs basic information whatever that might be; it can help to guide one’s work.
        One might want for some reason to present one’s photograph with an untruth; call a common egret a crane because it sounds oh so much better!
        I am actually left wondering whether this photo of an egret is a digital composite as the text states; it would not be that unlikely to see such a bird in such a setting as wildlife tends to interact more with humans in somewhere like India. I have certainly seen egrets in backyards.
        We don’t know however because, ironically, the research is not there!!

      • Peter writes, ” except in forensic work, aesthetic considerations should never be ignored whereas there are times when technical ones may be immaterial.”
        I often find that technical considerations are not as important as one might think; however, I wonder in what situation one might find them immaterial!?
        If I am shooting to capture a fleeting moment then I might ignore aesthetic considerations until after I have the image and it needs to be made into a photograph.

        • …any situation where a snap will do and I can think of numerous occasions when the camera user had no idea what they were doing (i.e. the technical considerations were immaterial) and the images suited their purposes. Given the advances in automation, very many situations now arise when the technical stuff is done by the machinery not the operator, no doubt one of the reasons for the decline in commercial work, the loss of the high street photographer and the rise of the (very)semi-pro.

          • OK, point taken.
            The debate here, if there is one, seems to be about the tentative relationship between technique and artistry.
            One still needs to know how to operate a camera technically (most big labs are said to receive a significant numbers of photos just of people’s ears!!) and some sense of aesthetics in capturing a subject.
            We are told that we must surrender technique for aesthetics but this might be a reaction to basic assumptions that photography is all about technical mastery of the camera.
            I have a friend who has a great eye for composition but most of these images are poorly focused; I have not said anything because others like the photos and she seems happy. Furthermore, if she starts thinking more about technique then her artistry might suffer.

        • I suspect that the real problem is not one of either or but that there is a lot of work out there made by those for whom technique is everything and aesthetics, nothing. The camera clubs and amateur magazines both foster this view and the rest of us rather over react. In the final analysis I think that so long as technique is the servant of aesthetics and meaning we have a way forward.

          • “there is a lot of work out there made by those for whom technique is everything and aesthetics, nothing. ” writes Peter and I find myself agreeing; such work strikes me as banal !!
            As long as technique is the servant and not the master then worthwhile photography is possible …

  • Amano: before 10cc…. I wasnt around before 10cc :), and as they didnt use the Harvard referencing system I had to assume they used it first.
    I do get the feeling I am still missing your point though, compromising truth it may do but inacccurate information could be avoided with proper research

    • Yes Ray, I guess that is part of what I am saying – research should prevent misinformation and one needs certain methods of working to ensure that.

  • Amano: the book discusses the need to test and assess your research for credibility and accuracy at pages 20-22 (and possibly elsewhere, but I’d not long read those pages when I saw this discussion). It may not be as comprehensive a discussion as it could be but does that not go some way towards addressing your concerns about the book?
    With regard to the picture: I have seen the artist who made the pictures refer to the bird as a crane and I would think it likely that the authors took her word for it. I agree that it is not good practice on the original photographer’s part to get that information wrong, but am not sure that it is reasonable to expect the authors to check what individual photographers tell them about their work before using it. I may of course be missing your point.
    In any event, publishers and authors do correct known errors in subsequent editions and it may be worthwhile sending your comments to them for future reference.

    • Thanks Eileen for responding to the subject I was addressing which does not really relate to either birds or photographic technique.
      Yes, you are right, the pages you mention do emphasise the need and a method for collecting reliable information; in fact, one is advised to use the internet but at the same time be aware that it contains inaccuracies and needs checking. After browsing through the book and seeing the egret-crane photograph, I have been reading it and not quite got to pages 20-22 (I rather like the mind map illustration on page 28!!
      So perhaps my criticism is too severe yet the authors do not seem very interested in information rather in views and theories which is understandable.
      There is another photograph whose caption I find myself questioning. It is on page 60 and shows a young man with a10by8 camera on a rooftop. The caption tells us he is about to take a landscape although it looks like he is in the middle of a town (perhaps only on the edge yet the photograph does not suggest this so perhaps he is taking a cityscape that is being classified as a landscape) while he is meant to be only looking yet holds his shutter release cord. It is apparently a self-portrait since it is credited with the photographer which means that it is more a performance than a documentary moment. Maybe I sound cynical, overly critical, but are we not encouraged to examine photos for such flaws!?
      I shall take your advice and contact the authors if I can.

