Grounded Theory – as a method of analysis


My chosen form for these researches is “Practice as Research”. I am recording, studying and deconstructing my own, often intuitive, practices in order to find what are the factors that drive me towards particular subjects, locations and compositions. As I learn about my own practices I am also asking other photographers about how they approach similar situations. How are we different? How are we the same?

My ultimate goal is, by understanding the drivers behind the intuition, I will be able to consciously use and or over-ride my processes and so gain greater control over the meaning and narrative of my images.

This is an Autoethnographic approach. However, typical Autoethnography does not feel totally appropriate or complete for someone who has an engineering and analytical background. Consequently, I have been looking for a method for analysis that uses autoethnography as its source of data but then mixes more analytical tools to reach its conclusions.

I am using a paper by Steven Pace, a Senior Lecturer in digital media in the School of Creative and Performing Arts at Central Queensland University and written for the Creativity issue of “Cognitive, Social and Cultural Perspectives”, in 2012, as my source for the understanding of the different forms of Autoethnography.

The output of Autoethnography has been, typically, “an evocative narrative written in the first-person style such as a short story or novel” it allows artist and others “to reflect critically upon their personal and professional creative experiences”. However, it is “criticised for its rejection of traditional analytic goals such as abstraction and generalisation”.  (Pace, p2)

He lists the following characteristics of “evocative autoethnography”:

  • “the author usually writes in the first-person style, making himself or herself the object of research;
  • the focus of any generalisation is usually within a single case over time rather than across multiple cases;
  • the writing resembles a novel or biography in the sense that it is presented as a story with a narrator, characters and plot;
  • the narrative text is evocative, often disclosing hidden details of private life and highlighting emotional experience;
  • relationships are dramatized as connected episodes unfolding over time rather than as snapshots;
  • the researcher’s life is studied along with the lives of other participants in a reflexive connection; and,
  • the accessibility of the writing positions the reader as an involved participant in the dialogue, rather than as a passive receiver.” (Pace, p5)

This “evocative” autoethnography does not fit with my own practices, not least because my practices include technical as well as social and cultural aspects. I am not trying to write and autobiography and certainly not a novel and I do want to generate abstractions and generalisations from qualitative as well as quantitative data.

The next type of autoethnographic research method discussed by Pace is “Analytic Autoethnography. He describes 5 key features of this form:

  • “the researcher is a complete member of the social world under study;
  • the researcher engages in analytic reflexivity, demonstrating an awareness of the reciprocal influence between themselves, their setting and their informants;
  • the researcher’s self is visible within the narrative
  • the researcher engages in dialogue with informants beyond the self; and,
  • the researcher demonstrates a commitment to theoretical analysis, not just capturing what is going on in an individual life or socio-cultural environment.” (Pace, p5-6)

This Analytic approach is much closer to the form my researches have taken. However, “Grounded Theory” takes it one step further:

“Grounded theory is an investigative process for building a theory about a phenomenon by systematically gathering and analysing relevant data”.

“The aim of this primarily inductive research method is to build theory rather than test it. Grounded concepts, relationships and theories are suggested, not proven.”

“A grounded theory researcher does not commence a study with a preconceived theory that needs to be proven, as is common in deductive research methods. Instead, the researcher begins with a general field of study and allows the theory to emerge from the data” (Pace, p6-7)

The final quote, in particular, fits well with my own research goals. Consequently, I will be loosely following Grounded theory’s 4 stages:

  • open coding, which involves breaking the data down into significant concepts;
  • theoretical coding, which involves reassembling the significant concepts with propositions about their relationships to each other;
  • selective coding, which involves delimiting the analysis to only those concepts and relationships that are related to the core explanatory concept; and,
  • sorting the theoretical memos into an outline and writing up the theory. 

(Pace, p8)

I say I will “loosely” follow these coding stages as I do not want to formulate rigid strategies but, as noted by Charmaz (p523) and summarised below by Pace (p8-9), my use of Grounded theory needs to recognise several assumptions:

  • “people create and maintain their own realities by seeking understanding of the world in which they live and by developing subjective meanings of their experiences;
  • grounded theory researchers can only claim to have interpreted a reality, dependent on their own experience and the study participants’ portrayals of their experiences, rather than a uni-dimensional, external reality;
  • grounded theory does not seek a single, universal and lasting truth, but remains realist because it addresses human realities and assumes the existence of real worlds;
  • grounded theory is not free from bias, but reflects how the researcher thinks and what the researcher does about collecting and shaping the data;
  • grounded theory tells a story about people, social processes and situations that has been composed by the researcher—it does not simply unfold before the eyes of an objective viewer; and,
  • grounded theory does not approach some level of generalisable truth, but constitutes a set of concepts and hypotheses that other researchers can transport to similar research problems and to other substantive fields.” (Pace 8-9)

