Old Banal images

I was going through some of my old images, from around 10 years ago, when I realised just how my focus, even then, was on the banal human constructs in the landscape.

Most of the following images were taken in and around the village of Sharpness in Gloucestershire. Sharpness is effectively an island with just two small bridges giving access to the outside world. It is a strange place, a mix of industrial, docklands and just 19 houses where humans are definitely there but rarely seen. It feels like the “Marie Celeste” of villages.

This grain tower dominates the whole of Sharpness and there are hardly any places from which you cannot see it.

There is a pub in the outskirts of the village, isolated, with no houses nearby. The image above was my attempt to show this isolation. As usual, the roads are completely empty.

In the image above, I was trying to show the traces of former activity but the current absence of anything moving. The roundabout is a metaphor for being at the end of the road, with the arrows implying no escape, just endless rotation. This really captures how I feel about the place. It is post-apocalyptic, somewhere at the end of time.

The next image continues the banal theme. When I saw the scene, I felt it was also very violent. Again, it is somehow post-apocalyptic with just the largest, now isolated, trees surviving after the hedge was attacked.

The following, captured on the outskirts of Weston super Mare, is just ironic. If this is an example of the brave new world of renewable energy, then we’re in trouble.

Conclusions

Banal, quirky, out of place subjects, traces of absent humans and feelings of being remote and isolated have been features of my photography for longer than I had suspected.

However, thinking back, I now realise that these are subjects I was photographing because of the narratives they evoked within me. I could not explain myself at the time. I could not defend why I had taken such banal, some said ugly, images yet I thought them beautiful.

My researches into my practice and into the practices of other landscape photographers has, at last, helped me articulate my own motivations and given me confidence in the value of my practice.

 

 

Cramond 9 – Fragments

 

It was a bright, high contrast day so I decided to focus on “fragments”, small indicators of human presence rather than the larger view. To emphasise these fragments, I found myself using very shallow depths of field.

This pot was lying in the remains of a circle of stones that had been a “camp fire”. Unfortunately, the leaves have covered any signs of the former fire. I could have taken a wider view and included some blackened rocks but then the pot would have disappeared, becoming insignificant in the surrounding leaves. This lack of context has limited the narrative potential of this image.

This image includes a wider view and so, suggests a degree of remoteness to the building. The graffiti, the missing brick and the bush growing up the side of the building all imply dereliction, which is, in fact, the case.

Overall, I feel this image attracted me more because of its design than for any meaning or narrative. Consequently, this is unlikely to be an image with any long-term appeal for me.

As above, this image includes a wider view that implies a degree of remoteness. There is also an encouragement to narrative with the rust (implying great age) and the rope, also the second, out of focus pole seen in the distance, raising questions about the purpose and who might have installed the pole into the rock.

However, the lighting is such that the image lacks any mood appropriate to the potential narratives. The bright, high contrast, light seems to contradict the messages of the content. In itself, this is not a fault, but it raises questions about whether this image fits with most of my other Cramond images. I think it probably fits better with the following two Icelandic images which were taken in similar light.

This final image is the most pleasing for me.

Probably, because it is the most mysterious. Why is the rope there? Why is it frayed?

The rope is the only sharp element in the image. Also we are looking up at it. These factors give the viewer has an intense focus upon the rope and this could suggest it has a sinister purpose. The overarching of the trees adds to this impression by seeming to enclose and look down upon the viewer. Yet the quality of light implies a playfulness that contradicts these ideas. Hence the mystery.

I wonder how the loss of the leaves as we approach winter will affect the mood of this image? It would be interesting to try it again on a bright winter’s day.

Conclusions

I chose to photograph fragments because of the bright light draining the wider shots of colour. This decision has not enabled me to achieve my usual mood as the lighting is still in control. However, I have achieved shots with added mystery as the lighting appears to contradict the narratives implied by the content.

The detail shots, without distant views, do not suggest the remoteness I normally look for as they lack the usual context.

The idea of light qualities opposing the content narratives is a possible path to follow to add mystery to my images. Limiting the field of view adds to these effects.

 

Interview with Bruce Percy

I recently had a very enjoyable, extended photographic conversation with Bruce Percy. http://www.brucepercy.co.uk/

It was interesting to hear about Bruce’s methods, thinking processes and to contrast them with my own, so, I thought I would share some of the topics that came up.

