At the beginning of the course, in May 2016, I had never even owned a camera so it has been a steep learning curve; technically, technologically, academically and creatively. I have worked in Finance all my working life, but I decided to retire, early, in December 2018, which now leaves me much more time to concentrate on photography and everything associated with it.
Paul Gaffney’s work took him on a 3500km walking journey over Spain, France and Portugal. His intention was ‘to explore walking as a form of meditation and transformation’ (Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. 2015). We Make the Path by Walking is a collection of quiet, meditative images that capture the feeling of being within nature.
In an interview with Nick Rochowski and Tim Bowditch, Gaffney said that ‘walking is by its nature both rhythmic and physical and it can slow down the mind’ and allows us to ‘look at things differently’. Global Archive Photography, 2019)
Most of Gaffney’s images were unplanned in that he didn’t plan a walking route based on what landscape he may find but rather took a chance at whatever he came across. Gaffney deliberately doesn’t say where his images were taken; this means that we can all relate to a similar ‘place’ and acknowledge that many of us walk similar paths in life. That some of Gaffney’s images show overgrown landscapes suggests that we all have obstacles to overcome in life; the fact that some show paths leading in different directions suggests that we all have choices to make.
Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K (2015) Identity and Place. Open College of the Arts, course materials.
is to note a journey that I go on regularly and reflect upon it…
I thought about some of the journeys that I make. The longest physical journey that I make regularly is from Yorkshire to Dorset, a couple of times a year. I thought of the 305 miles that we travel which takes anything between five and seven hours. It isn’t a meandering type of journey where I could drift with my camera from one thing to another, it is a functional, get there as quick as we can, sort of journey. It is the M1, the A42, the M42, the M5, A358, A303, A3088 and the A37 and is punctuated by service stations, traffic restrictions and delays. This time it also comprised Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell, twice, a compilation from the 1980s and a bit of Radio 4.
I would like to photograph this journey and show the reality of it. The inside of the car as the footwell fills up with plastic water bottles and wet wipes, the speedometer on the motorway as yet again there is a 50mph limit, the window open despite the rain coming in, the look on the driver’s face as he sees miles of standing traffic in front of him, the laughing as one of us says something funny and the driver singing along to ‘Two Out of Three Ain’t bad’. I may do this next time.
My images may show a very different side to this ‘functional’ journey’.
As a hobby project, I have started a ‘county by county blog’. Its purpose is two fold; firstly, to fulfill an ambition to visit every county in England, and secondly, to give me opportunities to practice with my camera. The idea is to photographically document our progress in visiting every single one of the 48 counties of England. This is quite a journey. At a pace of one trip a month the whole thing will take four years. Some trips will take a day, if the counties are near to our home, but others will require a few overnight stays so it provides a win win combination of extra holidays with camera practice.
The project is going well so far. I have documented twelve counties to date but there is still a way to go. My images for this project act mainly as snapshot memories for us but if I were to use the counties idea for a larger scale, more serious, photographic project, I would travel the country, county by county to explore real hidden lives and show the vast breadth and detail of what it is like to live in England.
Every week I visit the village, where I grew up, and I am always amazed by how much it has changed over the decades. Much of my identity stems from this village, relatives still live there and I am familiar with the all the pathways and short cuts and know its detail like I have never known any place since.
I thought it may be interesting to take, not only a physical journey around the village, but a journey back in time so a few days ago I did just that. Here is one of my images:
“The Bike Shop”
I would like to develop this further to show how aspects of my identity are anchored in this particular place and how even though it has changed very much over the years, I still identify with with what it was like when I was a child and cannot think of the ‘new’ dentist as anything other than the old bike shop.
Where would you choose to do a large scale project given the chance? What would you choose as your subject matter? What worlds would you like to create?
Robert Frank, Stephen Shore and Alec Soth have all travelled the length and breadth of America in their work, taking months and years to complete their projects. When asked where I would choose to do such a project my realist and pragmatic nature was immediately apparent but then I forced myself to abandon reality completely and think about the question with more of an unhindered mind.
I have recently read Mother without a Mask: A Westerner’s Story of her Arab Family, which gives an insight into the lives of some women in the Arab World. Although there are feminist movements and massive recent changes I still have what I suspect is a simplified and stereotypical view of Arabian culture; especially in terms of gender differences, where women do not have equal rights with men, and follow strict codes of accepted behaviour and dress, gender segregation and are required to seek male permission in certain things.
