Category Archives: Contextualisation

Photography Matters

Any short conference that sets out to “…map out areas for discussion in photography’s relationship to the everyday lived experience, visual culture, evolving technology, archiving and history, news media, education at all levels and public perception.” (Joanne, 2016) is setting itself a huge challenge, and inevitably going to be a series of deep dips into various aspects of the medium, and so it was with Photography Matters at CAST, Doncaster on 21 May 2016.

Three of the lectures were from artists who either expressed themselves, or supported their interests through portraiture in some shape or form.  Of these, two  shared the common aim of presenting/re-presenting a community to itself, Les Monaghan’s Desire project (Monaghan, ND) and Keith Roberts’ Hardman Portrait (hardmanportrait, 2016). Both deal with archives – one self generated, the other existing and open to interpretation. There was much to enjoy in both these lectures. However, of the two I felt more affinity with Roberts work, perhaps because it was free of the political polemic I sensed in some of  Monaghan’s lecture and which I have a tendency to bridle against. I’m not sure that filtering out “for their own good” the views of extremists when re-presenting a society to itself is entirely consistent with presenting a community to itself either. I’d happily concede though that it fits with the idea of fairness and not wishing to harm the subjects that Monaghan espoused – and the implication that at least some documentary photography does its subjects a disservice is one I’d wholeheartedly agree with.

By contrast, and perhaps because he is still trying to establish the precise value of the Hardman collection, I felt Roberts’ work to be cooler, more analytical and as a result more personally interesting to me. He also showed a couple of examples of images of the same individual taken several years apart. Discussion following the lecture highlighted that we were using the time gap in some way to inform our reading of the images – perhaps even to create a meaning – which seems a very relevant observation for my work.

I find intelligent comment on Dawn Woolley’s presentation difficult…anything which seeks to provide a “pathology of capitalism” is likely to raise my blood pressure, not least because it effectively sets out by telling you the answer, and then seeks to justify it, which feels entirely upside down to me. This is my failing, rather than hers, and there were aspects of her presentation which struck a chord..such as the use of false personas to sell products through social media. However the basic problem I have with any such analysis is that it starts from the basic premise that we are all unwitting tools of big bad business. It is by no means clear to me that this is either true..or fair…and may well do the subjects of the analysis a dis-service.

The afternoon session consisted of two presentations. The first, from Rachel Smith, (Smith , 2011) examined  the materiality of the photo, which raised a couple of questions for my own personal work:

  • If I write on the surface, am I disrupting its transparency (probably yes) and what impact does that have on the reading?
  • Should I include images of the archive material, or actually incorporate the originals? Does the materiality of the postcards etc enhance or distract from my meaning?

The final lecture of the day, Derek Trillo’s examination of alternative paradigms for architectural photography seemed to have the impact of time as a core theme. While the buildings themselves are essentially chronostatic they depend for their utility on a whole range of time dependent phenomena…people moving in and out, traffic moving past, variations in lighting during the day and night and seasonal variations in their surroundings, goods deliveries and so on. Incorporating these into representations of buildings opened quite a wide ranging discussion, including a brief one on whether this was a limitation of photography and that other media were better suited to such representations.

In running through a number of ways in which buildings can be represented, Trillo mentioned a work by Somekawa (Somekawa, 20112) which involved removing buildings from images and re-assembling them as groups elsewhere. While the latter part of this is interesting intellectually, the first part, cutting things out of the image, offers the thought that I might try that as a way of photographing the absent.


Overall I found this a thought provoking and worthwhile day. Some interesting ‘hooks’ to my own work, a chance to catch up with some old acquaintances and a chance to put a real face on some virtual friends and chat photography at a level it is difficult to do elsewhere.


hardmanportrait (2016) There then: Here now – home. Available at: (Accessed: 22 May 2016).
Joanne (2016) Photography matters. Available at: (Accessed: 22 May 2016).
Monaghan, L, (no date), Les Monaghan: The desire project  Available at: (Accessed: 22 May 2016).
Smith, R. (2011). Rachel Smith. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 22 May 2016].
Somekawa, A. (2012). Hyères 2012. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 22 May 2016].

A touch of Romanticism

Ozymandias and furnace core

Needed to get this one off my chest. One of the feelings I get as I wander around these sites, even the ones which are built over, is “What was it all for?”

This is scarcely original – ruins have been used as a salutary reminder of out short time in the light for a good couple of hundred years, if not more, and the idea of combining this particular bit of romantic poetry with the remains of a blast furnace core is so obvious I need to work it through, if only to prove to myself that I’ve done it and rejected it.

The basic technique however is worth considering. The text colour is similar to an oil paint produced with ore from the Cumbrian iron ore mines, and the supersition onto the original image points , I think, to the absent referent, the iron and steel industry which is no longer there.

