Questionnaire - Theory and Practice

As part of the preparation for the first seminar on The Reflexive Practitioner, there’s a questionnaire to focus our attention on how we think about our work, how we make decisions, influences, that sort of thing - something to also come back to when physically working, to question what we’re doing. Some of these questions are quite “tricky”, and not things I’ve particularly thought about before, well, not in an overtly conscious way at least. Some of these are quite personal questions too - what is unsuccessful in my current work is something that can be hao come to terms with, to be open about, but I will try and be as unguarded as possible about these things.

So, with no more ado, here we go... (bear in mind I will be adding to this along the way)
Week 37 2014: Initial thoughts in “
Aqua” (thanks to the Apple crayon colour scheme...)

Generating and selecting ideas
  • How do you go about selecting and developing your initial images/ideas?
It depends... (yeah?). Normally something will trigger a concept, be it something someone has said in conversation, something I’ve read or heard or seen, then I will go out and photograph whatever I think might fit in with that rough straw man idea - make some visual “ranging photographs”, then sit in from of my computer, see what seems right or interesting. Things will develop from there (or not). I don’t make “one off” photographs, everything is in series of images so this may go on for a while. This is what’s happening now with Some Unholy War; I’m gathering lots of images and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them, but will soon sit with them a while... (see later)

  • What criteria do you use to select or reject them?
In the first instance, it’s purely an aesthetic choice, but when I know how things are panning out, that choice may well change... It also depends on the project. Images that might be weak in isolation, might sit well with another image. There are so many things that play their part, but I suppose it’s mostly down to how they “feel”.

  • Are your ideas usually substantial enough to sustain a piece of work? If not how do you modify them?
That’s a tricky one, some do, some don’t. Sometimes the idea and the work transforms along the way, other times it only really gets refined. My last finished piece (A Forest) ended pretty much as it started, as a juxtaposition between the forest and the litter found there. Yes, the post-processing changed slightly (I wanted much cooler images originally) and it became a 1:1 juxtaposition, so much more direct, but it was sustained. Other work will change organically, it will lead its own course and get to where it gets to with or without my help. Some will not know what it’s going to be until very close to the end when I look at the body of photographs and I have a little conversation with them. Other times, a comment will be made and it will be like a firework going off! I guess at the end of the day it’s trial and error.

  • What do you do when you get stuck?

Give up? Seriously, I might let it sit there unworked for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes at a later date. Sometimes it soon becomes apparent that an idea isn’t as good as I thought it was, or maybe the timing is wrong (it’s not unusual to realised I’ve simply missed the boat). Other times, I use Flickr to post an image and have a chat with some friends that I trust. Maybe I’ll flick through a photography book or two, or watch a film... soak up visual ephemera or just take a break.

  • Are there ideas you would like to explore but don’t know how to start?

I have a couple of ideas that are sitting on the back burner at the moment, not so much not knowing how to start, but maybe not knowing when to start or just suffering from apathy, over-procrastination or whatever... Maybe there have been in the past, but not right now.


Contextual research
  • What are your influences?
I draw a huge amount from photobooks and the way they are sequenced, how images interplay with their partners or predecessors/successors. I’m a particular fan of Japanese ones, perhaps a bit of a cliché but I like the Provoke era. But not just that, I like a range of different things... From Parr-esque social documentary to the deadpan of Düsseldorf, to the poetic and maudlin images of Hido and Engström’s whatever it is he does... and... and... it goes on and on. I like a lot of different stuff really. I’m also a big fan of cinema, and not just the Hollywood blockbuster - I’ve got a reasonable collection of world cinema films. And music has always been an influence of a sort. Does it alter the way I photograph? No, I don’t really think so (but maybe I’m too close), but I do like the interplay between words and images (and I don’t mean captions). As for other art, other media... Does it influence me? I guess I like what I like and will draw something from some areas, but I’m not 100% sure what that might be at this point in time. Lets be honest, life is the big influence on everything though.

