The first critical review of practice focussed on practitioners, methods and styles. This review focusses on theory. As a mathematician by training I have the highest standards of what a theory should be. It must be proven beyond doubt. As a psychologist I learnt a much looser level of acceptance for what counted as theory. In photography as Liz Wells cites ‘Historically, there has been a marked difference between scientific expectations of theory, and the role of theory within the humanities.’ (Wells 2015: 28)
I will take her proposal that ‘the purpose of theory is to explain.’ (Wells, p28). She proposes two strands of theoretical discussion: ‘first, theoretical approaches premised on the relationship of the image to reality; second, those which stress the importance of the image by focussing on the reading, rather than the making, of photographic representation.’ (Wells 2015, 28)
My own practice is attempting to present a version of reality composed by me. I am trying to show you what I see. I want to do this in a way that asks you to read the image I have made. My instincts are to present my images to a viewer without words and let them make up their own mind about what my work means.
At an individual image level this is challenging. As a collection it gets easier. This is an image of a bed. A viewer can consider composition, colours, aesthetics and the evidence each of the components of the image offer them. From this some meaning can be given to the image. If the viewer is interested some questions will arise. Is it a hospital bed? Where is it? Whose is it?
Before proceeding I want to introduce the idea of phenomenological aspects of photography. Over the last year I have fallen for the haptic pleasure of handling photographic paper and prints. It has become a bit like stroking my Macbook. I have to confess to it being pleasurable.
Edwards expresses this perfectly for me
‘Photographs are the focus of intense emotional engagement. In premising photographic effect on the visual and forensic alone, we limit our understanding of the modes through which photographs have historical effect because photographs both focus and extend the verbal articulation of histories and the sound world they inhabit.’ (Edwards 2008:241)
As Don McCullin says ‘Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures’. (McCullin:96). For my own work I need to feel something if I am going to take the image and then present it to be viewed. My own emotions are a trigger for my shutter.
The work in my MA project is based on the emotions I have experienced over 2019 and 2020 living with my wife having chronic MS and then in January of this year having an assisted suicide in Switzerland to end her suffering. Every image I am presenting is packed full of emotion I have experienced. For it to be a worthwhile viewing experience my intent is that the viewer experiences a form of the emotional experience I have gone through and am presenting.
I now add to the bed a pair of shoes. Shoes, shadows, light (cold light?) and going from somewhere to somewhere. How do the shoes relate to the bed? Here is the challenge for the photographer. These two image well me up with emotion because of what they mean to my own personal emotional experience of them. There is not yet enough for a narrative to emerge but if I am succeeding I am keeping the viewers’ interest to know more.
As Bate puts it there is ‘analysis of the rhetoric of the image in relation to looking, and the desire to look.’ (Bate, 2009). In my work I am seeking to present a rhetoric in the image and the images I put together and want to play to a viewers’ desire to look.
Each of the images of the bed or the shoes could be a ‘tableau or tableau-vivant photography, for pictorial narrative is concentrated in a single image: a standalone picture.’ (Cotton 2004: 49). I believe both can have such status but probably in the same way Rhein II by Gursky is better understood as an individual work in the context of the wider career and reputation of Gursky. I am not yet well known so would have more difficulty making my case. I must explore if there are any tableau images by people who are not famous for something else.
For the moment I situate my work as strong individual images representing a reality, created from an emotional charge based on personal experience and establishing a rhetoric that will make a viewer desire more. My intent is to satisfy that desire and evoke an emotional reaction that has some meaning for the viewer.
I do not intend to dictate to the viewer a narrative but rather stimulate a narrative that has some personal meaning for each viewer.
I have given thought to how I might categorise my work within the common pools of work. So far I bridle against being filed under any particular heading. In this module I have focussed on trace inspired by the tantalising effect of Barthes written about picture of his mother never being shown to us. (Barthes 1993). In previous modules I have used self portraiture, staged and unstaged. As mentioned above I am interested in exploring phenomenological effects. Similarly I am interested in the psychological nature of what I present. Rather than suggesting my practice is a phenomenological, psychological and emotional visual narrative I would rather just reference myself as a photographer. I know academically this may be challenged so need to explore that conversation with faculty.
I will end with a couple more images in the sequence of WIP for this module. As the photographer just described who has shed many tears creating and considering these images I say no more and leave it to a viewer to create their own rhetoric and narrative. If something happens inside the viewer then I have achieved my intent.
A final word on theory. When I started the MA I asked the question what is a photograph. Back then in January last year I had some vague ideas of what a photograph and photography might be. I now see that the MA has enabled me to position my practice much more coherently now within the context of practitioners that have gone before and the theoretical foundations underpinning the discipline. This feels like just the beginning.
Wells, L. (2015) Photography – A Critical Introduction. Routledge Taylor and Francis. 5th Edition.
Edwards, E. (2008). Photographs Orality and History. Oxford and New York: Berg.
McCullin, D. Sleeping With Ghosts : A Life’s Work in Photography by Don McCullin (Photographer), Mark Haworth-Booth (Introduction), Donald McCullin , ISBN: 0893816590
Bate, D. (2009). Photography, The Key Concepts. Oxford and New York:Berg.
Cotton, C. (2004) The photograph as contemporary art. Thames and Hudson World of Art.
Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida. Vintage Classics.