Category Archives: Part 3

exercise 3.2 – so, what’s so unique about simon, then?

through a glass, beerily

Make a list of some aspects of your personality that make you unique. Start taking a few pictures that could begin to express this. How could you develop this into a body of work?

– IaP Coursebook, p.66

Well first, there’s all the physical stuff that could be used to identify me in a variety of – not particularly promising – situations: my fingerprints, my teeth or my DNA. Then there is my retina, which could be used at some point to get me into secure buildings. All of these could be turned into pictures, but they wouldn’t be very indicative of my personality or my perspective on things, what I think or indeed who I think I am.

My own DNA is a unique mix of my mother’s and my father’s chromosomes; my personality  – despite my mother’s (often exasperated) statement that I was ‘just like my father’ – is a mix of the two of them in much the same way that – when I look at photographs of them, or myself in the mirror – the lower half of my face is my father’s while my eyes, I think, hidden like hers  behind glasses, are my mother’s.

Both the two proceeding paragraphs use the phrase ‘I think’ quite a lot too. I think that’s characteristic of me and my personality. Here are some other ways I might characterise myself:

  • I’m inquisitive. Or nosy. Or not afraid to stare.
  • I’m interested in things
  • I prefer humour to concern.
  • I tend to approach things from the outside, even though in many ways, socially, I’m an insider.
  • I’m fairly introverted but – like many introverts –  I spend a lot of my time performing.
  • I prefer one-to-one meetings where the contradictory aspects of myself are less likely to be exposed
  • I like to put things (and sometimes people) together; I’m good at association.
  • I have traveled quite a lot.
  • I don’t mind eating alone in restaurants.
  • I can draw on a wide range of cultural references.
  • I am (and can be overly) analytical.

And I have read enough about psychology to know that any process of self-analysis can include a lot of transferred hostility. There could be elements of this in my reactions to this course…


I’ll look more closely now at one of those characteristics – ‘I have traveled quite a lot’ – and see where it leads. You may be able to fit others into my argument as you read…

I’m sure I was not the only person who – opening the curtains after waking up from their first night in a room on the north-west corner of the Hotel Rossiya in Moscow – thought ‘Wow!’ and took a quick snap of St Basil’s Cathedral. Quite a few of them would then have taken a more considered shot later, having worked out how to open the window (it was a sixties’ building, not a totally sealed and air-conditioned box) and got a desktop tripod out of their luggage to take a night shot. Lots of them would have gone on to do a matched night/day pair.

 

So there is nothing unique about either of these pictures (in fact they’re a visual cliché, signifying ‘Moscow’ as lazily as the Eiffel Tower does ‘Paris’ or Big Ben ‘London’). The rooms on that side of the hotel offered (past tense because the hotel was demolished more than ten years ago now) a good enough vantage point on Red Square for it to have been hired by people looking for a postcard image or similar. I’m sure there are published professional shots which don’t look too different to mine.

But just as most people would only have taken one, quick shot, even fewer people would have stayed at the Rossiya on a number of occasions and have taken pictures of other views from the windows of other rooms. Like this picture from opposite corner of the building, looking south-east down the river towards one of seven great tower blocks, built in Moscow in the late forties,  by German POWs:

fig. 3

This is still a cliché, but to a much lesser degree. Put it with the other two and it begins to become an – admittedly clichéd – response to a place.

I took (made?) these pictures a long time ago and, while none of them has any pretension to art, they aren’t bad as travelogue. They also are great as an aide-memoire. Looking at the two of St Basil’s, I can remember setting the camera up on the tiny tripod and tripping the timer so there wouldn’t wobble as I pressed the shutter; and I can remember the cold of the outside and the tiny flurries of light snow billowing about outside and the great window held back by the curtain. Looking at it, I can almost remember what it felt like to be me, 14 years ago now.

fig.4

Back in the present, I still look out of windows, and I still take pictures of what I see there. Indeed, there have been periods of time (usually when I’ve been travelling) when I have taken a photograph every day, of what I see when I first open the curtains.  Sometimes I’m reflected back at myself, either partially or clearly as if in a mirror. The repetition can be traced back to people whose work I have come across and liked, like Nigel Shafran; embracing the reflections in the windows I look through (and not cursing, and trying to eradicate them by varying the angle or using a circular polariser) after reading Tod Hido’s  ‘On landscapes, Interiors and the nude’ (aperture, 2014). The space I occupy will leave traces on an image what it is that I’m looking at. In cinematic terms, field and reverse collapse into a single, complex plane.

