Tag Archives: place

Final Thoughts on Identity & Place

So here I am. The third module of the degree finished and sent off for assessment, and it is time to review this module and where I plan to go to next.

Identity & Place has taken me nearly two years to complete, and I really struggled over the early assignments. Portrait photography is not my genre of choice, and I doubt I had taken a single deliberate portrait before I started this unit, which was why I signed up for it. However, once I had grasped the nettle and pulled, I began to enjoy some, if not all, of the potential for learning that I&P offered. As I was packing my images for posting, it is blindingly obvious that my technical and printing skills have improved significantly, although I would argue that there is still a long way to go, particularly with composition and lighting.

I would say I am happier with the quality of assignments 4 and 5 than the previous ones, and have been thinking about why that is. Assignment 4 had no people in it, being an exploration of a derelict building, while in assignment 5 the figure is only shown in silhouette, and so remains faceless, so neither get up close and personal with their subjects.

Two events were pivotal in stimulating a move forward in my work. The first was a bookmaking course I attended at the SW OCA group, and which was led by OCA tutor Polly Harvey. I have felt much more creative since taking that course, and have expanded my work beyond straight vanilla photographs towards something which explores the physical reality and materiality of the image and how it is presented. The second was the result of a chance post on Facebook that I happened to see, and which led to me to the POZERS Camera Club, a local group of women photographers who meet at a member’s studio and explore the potential of studio photography. Many hours of fun and learning have taken place there, and most of my personal favourite images of 2017. I had never previously considered that I might enjoy studio photography, with its connotations of ‘art nude’ (female, of course) and family portraits. However, this group is full of creativity and we are led by Alley, the studio owner, who has a background as a make-up artist and costume designer, and no end of whacky ideas, and I love it. Together these events have enabled me to step away from straight photography and to explore the medium in a more craft-based way.

Alongside the coursework, I have visited a variety of exhibitions ranging from Grayson Perry at the Arnolfini in Bristol to Joel Sternfeld, William Eggleston and Thomas Ruff in London, amongst others. Of particular interest has been those exhibitions such as Perry’s and Jane Corbett’s in Marlborough, which use media other than photography. The overlap of ideas and the potentially different ways in which those ideas can be made into artwork is myriad, and very inspiring.

At the end of the module,  I feel much more comfortable about finding my voice. That voice is almost certainly going to come from exploring the ways in which the image can be manipulated physically and digitally, and how different art forms can be brought together to make objects that have elements of each, and crucially, which are unique, as in one-off. Producing something material that is not easily replicable is the almost inevitable result of mixing photography with bookmaking, sewing, knitting, patchwork etc. and it seems to provide a fairly clear pathway forward for me, especially when womens’ arts and feminism are added to the mix. The other area I would like to explore further is the archive, and how it can be set up to provide a pool of primary research material into which I can dip a toe here and there to consider why we make photographs. So the obvious next module for me to do is Digital Image and Culture, which I will be starting very shortly. The new blog can be found here: https://hollyocadic.wordpress.com/ .

In the meantime, I am involved in two OCA related collaborative projects:-

  • the Thames Valley group exhibition on the theme of Time, which will be shown in February 2019
  • a notebooks project to provide ideas and inspiration with the South West OCA group

I have also contributed to MA student Mathew Arnold’s project Grey Matters and forged some interesting links with local artists through the Marlborough open Studios event. Overall, I am very pleased with how much I have progressed during this module and look forward to seeing where the next one will take me.


Project 1 – reflection point

For this piece of work, we are asked to consider the sentence below, with reference to the work of William Eggleston and Richard Wentworth:

The real location, found objects and characters, combined with technology and the photographer’s eye, come together to create a new world, one balanced loosely between recognition and art.

We are asked to answer the following questions:

  • Where does that leave the photographer? As story teller or history writer?
  • Do you tend towards fact or fiction?
  • How could you blend your approach?
  • Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?