As Pace notes in his conclusion:

“analytic strategies can be used successfully within autoethnographic studies… when researchers treat them as flexible strategies rather than as a set of prescriptive procedures and rules….This flexibility does not imply a lack of rigor or diligence. Rather it represents the freedom to modify research designs as required”.  (Pace, p13)


Charmaz, K. ‘Grounded theory: Objectivist and constructivist methods’, in N K Denzin and Y S Lincoln (eds), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 509-35

Pace, S, Writing the self into research: Using grounded theory analytic strategies in autoethnography, viewed on12/11/17



Three photographers, one location


This week I was in Ardnamurchan with my photographic friends. At one location, behind Sanna beach, we found an old water tower and three of us proceeded to photograph it.

This was definitely, my kind of subject, a man-made construct in a remote environment. However, it was not a typical subject for either Neil Patton or Eric Robinson, so it was interesting to compare results. We did not consult at the time, only later when reviewing our images.

Because of this being “my kind of subject”, I had a vision of how I would portray the tower long before arriving at my chosen viewpoint. Later, I would realise that this “vision”, or perhaps it is now just a habit, was restricting my own creative approach to the scene. Here are two examples of my images.

My attempt was to make the water tower dominate the scene, to look out of place but powerful. I was reminded of the large, black bull silhouettes that are found on hills in Spain.

Of these two the first one (which was also my first, “intuitive” composition) captures more of the atmosphere I was hoping for. The darker sky and water tower make it look more foreboding. The second image looks too cheerful. It is bright, more like an advertising hording than a powerful icon.

I was trying to show the details in the water tower structure but in doing this I have lost the mood I wanted. I think I need to darken the tower to be more reminiscent of the Spanish bulls.

Here is Neil Patton’s version.


He called this “Requiem for a Croft”, emphasising the religious, crucifix like, appearance of the water tower. The “death” of the croft is obvious from its dereliction and, although very small in the frame, the tower appears both dominant and controlling as it sits on the crest of the hill. The croft certainly looks to be subservient, almost prostrate, relative to the tower.

The fact of the tower being darker, less detailed, than in either of my images helps increase its power within the image.

This is Eric Robinson’s image.

Eric has taken a very different approach.

As with all our images, the tower is placed  on the crest of the hill to give it significance. Yet, whereas in Neil’s image and in my first image the tower appears very grounded, in Eric’s image it is reaching for the heavens.  This effect is enhanced by the movement, skywards, implied by the portrait format, the blurring of the clouds, the dynamic perspective of the tower and its relatively small size in the frame. The dark foreground also helps.

The tower still appears religious in nature but, perhaps, much less powerful, than in the other images, as it is set against the large expanse of dark blue sky. The tower here is, perhaps, a supplicant rather than the source of power in the image.

Three photographers and three very different interpretations of the same subject.

In addition to the Spanish Bull and Crucifix analogies others talked of the tower reminding them of the Angel of the North. Again, it has religious overtones.

The common feature is that we all saw the water tower as a form of public art rather than the reality of a piece of very functional engineering that was never designed to either fit with or respond to its surrounding environment.

In comparing our three interpretations I have learned several things about my own “intuitive” processes. They are:

  • I have fallen into a new set of habits when it comes to composing images and this is restricting my creativity. I have become used to portraying man-made constructs as quirky, out of place objects or art installations in remote environments. Consequently, as I approach a scene with these in mind, I am already limiting my potential choices:
    • I go too close, too quickly and this prevents me seeing the wider possibilities.
  • I usually take the subject face on rather than at an angle. I do this to give it strength and dominance within the scene, however I am then missing the possibilities of making the object appear subservient to or insignificant within its environment.
  • I tend to focus on a single man-made structure rather than trying to reveal the relationships between different man-made structures within the same scene.
  • I have become fixated on using the Landscape, or occasionally the square format for my images and rarely think of trying a Portrait format. Again, this limits my creativity.

So, thanks go to Eric and Neil for participating in this exercise and for allowing me to use their images. These learnings have been valuable. The difficulty is that I now need to find ways to rectify the limitations of my processes.


Image Purpose and Audience define the Content

In an article for the Art Journal, volume 42 (4), Rosalind Krauss discusses the legitimacy of Photography as an Art-form. She opens the article with this image, made by Timothy O’Sullivan in 1868, she compares the original with a photo-lithographic copy of the original made for the “King Survey”, in 1875.