As a British citizen, exposed to western media, it is difficult for me to separate truth from stereotype, and to oversimplify things, so I would like to travel to this part of the world and see for myself what life is like there, to meet some people, live with them, see the landscape, embrace a different culture, learn something, and experience a different way of life to my own … or perhaps learn that it’s not so different after all… I don’t know, but I would embrace finding out and addressing my ignorance whilst opening a ‘window’ onto a different world.
I came across this series (below) in the British Journal of Photography and how it ‘challenges stereotypes surrounding the people, landscapes and cultures of the Middle East’ (British Journal of Photography, 2019). The images invite the viewer to question their own stereotyped views of identity in the Arab world.
Like Frank and Shore, Soth’s work Sleeping by the Mississippi, resulted from an American road trip and captures images taken during a car journey along the Mississippi River. The work is less concerned with the actual river itself but the river provides a linking theme to unify the series and connect people and places along the way.
Soth’s series includes landscapes, interiors and portraits as he ‘alludes to religion, race, crime, sex and death, showing the lost hope, loneliness and unrealised dreams of the people he meets’ (British Journal of Photography, 2019)
Soth’s work took him from one thing to another as he progressed in his travels, rather like a ‘wandering’ spirit; rather like the river itself.
We have recently considered photography as a metaphor and in this series I see Soth’s journey along the river as a metaphor for the strange journey that is life.
Similarly to Robert Frank’s The Americans, Shore in Uncommon Places, travelled through America documenting real life; Shore was travelling in the seventies though, twenty years later than Frank.
Shore’s images give a sense of place by his choice of composition and subject matter. When we studied William Eggleston’s work, Memphis we learned that images are filtered through the camera in that they may not depict ‘real’ locations; in fact many ‘places’ would not be recogniseable if we physically visited them. What happens is the creation of a fictionalised place that gives us a sense of, in this case, America.
Shore’s images (again like Frank’s) document the hidden ‘reality’ of America. He photographed meals, petrol stations, motel rooms, beds, streets; he explored his travels in a diary of pictures.
Image by Stephen Shore (Bellevue, Alberta, 1974)
I was interested in the chapel image above. I found it immediately attractive and intriguing. The blue and white sky dominates half the image and draws the eye upwards, almost ‘heavenward’. The tiny chapel looks like it is in the middle of nowhere and because of that I want to know who visits it. Do people have to travel miles to reach it? The fences are redundant in that they don’t keep anything in or out but add to the ‘welcome’, like arms outstretched to its visitors. The Rockies in the background add to the sublime feel and remind us of the power of nature (and God).
A bit of research shows me that Bellevue is a small village in the Rocky Mountains with fewer than a thousand residents. In this context I can now imagine people driving and walking past but maybe it is more of a tourist attraction and point of interest than a used chapel.
It has just occurred to me that Alberta is in Canada which I admit has surprised me as I thought Shore’s work was completed in America. I have just checked that I have understood this correctly and wanted to confirm that this chapel image was actually included in ‘Uncommon Places’ and yes, here it is:
Shore’s work includes very few people. He gives us an insight into his travels through outdoor scenes and interior spaces; he invites us to imagine this part of the world by giving us a sense, a feeling and an essence of the country.
Note: a geography lesson
I think I needed a geography lesson. Shore was travelling through the continent of North America, of which Canada is the northernmost country and the USA the middle one and Mexico the main southern one but ALL in North America.
Like many people I confused the USA with North America to separate it from Mexico and thought Canada was just Canada.
Robert Frank and Walker Evans travelled across America between 1955 and 1957 taking ‘un-glossed’ photographs of the country and the people along the way. His images were ‘intentionally unglamorous’ (Indrisek, 2019) as well as technically, purposely, questionable. Frank’s images captured real life, the real America, and not the ‘wholesome image of American life: mom, apple pie, two cars in every garage’ (ibid)
Frank’s work wasn’t well received in America as it showed life, well, not at it’s American best. In fact, Jordan Riefe, in the Guardian states that it was described, by the photographer Minor White, as ‘a degradation of a nation’. (Riefe, 2019)
This post is not the place to to discuss the impact of Frank’s work on contemporary photography or to comment on his ‘masterpiece’ of a photo book (LensCulture, 2019) but what I do take away from this research is the geographical extent of the work, the way it challenged existing technical boundaries, and how it commented on hidden life; how it was ‘real’.