The coursework suggests that, by removing the figure from an image, the viewer is encouraged/forced to make up his/her own story to explain what they are looking at. Hints and clues may be there, but it is the viewer who decides what they mean, not the photographer. The information also looks at William Eggleston’s series Memphis and explains that the lack of figures does not necessarily mean there is no information on the people who inhabit the spaces he photographs. Eggleston uses objects to hint at the people who use them, such as the tricycle shown in the coursework text.

Wentworth’s images of pieces of rubbish wedged into cracks in walls and domestic objects shown in a street context also hint at stories which the viewer must interpret. However, the question I would ask with both photographers is how much input they had into the scene they photograph. Clearly, some of Wentworth’s images are posed, although not all – see below. They utilise very mundane objects and make slightly jokey points about the incongruity of some of the things we see while going about our daily lives.

I am not so sure with Eggleston, although there is a very constructed feel about them. See below.

Both photographers appear to be using observation to collect together a series of images that say something about the place they are photographing and the characters of the people who live there. However, the individual stories are left up to us.

So, returning to the questions we are asked to consider, I would argue that these photographers are a little bit of both story teller and historian, but that these labels don’t really get to the heart of the subject matter. What the images really are is an invitation to think about how the objects got there, who did they belong to, and why, thus making us think outside the frame of the individual image to the place in which it was made. The story teller is really the viewer, not the photographer.

The second question asks whether I by nature tend towards fact or fiction in my photography. I would say probably 70% fact and 30% fiction, thinking about the work I have be making for my various courses. A conceptual element is creeping in nowadays, which probably means a move away from the simply factual. Others might disagree with this assessment though. I do feel that my work is moving away from simple reportage towards trying to visualise ideas, and this is something I intend to continue as the course goes on.

Conversely though, I have a strong aversion to making changes to the environment in which an image was made, in order to “improve” the composition. I prefer to leave things as I found them, and to work with what I see. An example of this is shown below, where nothing was added or taken away (apart from the photographer in the images, of course). The armchair and the panda bear really were exactly as we found them, in the derelict room.


Update on assignment 2, and other stuff

I haven’t posted anything here for a little while and freely admit that gloom and despondency have been the order of the day. After my first four shoots for assignment 2, I am now unsure about whether my idea will work or not. The plan had been to create a space around each of the subjects which reflected their attitude to their role, i.e. detail people would have close-up images and strategists would have plenty of space around them. However, although this works for each person individually, I am not sure that it give coherence to the set as a whole, and I am wondering whether to go back to the drawing board. My preferred images of the four people I have photographed so far are shown below, and I’d love some feedback about what fellow students think.

Additionally, I have been talking to the people at the office about framing some of them and putting them up around the office, so they need to work for that too, and I am not sure about how people would react to some of them. They are not the sort of images most people are used to seeing.

I still plan to photograph another two or possibly three people for the series, but really want to keep a version of image 1 in the set, as this person is an important member of the team. Part of my issue is around going back and asking people if I can photograph them again, although none of them were at all negative about the idea and they all seemed keen to help.

However, despite this hiatus, I have been busy elsewhere. On a more positive note, I had an epiphany with regard to White Balance and went off to my local country park to photograph the autumn trees this weekend. (Until now, I have essentially only been using Auto White Balance). I was much happier with the colour balance in the images I produced, and am glad I have added this to my list of photography skills. Also, while I was standing there taking photographs, I started talking to various people, and one lady kindly allowed me to photograph her little girl, in exchange for a copy of the images. I sent her the images and was delighted, but a little flummoxed, to be asked by her if I was a commercial photographer, as she liked them so much.

Below, I have put a couple of the images I took, including one of the little girl.

My mentor, Stephen Bray, subsequently contacted me about the trees image, which I had posted on Facebook, and suggested that it might be better without the people lurking in the background. I responded saying that I had wondered that, and was considering whether another one might be better, featuring some people more prominently. His response is quoted below in full, and I need to think it over in more detail. I have versions with and without people as well as the one above, and look forward to a fairly detailed appraisal of the messages sent by each version.