Krauss celebrates the original as “a model of the mysterious, silent beauty to which landscape photography had access in the early days of the medium”. The water and sky blend into each other and the distant land is almost invisible whereas the domes “have a wealth of detail”. The “rocks seem unreal and the space dreamlike, the Tufa domes appear as if suspended in a luminous ether.” “The mysterious beauty of the image is in this opulent flattening of its space”.

In the lithographic copy, the barely distinguishable details such as the clouds, the distant land and the ripples in the water have been enhanced. Additionally, reflections of “the rocks in the water have been carefully recreated”. Consequently, the perspective is no longer flattened.

Krauss goes on to describe that the differences in the two images is determined by their different audiences and usages;

two separate domains of culture, they assume different expectations in the user of the image, they convey two distinct kinds of knowledge.”

The lithographic version is made for the empirical science of Geology and so required the topographical elements to be made clear and for the perspective to be restored, in order to show “coherent recession”.

Conversely, the original photograph belongs an Aesthetic discourse of “flatness, graphic design and ambiguity”. This made it very suitable for exhibition spaces of flat walls designed for the purpose of display and critique. She notes that landscape paintings from the 1860’s onwards started to show a flattened, two-dimensional perspective that mimics the space in which they will be displayed. Krauss is not saying that O’Sullivan deliberately chose the flattened perspective because it would work well in the traditional art gallery space. However, his original image does meet these aesthetic requirements whereas the lithographic version is far more representational, and so, lacking in aesthetic qualities.

The two images, made from the same source, are reproduced differently so that they can appeal to very different audiences, with very different requirements.

How does this work for my own compositions? My images are fundamentally designed for display, and certainly not for their documentary qualities. If landscape artists deliberately flatten their perspectives so as to work better on the two-dimensional gallery walls then perhaps, subconsciously, I have also been flattening perspectives in order to make my images more like the paintings I admire in galleries. I hadn’t realised this before starting my researches, but it now seems obvious. Certainly, paintings that have most influenced my photography tend to have little perspective.

Andrew Wyeth – Alvaro and Christina –

Edward Hopper – Early Sunday Moring –

These two images and artists have often been in my mind when composing images and both use very shallow perspective in many of their paintings, as is also seen in my images that follow.

Krauss also discusses:

“landscape painting counteracted perspectival recession with a variety of devices, among them sharp value contrast, which had the effect of converting the orthogonal penetration of depth – effected, for example, by a lane of trees – into a diagonal ordering of the surface.”

As shown here in an image by Samuel Bourne, A Road lined with Poplars.

Here the contrast enables the sky, the road and the trees to appear as a set of flat, geometric shapes, rather than the reality of a landscape with great recession.

In my images I usually use large, bland skies as a canvas upon which the image sits, rather than the sky, itself, being a significant element of the scene. This effect also promotes a flattening of the image into geometrical shapes with a “diagonal ordering of the surface”, rather than a scene with great depth. See below.


I knew that I have always enjoyed composing images with a flattened perspective but, until reading Rosalind Krauss’ article, I had not understood why this might be. Now, when composing an image, I can question my motives in choosing particular perspectives and so, become more deliberate than intuitive, in my actions.

I now understand that my use of a large, bland skies is not just to make the focal point seem isolated and small in the scene, as I had assumed. Additionally, its contrast with the darker subject matter also encourages a more two dimensional, shape focused, rather than representational viewing of the image.


Krauss R.  Photograph’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View, Arts Journal vol42 (4) 1982 pp311-319

Cramond Island 7

Some great conditions for my style of photography today. Very still air and foggy. The still air is quiet and relaxing which, in turn, helps me to concentrate. The fog helps isolate objects in the image and simplifies the composition. It also enhances the warmer reds and yellows in the scene whilst making the cooler colours almost monochromatic, again simplifying the image.

Unusually, I decided to go at low tide rather than following the high tide out. This enabled me to access viewpoints that I have not been to before.

Here is a selection of images from today.


 I’ve never seen this cart before. Perhaps it’s a particularly low tide.


Bruce Percy vs. Myself – a comparison of methods

I have just finished reading 2 of Bruce Percy’s e-books, “Simplifying Composition” and “Tonal Relationships”. I greatly admire his beautiful, apparently simple, compositions and wondered what I could learn from his techniques.

By the way, both books are excellent, well laid out and easy to understand. Their details are at the end of this article.

What I quickly realised is that, although Bruce and I have a love of the same locations (Iceland & Scotland) we have very different approaches to them and very different aims when photographing them.