Example of image taken (not actually chosen for inclusion in assignment)
For assignment 5 I have been taking images of ‘green leaf balls’ those plastic alternatives to real plants, used as outdoor decoration. I knew that it may be difficult to do this without being noticed as I was proposing to drive around housing estates to find suitable image situations. I asked a fellow student if she would drive her car while I looked round, from the passenger seat, for various potential locations. I was looking for both domestic and commercial proprieties that were displaying leaf balls as ornaments.
The commercial properties; the pubs, the hair salons and the cafes, etc were relatively straightforward and posed no problems. I just asked my driver to drive down various high streets and stop when I saw something that caught my eye; she would then pull over as soon as safe and I would walk back to the location and return to the car when I had taken my images.
The domestic properties were a little different. My search took me to housing estates, back lanes, and cul de sacs, etc. where the crawling presence of an unknown car could easily draw attention. Even if the residents were not at home, their neighbours might well be; and there were people at bus stops and people on the pavements and in their gardens that probably found my presence a little odd. Much of the time I managed to take photographs of properties with little drama but there were two occasions where my behaviour resulted in explaining my actions.
A gentleman pulled up in a van when I was standing on the pavement outside a house. He rolled his window down and said ‘do you mind me asking what you are doing’. I explained that I was a photography student and offered him my ‘business card’ and he smiled, said ‘that’s ok, no problem’. He explained that the owner of the house was his neighbour and he was just checking on her behalf.
The second occasion was a bit more difficult. The home owner came out of her front door with her teenage daughter. I smiled and explained who I was and, showing her my camera, said if there was a problem I would immediately delete the image. I was shocked when she said she was a victim of domestic abuse and her identity was private. I repeated that I would delete the image immediately but she said there was no need and went on to be quite chatty. I thought she was far nicer about it than she may have been.
All in all the journey to find my images for this assignment was quite stressful but hugely confidence building. Again, many thanks to the great people out there who are understanding of us student photographers.
The French writer Georges Perec wrote a book called An attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) in which he wrote down everything he could see from a certain viewpoint. Perec’s book is a collection of observations written as he sat in Saint Sulpice Square in Paris. The aim was to observe all those things that are often unnoticed.
Choose a viewpoint, perhaps looking out of your window or from a cafe, and write down everything you can see. No matter how boring it seems or how detailed, just write it down. Spend at least an hour on this exercise.
I have chosen to sit in my car, in the local park, in the rain. The reason? I would never normally observe this park, or indeed any other park, in the rain. I have no dog walking obligations, and no children to entertain, and I am a fair weather walker only. I would never venture to the park in the rain. I was interested to see who might.
It is 10am; a Wednesday in June. The rain is more drizzle than downpour but bad enough for my wipers to be on intermittent. I expected the park to be deserted so the first thing that I noticed was a half full car park. I took notes for an hour and I have written them up for ease of reading, below:
Three of the eleven pages of notes I took during the exercise
to my right, a middle aged couple in dark clothes walking two little Shih Tzus, white and beige mix. One has stopped for a poo while the lady waits. The man has his arms folded behind his back and they both watch the little dog trying to mind his own business. Oh my goodness she has actually lifted his tail to have a closer look. Looks like he decided not to bother and they have all moved on
a man in a red puffa jacket is just disappearing over the hill with a dog, a pram and a toddler
a big Wolfhound dog is limping behind his owner; both walking very slowly
two yellow and green skips to my left, side by side
a yellow warning sign but I can’t read more than that from here
a man in a high vis coat and ear defenders cutting the grass
a man speeding by, also in high vis, on a ride on mower thing, out of sight again as quick as he first appeared
all the cars are facing the same direction except mine and I am parked perpendicular across the marked bays so that I have a better vantage point
green tractor gone by with yellow wheels
silver car just parked in my way so considering moving forward a bit
beautiful trees in front of me, large, many shades of green; slight breeze so leaves are gently moving
can hear that pigeon/dove noise that you have to actively listen to and which gets on my nerves
can hear the grass strimmer now and, I have just noticed, my car engine.
a runner, but walking; grey top, bare legs, male.
