Exercise 3.10 A Formal Portrait

Before attempting to create a formal portrait this exercise asked us to consider the work of Thomas Struth and Rineke Djkstra. Struth’s family portraits look quite objective to the point where they appear almost artless – perhaps they look like a family snap from a photo album. But of course this overlooks how he made the image. The stillness and relaxed concentration the sitters exhibit is due the lengthy exposure his shots required. Their objectivity being underlined by the lack of ‘creative’ postproduction, while the distance he sets his camera away from the group stops any psychological insight into the condition of his subjects – this conventionally, being one of the objectives of conventional portraiture.


Kyoko and Tomoharu Murakami, Tokyo 1991 1991 by Thomas Struth born 1954

Thomas Struth: Kyoko and Tomoharu Murakami, Tokyo 1991


A similar objective stance is found in Rineke Djkstra’s work. Her photo series of mothers with their newly born babies is amazingly striking. Here we enter an intimate realm that few people get to observe. The straightforward approach to her subject matter removes any of the romantic ‘babble’ amount motherhood and presents it as it really is.


Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29 1994 1994 by Rineke Dijkstra born 1959

Rineke Djkstra: Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29 1994


With this in mind it was interesting to read that women generally liked the work for it’s depiction of the reality of early parenthood while many men didn’t like to see women presented this way.

In other series Djkstra has made portraits of children and adolescents. She prefers them to adults as they present themselves as they are and not as they want others to see them. I guess, as we get older we start to react to the presence of a camera (I for example, always pull my stomach in!) and try to control the image we present. In photographing young people she is able to capture the guileless innocence of youth but often tinged with the self-consciousness of the teenager.



Rineke Dijkstra: Beach Series



Thomas Struth


Rineke Djkstra




For my formal portrait exercise I chose my partner, who has appeared elsewhere in this blog. The student notes suggests using the location of ‘the significant place’ in Ex 3.9 and incorporating the ‘significant object’ from Ex 3.7. So, we returned to Shingle Street and took binoculars with us – which is what we’d do anyway!

I fully understood what Djkstra was getting at when she made the comparison between adults and young people. My partner poses for me, even unconsciously I think, her behaviour and demeanour subtly changing in the presence of the camera. I took dozens of shots in this session and tried to catch her ‘off guard’. A few of photos do achieve this and she is seems as herself, more relaxed and less self conscious. The technique I adopted was to be conversational. Although I was giving some directions of where to stand, which way to look etc., we also had an on-going conversation about a pair of Kestrels that were hunting over a nearby stubble field. Of the many shots I took I narrowed my selection to 4 but really couldn’t decide which one to chose. Several days have passed since the shoot and each day I looked back the 4. Having lived with the selection I can now make a decision. Some might suggest it’s not exactly ‘formal’ as per the brief but them walking along a flood wall in coastal Suffolk while out birding isn’t a formal occasion. However what image does convey is the spirit of Jude on that day and in this ‘significant place’.




Non OCA work: Gregory Crewdson ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ at the Photographers’ Gallery

I had a vague memory of seeing Crewdson on TV some years ago directing one his photos with a crew and lighting set up akin to a cinema production. At the time it didn’t really fall within the framework of what I would have called ‘photography’ and I felt somewhat indifferent towards it. Fast forward a few years and now I have a more open mind to such things. When I started this FiP course I still held this fairly narrow view but understood that my mind was in for a good stretching and that previously held positions might soon feel untenable.

The Cathedral of the Pines exhibition occupies three floors of the Photographers’ Gallery. His photos are very large and are not crowed next to each other on the walls, each has space to ‘breath’. Emerging from the lift on the fifth floor the first thing that struck me was the image quality. They are painterly, in the sense that composition and lighting has been meticulously worked out: a studio sensibility brought into the outdoors as well as domestic interiors. It’s also reasonable to assume Crewdson is using high quality camera.