This pair of window pictures have repeating compositional elements: upper left – a rorschach-type blob; a diagonal space running from top left to bottom right; the hard vertical of the reflected banisters in on and the tree’s trunk in the other. And then,  fig. 5 (looking out of Tate Modern) makes me think of of Saul Leiter, reflecting back some of my cultural life; and fig. 6 (from my living room window in Walthamstow) adds the narrative human element of the two men and the child in the street.

I have no idea who they are or what they are talking about, as they stand underneath the nicely lit autumnal tree (the reason I picked up my camera and walked over to the window that afternoon) but they are the why I carried on looking and why I have done something with the picture rather than let it help form another stratum of digital silt on a hard disc in my attic. Not quite a punctum perhaps, but certainly something to  hold my attention, make me wonder and make me think. Hopefully they hold you too, as you try to identify what’s going on.

Three things come together in this sort of photograph: I occupy a space, in time; the point at which I make the picture is determined by the things I am interested in; and then there is an element of randomness, since I cannot control what is going on outside of ‘me’ but can pluck a moment from the chaos that swirls around me.

Physically, I always occupy a piece of three-dimensional space that is mine and – for that instant – mine alone. If I lift my camera to my eye and take a picture of what it is in front of me, I will have a picture that is unique to me and my viewpoint at the moment I took it. Talking about his early-70s work, American Surfaces Stephen Shore has described his process at the time as:

“At random moments, whenever I thought of it, I would take what we would call today a screenshot of my field of vision. What was I looking at? What was the experience of looking, like? And I used that as a reference of how to make a picture, rather than the more conventional language about how a picture is supposed to be constructed.”

https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/45/717 (accessed 29/1/18)

I used this approach for the diary sequences I made during part 3 of Context and Narrative. It is quite easy to maintain this when you have a finite amount of time in a place that is unfamiliar. It is harder to apply it to your everyday surroundings. This is something I am beginning to work with, creating bodies of work from the normal stuff of my life rather than the bits that are in some way exceptional. I have spent a lot of time recently looking back through my archive. The addition of elapsed time helps with this. Ostensibly dull pictures from ten years ago seem fascinating as things change and what is depicted is no more. The pictures taken in London become as distant as those taken somewhere abroad…

Over time, my photographs become a running commentary on where I have found myself, and what I have seen there. They also contain traces of more than fifty years of cultural input. Put together, it all begin to indicate something of who I am.

Any uniqueness of approach cannot be said to come from the individual pictures, rather it only becomes possible when you put those pictures together into sequences of increasing length and complexity. You could compare the pictures to words (we all use the same lingusistic building-blocks in order to communicate, even if some people do still manage to create neologisms) and sequences to sentences. At this larger level there is still scope for originality, for the unique, even when the individual elements have been worn shiny through use. I’ll close this post with eight words, two of which are repetitions, one of which is repeated twice; all of them consist of a single syllable. Any English speaker will use those words every day; the sentence is nonetheless unique, and – providing the bit of the culture it comes from is a thing that we share – immediately identifiable: 

‘…and yes I said yes I will Yes.’ – James Joyce; Ullysses (1923)

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exercise 3.1 – mirrors and windows

‘MIRRORS AND WINDOWS has been organized around Szarkowski’s thesis that such personal visions take one of two forms. In metaphorical terms, the photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.’

– Press Release by the MOMA, announcing the 1978 exhibition Mirrors and Windows


‘Go through your photographic archive and select around ten pictures. Separate them into two piles: one entitled ‘mirrors’ and the other entitled ‘windows’.

  • What did you put in each pile and why?
  • Did you have any difficulties in categorising them?

It would be interesting to see you place the same image in both camps and review your reasons for doing so.’

– IaP Coursebook (p.60)


fig.1 – glasgow, september 12th 1993

Transparent and self-explanatory, this is as close to being a pure record of an event as any photograph I have ever taken. The only caption that needs to be added involves an anchoring ‘where’ and ‘when’. Even though it is a slide, taken with a non-time-stamping camera, it could probably be timed to within fractions of a second. It is also exactly what I set out to take that day – a picture of a building being blown up. Window.

fig.2 – deir el-bahri, egypt; march 2005

This is a picture taken while I was on holiday in Egypt in spring 2005. I had just walked over the hill from the Valley of the Kings. I was using my first non-toy digital camera (a Fujifilm finepix s304, for anyone who is interested in these things) mainly to take details of the friezes in temples and tombs while I saved ‘proper’ photography for film.