a neat clipped hedge surrounding the swings but I can only see the top of the frames above the hedge
railings that I know to surround the tennis courts but I can’t actually see them, just the black railings, vertical with every twentieth one or so a bit thicker and more sturdy
short grass and some that has been left long in a patch
a red van turning towards the exit
a 10mph sign; round, white with a red circumference
a black square bin for dog waste
a dog barking
a few leaves falling to the ground
a grey and white sky
red brick houses, one with a white framed glass balcony
dog still barking
white frames windows with black lintels
a bird flying past, and another, quite low down over the cars
a blue bag near the skips that may have cement or stones in it; has a telephone number and web site printed on the plastic
noticed the dog stopped barking then started again
strimmer noise still
no people at the moment
two big black birds standing together as though chatting to each other; four little black legs in a row; now walking away, and back together, pecking and looking around
dog still barking
only one bird left of the two now
a ‘dementia friendly’ sign; white in a black frame standing in the grass
wind blowing quite strongly through my car window
flood light just visible where tennis courts are; tall, green, square top
motorbike noise in the distance
bird still there, pecking
leaves still blowing
dog started again
strimmer still there
cars in the distance, on the main road, just visible; traffic noise as large vehicle goes by
wind noisy now, leaves from tree to my right are almost touchable from car window and make a clicking noise in the breeze
it is now 10.23
that bloody dog
an older man walking towards me with a dog that looks like a Pug but a bit too tall. He is getting into that Honda Jazz that was blocking my view; engine noise, drives off.
dog still at it
can see the green gates at the bottom now the Honda has moved; row of cars probably office parking
tree to my left has those white elder flower blossom things, not good with trees.
strimmer still going
bird noise in trees
bloody dog again
motor bike noise in distance
wind still noisy but nice
just had to start engine for wipers; drizzle a bit heavier now, though it is pleasant with the window down
there is a path, uphill slightly, that leads through the short grass up and over to the swings. It looks a bit muddy, like a short cut that has been made over the years into something more permanent.
wipers again, dog again. It is one of those ‘bark then stop’ barks: bark, stop, bark, stop, bark but continuous with a second or so between one bark and the next. Not bark, bark, bark, bark …
no people at the moment; car park has at least ten cars, perhaps owners are in the cafe or using the space while they go to the shops across the road
man and dog to my left; ginger dog, fluffy, wagging its tail
man pushing pram
dog still ‘woof, stop, woof’
bird just flown upwards from my left
just noticing the darker shades under the trees. Not sunny here but bright and the canopies are dense
bird landed on the skip
one tree looks … that bloody dog … different to the others; taller, thinner, solid
wipers again; drizzle on windscreen showing as tiny dots of white catching the light
breeze picking up again, branches to my right quite agitated
just noticed the corner of a park bench near the railings
traffic noise, car engine, turned it off now
pigeon still on skip
dog still barking for England
a white lorry, headlights on, two high vis men in front, orange light on top, drove past
two more high vis men walking each with a standard lawn mower; chatting, ear defenders, black trousers; four black legs in a row, like the birds earlier
a pale dog in the distance
a man walking towards the ‘office’ cars
the red ride on mower coming towards me
the pale dog has an owner, and a toddler and a pram with a clear rain cover on it
bloody dog hasn’t stopped in ages
it is now 10.38
a different pram is coming towards me, a different dog and a different toddler. Lady and entourage silhouetted for a while. Red coat on, fluffy dog, toddler wearing a knitted hat and yellow wellies; mum struggling to push pram up the hill. Toddler chatting to mum, getting into black VW, dog circling the car, pram waiting to be lifted into the boot
a loud bang from near the office buildings like a heavy vehicle door being slammed
another man and a white dog, man watching while dog sniffs around
the Pug is back, both dogs circle each other
mum still getting everything in the car
men with dogs are chatting, hood up, cap on, drizzle still.
dog still stopped
mum chatting to toddler, still loading the car in the drizzle
boot slammed shut
men still chatting
lady dropped car keys, scratchy scrapy noise as she picks them up.
headlights on, car engine noise, drives away
feeling of space and light as the VW moves away and leaves a big space
men going separate ways, one towards me as his dog runs ahead. Man has lead in his hand and calls ‘come here’ and he fastens lead to his dog’s collar
dog still stopped
bird flying over
sky still grey
drizzle but don’t need wipers
forgot to mention the white markers for the parking areas; standard marked out spaces on grey shiny tarmac
leaf breeze noise, wind picking up again
very noticeable that the dog is silent
it is now 11.46
a lady to my right, walking with her arm outstretched. Cant see any dog yet though. Lady has hood up and her legs are bare below the knee in short cropped off jeggings; noticeable because of the weather.
white lorry with headlights on, on its return journey
my fingers are aching a bit with all the writing now; what a keyboard world we live in.
the dog is having a poo, lady is watching and waiting, bag ready. She picks it up, dog has a shake in the rain, both walk off
strimmer noise, traffic noise, no woof, stop, woof, stop
can see signs from the distant main road; a traffic light sign and a junction sign; both triangular, white with red borders
purple van going past on main road
strimmer but no woof, stop
engine back on for wipers and heater
water shine on tarmac
been here an hour and still noticing new things; a stone wall with blades of grass at the bottom.
still not barking
I have really enjoyed this exercise and it surprised me that I was still noticing new things right up the the end. I do feel that it has encouraged me to look, and then look again, and has highlighted just how little I usually do so. So that you can imagine my view, here it is.