  • How does your work draw on these?
I used to work a lot with a black and white aesthetic, introducing a degree of are, bure, boke into the images in post, not really now though (although I will if the mood takes me). Is it influenced or is it “informed”...? How does film influence me? I’ll ignore the Some Unholy War here as that’s the subject matter, not the influence... There was one film, Christopher Petit’s Radio On that was a significant influence on both Into the Valley and Speak My Language, in terms of how I sequenced the images, and in terms of Speak My Language what I actually photographed, or rather what I chose not to not photograph (i.e. I photographed anything). Maybe that is more the exception than the rule though.

  • How do you choose the resources to research and to support your work, where do you find them?
Sometimes I will stumble across something and it will lead to something else - I recently read an essay about the military sublime that I found via Twitter, which mentioned a number of artists, some of which I knew, others I didn’t which will then lead me off at tangents. Other times, I will find out about something from a friend, or hear something at a talk, or catch something in the news, or a gallery show... There’s a certain serendipity to it.

  • How do you position your practice in a contemporary context?
I hate this question... I suppose it highlights a lack of awareness on my part, and a fear of talking about my work in a certain way. Part of the difficulty comes because I can work in quite different ways - one minute it seems like landscape work, the next minute it’s more of a documentary style. I guess I like to think of it all as being a form of social commentary, even if that social element is just me, there’s a message of some form. I’m a “northern thinker”, does that mean anything? How does that fit in with the contemporary context? I’m still trying to find that out.

  • What difficulties do you having in accessing resources?
My biggest difficulty is that I live in a rural location, so access to galleries, etc. is harder than it might be for others. It has to be said that they’re only ever a car journey away, but finding time for that car journey can often be quite difficult. I have reasonable access to the Internet (not the fastest by any stretch of the imagination, but reasonable), so online research is possible, as long as you know what you’re looking for...


Evaluation
  • What is your framework for making judgments about the work of others?
Often, it will be purely based on a gut feeling in the first instance. Does it speak to me in some way, does it elicit a reaction? Does it appeal to my aesthetic tastes? Does it provoke me in some way? After that, if I’m still interested, I suppose I dig a little further, consciously relating it to my experiences and outlook. If I’m not hooked though, there’s too much stuff to look at to take any time to make a measured judgement; there’s a room full of photographs uploaded to Flickr everyday - we can’t look at them in isolation. Something has to give, and that gut feeling is my first level filter.

  • How can you tell if images or objects, yours and others are successful or not?
Very much like the previous question - for something to be successful I need to be hooked in the first instance and then have the piece communicate to me at some level.

  • How do you compare your work in relation to the work of others?
Obviously it’s far superior... Seriously though, I don’t know. Not on a serious level at least. This needs far more thought to be able to answer.

  • What is successful and not successful about your current work?
About my “current” work... well Some Unholy War is still unresolved - I don’t yet know what the finished “product” will be. I have a number of possible images that are sitting on my computer, unprinted (apart from a small sample print to check something out), unfinished, un-sequenced... There’s still some way to go with it. However, I do believe they’re exploring the subject that I want them to, they’re aesthetically interesting (pleasing might be the wrong term to use) and there is potential there.


Materials and techniques etc.
  • How do you decide whether a material or technique is appropriate or not?
I’m a photographer, so I work with photography. I can work with film and digital, but I think it’s fair to say that I’m a digital photographer first and foremost. However, is that with an iPhone, a compact, DSLR or medium format? It will depend on the desired aesthetic - fluidity will be with the iPhone or a compact, possibly with the DSLR, whereas if it’s something more considered and will benefit from the MF cameras, well then that will be it. The different formats do have a different feel, and even different cameras within the same format. Sometimes, it’s just what is close to hand though, or which have a particular feature that will be useful.

As for presentation, again it’s often just a gut feeling and then try it. It will either work or it won’t. When I produced a book on newspaper, there was a certain amount of trial and error to get something that felt right, was in tune with the idea that was lurking at the back of my head. Not everyone thought newspaper was an appropriate material though, but I liked it.


  • What limits your choice of materials and or techniques?
In terms of camera choice, much is down to what I have. I don’t have large format, so won’t choose that. I don’t have pinhole, so won’t choose that. I’m not really set-up for wet film, well, not really. I can do it, but I prefer the immediacy of the digital. In terms of printing, I have physical limits to what I can personally print to, although there is a local printer who I have used to go larger. Starting to paint or sculpt is not really on the cards either!