You could call it a window to the extent that it clearly describes something present in front of the camera, but at the same time, it entirely lacks an independent, historical context separate from the fact that while I stood in front of a lot of walls in Egypt – this one is in Hatshepsut’s funerary temple on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor – I chose to draw an abstracting rectangle around this bit of this one. My sensibility trumps that of the long-dead Egyptian who made the relief. So, a mirror.

fig.3 – kibble palace, glasgow 2003

While this is definitely a window (albeit a very dirty one). It was taken just before the Kibble Palace –  a Victorian glasshouse in the Botanic Gardens – was closed for renovation at the end of 2003 and was taken very much as a ‘before’ picture. Three and a bit years later it had been taken to pieces, cleaned up and reassembled again and I took this…

fig.4 – kibble palace, glasgow; august 2006

…which I choose to view as a mirror, as it’s not really about the reality of the reconstructed Kibble Palace so much as it is about abstract qualities of its design – symmetry, geometry, structure – and the blue of the sky. And everything about its composition draws attention to a notional me, head craned back, underneath the central circle, camera pressed to my face.

fig.5 – byres road, glasgow; 2006

This is straightforward street photography, a window recording a scene which took place in front of me. It is about the policeman and the expression on the man in the green fez looking out at me and about the old couple looking in through the back of the back of the bus stop. It is also about Jim Carrey  on the film poster sprinting out into the traffic.

If it had been a different advert there – one which didn’t shout FUN in big red letters, behind the seated man’s Keaton-esque blank expression – I probably wouldn’t have taken the picture. I have no idea what’s going on, but I think it is amusing somehow. Also as time moves on and things change – Antipasti, the restaurant on the corner across the road has had at least two incarnations since then for example – there are things there you never would have noticed when it was taken which are interesting now. It’s a window – I’m outside the event, looking in.

fig.6 – candice at paragominas airport; april 2008

In the same way that fig.5 handily labels itself as a bus stop, this tells you exactly where Candice (a colleague from work) and I were when I took this picture. And again it is somehow comic in effect. However, this picture is much more two-dimensional than fig.5. – indeed there is little or no sense of depth to it whatsoever. It is full of rectangles which are parallel to the plane of the digital camera’s sensor. I have no idea what Candice is looking up at (it’s an airport, so it could be a plane overhead, but I think there is a veranda roof above her; I have no idea where the complex ramp that makes its way up from the kerb in the foreground to where Candice sits leads; but it is a series of zigs and of zags. It is more important that Candice’s top and rucksack fit into the narrow spectrum of reddish browns in the picture and that her trousers are the same shade as the field behind the white letters of the sign than that it is Candice, at Paragominas.

It could be a window, but really it’s also a mirror; I’m taking a picture of an idea that is forming in my head rather than of something that is happening in front of me.

fig.7 – pristina, june 2006

This picture is also quite abstract, and contains a lot of lines and geometrical shapes placed deliberately within the frame, as well as depicting a contrast between old and falling apart and modern and shiny. However, that’s not really why I took it.

Apart from the unfinished Orthodox cathedral – ‘a provocation’, a Kosovan colleague called it – in the centre of town, this was the only physical evidence I ever found that some people in Pristina had spoken Serbo-Croat rather than Albanian. The next time I was in Pristina a couple of years later, the sign had gone just as the restaurant’s owners had before my first visit.

It is about the place; it is about history. It is not judgmental. It is not about what I think of the situation. It is a window.

fig.8 – kyiv, december 2006

And this is a whole set of windows, acting as a single great mirror. At the time, I took this, I had no idea that a man called Lee Friedlander existed, so it isn’t a conscious homage, just an attempt to capture the three – or is it four? – shapka and greatcoat-clad me’s standing outside the museum with my  back to the River Dniepr. Friedlander is characterised in Szarkowski’s book as a creator of windows, but I think this has to be put down as a mirror. It is completely an attempt to place me in a place, taking a picture, rather than to describe the place itself.

(It’s a marvellous museum by the way – really quite un-triumphalist, or at any rate as un-triumphalist as any museum with a 300+ foot tall titanium statue of a fierce woman holding a sword and shield on top of it could be.  If you get the chance, visit!)

fig.9 – chisinau, moldova; may 2009

With this picture – and the one that follows it – the intention is entirely abstract; they are about colour and shapes and how the frame is divided into subsections. I could probably go through my archive and pull out enough pictures that could be titled ‘Eating out, abroad, alone’ to make a reasonably large book I had to look at the metadata I had added to fig.9 before I could work out which country I was in, but having done so, I think I know which cafe I was eating in when I looked up and decided to fill the time by solving the problem of how to picture the awning above me…

fig.10 – moscow; december 2009

…but in this one, I know exactly – down to the seat I was sitting on – where I was (which probably makes it less successful as an abstraction than fig.9) when I took it. That place – a restaurant just off the Arbat where I was probably waiting for a plate of plov spiked with quince and lamb – sparks off a whole stream of associated memories for me to do with people and place and moments in time and tastes, but almost certainly none of them are available for you to decode from the picture itself. However, I am inside the situation that both pictures have grown out of. They are both mirrors.