The image quality is outstanding with lighting Rembrandt would have been proud of! (Gregory Crewdson: Woman at a Sink)

But enough of the ‘techie’ stuff, what of the images? Well to call them ‘staged’ feels like an understatement! Just with his attention to technical details he is again meticulous with the use of props and actors. Known for his cinematic approach calling the people who appear in his images ‘models’ doesn’t feel right. My knowledge of cinema is relatively thin bit it’s clear that he is influenced by it or perhaps, my appropriate for the current age, quality TV. The images in Cathedral of the Pines look like they could be stills from an HBO drama set in some small rural town in the USA where everyone knows everyone and they’ve all got ‘dirt’ on each other. There is also a further influence at work: men and half naked women sitting around flooded, disused and rusted quarry workings are suggestive of European landscape painting. Needless to say none of the images are not happy ones.

In the video Crewdson had made to accompany the exhibition we learn that experiences from his youth have informed the series and he tells us they raise questions rather than give answers. I discovered the video on Youtube after seeing the exhibition and felt pleased about this comment. That’s because as I went around the exhibition I found myself ‘people watching’. Looking into each image I tried to piece together what was going on in the lives of those depicted. The staging and the facial expressions all leaded me to conclude these folk were leading a miserable existence. With some imagination it wasn’t too much of a leap to conceive that loveless relationships, domestic abuse, even child abuse, and misogyny were taking place. In some images I was left wondering if the victims of these were planning to take things into their own hands to resolve their torments: the young women in the barn has to hand a fiendishly sharp looking saw, lengths of chain while some of the floorboards have been taken up. Throughout the images all the vehicles are old and people watch VHS tapes, which makes me think the series may have a sense of place and time about them. The same landscape painting can be found on the walls of at least two different dwellings. Moreover dead birds, chains, windfall apples, open doors when it snowy and icy outside all point to a thorough use of symbolism across the series.

But did I like it? Although the series is rather perturbing with its ever-present misery and depression I have become rather intrigued by it. It certainly raises lots of questions, even those beyond the obvious – for example, I’m OK with all the nakedness but why do these folk chose to go outside on cold winter’s day in bare feet? Writing this a few days after my visit to the gallery I’m still puzzling over it and feel more and drawn to the series – I’d certainly go and see it again if I got the chance. Staged photography was certainly not my ‘thing’ a few months ago but looking at the work of Crewdson and, earlier in FiP, Tom Hunter I am developing a greater understanding of it. I don’t know if it will ever become part of my own photographic vocabulary but with greater exposure to staged photography has come a greater acceptance and a deepening respect for it .





Some Non OCA Research: Donald Weber

I subscribe to BJP and each month as read through the articles and look at the photos something will always make me stop and think. This month (BJP no. 7862 August 2017) so far (I haven’t read it all yet!) it’s a short interview with Donald Weber. In a few short answers I became intrigued about this guy. He was saying stuff that caught my attention but curiously none of his work was included in the interview. Does that matter? If it turned out that I was turned off by his work how then would I relate to his words?

Amongst the comments he made that appealed to me were:

  • Trust yourself. Allow yourself to open up and view the world as you see it. Experiment, don’t get caught up in photographic decorum


  • Let your curiosity get the better of you


  • Photographic practice is more about collaboration with others than the singularity of the ‘heroic artist’


  • Photography is a completely subjective experience.


Even though I’m still learning and by that I’m willing to try new approaches and techniques, I’m still developing my own vision. It is something I feel strongly about and so Weber’s comments have strong resonance for me.

I then went on to look at his work. Interested in Russian and Ukrainian life since he was a boy he has visited many times as a photographer. His series on Ukrainian police interrogation was just jaw-dropping. These images (at least the ones I’ve seen) were not voyeuristic, nor patronizing or sensationalistic, but demonstrated great empathy towards those being interrogated. It was also interesting to read his thoughts on the police, recognising that they were only doing what they were trained to do, so criticism is directed to the State and the power within bureaucracy.

Some References

An interview with Weber where he talks about his early influences to be come a photographer


Book review of Weber’s Interrogations


Part 3 Picture Analysis: Sophie Calle

My initial reaction to Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne was somewhat sceptical. Her work is several steps removed from ‘street photography’ where individuals might be captured in a single shot. The idea of following people and taking photos of them in itself seems a bit odd but then to go to the lengths of flying to another country and city and pursuing an individual seemed weird.