After worrying these ideas around in my head for a couple of months, and plenty of research into picturing absence I think I’m beginning to make proper progress.

Terrils – Naoya Hatakeyama

Terrils is an enigmatic book by one of my favourite photographers, Naoya Hatakeyama. The front cover hints at the content – a pool of water which on closer inspection is seen to be frozen, an area of black wasteland between the middle distance and the horizon and an intriguing cone of something on that horizon. It is, perhaps, reminiscent of a desaturated Burtynsky shot of industrial wasteland.

At first site it appears as a mountain, but opening the book reveals that the cone is a “terril” a pile of coal mining slag in the now defunct coal mining area of Nord pas de Calais in France.

They will be visually familiar to many in Britain, black, barren slightly intimidating piles of nothing useful. Reflecting on the sheer effort expended to make these piles can take the breath away. We are firmly in the arena of the industrial sublime in some of these shots. Incongruous contrats abound..slag heaps and sunsets, slag heaps and modern traffic roundabouts, toy pianos and slag. And the book progresses the pictures get a bit greyer and exude a sense of something missing..something passed/past.

The text in the centre of the book provides some narrative explaining how and why Hatakeyama comes to be there, what the terrils mean to him and why he wants to photograph them – which is the potential subject for a later post as it crosses with my interests.

The second half of the book features more of the same scenery, but in winter. Cloaked with a shroud of snow and frost and mist, it is clear that these are things who’s time has gone probably never to be resurrected until suddenly, in the last shot or two, the snow is melting, the grass is breaking through and the sun is catching the roofs of the small town.

“Building on the tiny elements which have survived…we must use our imaginations to extend the memories of others. If we do not do this, a story will be lost and disappear forever.”  Naoya Hatakeyama, Terrils

Hatakeyama, N. (2014). Terrils. France: Light Motiv.

The Work of John Constable in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

W are asked to consider some comments from Kracauer about the potential for objects to become known by their photographic appearance and compare this with Benjamin’s thesis about mechanical reproduction.

In December 2014 I visited an exhibition about John Constable at the V&A which illustrates perfectly my thoughts on these texts.

The Hay Wain is one of Constables most widely known works…you can find reproductions of it in books, as prints to hang on your wall and probably as paint by numbers versions for all I know. A such it is a perfect illustration of Kracauer’s point. I was fully expecting it to be about 18” wide, and was completely taken aback to discover it is at least 6’ wide! My expectations were driven by the reproductions. I doubt I am alone in this …people remark on how small the Mona Lisa or Stonehenge are for much the same reason.

By contrast, I’m not sure that Benjamin’s suggestion about democratisation holds true in that it’s meaning does not appear to have changed much with the advent of reproduction. Why is this? One reason may be that Benjamin’s thesis is most applicable where it is to all intents and purposes impossible to distinguish the original from the copy.

By way of a second illustration, one of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition for me were Constables notebooks, which were as small as the Hay Wain was large. I have to take it on trust that they were the originals, but given that assumption of authenticity they had a power to fascinate that an admitted reproduction would not. None of that aura would have been destroyed by the existence of reproductions.

This supports my view that Benjamin’s thesis is not applicable to artworks in general, and the large queues at blockbuster art exhibitions would seem to support that. The artworks are not  “emancipated from ritual” as he suggests…the ritual has simply changed from having a high priest as the intermediary to having a curator or museum director as the intermediary. No longer do we have to bow down before the image..we have to hand over our credit card. No longer do we take bread and wine…we take souvenirs home with us. Ritual is ritual by any other name.

Even photography has not been as widely affected as Benjamin proposes…people still have an urge to visit Tate Modern or the Taylor Wessing prize exhibition to see the originals…setting aside that we don’t even know what an original is when it comes to a photographic print.

None of this is to say that Benjamin’s ideas were not relevant at the time he wrote then down…he cannot have foreseen blockbuster art shows…and he cannot have foreseen just how all-pervasive and democratic photography would become…indeed it might be possible to argue that it’s sheer commonplace-ness has restored the aura to the originals – at least as far as art goes.

Music makes an interesting counterpoint. A concert, of whatever variety, is one off. The only “authentic experience” is being there. But mechanical reproduction brings it into our living room. One consequence of this has been that people have established favourites…”Nessan Dorma” for example. This has fed back to the producers of “authentic experiences” or concerts as they are more often called, so that now concerts will sometimes consist of edited highlights of full works of art – the aural equivalent of going to see a favourite corner of the Hay Wain. In this instance the wide scale availability of mechanical reproductions has undoubtedly had an impact on the way music is perceived and used.

So, in summary, I’m with Kracauer but think Benjamin’s analysis, in as much as I understand it, is not fully supported by subsequent events.