So, that’s six mirrors and four windows. But they don’t necessarily need to stay that way. For example, I have classed fig.2 (the Egyptian frieze) as a mirror, but if it was used as an illustration in a book about Hatshepsut’s temple (‘Frieze, Deir el Bakir, birds and lotus motif [detail]’, say) rather than as part of my ongoing travelogue it would become a window in a trice. Candice at Paragominas Airport does indeed show Candice at Paragominas airport; the fact I see it about flatness and geometry doesn’t mean anyone else needs to; I’m sure Candice wouldn’t. As I’ve already said, Lee Friedlander is placed amongst the windows by Szarkowski, despite the astonishing level of subjectivity screaming out from every frame. And Bruce Davidson – who I have always thought of as someone working within the tradition of straight reportage has his pictures placed amongst the mirrors.

I think that the pictures used in this post establish the extremes of my own particular Mirror-Window spectrum. At the window end, fig.1 is pretty obviously what it appears to be while at the other, fig.9 is nothing more than a composition in red and white. Most of my pictures fall somewhere in between. There is danger in expecting that my own, internal thoughts about the content and meaning of my pictures will necessarily be readable by others without extensive captioning or other ways of establishing an ‘authorised’ context for them.

 


Before the exercise brief, the coursebook says that ‘we’ll define these terms [Mirrors and Windows] from the point of view of the photographer. That is, if the photographer is an insider, we’ll frame it as a mirror; if they’re outside looking in, we’ll frame it as a window.’ and I’m not sure how well that really works for me. Rather, I suspect that – at the same time I raise a camera to my eye – I am stepping outside of the situation; however I don’t think this renders every picture I take a simple window, showing something that is in front of me and to which I have no connection.

Fortunately, the introduction goes on to say: ‘You may wish to challenge these notions in your responses to exercises and assignments That’s fine, so long as you use effective strategies and critical analysis to back up your point and give reasons for your methods and intentions.’ So, that is what I have tried to do.

The more time I have to make a picture the less likely it is to simply present a straightforward depiction of what my camera is pointed at. I was on my own when I took eight of the ten pictures in this post. In six of those, I was able to determine exactly when I was ready to take the picture; I was able to play about and experiment; in the other two, i had to act before my subject dissolved and the picture was gone forever. It is those two that I have placed most obviously at the window end of the spectrum, but two of the others (fig.1 and fig.3) I would class as windows as well.

The final two pictures (fig.6 and fig.8) were taken when I was with other people, but I have classified both as mirrors. All the tests I have done, suggest that I am really quite introverted; where extroverts charge themselves through being with others, introverts a drained by being in company. I suspect I use the practice of photography as an excuse to withdraw into myself for a bit.

Another factor would be the extent to which I am comfortable in my surroundings. The two pictures from the Kibble Palace are of somewhere i know very well – I have been taking pictures in there since 1983 and know not only what it looks like to the eye, but also what it looks like photographed (to paraphrase Gary Winogrand). It is possible that as a subject for me it has grown stale. Similarly, most of the pictures from work trips were taken during a second or later visit – I had got the initial, purely descriptive pictures and views out of the way and was finding out what I could spot in a situation. And when I took the Pristina picture on my first visit, I was doing something that I was comfortable with – exploring somewhere on my own with a camera. The place may not have been familiar, but my approach to it was.


The photographs used in this post were all taken between 1993 and 2009 with a variety of cameras in a number of locations.  A couple of them can be found on my corner of flickr; but until now, most have never seen the light of day. I think they are representative of the sort of pictures I was taking before I started the OCA photography degree. I had come across Walker Evans by the time I took (made?) the later pictures, but generally they can be considered as naive, vernacular art.

If presented with the same subjects today, I would probably still take most of them, but I would do so from a position of greater knowingness. The context of their making would have changed and they would all take a step or two closer to being mirrors. So perhaps, in this sense you could map them onto ideas of being an insider or an outsider; now I am more inside photography and the context it provides. I am preparing to identify myself as a photographer, instead of someone just taking photographs…