Can you transform this into a photography version
For me, today, there was a bleakness about the park. People in the rain, only there because they had to walk the dog. No children laughing, no ice cream, no tennis or swings and no picnics. Other than dog walkers there were some park staff. It was a park with a purpose today; functional as opposed to recreational. To transform my observations into a photography version I have considered an approach based on my experience of reading a modern classic.
From my literature background I remember reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and of being surprised by how much of the novel concentrated on things that never actually happened, things that the second Mrs de Winter vividly imagines, and I have always remembered the novel because of this.
Similarly, I could allude to absent things, things that never happened today. I was surprised in this exercise how much I noticed what wasn’t there. We have such cliched ideas of parks that when they don’t ‘deliver’ we notice it. Today I noticed the absence of people, the absence of sunshine, even the absence of the ice cream van and the office workers having their sandwiches. So, even though they were not visible they appeared in my imagination, like Rebecca did to Mrs de Winter the second.
Would you stay in the same place or get in close to the things you listed
I would need to move further into the park itself, further afield than the car park where my vantage point was. Images of empty picnic benches, the empty dedicated spot for the ice cream van, the empty tennis courts, the rain on the swings and the wall without its lunchers would look ‘usual but unusual’ and invite the viewer to recognise the absence.
Would you choose to use your camera phone in order to be discreet or would you get your tripod out
I would use my camera, not my phone. There would be no requirement to be discreet.
Would it be better in black and white or colour
Black and white would suit the sombre mood of the park today
Would you include your list with the final images
No, the images would work alone to provide a juxtaposition between the park today and the traditional cliched expectation of a local park.
‘For more than 10 years, German-American photographer Robert Harding Pittman has been traveling around the world photographing the spread of “L.A. style development” in Las Vegas, Spain, France, Germany, Greece, Dubai and South Korea’. (LensCulture, 2019)
When I think of Los Angeles I think of freeways, shopping malls busy sidewalks, green spaces and high rise buildings. When I visit Leeds, my hometown, I see the motorway, shopping centres, busy pavements, parks and high rise buildings. Different vocabulary but essentially the same. When I think of London, pretty much the same.
In his work, Pittman challenges the spread of ‘the same homogenous infrastructure … in cities and communities all over the world’ (Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. 2015, p 107). He considers that all this development world wide is harmful to the planet and results in a loss of natural and cultural environments.
Image by Robert Harding Pittman, Pizza Hut abandoned New-Mexico
Pizza Hut abandoned is one image of the series and I feel epitomises the urban sprawl that Pittman refers to. Pizza Hut is an American company and I have just read that it has more than 18,000 restaurants in its chain. The red roof is immediately recogniseable as there is barely a town in the world that has not got one.
To see Pizza Hut in:
‘Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, Spain, Turkey, South Africa, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Tanzania, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, and its Asian presence includes Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Myanmar, and Macau’. (Wikipedia)
clearly illustrates the global urban homogenous sprawl that Pittman is challenging.
Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K (2015) Identity and Place. Open College of the Arts, course materials.
How often do you see people walking and reading their texts or on the train and reading their tablet rather than enjoying the view? What are we missing when we do that?
We have all been to a restaurant or cafe and seen a group of people around a table, each engrossed with their phones; not looking at the food that they are eating, not talking to anyone present and not noticing their environment. I am guilty myself at times. What we are doing is sacrificing face to face social interaction for a virtual reality. Although we are physically present at the table, we are mentally present in cyberspace somewhere and effectively living two lives at once, but not really existing fully in either of them.
I remember being at a wedding and someone commenting that those who were videoing the bride being showered with confetti weren’t watching and engaging with the event but rather recording it to watch later. Activity like this shows that people are often too interested in ‘documenting’ life to actually live it. They are too often photographing an event, so that they can upload it to Facebook, than enjoying the first hand experience.
The irony is that the mobile phone, a device with the power to instantly connect billions of people across the globe, is actually preventing us connecting with the one person sitting next to us.