Spatial Cognition and Intuitive Composition

We have both noticed (and been told by our photo-holiday customers) that we seem able to identify good starting compositions, almost instantly, upon arrival at a new location. Up to now I have been calling this “intuitive composition”. However, following our conversation, I wonder if a large part of this “intuition” is actually an ability to use our spatial cognition, even as we approach the location. By spatial cognition I mean an ability, to easily picture the viewpoint, arrangement of elements, parallax, etc., from another position based solely upon what we are seeing from our current location. I am not talking about small differences in position but starting to imagine the scene from several miles away (assuming an open field of view), then iterating towards a final composition as we get closer.

We are building compositions in our minds long before we have actually seen them. This will include, rejecting some locations, on the basis of what we imagine the composition will be, as well as driving us towards other potentially good locations.

In doing this, are we unusual, amongst photographers? Surely, everybody has these abilities but does everybody use them to the same degree? I can imagine that someone skilled at flying model aircraft or remotely controlling a vehicle must have similar abilities that are likely even better developed than our own.

Consequently, I now believe that Bruce and I are using our spatial cognition as we approach our location and that this accounts for our ability to go directly to a point with a potentially good composition. Perhaps, the remaining “intuitive” part is in our being able to relate our imagined composition to other locations, images, experiences, etc., that we know have worked in the past.

Emotions and Narrative

After our first meeting, I had decided that my key compositional driver was narrative, using metaphor to encourage viewers to create their own stories. However, Bruce’s key driver is emotional. He uses tones, shapes and graphical elements to create dream-like images and evoke emotional responses in the viewer. Stories versus emotions appeared to be very different motivations.

Following our discussions, I am now persuaded that narrative and emotion are not discrete characteristics. Instead they are just different points on the same continuum of “story”. An image narrative is based upon consciously creating stories, in the present, that are external to the self and based upon the knowledge of the viewer. An emotional response to an image is unconsciously created, from internal stories (memories), that result from the viewer’s personal history and experiences.

Consequently, both the narratives and the emotions created by an image are just different forms of “story”, one consciously created and the other unconsciously.

Unicorns and Space Ships

As Bruce was discussing simplifying compositions, he paraphrased one of his photo-holiday guests, by saying:

“I like dew on the grass, that river here and that cloud there. This rock is good and I must include that unicorn. And, there’s a space ship.”

I know exactly what he means. I have often seen multiple elements, all of which, I want to include in the image. Each element probably has its merits but including them all in one image is unlikely to create the best composition. Not thinking deeply enough about what to include, and why it adds to the composition is, for me, one of the most difficult things to do on location. But waiting until later is too late to achieve the best compositions.

This is why I particularly like fog, snow, overcast skies, calm days, anything that reduces the complexity of a scene for me. Photography is all about simplification. We should be eliminating everything that does not directly add to the narrative or emotional content of the scene.

Banal Art, Robert Adams, and his influence

My friend, Neil Patton, has questioned my use of the term “Banal Art”. This was bothering me too, as it feels more likely to be read as “art that is banal” whereas I mean “art of the banal”.

I started to research the word banal by looking at other photography related uses of the word. One of the first references I found was a paper by Cecile Whiting called “The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West”. In this paper, the book, “The New West” by Robert Adams, is discussed at length. This was a useful lead, as Robert Adams was an early and key influencer of my own photographic style and choice of subject matter. In the paper Whiting describes Adams’ work as the “aesthetic of the banal” (p58).

Adams’ images in The New West are of urban development in the prairies, West of the Colorado Rockies, and show a sprawl of monotonous, flimsily built “tract houses” with the occasional views of the distant mountains. Talking about the chapters of the book Whiting says:

“These sections catalogue the ways in which human-made things – utility poles, power lines, strip malls, billboards, trailers, tract houses, commercial buildings – overwhelm the entire region of The New West.” (p59)

To see images from the book, go to:

https://trequartieri.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/robert_adams_the-new-west_01.pdf

Similarly, many of my photographic subjects are also of ordinary, functional, practical things, constructed by humans, but that appear idiosyncratic, out of place when set in the remote, sparsely populated and sometimes sublime landscapes, I choose to photograph.

My choice of subjects, and the way I present them, may be highly influenced by Robert Adams but until recently, there have been significant differences in our motivations. In Adams’ images, the “banal even seems to spread beyond the photographic frame” (p59). He is emphasising the scale of the impact of human constructs upon the landscape whereas I tend to focus on how small the human influence is within my chosen landscapes. Whilst Adams is raising awareness of the effects of too many humans I am typically trying to celebrate the pioneer spirit of the few people trying to make a living in remote landscapes.