My preference would be plain without the people, but that’s just personal taste. Your image might work well in a collection – where the other photographs also show people obscured by nature. That would be enigmatic and cause people to stop and think, because the people’s inclusion would obviously be deliberate.

Finally, I have been spending an inordinate amount of time trying to organise my Lightroom Catalog, Keywords and Collections in a more sensible way, to free up computer space. Last week, doing a search on my Catalog with Awesome Duplicate Photo Finder, I discovered that almost half of my images are duplicates, which might explain why my computer is slowly grinding to a halt. It’s a slow process but should ultimately be worthwhile. As part of this, I have opened a new WordPress.org blog to shadow this one, while I learn how to use it – the processes seem to be very different from WordPress.com. The purpose of this was to allow me to export images directly from Lightroom to WordPress, but so far I haven’t found a way to do it successfully, so the whole thing might have been a waste of time and money. Ho hum!

Exercise 2.3 Same model, different background

I’ve been struggling with this exercise for several days, unable to decide how to go ahead with it, and have now decided I must simply get on with it in order to move on. After all, it is not an assignment. That being the case, I have put together a group of images which show my partner in various situations around the home, along side other images of items that express something about who he is.

I am aware that these do not really fit the remit of the exercise, but feel that the end result gives a similar effect to that of the instructions. Having looked at the work of Harry Callahan, Julian Germain and Kaylynn Deveney (about which I will write separately), I feel that a mixture of artefacts and portraits is a valid way of approaching the remit. However, what is missing is much in the way of information about the place in which my partner lives. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, in his own field he is quite well know and I felt that personal privacy was an issue. Secondly, and more practically, he spends most of his time at home, and therefore any truthful portrait of him should include that fact. I intend to focus on place over person in the next exercise, which I plan to undertake while at the Brighton Biennale this weekend.

There are several ways in which I could take this project forward, unifying objects with images of him going about his daily life and which hint at different aspects of his personality. One which I think has some potential is about his selection of hats for various activities, (he is a great hat lover), but I will save this project for another day.

Overall, I find that I feel uncomfortable taking portraits of my close family. Partly it is because I don’t want to bother them, but also I know so much about them that it is difficult to see the wood for the trees. Also, they tend to be hypercritical about how they look in images, and are not afraid to tell me when they are not happy with the result, while I am more interested in whether the images I take are honest representations. So much easier to work with people I know less well, but I do need to be aware that subjects’ sensitivities need to be borne in mind. (Here, I am thinking in particular of an image I took earlier this year of a heavily overweight colleague running across a car park, and then published on the internet. I can honestly say that the thought that she might find this a problem never occurred to me at the time – I was simply recording a moment which featured her in it. However, in retrospect, I suspect she was horrified at what I had done; no picture she posts of herself refers in any way to her size, and her images are exclusively headshots.)



Assignment 1 – tutor feedback

Noted from feedback this morning. The rest will come by email, to include refs.

Chris liked the way the blog is laid out – clear and accessible. There were a couple of links missing, but I have already sorted those out.

He said he also liked the idea for my assignment, thinking it quirky and using the assignment to look at an idea (flyers at the Festival) rather than simply taking pictures of five unrelated people. H also thought the text added value to the images, providing an explanation and another layer to the story. As a tutor he is much more interested in the context and concept than technical brilliance. We briefly talked about his own work, and how he is interested in injecting some humour into his images. He says his work is as much about the places he photographs, and the process of understanding them. He was complimentary about my research and references too.

We then discussed the significance of the smile in portraits. See my previous post here. I said that I thought the smile was an important part of the mask the subjects were wearing, as they promoted their shows, but that I had a niggly feeling that the smiles gave a snapshot aesthetic, which had not been my intention. We discussed how almost any expression is a mask, and that it is practically impossible to get to the essence of a person. He referred to the deadpan aesthetic, and Thomas Ruff’s influence, which had come from architecture, and tried to remove subjectivity, treating people like buildings. However, as a photographer, one should have control over the shoot and if a mask of any type is used, that is fine as long as it was the intention and can be explained.