It raised ethical issues in my head linked to surveillance and the privacy of the individual. The Human Rights Act would forbid the state from conducting similar acts without good reason, for example national security, so why should it be OK for an artist to do it? Learning from the course materials that Calle’s own life is open to public scrutiny didn’t really help with my concerns. Calle choses to make her life an open book but the people she followed don’t have any control over what she exhibits.

From this I took to the Internet to discover more about Calle’s work. The course materials suggest that as a conceptual artist who uses photography as a key mode of expression she is less concerned with aesthetics. While I’ve not see the whole of Suite Venitienne I did find the comment puzzling. The websites I visited have exercised curatorial control over the images they chose to display but images I came across from Suite Venitienne have a strong aesthetic quality to them – perhaps I’m not understanding the concept of aesthetics?

Three images from Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne




Upon closer examination of Suite Venitienne it becomes clear that Calle displayed her work akin to that of professional surveillance. In fact in other works she has reversed the role and hired a private detective to follow her. Images are placed alongside text that documents her attempts to track down her subject. Written as though part of a case file of a private detective, they describe her time in Venice. I must admit I found the juxtaposition of images and text quite appealing. It has a playful, perhaps role playing sensibility to it – here Calle get to play out a fantasty role of a private eye. Some of the grainy monochrome and unconventional compositions at times seem filmic as though stills from 1960’s French cinema vertiae, while others looked like the work of Henri Cartier Bresson. Overall, while reservations about the ethics of her approach still trouble me I have to some extent been seduced,  won over, by the presentation of the work.

The course materials at this point pose a couple of questions. One concerns an adventure that would place me in a different subjective position photographically. I puzzled over this for a while before the penny dropped for me. Hadn’t I already done this in my re-working of Exercise 3.4 Documenting Change? Seated on a train with my little ‘point and shoot’ camera I took a range of images very different from what I’m accustomed too. I did like this experiment and felt a sense of freedom doing it: being free from having to produce considered, crisp, focussed images. I was giving up some of the control of the image making, allowing movement of the train, for example, to influence the outcome of the image. Another experimental approach was used for Exercise 3.5 Photographs from Text and I feel my appetite for pushing the boundaries of my usual ‘vanilla’ approach is growing.

The final question is about taking a job that would give me access to a kind of subject that would be new to me. This is trickier. I already have a full time job and it’s one that at present is not conducive to photography – I’m working on it but it’s a slow burn! Taking another ‘job’, however, would limit my free time and impact on my ability to complete my OCA work. In the recent past I have explored being a voluntary photographer but out here in rural Suffolk the opportunities are fairly scare.


David Campany ‘Art and Photography’ abridged and revised edition 2012 (Phaidon)





Feedback to Jan Fairburn on her Facebook posting

Jan’s post on the OCA Photography FB page read:

Hi everyone. I am back to working on my photography course and my assignment was to create a photostory of 10 images from my local community. I had to show myself as an observer-participant and my impact within this community. I chose work…mainly as I am so sad I don’t do much else and why would I want to go outside and mix with the real world? Anyway…I digress….I have chosen these final 10 images which are based in and around school showing the frustrations/difficulties faced by some of the students with individual educational needs, some are more obvious whilst others are metaphorical with lots of semiotics. Hopefully I have also demonstrated how we also help these frustrations to be overcome and have hidden myself in there too….. Before I submit them to my tutor for feedback I have to write my own summary of how successful I think they have been. I have friends both inside and outside of the educational system and it would be really interesting to see if what I read into them can be read by others…and based on a previous exercise I am not going to give any captions or explanations …so if you love me and want to treat me on my birthday give these a once over and comment on what you see. “they look good” or “they look shit” may be true but not the question I’m asking xxxxxx Ta in advance xxx

Jan’s photos on FB can be found here:


My response feedback posted on FB:

Jan, firstly I must say I liked your photographs as a series and they are technically well executed. It is interesting how you have chosen to exclude members of the community in a project that is about the community and your role within it. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that and I imagine you’d have all sorts of bureaucratic obstacles to overcome to include the school children in the series.

