Assignment 3: A Staged Photograph

I feel an explanation is required. Due to circumstances beyond my control I’ve not been able to complete this assignment as per the course notes. It hasn’t been possible to make a link between this assignment and the earlier Part 3 exercise. Realising this was going to happen, for several days I’d been mulling over how I was to complete the assignment. Staged photography is not the kind of work that comes instinctively to me and it felt like an impossible task. I suppose it’s all about the drive and the urge to create and if that isn’t present then what may follow is forced and thus lacks sincerity.

A few days ago I took trip down to London and visited a few galleries. Now this turned out to be an amazing coincidence as one of those was the Gregory Crewdson ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery. (I’ve written about the exhibition elsewhere on this blog: click on the Non OCA Work tab). Another was the National Gallery, which we cut short as it was ‘rammed’ with visitors. Nonetheless, a slight break in the clouds of Italian teenagers allowed me chance upon this:

The Cognicenti

I turned to my partner and said ‘Look, it’s just like our study!’ I was curious enough to record the event and take these pictures.

Picture Lable

This simple act combined with the Crewdson exhibition had clearly planted a seed that a few days later started to germinate. OK, I wouldn’t be able to fulfill the assignment as per the book but the assignment also requires a comment or two on the development of my photography at this point in the course. And there I found the solution to this assignment…


Cognitive Dissonance with Lucida


Firstly, it’s a self-portrait and it’s a parody. It’s not meant to demonstrate or suggest that cognitive dissonance is occurring. Rather it picks up and plays with the word cogniscenti. Here I am struggling to get my head around Roland Barthes’ ‘Camera Lucida’ and I’m guessing I’m not the only one ever to have found it a steep learning curve.

I’m sitting in our study with its pictures on the walls and various objects that create echoes of painting by the unknown Flemish artist. The room was prepared for the shoot and this did include using a duster and a vacuum cleaner! The cognoscenti in seventeen-century Antwerp had paintings but I’ve got photographs. They pour over books and so do I: 2 dictionaries and various photography textbooks, all of which were required in my cognitive struggle with Lucida. In recognition that this is Assignment 3 I’ve also included photos from some of the Part 3 exercises and my ‘significant object’. I’ve even placed a suggestion that all of this has driven me to drink!

Technique-wise I had to use a wide angle as the room is small. And I used a softbox to illuminate the shot. Relying on natural light would have left too much darkness in the corners creating a mood that is absent from the original painting.

Lighting & Camera

Even so I had to open the wardrobe doors to get the lighting and camera configuration I wanted. My approach turned out to be quite meticulous. Lots of test shots were taken and examined just to get the props in the right place. For example: the OCA workbook was placed on the printer to break up the large expanse of black in the bottom right-hand corner of the image.

This might not have taken me to the extremes adopted by Crewdson but I did enjoy the directorial role staged photography creates. On reflection, I feel my image owes more to Tom Hunter whose work I researched earlier in FiP. It’s possible to see the influence of early European landscape painting in Crewdson’s work but Hunter actually mimics or recreates works of the great masters of European painting. My attempt at staged photography inverts the Flemish original and renders a parody of the mature student of photography’s attempt to understand one of the key text of the subject.


My FiP the journey so far…

I am so pleased to have signed up for this course. It has opened my eyes to what I could achieve with a camera. For example, while I don’t know if staged photography will ever become part of my work I’ve had a go and enjoyed it. When I signed up for this course I could not have seen myself creating such work. Technically I’ve improved too, both behind the camera and particularly so in postproduction. The exercises have taken me into areas I wouldn’t have generally gone and so given me the opportunity to expand my photographic repertoire.

Looking at the work of other photographers has been an interesting aspect of the FiP. One of my original hopes for the course to was broaden my understanding of photography as an art form and the opportunity to research the work of others has certainly facilitated this wish. Moreover, studying the work of others helped in my own artistic understanding and practice.

Another aim I identified upon enrolment was to develop my own artistic voice with the aid of FiP and I feel strongly that is occurring. It is important to me that in addition to my OCA studies I follow a path of my own. While I have varied photographic interests one aspect that I feel is developing well is that of my relationship with the natural world. Although this feels a little ad hoc at present, it is coalescing somewhere around the intersection between the natural world and the human one. One other thing I have learnt is the importance of research in one’s own work. This came as quite a surprise to me at the time but makes so much sense now.




