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Two Points


Art of Photography student Chris Woolgar raised a smile with a comment he made whilst reflecting on his progress through the module: “I am an engineer: I can take a car apart but not a photograph”. In my experience with working with OCA students, Chris’ position is not uncommon; possessing a genuine desire to make stronger imagery, wanting to make photography that is expressive, but feeling a little bound by perhaps more mechanical instincts. (Forgive me, Chris if this is an inaccurate interpretation.)
The Art of Photography module seems to be particularly suited to students that are instinctively more technical, and it walks them through understanding the nuts and bolts of the frame. It is easy though to become a little too preoccupied with how the frame is organised, forgetting the importance of what is actually within the frame. Believe it or not, tutors actually see a collection of objects inside their student’s photographs, not just a particular arrangement of tones, textures and lines.Which is why I got particularly excited when I saw one particular image from Chris’ response to Assignment Two, Elements of Design. Usually I try to steer students away from shooting in exotic locations, believing that the most interesting work is made closer to home, of subjects with which you/we have a real passion for or connection to. In this respect, this shot from a sequence made in Egypt is not an ideal image to share with you, however, the basic elements which excite me are universal; essentially those of contrast and juxtaposition, which I believe can be found anywhere (so long as you keep you eyes peeled).
Chris’s photograph of a pair of palm trees and the pyramid at Saqqara certainly seemed like an appropriate response to the assignment brief, appropriately locating two distinct points within the frame. There is (for me, at least) an implied line between the trees and the pyramid, which provides a trail for the viewer to tread. But the real excitement for me is not within the geometric relationship between the objects, but the relationship between the two elements as subjects. This is what I wrote in Chris’s feedback:
“The relationship between the lush palms, and the ancient pyramid in the background, which appears to be being held up with scaffolding, is really intriguing for several reasons: they both seem to be existing (just about) in the austerity of the desert environment. The placement of the trees in the fore- and the pyramid in the background make a very clear statement about the age of each object (the pyramid belonging to the past, which is situated literally in the background of the composition). The pyramid is ancient and seems such a permanent fixture of the landscape it almost defies being thought of as a man-made structure, yet the scaffolding underscores the necessary intervention of man to conserve it as part of the landscape. The trees on the other hand are a blatantly ‘organic’ element of an inhospitable landscape – defiantly popping up almost in opposition to the harshness of nature.

To be quite honest, none of this analysis was in Chris’ accompanying notes, so perhaps more sceptical readers can be forgiven for dismissing this kind of reading into a photograph, imposing it upon the will of the author. (Chris was supportive of my analysis, however.) But I hope that most will identify some of these observations. In any case, this is a great example of combining effective composition with intriguing subject matter, resulting in a thought-provoking image that transcends basic concerns of the geometry of the frame.
You can see the entry on this assignment in Chris’ learning blog here.


Posted by author: Jesse
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22 thoughts on “Two Points

  • Jesse… throughout TAOP, PaP and Landscape, my tutors continuously added such analysis, which in the beginning I didn’t see at the time of processing and submitting for assignment.
    These comments, and further reading and research, very firmly but kindly, nudged me (as student and photographer) to a place where I now aim to look at the work I create, and try to analyze it myself, to understand WHAT I want(ed) to say with the photo or set, WHY I did it, etc.
    I guess this process of, or even desire to, getting to a point where the image can, or does, act as metaphor or carry narrative, happen for different students at different time, and because we are all individuals, some students would not really be interested in going much further beyond that, which is to each their own…
    I think it is actually a massive responsibility, and also difficult, to be a tutor, because you need to nudge or lead a student, and at the same time you need to be able to see which direction a student may end up taking, and become successful in…
    In Chris’ photo above, I didn’t see what you saw at first… but once again, it helps to see, and not just look.

  • I had read this on Chris’s learning log before it was posted here; and I commented on how useful your feedback had been on his image. Looking at it—in conjunction with the comments—made me ‘see’ so much more in the image. I really have problems with getting my head round reading an image; and consequently creating images that actually have any depth to them.
    Last year, in desperation I bought Ian Jeffrey “How to read a photograph” in the hope that it would contain a magic key that would help me learn how to read; and subsequently create images that had substance. But there was no magic list, because I did not know how to unlock it all.
    It is very possible that your commentary may be the ‘key’ or at least one of the keys that I need. Have gone and got the book back off the bookshelf and think I might settle into reading it this evening with a little more understanding.
    I read nearly every tutor report I can find on the blogs because I have found them useful in leading me to seeing things. It’s sometimes hard seeing it in your own work in relation to tutor comments because I think we are too subjective; so reading someone commenting about another’s work in such a constructive and illuminating way was so helpful. Thank you Jesse—much appreciated!

  • Thankyou Jesse, for posting this and if it helps others it makes me really pleased. You’re right on when you say that I get hung up on the mechanical aspects of taking a photo, the depth of field, positioning the elements etc, rather than focussing on what I am trying to say. You’re comments have helped overcome that. I’ve also been looking at Ansel Adams who said, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” As Dewald says, it’s about seeing, not just looking.

  • Very sorry for the tardy reply. Thanks for your comments, particularly yours, Dewald. We all need encouragement, even tutors from time to time. Yes, it is difficult to judge where a student is “at” with their photography (especially when you’ve never met them), and getting too enthusiastic too early can have negative effects.
    Vicki, I hope you are enjoying How to Read A Photograph. You’re right: there is no magic formula but I strongly believe that the more pictures you think about (in addition to look at) the more discerning it will make you. But it’s also good to not think too much sometimes and work instinctively. And of course we all read pictures differently. There are of course some things which we read in common, but I frequently find that people (specialist and not so specialist) identify very different things to me.

