I have reached a crunch point in my studying with the OCA. The question is – do I stay or do I go? Rather like the EU referendum question, there is so much to consider on both sides of the argument and so little to really get hold of to form a clear view, and it is causing me a great deal of worry and headache because I want to get it right. I have reached this very uncomfortable position of indecision largely as a result of my engagement with the ‘Personal Voice‘ discussion string on the Hot Topics forum area of the OCA students’ site and what I have learnt from it. For me, this string has been the most engaging, challenging and instructive thing that I have done with the OCA, but more recently it has led me to question the whole concept of photographic practices and the value to me of staying with the course. It has turned into an obsession from which I find it impossible to escape and switch off and it is making me depressed and angry and is getting in the way of all the other things I need to do. So what is going on? Before re-engaging with the forum and the course I want to explore this question and try to find some answers and resolution, hence this post to my learning log.
On the positive side I have successfully completed (or at least I have completed, whether successfully or not is one of the issues) ‘The Art of Photography‘, my first stage of the 5 stage journey towards the degree and, hopefully, the achievement of my goals for the course. I have been very engaged with the process, increasingly so as I have progressed, and it has stimulated me mentally and intellectually. I have learnt a great deal that I did not know or was only half aware of, and my photographic skills have been stretched and developed. I have gained a better understanding of the development of the styles of photography over the years and how contemporary photographic practices have originated, and I have a significantly increased my personal reference library of books and online sites that I access regularly as a learning and developmental resource. So far, so good!
On the negative side, as I have already said, the situation, and my take on it, is causing me a great deal of turmoil, disillusionment and depression. I am not getting what I was looking for from the course, which in itself would not be a problem if I could see that what I was getting was better and was going to be of benefit, but that is not the case. I feel like an outsider, someone outside the door of a private club with no key or pass to get in. The reason for this is that my taste and interest in photographic images and the principal reasons that I take photographs, is far out of alignment with what is considered to be acceptable, desirable and worthy of serious consideration by the tutors and, it would appear, my fellow students, i.e. contemporary ‘art’ photography. Contemporary ‘art’ photography appears to be all about concept and allusion rather than substance and subject, and about asking unanswered or ultimately unanswerable questions rather than revealing or glorying in reality. On consideration I suppose it is not surprising that the OCA focusses on contemporary ‘art’ photographic practices and practitioners, but what has come as a shock to me is that there seems to be no space or tolerance for anything else.
It seems that the current role of, and interest in, practitioners and practices of the past is purely historical rather than inspirational, as a cold and academic means of explaining how contemporary photographic ‘art’ has arisen rather than as a rich and emotive source of ideas for the future. Current artistic taste it would appear is for the bland and the banal, for the obscure and the opaque, for the drab and unemotional. All touchstones by which professional and ‘good’ as opposed to amateur and ‘tosh’ (as one tutor described them!) photographs used to be judged and identified such as composition, accessibility of meaning, interesting / attractive subject, impact, emotional content, etc. seem to have gone out of the window, and indeed to have become dirty words amongst the cognoscenti. Even the quality of technical skill no longer seems to have much meaning in much recent and contemporary work. It is therefore a complete mystery to me as to what constitutes an image that can be granted the label ‘art’ and thereby worthy of contemplation and what can be cast into the rubbish bin of ‘tosh’. I have nothing by which to gauge my own work or the work of others except my own personal preference which is at odds with those that I am working with.
One image that was uploaded to the discussion string for comment by one of the students, John Umney, has brought this to a head for me (see below). This image was lauded by a number of respondents including tutors who found all sorts of merits and inspiration in it. Clearly this is the sort of thing that gets their juices flowing.
Image copyright John Umney
For me it contained nothing of interest except the obvious (to me) fact that the lawn was in a poor state of repair! It was not a subject that would have occurred to me as being of sufficient interest to warrant a photograph and I cannot see any different now. The student who took the photograph and has been considering entering it in exhibitions for public display had not even noticed the condition of the grass despite presumably looking at the image intently over a period of weeks or months – a clear indication that we all see images in very different ways! The discussion that followed the comments posted about this image I found difficult. It became clear that respondents, both tutors and students, were in general agreement that this image was not only worthy of contemplation but also of exhibition, whereas I could not see that it was discernible from any random shot taken by an amateur with no pretensions of creating ‘art’. Maybe the question of ‘art’ or ‘not art’ is what is getting in the way of my understanding, but it seems to me that anything goes nowadays so long as it does not reflect any earlier styles or influences and is open to different and numerous interpretations if one stares at it for long enough. This could therefore apply to any amateur snap that was slightly different from the norm, although maybe for serious consideration as an art work it also requires some sort of context, either identified or implied.