Assignment 2 Painting With Light

To achieve these images the camera was mounted on a tripod with shutter left open for a lengthy exposure in the dark. Again, my partner was to be my model for this set of photographs and I thought her magenta fleece top would be a striking colour that would unify the series – a nod to Martin Parr and his use of red in his photobook Last Resort perhaps? The torch I used was a modern LED cycle light that proved to be too bright! To lessen its illumination I had to cover the homemade snood with piece of card with small hole in it.

After a couple of test shots it dawned upon me that I didn’t have to stand behind the camera waving the torch around. As such I varied the direction from which the light was coming, even moving around mid-shot to light the subject from more than one angle. This was easy as the exposures were between 15 and 30 seconds in length. One byproduct of this was that some shots had streaks of light recorded on them. This was due to light creeping out sideways from my crude improvised snood. While this struck me as a ‘happy accident’ the effect on some shots was too bold and distracting. In the final 7 images only one has this streaking effect.

Postproduction of the final sequence was low. As the series was conceived with colour in mind producing them in monochrome wasn’t seriously considered. The colours and exposures were consistence across the images and so didn’t need any adjustment. Generally, I darkened the backgrounds on some of them to emphasise the subject and I used the spot healing tool to remove the spots of light from LEDs on a telephone and audio equipment in the room.

In preparation for the exhibition aspect of this assignment the 7 photographs were printed out on 13 x 18cm photo paper.

Next, the FiP materials ask us to look at how a couple of artists hang their work in a gallery setting. ‘My Vows’ by Annette Messager is an impressive cluster of individual photos hung tightly together, suspended on strings, to form a singular work. The work speaks about identity, age, sexuality and the social construction of gender. Other works by Messager include grid like placing of framed photos on a gallery wall.

Mesager my vows

Annette Messager ‘My Vows’


In common with Messager, Wolfgang Tillmans also steps away from the convention of a linear display on a gallery wall. Sometimes producing quite large pieces that occupy a wall to themselves, he can also display small works in a grid-like structure.

Tillmans 3

Wolfgang Tillmanns Exhibition


What makes the placing of these gallery images ‘work’ however is hard to define – especially when looking at photos of the gallery space on the internet. I suggest it is an aesthetic alchemy where the harmony of colour and form as well as discord and contrast combine with the spaces between images to form an agreeable juxtaposition for the artist. And with this in mind I warmed towards this comment about Tillmans approach on the Andrea Rosen Gallery website

…the pictures all come in three standard sizes; nothing is framed, just scotch-taped or hung on binder clips like banners on the wall…   …the hanging gravitates around a horizon and a virtual grid in which images don’t fill all of the gaps but a sense of balance and rationality is conveyed from the placement.

Quoted from: (viewed 5/3/17)

What I don’t sense is that either Tillmans or Messager are applying any classical approach to displaying their works but rather stepping away from traditional conventions.

Before considering the works of these photographers and prior to giving the ‘exhibition’ much thought I assumed I’d display my images in conventional linear format. Of the seven, three were in ‘portrait’ format and four in ‘landscape’ format. I kind of assumed they would alternate in format starting and ending with a ‘landscape’ rendering a balanced display.

Seeing the gallery settings of Messager and Tillmans immediately made me question my latent feelings towards the presentation of my images. Why I had, notionally at least, considered a linear approach is something strange as I have around my home quite the opposite. The wall straight in front of me has a collection of photographs from over 25 years of overseas birdwatching holidays while the downstairs loo also testifies to a somewhat obsessional interest in birds. I picked up this way of displaying images many years ago after reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

DSC_2358 blog

The wall in front of me

DSC_2359 blog

The downstairs loo!

Having decided on a grid-like approach the question I had to answer was what structure I would I would adopt. To work this out I turned the seven images face down and played around with positioning them until I found one that appealed the most. Each permutation was photographed to record the thought process – see contact sheets. Once I decided on the best arrangement I turned them over and began another process of arrangement of the ‘portrait’ and ‘landscape’ formats to find the most agreeable. The final arrangement, which varied subtlety from final face down version (minor adjustments to the positions of the photos), was ‘blu tacked’ to a wall and photographed.

