In an Alien World

I have been following and contributing to an interesting and developing forum on the OCA website which has thrown up many issues and ideas for me to consider.   The link to the thread is : –

It started off as a discussion on the question of a ‘personal voice’ and the merits of finding one in one’s photographic work.  Tutors and assessors appear to attach considerable importance to the finding of a personal voice but on further discussion there seems to be an acknowledgment that one will develop over time and it is not something that one can actively create.  The importance of such a voice being found through conceptual and contemporary work seems central to any understanding of what is meant by a personal voice and its development, any other path being unacceptable. The most helpful definition of a ‘personal voice’ I have seen was posted on the forum string by CliveW, an OCA tutor, who stated that the development of a ‘personal voice’ came through “making work that’s conceptually sophisticated, personally motivated and contemporarily convincing”.   Therein lies one of the the challenges ahead of me.

The string has then meandered through a number of themes and topics and has now settled for the time being on the nature and value of contemporary art and of contemporary photography specifically.  This is inevitable I guess as the common thread running through the whole discussion so far seems to be that being contemporary in one’s work is the holy grail and that pushing forward frontiers and asking questions through one’s images is what it is all about.  As a consequence of this discussion, equally inevitably it would seem, I am now questioning what I am doing on this course.

On voicing my difficulties on the forum I was urged to read a selection of books on contemporary art photography, one of which I had attempted to read previously as it was an essential reference book for the Art of Photography course.  This was ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’ by Charlotte Cotton published by Thames & Hudson ISBN 978-0-500-20418-4 .  I had struggled to read it the first time as I found it hard going and it was no better the second time around when I tried again this weekend. To me the text appears to be dense and pretentious, the photographers  often verging on the mentally unstable and the photographs bland or unfathomable or both.  Not for the first time whilst trying to access the work of contemporary photographers I felt a mix of emotions including alienation, anger, frustration, and incomprehension. I could not get out of my head the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth   about the ‘poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and at the end signifying nothing’. This is not something I am proud of as it clearly means that I am not part of the club of those for whom all or at least a large part of this work holds value and meaning.

I took the time to look at the Learning Logs of a few of my fellow students who I understood had found success struggling with this issue to see how they had found  answers but was brought up short and challenged by the following revelation posted by Nigel 503923

“For myself it was a step change a year ago when I finally saw past the work of Ansel Adams and wondered if there was indeed more of a narrative in the banal than the high contrast overworked expressive image. At this change point as a photographer you realise you will abandon most of your audience who liked your “nice” photographs and instead you will be working alone, for yourself and perhaps others of a like mind who will “get it” and take the time to look past the image on paper and see the message beneath. Building a narrative into image making is something I now spend far more time considering, rather than considering the viewer and their reaction as my prime objective. The craftsmanship behind these “type” of images is required to be of the highest standard, similar in impact to editing, in so much as when it is done well you may not see it. Banality for some is another word for uninteresting and that is the challenge ahead, to prove them wrong.”

Reference: –

From this I took it that in the development of one’s own contemporary work banality is a quality to aim for and alienation from most of the appreciative world is the price to be paid.  That reflected, and seemed to endorse, the impression that I had gained from the forum discussion and it has disturbed me considerably.  I signed up for this course in order develop skills, vision and knowledge that would help me to create images that are sometimes beautiful, and always impactful, meaningful and relevant and not banal and unfathomable.  Despite words of encouragement and suggestions that this is a natural stage to be at, at present it seems that I may be wasting my time and money as I feel as though I am amongst aliens in an alien world and I don’t fit the club that I am trying to join.

Enough navel gazing. That is where I am at present and I just wanted to get it off my chest.  It is not a comfortable place.  I have other books to read, other work to consider and other artists to meet in my research which might cast a different light on things.  I also have course work to get engaged with which might also help to disperse the clouds so I will now move on to that and see what develops.  At the end of the day, if it all gets too much at least I have my camera and can escape with it to engage with the world that I know.

———-     o0o     ———-


2 comments on “In an Alien World

  1. Great post, David. I’ve been wrestling with some of these issues too. I’ve yet to read the whole of the thread on the OCA forum, and nor have I found my “voice” as yet. I seem to recall that at the beginning of Context & Narrative, I had the feeling that suddenly the image was no longer the whole product,, which allowed a certain leeway over mage quality as long as the narrative was good. I’ve now returned to the idea that the image must be good in order to draw the viewer in enough to be interested in the narrative. There’s still a massive chasm though between the sort of images I show in my local gallery and what I do for the OCA, but I hope that eventually the two will merge to make a happy medium. Looking forward to reading about your journey into photography.

    • Thank you for your post and your thoughts, Holly. I fully agree with you that it begins and ends with the image for me and so much contemporary ‘art’ appears to be lacking in anything to draw the viewer in and hold them. I have just posted my thoughts on the work of Sarah Pickering for an Exercise in Part 1 and as you will see if you check it out I was not impressed. I would love to see your work on Context and Narrative to see what you made of it. Good luck to you on your journey.

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