    • Jesse—appreciate your response. Still think the book’s title was misleading. But I am getting more from it after reading your post on Chris’ assignment. Hoping desperately that the more I look [and think—although I have been told that sometimes I think too much—but I am still seeking this breakthrough]. Spent a fair amount of the day ‘chatting’ with another tutor. And I have gone back and looked at some of my images today—and have noticed a repeated idea which I think might be me ‘coming out’.
      All of this interaction with you tutors is really starting to help me see/read things. It’s been a long slow slog [two years] but I am having a number of eureka moments from your response to Chris and today’s chat with other now fondly seen as adopted-uncle tutor [not sure if he would be happy with that title]. Thank you

      • Interesting Jesse… I’ve never met any of my tutors, but I have met one other student…
        Vicki, you mention the Eureka moment… strange, just yesterday, I was going down the stairs in my apartment building, and thinking about one moment I had at that exact spot, little more than a year ago.
        I’ve had Cotton’s book, ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’ for quite some time, but never managed to finish it, but keep picking it up, reading something, and putting it down, because I don’t always ‘get’ it (I still don’t)…
        But it was something I saw, looking through the window, at the construction mess outside, which suddenly brought back Yoshiko Seino’s image in that book, it’s a picture about a dirty swimming pool… and suddenly I made that small connection to what I read back then!

        • Hey Dewald
          I know that moment will come…eventually…hopefully. I also know that if I push too hard, it might continue to elude me! But I do get frustrated. Happy that you feel you are starting to see through the fog an have those little moments and that you are aware of them!!

  • Pingback: Beyond Geometry « Jesse Alexander on Photography
  • Dewald yes, From looking to seeing – I blogged about this last year and guess my view is in part inspired by Berger.
    Vivki, The title “How to read a photograph” may have been given by the publisher to help sell the book; in fact, it is a collection of readings that I find helpful to read since they are exemplary though not exhaustive since there are always going to be other ways a photograph can be read. Learning to read a photograph has been an important part of the learning process for me on Level 1.
    In regard to the reading of this photograph Jesse, you write “resulting in a thought-provoking image that transcends basic concerns of the geometry of the frame.” Does not this photograph actually answer basic concerns of the frame? The two points are to the left and right of the image, the pyramid is in the top third, the tree is rooted in the bottom third, the horizon is on a horizontal third, the wall is likewise on a horizontal third … or am I just seeing the trees and missing the wood? Your statements about the image make a lot of sense and I do not feel they are imposing because they are mostly descriptive but this final statement puzzles slightly!??

    • Amano—agree with you regarding both the content and the title of the book. I just have to accept that there is no ‘magic key’ and learn to see on my own. It will come!

      • Vikki, you echo my sentiments – in fact, I shall pick this book up again – the book suggests a magic key which does not exist but in spite of the hype, is still worth a read.

        • Rereading, I find that Ian Jeffries seems to be approaching the photograph from a social documentary viewpoint; other more sophisticated ways of reading are now used.
          By the way, there is quite a good bibliography at the end of this book particularly if you want to know what to read on a certain photographer.

        • I think that’s probably true, Amano – Jeffrey does approach from a social perspective, and (to echo the sentiments of the BBC) “other perspectives are available”! These may be more or less academic /intellectual/ whatever, but there is no ‘one size fits all’ method of analysis. Don’t forget that social photography is the largest field within the medium; I like the way Jeffrey picks out lesser known photographers (some probably wouldn’t even call themselves that). Too many ‘History of Photography’ type publications rely upon constant re-examinations of the the big names (the ‘canon’). It’s good to bear in mind the contribution of everyone else.

  • Yes it does respond to the geometric concerns (which you describe), which the assignment is fundamentally concerned with, but it goes beyond this, whereby the ‘two points’ have a thought provoking relationship between them.

  • Jesse,
    Wow, I didnt ‘get’ any of that when I first looked at the photo, hindsight being what it is, I ‘see’ some of it now, I like to think the rest will follow with progression through the course.
    In a similar way to Chris, I am an engineer at heart and struggle with the ‘art’ and relationship side.
    regards
    Ray

    • Hi Ray. I’m glad you can identify some of my observations. Do bear in mind though, that they are ‘observations’; it’s just my way of seeing – thankfully some of which seems to overlap with others, so I know I’m not mad! I’m sure you will develop the way you interpret images, but at the same time, this isn’t something we can just teach. Hopefully you will be more fluent by the end of the course (I’m sure you will) but it will come when it comes…
      All the best

    • Hey Ray
      I’m with you—but as Jesse says, hopefully it will come in time. I think what we do need is some-one on our shoulder saying ‘hey, did you notice that’ etc so that we can learn to ‘look and see’ as Dewald said.

      • Jesse – I realise they are “your” observations but it’s through pointing out these observations that has made me see how there can be connections between elements within the frame, that successful photography is more than where you place the elements, it’s also about the relationship between those elements, whatever form that relationship takes. I’m with Vicki that your comments have unlocked something in me which hopefully I can build on, and that something has to do with how we go about reading photographs. This is to do with analysing other people’s work as well as our own but I find it difficult reading my own photos, I’m too close to them to have a detached subjectivity and find it hard to judge how others will see them. I’ve been interested in photography for many years now but as far as this is concerned I am at the beginning of the road.
        But your “help” is a two edged sword – it has raised the bar for future work!!!
        Chris

        • I know what you mean. Unfortunately I think we are all generally the worst person to write about own work. That’s why in in the professional world, photographers and artists collaborate with curators, critics and writers to present and contextualise their work. It’s still a really important skill we all need to develop however – particularly mastering the Artists Statement. Maybe this is another discussion altogether though…
          I’m glad you feel the bar is raised – that’s what it’s all about!

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