In the final display the boldest image in terms of colour was placed in the centre. Earlier versions had this image on the periphery but the overall look seemed unbalanced due to the extent of magenta. Once placed in the centre it was mater of arranging the others in a harmonious way were no image image clashed with its neighbour – for example the two full length portraits were kept apart due to their similarity. What I feel I have achieved is a circular rhythm within the display.


Messager: (viewed 5/3/17) (viewed 5/3/17)

Tillmans: (viewed 5/3/17)

The 7 Photographs


The 7 Photographs as an exhibition


DSC_2391 blog

Contact Sheets

Assignment 2 CS

Assignment 1: Response to Feedback

Below is my response to the feedback given to me by my tutor, Jayne Taylor, for my submission of Assignment 1 – The Square Mile

Here is the feedback: fip-a1-feedback

“You’re interested in the management of Minsmere but I felt like a visitor”

I actually wasn’t surprised by this reaction from Jayne. While it wasn’t at the forefront of my consciousness I did want to produce an attractive series of images. I have a close and personal relationship with Minsmere as a location which is different metaphysically from Minsmere the RSPB reserve. As I have a great fondness for the place I think it was instinctive that I would wish to represent it well, perhaps even promoting it at the same time.

The sequence of images 1

Of course! Why didn’t I see it? Even after I named it ‘somewhere to rest’ the penny didn’t drop. Yes, the photograph of the bench needs to be located elsewhere and not at the beginning. Though I haven’t mentioned this in my written account for Assignment 1 the sequence of images represent a journey made through the reserve starting at an access point close to the bench and ending amongst the sand dunes by the sea. This is in keeping with a sense of honesty that can preoccupy my approach to taking photographs. When I was young I was very influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson so, for example, I invariably compose in the viewfinder and feel that cropping is a bit of a cheat. And it is this that has stopped me in the past from fully embracing the postproduction aspects of digital photography. That said the FiP is making me re-evaluate some these long held views and it hasn’t been a struggle to loosen some of them off.

The sequence of images 2

Again, I had tied myself down by insisting that conventional landscape would not be a feature of the sequence. Jayne wasn’t alone in commenting on this as some of the peer feedback I received also made similar remarks.

So, following Jayne’s suggestion I have added to the sequence a view over what is known as ‘the scrape’ and titled it ‘The Destination’. Moreover, I have moved the opening image ‘Somewhere to Rest’ further down in the sequence. I replaced it with ‘Walk Over water’. This quite striking composition of a wooded walkway seems fitting for an open image. It draws the viewer into both the image and the sequence and metaphorically into the reserve itself.

A more critical response to the work of Dan Holdsworth

I had actually said more about Holdsworth in my scan of the ‘mind map’ than I’d formally written in my assignment. A quote from Wikipedia states that Holdsworth’s work is characterised by “…radical abstractions in geography”. And I think it is this that is stopping from me really appreciating his work. Earlier I mentioned my preoccupation with ‘honesty’ in photography and I feel his artifice in representing landscape is troubling for me. I know the lengthy exposures needed at night renders them this way but the artificiality that comes with them plays on the sense of honesty that I look for in this kind of work.

His landscapes however, are less troubling than those night-time images of empty car parks and roads. The stillness and silence is tangible and, like sitting alone in a room I need to have something going on in the background. I’d play some music or put on radio 4 and likewise in Holdsworth’s car park I long to see a discarded kebab wrapper. Otherwise, the sterility in these images looks too sinister for my liking.

Despite what I said above I’ll place one caveat in my critique of his work and that is because I’ve not seem the real images. My only exposure to Holdsworth’s work is through the computer screen and with this comes the limitations of size and tonal range of a compressed file. The image below shows his work in a gallery space and is clear he produces some very large images.


Notwithstanding my earlier comments about abstracted geography and the need for litter to bring some varitas to an otherwise dystopian urban landscape, I do wonder how I would react to seeing the images on a gallery wall. I raise this question because many years ago on a visit to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery I saw their Pre-Raphaelite collection. While I was aware of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood their work had never really ‘caught my eye’; that was until I confronted them in a gallery. The depth and colour and use of light never seem to come across on the printed page and I wonder if something similar could happen upon seeing Holdsworth’s work in an appropriate setting.

Assignment One: Square Mile


What was your initial response to the brief and what ideas did you have for how to complete it?