We also touched on the photographer/subject/viewer power relationships, and how the photographer has most of the power. I have mentioned this in another post. I said that in the assignment series, I felt that I had most of the power, and we agreed that in a more collaborative portrait sitting, such as the one I have just done for Exercise 2.1 (same ref as above) the sitter has more agency. One should never forget though that the photographer has a lot of power in any portrait, in the setting and selection process.

Chris finished by saying he thought my reflections were good and also my research. The message was carry on, you are doing fine.

Moving on to considerations for assignment 2, he said that this one was more about the place than the person, and what tied the person to the place. He will be sending me a bullet pointed written report, but suggested in the meantime that I look at the following work:

Philip Lorac diCordia – Heads, and The Hustlers

Alec Soth

Joel Sternfeld – Stranger Passing

Bettina von Zwehl

Joel Meyerowitz

Stephen Shore

I like the video tutorial and felt it was very useful to enable us to get to know something about each other. Chris said that he usually did tutorials by phone, but was happy to have a go at video feedback.

Edited to add: Chris was admirably quick at sending me my feedback and it can be found here:tutor-feedback-part-1

Exercise 2.1 – Individual spaces

This exercise asks us to make a portrait each of three different people in a space that is meaningful to them. I decided to make them of my sister-in-law and her two children, who live locally. All of the images were taken at their home.



This is my place and time. It’s when I usually sit and read for a little while with a cup of tea, before I start supper for the family. I can look out of the doors at the garden.




Playing the piano is very calming to me. It separates you from the outside world and you just come and sit down and play. I have been learning for two years now.


Tom (and Tess)


There used to be a big tree here, and I’d swing from the branches. My parents had it chopped down recently without telling me…. I loved that tree.


I arranged with the sitters what would happen a few days in advance, to give them time to think about their meaningful place. Unfortunately, on the day of the shoot, the weather was terrible, and I was unable to get the pictures I wanted of Kate and Tom, Kate because the light was too poor and Tom because he had wanted his picture outside.

These are people I know well, although perhaps I have not had that much direct interaction with the children. Kate was nervous about the process, but Anna and Tom were both quite relaxed about it (maybe a result of the ‘selfie’ craze) and I was able to negotiate to return the following day to complete the shoot.

My first attempt  with Kate  was at the Aga, but the light was very poor, and it was impossible to get a reasonable aperture/shutter speed without putting  up the ISO to a level where it was compromising clarity. Anna’s was easy, as the light was excellent. Tom’s first shoot had the same problems as Kate’s, as we had to shoot inside again. In fact, his original plan was to go for the outside shot, so going back enabled me to produce the image he wanted.


Points to remember:

  1. The weather is very important, as it affects the available light hugely.
  2. I need to spend more time checking the area around the person for items that are extraneous. My original shots of Kate and Anna had to be cropped because I left some of my camera equipment in the frame.
  3. It’s a good idea to take a wireless shutter release, so the subjects don’t know when you are going to make the shot. I engaged them in conversation while I was setting up the camera, and they were reasonably relaxed by the time I took the photograph.
  4. What I think is a good representation of the person might not be their idea. When I suggested that the above image was a good picture of Kate, she responded that it was my “photographer’s prerogative”  to think so, but she did not necessarily agree.

As images, I think they work well and are truthful representations of the people concerned. From the point of view of being a series, I have put them together below for consideration.

The colouring is different in each image, which can be attributed to both the available light and the weather. When seen together, Anna’s portrait appears to advance from the other two, while Kate’s recedes. The lighting is a bit contrasty in Tom’s image, and in retrospect, I should have altered the metering mode to raise the brightness of the shadows.

As a final note, I made  A3 copies of the following portraits and gave them to the family. Both Tom and Anna were pleased with them, and said they felt these were reasonable representations of them. I’m rather surprised to find that I enjoyed this exercise and that I can take a portrait photograph of which I can be reasonably proud.