The dichotomy between the frustrations and the attempts to address them is captured in the 10 images. I’m not sure how you see the balance in this but for me, and I am someone with a particular mistrust/dislike of institutions – so I have a bias – is that the balance tips more towards the frustration.

I am curious about your use of triptychs and diptychs is the series. For me they seem to disrupt the narrative flow – although I did particularly like the door sign image. I’m currently on the Foundation in Photography course and hence I’ve still got a lot to learn. You may have a good reason for the inclusion of this device and I’d be interested to hear your reasoning behind it.

Lastly, I spotted you twice! Was it deliberate act to ‘hide’ your self in some of the photographs or a happy accident? I appreciate the brief was that you had to include yourself but you are quite well hidden. Perhaps the most difficult question of all, by including yourself in this way are you part of the frustration or the attempts to address it?

Thanks for giving the FB group the opportunity to provide feedback. I hope what I’ve written makes sense and is helpful and constructive. You’ve produced a strong set of images and good luck with the assignment.

Jan’s Blog entry:


Opinions Please: Allan O’Neil’s request on Facebook

Using an OCA Students’ Facebook page Allan has requested some opinions on this photograph from ‘new and emerging’ photographer Marta Soul. I have not researched the photographer or looked at any other responses Allan’s request may have generated but here is my response to his request.


Firstly, the location. It looks like a garden. There is lawn, there are shrubs and other plants and a rectangular pond. From the shortness of the shadows I guess the location is well south of the UK. The male figure is reading a Spanish newspaper and from the intensity of the light perhaps this is southern Spain in high summer.

The image seems to speak about the superficiality of differences. We have two figures separated in so many different ways: gender; age; seated-standing; relaxed-active. There are further differences: in colour he is predominantly beige while she is vibrant with pink, white and orange; he choses to sit in a chair while she has a blanket on the lawn. They drink differently too: him from glass with an ice bucket by his side while she drinks from the neck of a plastic bottle.

Yet despite all of these differences it is the drinking that unites them. At a fundamental level all humans need water and access to the systems and infrastructure that provides it in modern industrialised society. Perhaps this image is a commentary on what we have in common rather than differences that polarize us.

Take Half a Loaf of Bread…

Cheap white sliced will do. Tear each slice into several pieces and find a place where the gulls hang out. Scatter the bread on to the ground, not all of it at once mind. A lose handful first will alert the gulls to what is happening. You’ll soon hear the distinctive cry of a Herring Gull or two announcing to the whole beach what you are up to. Within few moments you’ll be surrounded by gulls; the smaller ones, the Black-headed Gulls will be down first. The Herring Gulls being larger and less agile are more cautious, especially when someone stands close by with a camera!

Encouraged by my tutor to keep at this I’ve taken the ‘Stillness and Movement’ exercise in Part One a few steps further. The basic premise is to capture the movement of the gulls in flight. Simple as that but quite counter intuitive to the bird photography I have been absorbing all my life. And it’s actually quite liberating. Two broad themes I’m drawn to at the moment are those when the movement blurs the bird so much that it’s hard to tell what it actually is, the photography becoming quite abstract. The other type I like is the opposite where the wings are blurred but the head and body look are still.

The technical stuff; well, since the exercise in Part One I’ve gone hand-held but I’m not certain this is wholly correct. At some point I’ll revisit using the tripod. Shutter speeds are still slow – on brighter days this means the ISO is low and f stop can go as high as f22. Postproduction figures quite highly in the final images; with grain, B&W conversation for some and cropping being the most obvious. Earlier images had quite course grain effect added but I’m drifting to a subtler look. I do wonder what results I would get with a longer lens. At present my maximum is 120mm and my close proximity to the gulls is keeping away the larger species.

I once read a piece on street photography that said expect to take many hundreds of photos to get one good one. Gulls photography is just the same…