“Adams either approached his motifs at such close range that he captured only parts of a house, car, or commercial building, or he remained at such a distance that the suburban development sprawls laterally beyond the photographic borders.” (p60)

Either way, it is the banal elements of the composition that dominate the “natural” landscape. I put “natural” in quotes because, today, it is virtually impossible to find any landscape, anywhere, that has not been modified in some way by human activity. Whiting makes the same point in the following quote, summing up Adams’ work:

“Sublime wilderness may be nothing but a fantasy, but the banal, by coexisting with nature, may be more than banal: transforming a natural setting that has never been timeless or pristine, the banal is, in a sense, naturalised.”

This quote strongly resonates with my own attitudes towards human activity and the environment.

These two images, from Iceland, are examples from my work where I am attempting to show the banal human constructs as insignificant impositions within a large, powerful, and empty landscape.

Here “nature” is not overwhelmed.

My most recent images have taken a new turn. Instead of showing insignificant human constructs, that barely impinge on their environment, with the Lammermuir Windfarm, I was now following Adams’ motivations and techniques. Here I allowed the subjects to flow out of the image frame to imply their endlessness. Like Adams, I have used a strong, banal, foreground element, plus other distant turbines in order to have the windfarm appear to overwhelm the landscape, even beyond the frame.

The message here is of an environment being taken over by humans, rather than my usual message of humans pioneering against the far more powerful landscape.

Here again, the turbines and their service roads appear to spread beyond the edges of the frame, implying their domination of the environment.

Conclusions – Neil Patton’s questioning of my use of the words “banal art” have led me down a very fruitful research path. I have been influenced by Robert Adams for many years but finding this paper has really helped me to understand the ways he has directly influenced my practice.

This exercise has also helped me understand how I can better use scale, quantity and placement of my subject(s) to actively guide (I could never control) the meanings I would like viewers to find.

Regarding subject matter, it is reassuring to read Adams’ quote:

“Many have asked, pointing incredulously towards a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but implies a difficult issue – why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks?”

As a landscape photographer who focuses on apparently banal subjects, I have often been asked similar questions.

Bibliography

Adams R. The New West, Aperture; New Ed edition, 2008

Whiting C. The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West, American Art published by The Smithsonian Institution, Vol27, Number2, 2013

Meet-up Group Image Analysis

First of all, I would like to thank everyone who took part in this exercise. It has been very useful to my researches.

I asked 15 friends, who are members of the Edinburgh Photography Meet-up Group, if they would judge 32 of my recent images against two different criteria.

The objective for the exercise is to understand more about my own photographic thinking and evaluation processes by asking a group of other photographers to assess a set of my recent images against:

  • their levels of “interest” in the image content, defined as intrigue or narrative potential.
  • their personal preferences for each image.

I chose a variety of my images, taken on a visit to Iceland but of varying subject matter and mood which ranged from the spectacular to the banal. The group were asked to ignore print quality (which was more variable than I would have wished) and to focus only on content and composition.

I first looked at how the Meet-up group average level of “Interest” compared with my own assessment of “My Interest” in each image. The following results covering 32 images:

On this chart, any difference less of ~20 or less is not significant. Therefore, on 6 images my own interest level is significantly higher than that of the group and on just 1 image my interest is significantly less than that of the group.

I reviewed these images and concluded that the ones where I showed more interest than the group were all ones where I had had significant emotional reactions to the location. These particular scenes had evoked memories or narratives for me at the time of taking. Obviously, this could not be true for anyone else just looking at the resulting images for the first time.

The one image where my own interest was low relative to that of the group was one I took because of the dramatic lighting and not because of any emotional or narrative content for me. This was an image I would classify as “spectacular” rather than meaningful. It was therefore weak against my own criteria for narrative content. However, 8 members of the group scored this image high for “Interest”. They obviously saw more content in the image than I had.

I then wondered about how the individuals in the “group” had scored for interest on each image. Was the averaging of their scores hiding their real levels of interest or not? Here is a chart of the individual scores for each image.

My concern was correct. By averaging the group’s individual scores, I was actually losing the variety in the opinions of the group members. This chart shows that for each and every image there was a range of at least 4 points (on a scale of 5) between the highest and lowest scores. So, levels of interest varied widely. Consequently, averaging group scores is not a satisfactory form of analysis.