I have covered this in more detail in a reflective entry in my learning log. To sum up, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve at Minsmere was an obvious Square Mile for me. The FiP materials asks us to consider an urban or natural environment and while mine is a natural one it is a managed wild habitat and not an untouched wilderness. In particular the RSPB promotes the reserve as a visitor attraction in order to raise financial income and promote its work as a conservation pressure group. With this in mind I have explored how MInsmere has been subject to processes that manage the landscape and wildlife habitats against competing and sometimes contradictory pressures of both wildlife and human access.

What have you learned from the two photographers you looked at, plus any other photographers you sought inspiration from? How did they influence your work on this assignment?

With Dan Holdsworth I was impressed by his night-time photography. Free of people and traffic his images have an artificial emptiness to them. The long exposures creating stillness and an ambient mood of stillness.



Dan Holdsworth: California 2014 02


Tom Hunter’s work depicts people living on the fringes of society in East London. These seemingly disenfranchised folk are given legitimacy through Hunter’s work that reflects local stories and issues. He choses to mimic or impersonate the work of great painters from this history of fine art – see below


Tom Hunter: The Way Home



John Everett Millais: Ophleia


I can see how both Holdswoth and Hunter comment on a given location through their work. There is a consistency in their approach that draws together the images found in a series.

Strangely, when I started to take the photographs of my Square Mile my mind kept coming back to the work of Tom Hunter. In his “Life and Death in Hackney” there are some images of water and rich verdant vegetation and these struck a chord with me. In my series there is a photograph of fish that I took on a bit of whim. I wasn’t thinking seriously about the fish image when I took the shot and I didn’t think it would form part of my series. However, while quite different from the work of Hunter it feels like it has echoes of his with the water and intense colours. It passed my ‘facilitation’ test (see Thinking About Assignment 1) quite easily and the more I thought about Hunter’s use of colour the more I was drawn to include it in my final series for the Square Mile.


What was your technical approach to the assignment? And what techniques did you use to make it?

  • DSLR with a 24 to 120mm zoom. By preference I lean more towards shooting with a wide angle
  • Where possible I kept the ISO low but some darker locations required me to go to 400ISO. All shots were handheld and taken on ‘manual’
  • It was very bright sunny day on one of my visits and that sometimes meant shooting contra jour. On balance sunlight presented more advantages than disadvantages. When necessary I bracketed some shots.
  • I was on site fairly early in the morning for two reasons. 1. The light would be better for some shots and 2. There would be fewer people around. I didn’t want to emphasise people in my photographs as I was, in part, trying to address how the facilitation of visitors has influenced the reserve
  • Post production has not been a over complicated. I tended to compose in the viewfinder and so needed little cropping. Some images have had a slight adjustment of their levels. The most ‘produced’ is the image of the fish. This was sharpened; in levels the mid tones were darkened to lessen the glare on the water, both shadows and highlights were subtly tweaked; and the red and green channels of the hue/saturationenhanced a little.


What’s your opinion on how you did? Are you satisfied? Are there any areas you’d like to improve? 

Overall, I would say I am happy with the results. Technically, I don’t think I had any great problems, though some of the images taken in low light have a narrower depth of field than I anticipated. This was the first day out with a new camera and lens and while my preferred wide-angle shots may give a broad DoF it’s clearly not infinite. This is something I need to be mindful about in the future. One of the visits presented me with exceptionally strong, low autumn sunlight. Some photographs were enhanced by this while others suffered. This is another technical aspect that I need to address and find ways of over coming it or working with it to my advantage.

Am I satisfied? On one level yes. This is first time in a long time that I’ve had to actually think about presenting a series of photographs that attempt to represent something. I feel I have conceptualised my Square Mile well and gone on to say something visually about it that reflects my thoughts about it. Beyond that, however, I’m not entirely sure. Last month, when I enrolled on the FiP I said I felt like I’d started a journey but it’s one whose destination isn’t quite yet clear. I felt I lacked the ascetic and artistic vocabulary to express such feelings, to be able to self-critique, and I hope that with feedback from peers and my tutor on this first assignment I’ll be able to start developing these necessary artistic skills.


Square Mile – Contact Sheets





Preparation for Assignment 1

The FiP work book asked us to look at the work of two photographers: Dan Holdsworth and Tom Hunter. My initial reaction to both of them was a little guarded. It was easy to appreciate the technical merit in both and I could see how they used their work to reflect an impression of a given place. However, neither grabbed my attention – I simply didn’t warm to their work. That said these were my initial impressions but they were, in part, due to change later.

