Category Archives: Part 1 – Origins of photographic portraiture

Notes from the Thames Valley Forum, 3 September

I was official note-taker for the meeting, so this will also be published on the OCASA website as a record of the event.

This was first Thames Valley Forum meeting after the summer, and attendance was high, with thirteen students and Jayne, our tutor. While the majority of the students were doing photography modules, the group also included two people doing Understanding Visual Culture and one doing Graphic Design and a graduate who was no longer a student. There were two new members, Anne Bryson and Perry Tatman.

The day divided into three parts. In the first, we had a general discussion about the value of sketch/log/work books (depending on what each person wanted to call their one), and looked at various examples that students had brought along. They varied greatly in content and purpose and several people including the two Level 3+ students reported that they did not use physical notebooks at all. Jayne advised that finding the correct format of notebook for ourselves was important and we had to feel comfortable using them on a regular basis. Among the group, most people were using a variety of different solid notebooks, but one student showed us her A4 binders, where she files all the scraps of information she collects, and then sorts them out at the end of the assignment. We discussed how the workbook can be used as a resource library of our own interests, likes and dislikes and that we should be aiming to include information that we might find valuable for future projects as well as in our present assignment work. We looked at the reference book Photographers’ Sketchbooks (2014), and considered how photographers’ workbooks were becoming an interesting new element of exhibitions, which added value to our understanding of the photographer’s thought processes.

The second session of the day was a consideration of the BBC film Century of the Self, Part 1 (2002), an Adam Curtis documentary which reviewed how psychoanalysis and public relations have shaped the Western world in the last 100 years. There was some discussion about the very one-sided viewpoint that Adam Curtis, the programme maker took, and also about the coherence and clarity of the narrative. We were asked to consider how the history of visual culture informs and affects our reading of any image at an almost subliminal level. Jayne suggested that an understanding of the theories of Freud and Lacan would help us progress in our own work.

Finally, we looked at the current work of seven students:-

Anna showed us the work she was doing for Assignment 2 of Digital Image & Culture. She was exploring Tim Ingold’s notion of the life of lines and had collected 40 images of people holding newspaper headlines from all over the world on 23 June, the day the Brexit result was announced. Of particular interest was the format for display that she had chosen – a Japanese style orihon folding book, with the images and text printed on inkjet tracing paper. There’s a video of Ingold’s theories at

Teresa had just submitted Assignment 1 of Identity & Place, which was about photographing five strangers and talked about how difficult the work had been for her. She felt the problem related to her dislike of approaching people she did not know, and her concern about making a connection with them before she felt able to represent them. We looked at both her assignment work, which was on staff at a local chemist’s shop and the previous exercise on four friends, about which she had felt more comfortable.

Holly had just completed the same assignment, but had approached it very differently. She had chosen to photograph flyer distributors at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in a street style. There was some discussion about how much information about the subject should or could be included in a typological study, and also the concept of the smile and other forms of body language as masks for the subjects. It was suggested we look at the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

Keith, who has now finished his degree, talked about how his work had progressed since completion. He discussed how his project on East London had expanded and how he now saw himself as a social documentary photographer who worked with the charity sector to raise funds and awareness. He also showed us some of his preparatory work for the [(6)] Photography Collective workshop in Oxford, which involves photographing Oxford shopfronts through a pinhole camera, and printing them in the style of architectural drawings. He has been experimenting to find a print and framing combination that complements his interest in merging the old and new in this work. (Keith’s prints were lovely, and he apparently uses Hahnemühle German Etching paper.)

Sarah-Jane talked about how her Girlhood project was progressing, and how the work now seemed to be honing in on pre-teenage girls photographed looking directly at the camera. She felt this was part of her ongoing exploration of how she perceived herself, and that the focus was gradually changing as previously she had avoided the direct gaze.

Richard D is doing the Landscape module and showed us his work for Assignment 3, which he had called Space to Place. It was about coastal erosion at Pagham Harbour in West Sussex and the effect this was having on the local community. Having just submitted it to his tutor and had the feedback, there was much discussion about why his tutor had suggested he remove all traces of human intervention from the series, given that its purpose was to show the futility of humans attempting to hold back the sea.

Finally, Dawn showed us the work she has been doing for Assignment 1 of Graphic Design, in which she was asked to present five postcards explaining who she was. She is using the idea of the Johari Window as a means of exploring self-awareness. We discussed how design is about distilling the essence of an idea into a visual representation and how she is using photography, and particularly collage, as a basis for some of her experimentation.

As ever, it was a stimulating and enlightening day. We finished by discussing a request for funding from OCASA to continue the same format next year. Our next group meeting is on 19th November, as most of the regular participants will be attending the Brighton Biennale on the third weekend in October.


The Century of the Self, Episode 1 [television programme online] Pres. Curtis. BBC UK (2002)

At: (Accessed: 4 September 2016).

 McLaren, S. & Formhals, B. (2014) Photographers’ Sketchbooks. London: Thames & Hudson.