I then decided to look how each individual group member had scored each image but focusing only on those images where I had given the strongest positive or negative scores. These were images #4, 5, 13, 14, 16 and 3.

For these images 5 people agreed with my scoring for 2 or more images and one person agreed for all 6 images. Consequently, my images were proving to have some degree of intrigue and or narrative potential for around 1/3rd of the participants.

I then moved to looking at the scores for image “preference”. That is, on a scale of 1 to 5 how does each image match my own standards for preference?

This first chart shows my personal scoring for each image against my view of both Interest and Preference.

I remembered what I had observed looking at group interest versus my own interest.

Thinking about the information hiding effect I had observed by averaging the group interest scores, I wondered whether my own Preference scores were hiding subtleties. Was my Preference score actually made up of 2 or more separate strands that I had not yet identified?

After reviewing my images again, I concluded there were two key strands and possibly more, that I was unconsciously using when scoring for Preference. They were:

  1. Would the image be appreciated by other photographers?
    • In other words, not my own preference but my ideas of others’ preferences. I am seeking the approval of others!
  2. From my own perspective, had I succeeded, in turning the banal into a piece of art with a significant narrative potential?
    • Now, this is far more about myself, my real photographic preferences and goals.

I now re-scored for my own preferences in terms of these two, now separate, criteria which I have labelled “Others Preference” and “Banal Art”.

Immediately, there is a significant difference between these results and those where I had looked only at my “preference” as a single, broad category.

I chose to review only those images where I scored it as a 5 for Banal Art. These are images where I am particularly happy that they meet my artistic preferences for Banal Art.

Result – There are 6 images that meet my criteria and yet I believed these are not images that would be generally appreciated by other photographers.  They are images #2, 4, 8, 9 13 & 16.

Now to compare my “Banal Art” results with the group’s results for preference.

Again, the group scores varied greatly and so averaging was not appropriate. Therefore, I looked for comparisons against individual group members.

Here 6 people agreed with my “Banal Art” preferences for at least 4 of the images. Consequently, when I am truly succeeding against my own goals (rather than aiming to please others) ~1/3rd of the group are also showing a preference for these works.

So, the appreciation for my “Banal Art” images is greater than I had suspected.

Finally, I compared my highest scores for “Others’ Preferences” with the individual scores given by the group for the same images. Unsurprisingly, as this is where I am judging my images for their appeal to others, there is a strong correlation between my scores and the group scores.

I looked at all the images that I scored as 4 or 5. That was 7 images, numbers 1, 6, 15, 19, 26, 31 & 32.

Result – for all 7 images, 9 to 12 members of the group also scored them highly. So that means I do have a good sense for the types of images that will appeal to other photographers, despite that creating that type of image is not my primary goal.

Conclusions – The objective for the exercise was to understand more about my own photographic thinking and evaluation processes.

My most significant learning has been the separating of my own “Preference” into the two distinct categories of “Banal Art” and “Other’s Preferences”. I now have a means to test my images as to whether they are meeting my real internal goals or just being created in the hope of gaining the approval from others.

My identification of the word “banal”, as applied to my images, has also opened up a new and rich area for academic research into the work of other photographers.

I have also discovered that, amongst photographers at least, images that I consider to be banal art do create a satisfying although certainly not universal, level of interest and intrigue.

Finally, I have learned that using averages when the same image can evoke such wide-ranging views hides rather than revealing information.

Thanks, once again, to all the participants. It was your help in creating the raw data that has guided me towards questioning my own thinking processes and so to finding these results.

Meet-up Group Images

I asked 15 friends, who are members of the Edinburgh Photography Meet-up Group, if they would judge 32 of my recent images. They were to evaluate a set of my recent images against 2 criteria:

-their levels of “interest” in the images, defined as intrigue or narrative potential, created by my compositions.

– the personal preferences of the other photographers.

For the results please see my next post which will follow shortly. Here are the images in order:

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23 

24      

25

26

27

28

29

30         

31

32

Lammermuir Wind Farm

As a recent and very dramatic example of “human constructions in remote environments” windfarms have been a subject I have wanted to photograph. However, until yesterday, I was unable to get close enough to one to achieve representative images.

As usual I did as much planning as I could, using Google Earth to decide how to approach the wind farm above Gifford in the Lammermuir Hills. The only photographic hint that I gleaned from Google Earth was that the roadways leading to each turbine formed interesting, flower like patterns when viewed from above. I thought these might be compositionally useful. Other than that, I no clear ideas or expectations.