I am always trying to convey a narrative in my images. A narrative that is usually concerning some human interaction with the landscape. Whereas, Bruce is primarily concerned with the artistic qualities of the scene, shapes, tones, visual flow, etc. His images do not have any narrative qualities at all. You may disagree with this statement but, from my perspective, any scene requires some element of human (or, at least, animal) construct or traces if it is to have any narrative potential.

Examples of our differences are:

Bruce’s landscape elements are almost always entirely “natural” (as opposed to human constructs) whereas I always include human constructs as the key focal point in my images.

Bruce looks for coherent arrangements of elements, where the eye is encouraged to wander around the image by the shapes, positions and tones of its various component parts. I look for quirky juxtapositions, where the human constructed element stands out from its background landscape because of its colour, shape, etc. Bruce looks for coherence. I look for incongruities.

A specific example of difference is in our uses for the sky in compositions. I use the sky as a tool of scale, often allowing it to be the largest single element. I do this to emphasise the insignificance of the human elements. I also use the sky to suggest repression. Dark, overcast skies being a favourite for implying a vulnerability and that this landscape is a hard place to survive. I am trying to convey a sense remoteness and isolation. In both cases the sky is part of the narrative but not deliberately part of the visual flow of the image.

Bruce uses the sky as yet another visual element where tones and shapes in the sky are included in the flow of the image. To quote him:

“By forgetting that one is sky and the other is ground, you force yourself up to notice relationships between them.” (Simplifying Composition, P15)

He is abstracting all reality from the various scenic elements so that they can be integrated into an artistically satisfying whole.

I can understand this but it doesn’t work for me. Even when looking around Bruce’s beautifully crafted images, trying to follow his ideas of flow, I often completely ignore the sky. It is there in my peripheral vision and I am aware of the sky’s mood or emotional context but not of its flows or shapes as they relate to the image as a whole.

Bruce actively looks for “compositional devices” in the landscape. Elements that will aid the visual flow around the image, diagonal lines, S curves, etc. I also use lines in my compositions but not to the same extent and I often use them to impede the visual flow rather than aid it. I mean that I will use lines that cross the image and form barriers between the viewer and the focal point. In this case I am using the line to separate foreground and subject to intensify the isolation of the focal point. Again, I am using the line as an element to aid the narrative rather than the visual flow.

Bruce’s compositions contain details but these are usually restricted to the focal point areas of the image whilst the rest of the composition is made up of relatively smooth, undetailed tones. His images are abstractions of the reality. Conversely, my images tend to be highly detailed throughout.

Am I missing a trick here? Do my images need to be detailed from front to back, with every blade of grass clearly visible? Would I be able to achieve Bruce’s artistry, whilst also being true to my own goal of celebrating the human habitation of remote, unforgiving environments? I need to think about this.

Looking at Bruce’s very practical, on location, tips in “Simplifying Composition”, I am pleased that most of them are second nature to me. However, it would be good if I was applying them more consciously rather than just intuitively.

With Bruce’s help, I can now articulate more photographic techniques, that are part of my intuitive processes, but of which I was unaware. They are:

  • (P36) Using the viewfinder to view the scene in 2D rather than directly viewing it in 3D. However, I think it might be better still viewing the scene, with one eye closed, and through a piece of card with an appropriate cut-out. Then I would be better able to engage with the scene, away from the distractions and constraints of the camera itself.
  • Making tripod movements of just a few inches up or down or side to side to change the scale relationships (P40) or parallax relationships (P56), respectively, of foreground and background elements. However, today, I do this intuitively and I believe I need to be more actively conscious of what I am seeing and trying to achieve in order to get better results.


Percy B. Simplifying Composition, E-Book published by Bruce Percy 2015

Percy B. Tonal Relationships, E-Book published by Bruce Percy 2016

Both available at:

When Focal Points become Installations

Over several years, I have noticed that the human constructs I use in my images as focal points can have one of three different purposes and significances. These are:

  • As a mid-ground or distant element but still a focal point within the landscape. The message is that the element is lonely, isolated and insignificant within the landscape.
  • As the key foreground element that represents only what it is, nothing more nor less. The landscape gives context to the object but the story is about the object and its construction, state of repair, etc..
  • Appearing as an “installation”. The element may have been placed in the landscape for purely functional reasons. But, the way I have composed it within the landscape and because of its shapes or constructional features it looks as if it was deliberately designed and placed by an artist, in response to the landscape.


What makes these last images different? Why do they look like installations?

In both cases, the man-made elements are large in the frame and centrally placed. They are also the only significant, identifiable element in the image.