Editied to add:

Regarding my own assignment, I need to look at the idea of masks in portraiture, and also how our perceptions of portraits are mediated through our knowledge of the person involved. Also look at the Smile and why typologies are often take with a straight face. What does this add or take away from an image?


More musings on editing

After having consulted my fellow students on the Facebook OCA Photography Level 1 group, a couple of suggestions were made that I decided to follow up. Several people remarked on the sense of excitement and happiness exhibited by the subjects, and felt that this was the strongest element of the set. They suggested a) that I try  close crop, as for passport photographs, and b) that I try black and white because there is so much background colour in the images.

I did both, and here is the new long list for consideration. It is interesting to see that different images stand out in this edit, and I was able to use more of the original set with a close crop.

My initial selection from this set would probably be 1,2,4,5,7,8.

No 3 does not seem to be properly smiling.

No 6 is not quite in focus at this distance.

So, the final choice comes down to this, A or B, although I still have some work to do on post production to even out the differences in light, clarity and contrast.

Series A

Series B

It is now decision time.

Assignment 1 -The Non-Familiar (first draft of images)

For this assignment, my plan was to photograph the people handing out flyers. I would then put each image alongside a picture of the flyer and a published review of the piece. The selection of subjects was made on the basis of who approached me, rather than me actively seeking out subjects myself. All the people I met were happy to have their photograph taken, after I had chatted to them about their show and what brought them to Edinburgh.

Long list of images

Long list of images

From this, I deleted those images with more than one person and those where the background was most intrusive, and I ended up with the following shortlist.

I will now consult my fellow OCA students about which of these should form the final 5. At this stage, I think 5 and possibly 3 are not likely to make the final cut, but I have to lose another two as well.

First thoughts on assignment 1

At this moment, I do not have any specific ideas for my first assignment, which asks us to take five portraits of strangers. Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, I’ve been doing some reading to see whether I can build an idea up from the bottom, instead of starting with the subject and working downwards. Hopefully, these ramblings will crystallise some thoughts that I have been considering into proper ideas.

At the general research level, Bate’s chapter on the portrait is fascinating, with its discussion of the elements of the portrait, how to read them and how we interpret them on a personal level. Clearly, how I set compose the images and pose the subjects is important. Points to consider are:

  • genre of portrait
  • reflect sitter’s personality or not?
  • clothing
  • background
  • outsider/insider

Alongside this, I read Eric Kim’s short explanation of 12 things (actually it is 11) that motivate the great Japanese photographer Akiri, and a couple of them really struck a chord. Two that keep coming back to me are that today’s images are the history of tomorrow and make it personal, i.e. it should have meaning and to matter to me. Bearing in mind my recent forays through my family archive, I’ve become very aware that many of the photographs from the 1960s onwards are very much snapshots, and poor quality ones at that. Images were captured on the fly, without much consideration of their archival value, and most were very situational, and were taken either at events or on holidays. Quality only started to improve again in the 1990s when digital cameras began to appear , which allowed people much more discretion about the images they chose to keep. I suspect that most probably in this century family archives will once again  begin to feature more portraits for this reason, but also because we are now accustomed to the selfie and the very casual portrait. Below is an example of what I mean; an image of my step-daughter in the garden, which was taken very fast and without her expecting it. Preparation was zero, but it is clearly a portrait, and also clearly shows something of her personality. I suppose the point I am coming to on this is that a good portrait does not necessarily involve studios and hours of preparation, but it does need engagement between the photographer and sitter.


Edited to add:

After a night’s rest, I think a way forward has been found. To all intents and purposes, my exercise on typologies was a fulfilment of the assignment brief, being local and using people I had never met before. The images were all full length though, and I would like to try some more close-up portraits. I feel much more comfortable out on the street rather than taking formal portraits in a studio, and also have more confidence in the role of Photographer Tourist, rather than Portrait Photographer.

I have therefore decided that I will use a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe next week to make my photographs. My plan is to engage people who are handing out flyers for their shows, as they will be happy to talk, and should be positive about the idea of having a close-up portrait taken. I came across a post about a 100 Strangers project which appeals to me, and would like to aim for something similar, but with some information about the subjects and why they are at the Fringe. I will write separately about why I have chosen this particular group as subjects.


Bate, D. (2009) Photography: the key concepts. Bloomsbury.


Jason Evans “Strictly”

This series provides an opportunity for me to sort out some of my thoughts on identity, following listening and reading a couple of OU OpenLearn courses, namely Understanding Identity and Identity in Question.

The courses posit that our identities are partly formed from the inside (how we perceive ourselves) and partly from the outside (how society sees us). Much of each of these is unconscious and we have little control over it, but a portion (they mention 10%) is something we are aware of and have agency over. Identity is about both belonging and differentiation, and we show both through actions and symbols which have meaning to others. Think of teen groups, such as punks and emos as examples.

How we prioritise the elements of our identity depends on the situation (place) we inhabit at any one time, and also where we are in our lives. Two personal examples are shown below, where I have listed some of the more important elements of my own identity in that time and place, in order of their priority at the time.

Some of these elements of identity are externally applied, such as manager, or woman, but others, which may be more important on a personal level, are internal parts of that identity (pregnant, in a relationship).