Below are some notes I made in my ‘sketch book’ having looked at the works of the two photographers.


Thinking About Assignment 1

I have been giving a lot of thought and attention to the subject matter for my first assignment – Square Mile. I understand the brief but forming a rationale for my approach has been a little tricky. The subject of my Square Mile is going to be the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ reserve at Minsmere. This place is very much a flagship for the RSPB and rightly so for it has a varied range of habitats in a small area and thus had a fantastic variety of wildlife. As a keen birdwatcher living close to Minsmere I spend, and have spent, a huge amount of time here. The relationship I have to it fits the Square Mile brief perfectly.

The difficulty I’ve had is due to the ambivalent relationship I have to the place and thus also to the RSPB. Minsmere is a very popular destination for a lot of people and families. This has increased considerably over the last three years due to the BBC hosting its Springwatch series from the reserve. But my interest in birds and wildlife is not always served when there are lots of people around. Being outdoors and watching birds for me at least does have a restorative effect. A sense of solitude and engagement with the natural world is a balm that soothes the stresses and strains that ever day work and life inflicts. When Minsmere is at its busiest it feels like a high street or shopping mall and not a place to experience the restorative effect of nature.

But I don’t want to produce a range of photographs that emphasise this sometimes negative aspect. The reason why so many people visit is because it is a wonderful place rich in wildlife, which is the reason I like to visit too. It would be cynical, parochial, and hypocritical to criticise the ‘bloody tourists’ when that’s exactly what I am! I don’t want to be seen as grumpy old man, though I may have my moments, I have a richer albeit ambivalent relationship to my RSPB Minsmere. So how do I reflect visually my favoured square mile? I pretty much instantly rejected the idea of producing a series of landscapes. That wouldn’t be what I wanted to say about the place. My relationship with it is more than admiration for any perceived natural beauty. The relationship to wildlife and birds transcends this. Photographing birds is not going to happen either. My visual relationship to birds doesn’t rest easily with conventional bird photography – looking at my experiments of photographing Gulls might help here. It was when reflecting about the role of the RSPB in the popularising Minsmere that my approach to assignment began to take form.

When I was a schoolboy birder about 40 years ago it wasn’t unusual for organisations like the RSPB to keep you out of their reserves. They were for the birds and not the public or even their own fee-paying members for that matter. What access was allowed was highly regulated and restricted. A limited number of permits were issued and these could be obtained by sending an application form through the postal system. Money is the driving force behind this democratisation of access. Greater footfall brings money: spent in the gift shop or the café. With this has come a broadening of the RSPB’s work. Nature conservation is a key function but it has also become part of the local tourism industry. Running Minsmere will involve a careful balance between creating and maintaining bird-friendly habitat and the encouraging and subsequent management of visitors.

So, it is this balance that has informed my photographic approach to the Square Mile. The people who run Minsmere have to ensure that visitors can engage with wildlife without disturbing or disrupting the thing they have come to see. How this balance is facilitated is central to my assignment

Welcome to the your OCA Learning Log!

The OCA logo image

This blog is now structured with the essential categories required for you to post Assignments and Projects in for your learning log entries. It is intended to just help you get started with your OCA Learning log, and you may wish to customise it to suit your particular course.

Although we have provided the essential categories needed for your learning log, you will still need to set up your ‘Main’ menu through the Appearance section of the Dashboard, under the Menus section. Just select the menu you want to edit (Main) and then under the Categories ‘All’ menu, tick each category that you would like to be viewable through your blog’s menus and click the ‘Add to menu’ button. You can then drag and drop each item into hierarchies of menus and sub menus, as below in the ‘Menu Structure’ pane:



When making new posts, you just need to add a tick next to each category that the post relates to. The categories options can be found in the right-hand column whenever you create or edit a post.


You can select more than one category if appropriate; for example,  your first Assignment can be categorised under Assignments, Assignment 1, and Part 1.  Make sure you tag a post with at least one category, or it may not be visible through your blog’s navigation.

To learn how to keep a blog, the WordPress help pages are invaluable as a learning resource:


We would like to thank OCA Photography tutor Robert Enoch for providing this template for OCA students to use to get started with their Learning (b)logs.