As a result, I no longer have anything to get hold of or to aspire to and it has taken much of the pleasure of photography away for me as I no longer have any confidence in what I am doing. On the rare occasions when my academic studies on the course and my other life responsibilities allow me the opportunity to take the camera out on a non-course shoot I scarcely take or retain any photographs. This is partly because the time required to download, sort through, organise, post-process and save the images is something that I no longer feel I can justify, but also because I have lost touch with the point of doing it if it is just to add yet more dross to my hard drives that no-one will ever see or appreciate.
This discussion has focussed my thoughts on my motives for taking the course and for taking photographs and this self – examination has proved to be revealing. My reasons for taking the course were many but can be narrowed down to the following key points : –
- To enable me to develop my photographic knowledge and skills under the guidance of skilled professional tutors and fellow students so that I could be better able to create work that had weight, merit and authority that could be used as a means of enlightenment, education and influence as well as a possible source of income.
- To act as an accompaniment to Creative Writing studies (since put on the back burner as a result of the demands of the photography course).
- To give me an activity that stretched me, gave me something worthwhile to aim for, and kept my brain active.
- To discover if I have a creative streak within me and if so to develop it.
- To enable me to produce work that gives me some sense of personal satisfaction.
- To provide me with the justification and motivation for engaging in the otherwise purely self indulgent activity of photography.
My reasons for practising photography may be summarised as being :
- To engage more fully with the world through the discipline of photography that requires a great measure of observation and attention.
- To create images that portray something of the beauty and power of the world that I see and that I can use to inspire, inform and influence others.
- To freeze and capture moments in order to allow me and others to properly consider the detail, aura and presence of the subjects and their relationship with their surroundings.
- To see if it is something that I might be good at and that I might gain some recognition for and income from.
- To give me a greater sense of purpose in my leisure time.
While considering these things I became aware of the fact that it is important to me that others like my work. I am producing images as much for others as I am for myself and I need an audience to validate the process. This is undoubtedly due to some inner psychological need to prove myself, to be valued and respected and to feel that I am doing something worthwhile and of value to others. This is something that harks back to childhood and has been with me as uncomfortable baggage since then despite years of trying to shift it. It seems to me that there is no point in taking the time and energy to create something if it is not to be given the oxygen of exposure to give it life and purpose.
Maybe this is the root of my problem. Something that I have picked up from the discussion string is that some people, maybe many people, use their art as a means of self-exploration. This does not interest me and I wouldn’t know how to begin anyway. For me, photography is about the subject and whether I find it real and engaging. I was shocked and disbelieving to discover that some of the students and tutors take photographs with no prior thought as to whether it is worthwhile but rather that they can look at it over following months and years and see if they can find any merit or meaning in it. This is inconceivable for me as I will only photograph subjects if I see them as interesting and worthwhile and I will shoot them in such a way as to bring out what I see or feel about the subjects. If the image does not meet my vision for it I will delete it straight away and would never consider waiting until I might find some use for it. It is either a good and successful image there and then or it goes. It is not going to work any better for me several weeks, months or years down the line because if it wasn’t a good photograph and what I wanted at the time then it is a bad photograph and time won’t change that.
So where does that leave me? To quote Led Zeppelin – dazed and confused. It seems that to continue with the course will leave me in the situation that I will neither be achieving the goals that I set myself nor being able to find any balance in my life. If I decide to leave, I will be left with a sense of failure and dejection, and no way of knowing if I might have found a way of fitting in and working through. After being on a high a few weeks ago before the realities of what was acceptable and expected were brought home to me by the discussion link, I am currently feeling so negative about the course and my ability to change to meet its requirements that I can only think that I must call it a day. What is holding me back from doing this is : –
- the fact that I do not want to admit that it has all been an expensive mistake
- that I have paid my money so might as well see it through
- that I have never been a quitter and don’t intend to start now
- that somehow I might yet find a way through the maze
I have not found this easy to write. I will be discussing this dilemma with my tutor and will make a final decision after that. In the meantime, I will see what I can come up with for Assignment 1 and see if I can restore some pleasure back into my photography.
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