When applied to Jason Evans’ work Strictly, which was published in the journal I-D in 1991, things get very complicated. Evans was working at the time as a fashion photographer with Simon Foxton and took the typological series for a fashion magazine. The subject is black urban dandies, which is a very particular niche identity, where symbols (eclectic and daring clothing ensembles) are used to express a particular sense of style. I have no idea as to Evans’ ethnicity, but whether or not he is black, it seems highly likely that he has appropriated black dandyism as a means of fashion advertising. The images mix fashion photography with documentary photography in a topological style which has a (false) air of authenticity. Here, we have advertising using identity to both create and sell a certain style, which will apparently make one part of an exclusive group. A great marketing ploy. Fashion, big business and marketing are intrinsically linked in a way that makes people feel both individual and part of a group at the same time.





Hardman’s chronotypes

Edward Chambré Hardman was a commercial studio photographer, who handily collected and indexed his work over a period of 40 years, and it has now been made available in digital form as an archival resource. As sitters often came back more than once for a photograph of themselves, this has allowed archival researchers to co-locate images of the same person, sitting in roughly the same position over a period of time, known as chronotypology. In his Lecture on Portraiture, he announced

To make fine portraits by photography, one must never lose sight of the ultimate aim, which is to produce a characteristic likeness or expression of the sitter’s personality.(From OCA coursebook, p31)

Given that each of his subjects sits against a plain background, without accessories, the only information the viewer is given in the face, clothing and demeanour, but using only these, Hardman was able to produce work which did give a clear sense of personality. Compare these with the annual school photos we are all used to seeing, and one can see that Hardman was is a different class (pun intended).

Ulrich Baer’s classification of archival studies indicates that there are three main ways of using it,

  1. fabricated or constructed work
  2. the archive of the unremembered
  3. the archive’s redemption as new life

Hardman’s work seems to fall roughly into the second category. We see the effects that time have wrought on his sitters, many of whom were soldiers who in the gap between sittings had experienced the realities of war. A modern interpretation of the same idea is Lalage Snow’s series We are Not The Dead, which takes a set of three photographs of soldiers, before, during and after their deployment to Afghanistan. (Oddly in these, most of the soldiers look most at peace during their deployment, rather than before or after).

Lalage Snow wearenot dead

Screenshot from:

I have the facility to produce a chronotype from my own family archive, so here are three images of my paternal grandmother in 1926, 1956 and 1993. The quality is not great, but one gets the idea.

Of course, I only recall her as she was in the last image.


Baer, Ulrich (2008). ‘Deep in the Archive’ In: Aperture 193, Winter 2008, p. 54-58 [Online]. Available at:!/54 (Accessed 7 August, 2016)

Portraiture typology

I have not achieved very much coursework over the last few weeks, and this is largely down to my inability to face up to asking people (both strangers and friends/family) if I can photograph them in a formal typological way. While I am very drawn to the idea of typologies and thoroughly enjoy looking at them, I seem to find it hard to do myself. I’d very much prefer to do a typological study of some sort of animal or inanimate object, or some street photography where people are unaware of me..

However, this morning, I faced up to the issue and popped round to the local allotments. The plan was to a) check up on my own allotment (the hook to get me there) and b) engage some other allotmenteers in conversation, before asking to take their photos. In the event, it all worked out quite well and I had an enjoyable morning chatting to various people who I had never met before, before asking them if I could take their picture.The images are shown below.

Right from the beginning there was going to be a problem, as it was a very sunny day, and even at 10am, I knew contrast would be a issue. It was. However, I did my best in the circumstances. There were also a number of other considerations, which I realised after the event, but which I will have to bear in mind on any other similar shoot.

  1. I realise that the subjects are shown in different parts of the frame, and that for a typological study, they should all be in roughly the same position. All of the images have been cropped to some extent, so it will be worth going back and trying to get them all to line up, at a similar size within the frame.
  2. I am happy that each is shown in their own allotment, which provides the thread that holds the series together, while showing the individual personalities through their surroundings.
  3. Foolishly, I forgot to ask during our conversations, what the names of the subjects are, and only know that No 1 is called Molly and is a member of the Gardening Society. I have learned quite a bit about each of the subjects, who have all been trying to keep their patch of land under control while dealing with various family crises, and they all said they loved coming there as it was a little haven from their caring responsibilities.
  4. I learned that people are often willing to have their photo taken if one engages them in conversation first, and they are talking about something they love.
  5. For something like this, one often does not have a great deal of control over what is in the image, particularly if, like me, one is trying to be quick in order to keep the subject’s attention. I only took two shots for each subject, and I see now that one could do more with the composition to improve the setting, such as arranging the shot to exclude fence posts, cars, etc.

With these thoughts in mind, I re-edited the images to make them as similar as possible, and these are shown below.

I had been putting off this exercise because of my disinclination to engage strangers in conversation, but it was worth doing, both as an interesting way to meet new people, but also from a purely technical point of view. Typological photography is harder than it looks and requires considerable pre-planning if one wants to achieve the correct results.