The gravel around the concrete block in the upper image and the mud tracks around bonfire in the lower image both look like a stage or a dais for the object to sit upon. Like a sculpture.

Finally, the significant elements are both made from materials that would not, naturally, be found in such locations. So, the materials have been transported there and these objects constructed deliberately.

A small change to the composition of the “bonfire” image can make a large difference to its interpretation as seen below.

The bonfire is no longer central. However, it is still the most significant element. Now we can see the tracks more clearly, they look less like a dais. Their true function as the paths used to deliver wood to the bonfire is now clear.

The bonfire is made up from uniform pieces of fence palings. In this composition, the small length of upright fence has appeared on the far right of the image. Therefore, we can surmise that the bonfire is made from pieces of such fencing that are no longer required. The bonfire is just a means to get rid of unwanted wood without the effort of having to transport it down the mountain.

Overall, the man-made object no longer appears as an installation but as a purely functional and practical object.

The concrete block in the upper image is also purely functional. It is a support for a bend in the unseen water pipes that feed a hydro-electric power station a few hundred feet below.


With reference to my research the idea of objects becoming “installations” is not in line with my thesis about human constructions becoming focal points for photographers within a landscape. This is because, once the object appears as an installation it is so dominant within the image that the remaining landscape becomes just a canvas for its presence. The story is no longer about the landscape. It is about the object.

My images will need to follow a fine line where the human construct is a lesser (certainly no more than equal) player to the landscape within the narrative of the image.

Iceland – Lens Choices

On returning from 10 days in North Iceland, having taken only Landscape images, I decided to analyse my lens usage. I was going for maximum quality and so tried to use my two prime lenses as much as possible. How often was I able to achieve a satisfactory composition with the prime lenses and how often did I have to resort to using a zoom lens?

I analysed 456 images, each of which was a unique composition. The results were as follows:

Wider 28mm 35mm 50mm Long Total
Prime 154 50 204
Zoom 38 42 89 45 38 252
Total 38 42 243 95 38 456
Percentage 8% 9% 53% 21% 8% 100%

“Wider” means anything between 18mm and 25mm and “Long” means anything greater than 60mm .

“28mm” includes any zoom images between 26mm to 32mm.

“35mm” includes any zoom images between 33mm to 44mm.

“50mm” includes any zoom images between 44mm to 60mm.

These ranges were chosen on the basis that, with a bit more effort, I could have used a prime lens, instead of the zoom, and still achieve a satisfactory composition.

Conclusions: Nearly 3/4 of all my compositions were, or could have been, achieved with the two prime lenses. Do I need another prime lens? Based on these results the answer is no. But, if I was to buy another it should be a 28mm lens.

As well as the superior quality a further benefit of using the 2 prime lenses was to slow me down and cause me think far more about each shot as I sought to find the right composition without the ease of a zoom lens. A consequence is that I took far fewer images on this trip to Iceland than I did on my last visit. However, my success rate (achieving good compositions) is much higher.

Auchencorth Moss

Looking for something different from Cramond I decided to try Auchencorth Moss as a little research showed it was (relatively) remote and had old constructions.

It was very windy but dry and the light was exactly what I wanted.

I want to make images that are capable of significant enlargement (A1+) so I took extra care to get the composition and the sharpness correct in camera. I also used only my 35mm F2 prime lens. I found myself spending far more time than I usually do at any one location, thinking about and trying different compositions. I believe my repeated trips to Cramond are starting to pay off by my taking a more considered approach at the taking stage.

This was the first composition I saw and immediately wanted to use the background hilltop, peaking through the fire break in the trees. Although the tower (~1900) predates the trees by many years it feels as though the trees are some kind of fortification laced there for the benefit of the tower.

This is the head of a ventilation shaft, apparently part of the Talla Aquaduct and sits in the hidden valley of the Harlawmuir Burn. I was trying to capture something about the captive (fenced in) construction being further held by the straight wall of hillside beyond with the small construction (a survey point – top right) like a sentry, on guard. Here is a closer viewpoint.

Despite the fence the construction now appears dominant in the scene rather than being constrained by the environment.

This is my favourite image of the day. It has so many different elements (and stories) that work well together in small groups but without any strong, overall composition.

This scene, with the small group of farm building amongst the trees in the distance reminded me very much of the foothills of the Colorado Rockies where I used to live. The grasses here are Scottish moorland types rather than the dry prairie grasses of Colorado but the (apparently) long straight road and the power lines could be anywhere in the US prairies. This is a type of location where I feel very comfortable – feels remote, wide open views but with signs of human habitation.