    Karen Knorr writes to say about the photo on page 95 …
    Yes there was a mistake that slipped in!
    We were working to tough deadlines and proofs unfortunately were a luxury!
    Yes it is an egret.
    Anna says …
    thanks for this ref – all v interesting – all commentary is v valuable
    Peter – there are a lot of images by Natasha and I due to v small budget so could not afford to buy in many other images!

  • So does the academic study of art exclude mis-leading photos? I ask because I have a photo of an egret (it may be a crane) that was taken in France in summer resting in a pond in Northern Ireland in winter []
    I have another with a starling escaping an avalanche [] but the photos were taken at different times.
    I think they are pleasing images but should I have stated “you are not seeing exactly what your think you are”? (They were not submitted as OCA work but did well in a camera club and Amateur Photographer competitions.)

    • It is a matter of purpose. An illustration in “The Birds of Northern Ireland” that included an image of an egret Photoshopped onto a picture of a NI lake is obviously misleading, as it would be if it in any way in any other context imply that it was unedited. However, if the very same egrets often appear on this lake and the image is simply to show what might be seen, does it really matter?
      Misleading is a matter of intent, truth is often best expressed in fiction and facts do not speak for themselves. (discuss :))

      • Peter, once again you make a statement that I find hard to discuss since I agree with it in spite of the contradiction it makes.
        As I see it, put as much information as one can either into the caption or the keywords … but do not put what one does not know to be true there (it could have unfortunate consequences). I reckon that the bird in the first photograph is probably an Egret but does that need to be in the caption? Might be better as a keyword since a lot of people do not know what an Egret is … something like “A Graceful Large White Bird … ” might sound better.
        Reckon you are correct about the starling – caption appropriate!
        You write “So does the academic study of art exclude mis-leading photos?” Not sure what the academic study of art has to do with all this! The book referred to is about the kinds of research a photographer might need to undertake.

  • To be fair the book says “we are easily convinced by the illusion that a white crane is walking…..”. It looks like some of us are not so easily convinced that is a white crane as they know it is some sort of egret.
    I was quite happy to engage with the illusion until it got recontextualised into an ornithological issue so destroying the illusion and transferring it into the realm of science 🙂 I’m not sure whether thinking it was a crane gave it some added romance, do crane’s have more romantic associations than egrets? Did I mean to say that …. perhaps I mean symbolic associations?

    • I think that we are all to some extent aware of the place that the crane has in, particularly, Japanese art and culture nd so I think that you are right to a great degree. Some of us with geeky ornithological pretensions (me for instance!) might be concerned as to whether it is an little, great white, or cattle egret, but none of these fly over the Himalayas twice a year or perform those ballets so beloved of Japanese print makers. 🙂

      • Is not research about collecting factual information – the fiction of truth can follow later, consciously not unconsciously.
        Cranes over the Himalayas? Well, the Black-necked Crane does live there but it does not visit Japan although some of their species are migratory. Trust this bit of information does not rubbish any allusions … cranes are to my mind some of the most beautiful birds, beauty that comes from the way they are rather than fables about them.

        • Not sure that the information that constitutes the first part of research needs to be factual or even correct, sorting out what is reliable, useful etc. is the second part!
          I seem to recall that some of the Japanese cultural references to cranes comes originally, like their writing and much else, from China and points west!

  • I think in the context of the photograph the mythological aspect is relevant as the work is to do with feminine subjectivity and containment. So perhaps ideas about captive birds and flight are relevant aswell as beauty.
    Possibly its a male thing to want to name and identify the bird as a means of controlling it……?!

  • Ahh … I would love to do a bird book without having to put all the names in … however, it is still the imagery that comes first (unlike many bird books where images are there as a reference rather than a source of information) … as the Chinese sage Lao Tzu once wrote …
    “As soon as there are names, know that it is time to stop!”
    Actually, Lao Tzu did not write exactly that since his language was Chinese but it is a phrase that still haunts me.

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