BEHIND THE IMAGE – RESEARCH IN PHOTOGRAPHY
‘Behind The Image – Research in Photography’ by Anna Fox and Natasha Caruana is No. 3 in the Basics – Creative Photography series published by AVA Publishing (ISBN 978-2-940411-66-500. It is one of the ‘Essential Reading’ books on my course and was recommended as being my next read by my tutor so I approached it with enthusiasm. Sadly, having read it over 3 wet days I did not feel uplifted or rewarded for the effort or the outlay (it costs £23.50 which seems an awful lot for what it is!).
On the plus side, the book is well set out, well illustrated and very clearly written. It is an easy read with nothing technical or in any way challenging to comprehension and the book is peppered with numerous examples of photographers who have used research as a vital tool in their work, including my own tutor. The message is repeatedly given that research, particularly when one is contemplating starting out on, or is actually engaging in, projects, is essential for many photographers for gaining inspiration and also keeping the project on track . The writers also make it clear that researching one’s own work is a necessary part of observing one’s progress and making any necessary changes. At the end of each chapter, there are useful Case Studies reflecting on how individual photographers use research as the basis for their projects and also a suggested Activity for the reader to engage in to put into practice some of the ideas of the preceding chapter.
So why did I not feel uplifted or rewarded? There are a number of reasons. One of the problems I had with the book was that the text seemed to be stating the obvious. If one has no previous idea or experience of carrying out a project or researching a subject, then one might find many areas of the book to be enlightening, but targeted as it is on Visual Arts students in colleges and universities, such basic research techniques and considerations should already be very familiar to them. There were no ‘Ah-ha’ or ‘Eureka’ moments for me and I was constantly looking for something new or innovative and not finding them. Indeed, although I approached the section on ‘Archiving’ with interest as I was keen to know how professional photographers store and manage their own digital images, it was not even mentioned! I have, however, made a record of some of the references made to information sources and websites which is useful.
The book gave the impression of being padded out to make it worthy of publication in book form rather than as an article in a magazine or journal. There was a lot of duplication and reworking of already established concepts and a lot of stating the obvious. The most interesting elements for me were the numerous examples of photographers who use research to inform their work and the ways that they did so. I had not realised the extent to which some photographers go to immerse themselves in the history and culture of the art or the time that they can spend on such activity and this was something of an eye opener that I will need to consider further.
I was, however, less than impressed with many of the projects described and the photographs used as examples. The majority of the projects referred to and the accompanying photographs seemed to me to be either incomprehensible in their value or purpose or of little interest. This left me feeling frustrated and disengaged, emotions that I often experience when looking at recent photographers work, and raised a number of questions for me. I guess that we all have different interests and different needs when it comes to the experience of looking at any image, be it a documentary record or an art work. I recognise that when I look at a painting or a photograph I am looking for it to be emotionally and/or intellectually stimulating. I need to find the image to be either beautiful, exciting, intriguing, unexpected and/or of high technical quality if I am to be able to engage with it. It also needs to have relevance for me. So much recent work by artists in any medium seems to me to have more than a whiff of obsession and self-indulgence about them and I find it very hard to make a connection with many of them. Indeed I wonder if all art has a tendency towards obsession and self-indulgence. I certainly feel self-indulgent and sometimes obsessed when I am taking photographs. I am absorbed and focused in my surroundings and in what I am doing, and it feels like a personal journey to learn, improve and gain some sort of expertise and recognition rather than a contribution to the world. I would suggest that although they might often be obsessive, the term self-indulgent would not apply to many news and environmental photographers who work largely to make a difference and influence others.
I have just stopped writing to look back through the photographs in the book to see if I still hold my initial thoughts and I do! Indeed, there are only three photographs in the book that speak to me in any real way and that I would wish to revisit. These are illustrations 3.8 Untitled 1953 by Vivian Maier; 3.12 New Street Station, Birmingham by John Davies, and 3.23 Flight to Freedom by Karen Knorr. I have not been engaged by many, if any, of the projects described. A 5 year study undertaken by Wendy Pye to photograph cliff top shrines at Beachy Head leaves me cold, particularly if the example of her photographs given at 5.7 is anything to go by. Case Study 5 describing the work of Clare Strand similarly baffles me. Her work is apparently ‘scrupulously planned, researched and executed’ but the example shown at 5.10 entitled The Appearing Lady depicting a person with a piece of material over its head standing on a desk meets none of my criteria for a photograph that I can engage with.
THE APPEARING LADY by Clare Strand
I could go on and on. I have looked at the exhibition from which this piece came and also other work by Strand to try to gain insight but that left me feeling even more alienated. No doubt I am open to criticism for not carrying out extensive research into Strand’s life history, emotional state, interests, body of work, etc., etc. which might help to shed light on the image, but I am not prepared to devote the necessary huge amount of time that this would require as I am not interested in a person standing on a table and there is nothing about the image that suggests it has any technical or artistic merit. It was all summed up for me when I read the caption for Illustration 3.4 Anna Linderstam’s Triptych : In Unheard Contradictions which suggested ‘When first looking at this triptych is not clear where it was taken’. I read it initially as ‘it is not clear why it was taken’ and that remains for me the relevant question in spite of the explanation that was given.
I turned again to the suggested exercises / activities to see if I could find something there to get hold of and find something to stir the blood, but found nothing except for the sensible idea in Activity 1 to keep a note of ideas for future reference. Each to his own, I guess. As I say, the text was fine in so far as it goes and it was all very predictable, but the examples and illustrations used throughout the book left me feeling disconnected, lost, frustrated and, it must be said, rather angry. I ask again if the photographers portrayed in the book are obsessive and self-absorbed and simply doing what they do to please themselves. However, if they are professionals then someone must value their work sufficiently to pay them money for their extensive labours at a time when many people are finding it very hard to get work. What is it that I am missing? It’s a mystery. It is just as well that there are many photographers whose work does meet my personal criteria and allow me to engage with and value their images to inspire me to persevere. It is just a shame that they do not appear in this book. Anyone want a nearly new copy? I will be re-selling it pretty soon!
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