  • Are there any materials or techniques you would like to explore?
Not that I can think of...


Communication and intention
  • What messages do you intend your work to convey? How do you do that?
This varies… most, if not all will have some social element, but perhaps not within a traditional social (documentary) context. The work is quite personal – perhaps a little too self-referential sometimes - but hopefully also relevant to others, that people can relate to it, that it speaks to them in some way. How do I do that…? Well, I hope it’s by creating something interesting from the everyday things we can all experience in some form or another, infusing it with a multi-layered element. An allegory of a metaphor! Ha!! I guess I try to give the viewer something to think about.

  • What is the intention of your work? How is that manifest in the work?
I aim to involve the viewer in some way, to provoke thought rather than provide vacuous “eye candy”. As a result of this, the photographs are rarely traditionally “pretty” even when photographing something more accessible such as a landscape – there is often an element of the sublime and melancholy. There’s repeated themes – it might be the mundane and the overlooked, or barriers for example. Some of these things may only really come across when viewing a number of images together.

  • Who is the audience for your work?
I see the work as existing in multiple forms, from printed and hung on the gallery wall to printed and displayed in book form. It will also displayed online, through my own website, through other galleries (such as IRIS, or simply Tumblr or Flickr), etc. Who will the audience be for each of those? Different I guess, but I would hope that my work will be seen by contemporaries, both in terms of photographers and the wider art world. I don’t really see what I do as having mass appeal – they’re not “pretty photos” that you would necessarily find on biscuit tins and postcards. More for the thinker than the layman, but hopefully there will be something for the interested layman too.

  • Who will critique your work?
Anyone who sees it will have an opinion, but is that the intended question? If we’re talking about critique by contemporaries, by the intended audience, well I suppose my intention is to get the work seen and commented upon by curators and magazine publishers, etc. that sort of thing. Certainly, things can be quiet on the social media side of things, but then I don’t push it excessively at the moment.

  • What might their criticism be?
An open question – everyone will bring something of themselves (and their life’s experience – I’m thinking Barthes’ stance here) to the viewing of the image, so I find this difficult to answer. Hopefully they will appreciate the questioning nature of the work and the fact that they have to think. Will it be too obscure? Will it be too convoluted? I don’t know. Will they like it, will they loathe it? It’s like Bovril.

Critical thinking
  • What have been the most and least valuable resources so far?
The Internet can be incredibly useful in general terms, but then it can be a huge waste of time too. Gallery visits, books and discussions have all triggered critical thinking in the past too. Last year’s visit to Arles with OCA was a great experience – lots of photography and lots of discussions with like-minded people to trigger the thinking process, thinking about works, analysing them – I came back buzzing, both in terms of renewed creativity and how I thought.

  • What changes has your research made to your work?
This is difficult to put a finger on. Sometimes it will be a dash of inspiration in juxtaposing images, other times it might just be a particular colour scheme. Some things are subliminal, others overt. The surreal narrative of Speak My Language is a direct result of watching Avant Garde cinema. I’m not really sure of anything else at the moment, but there’s bound to be examples.

  • What
Erm...

  • Have there been any been any negative effects of your contextual research?
Nothing that immediately springs to mind – maybe a project has not gotten off the ground because of a piece of research…? It’s more of an annoyance than anything when I realise that my groundbreaking original idea has been done before, but then, is anything truly original anymore? Build on the shoulders of those that have gone before...

  • What specific influences and ideas have made the most positive impact on your work?
Perhaps the one that sticks in my mind most is a comment made by Dr John Darwell at a talk he gave at Lancaster University. His early work is all black and white, but if I remember the back story correctly, he was asked to work in colour for a commission and as a result he moved over to working all in colour. He said that “this is now” – something that stuck with me and has largely closed off black and white work to me. Yes, I will still use it if it is appropriate for some reason, but not as a purely aesthetic choice or because that’s what is expected. I don’t see the point in aping a bygone age for the sake of it. I see my work as being improved because I made this transition. But to be honest, everything I see will influence me to a greater or lesser degree.
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