The walk in to the wind farm was across 3 miles of Grouse Moor. That was itself interesting as I disturbed many grouse, lapwings and hares as I passed by. On the way, I saw several of these, which I presume are rat traps laid to help protect the grouse.

I could see the wind turbines for the whole of my walk and started to consider the potential problems in photographing them. How could I include the turbine bases as well as the blades without resorting to distant or very wide-angle shots? I decided that the easiest solution was to make the nearest turbine base into a disruptive, foreground element cutting through the frame.

This was about my 4th attempt at a composition and the first that really appealed to me. I like the way the foreground turbine appears like a sentinel looking over the other turbines. I think it is the, almost face like appearance of the door that makes this work. The tiny electricity pylon on the left is an important element as it stops the eye from leaving the image on that side.

Here was one of several attempts to use the roadways as connecting, pattern elements. It hasn’t worked as well as I had hoped as am not high enough. The roadways are linking some elements but the pattern is not strong enough to lead the eye around the image. I think I will need to try again from the top of the hill off to the left of this frame.

When I think about it this image is not driven by narrative, as are most of my photos. Instead, seeing the flower like patterns on Google Earth led me to expectations around the potential for Design. I have not succeeded with that but I will try again from different locations.

One of the challenges photographing such a wind farm is to ensure there is separation between each of the many turbines. A pair of overlapping turbine masts is very messy and attracts the eye. Also, I must scan the whole image and try to take the shot when the turbine blades are not forming patterns with each other that might attract unnecessary attention. This is not too difficult and just requires a few seconds monitoring the viewfinder to understand the rhythms of the blades.

The cloudy sky was a problem. It is far too lumpy for my taste. Next time I need a smoother, darker sky so I can make the white windmills separate from the background more effectively.

Image Analysis by “Initiative”

I have been trying to analyse what are the factors that initiate my taking a particular composition and have devised the following processes to achieve it.
To start with I had to discover and give names to the factors that caused me to be interested in taking a particular image. By reviewing 76 of my “Iceland 2017” images I was able to identify and give names to the following factors:

Intuition – I see an image, I know it is right but I cannot yet explain why. I am recognising the potential for a narrative in the scene but not the narrative itself.
Recognition – I recognise a relationship to something else, a painting, a film, a style, that has previously inspired me. For me, such a scene already has a built-in narrative.
Design – There is something about the design of the scene that appeals – colours, shapes, etc. However, it may not have much in the way of a narrative.
Belief – A location that appears to have a lot of potential compositions that should have interesting narratives. For example, there are quirky         elements and or juxtapositions.
Spectacle – The lighting or something else makes for a spectacular image but often without other merits such as a strong narrative.

Some images had more than one initiating factor. For example, I may have started at a location with a “Belief” that good images could be found there. Then later I identify some elements of “Design” that appealed to me. Such an image would score for both Belief and Design. Hence a larger total number of “Factors” appear in the data than the number of images.

The second step was to go through each image and give it a score based upon my personal preferences, was I pleased with it, did it have a strong narrative, did it fit with my research goals, etc.

This is a purely subjective scoring system that left me with 35 images out of 76 classified as Good or Very Good.

Here is a chart showing the proportions of images that I classified as successful or not.

I am planning to engage with an independent group of photographers for them to rate my photographs against my stated objectives and against their personal preferences as a reality check of my own analysis.

Only those images rated as Good or Very Good will ever be considered for display in my project.

My aim here is to discover whether any particular factor or factors resulted in more or fewer successful images.

The following data table shows the factors versus image success.

Factor                       Good or Very good images                 All images
Belief                                        15                                               44
Design                                      15                                               28
Intuition                                   7                                                 8
Recognition                             5                                                 6
Spectacle                                  3                                                 6

When these numbers are displayed on a Radar chart (and referencing back to the raw data for Image Success) some interesting conclusions can be made.

The most striking observation is that all 7 images with “Intuition” as an identified factor also scored as “Very Good”.

Five of the 7 images with “Recognition” as a factor scored either “Good” or “Very Good”.

Just 5 of my images were classified as “Spectacle” and of these only 3 achieved a score of “Good” or “Very Good”. So being spectacular is not a strong indicator of success.

“Belief” is by far the most common driver for my actually taking an image. However, only ~34% of such images score “Good” or “Very Good”.

“Design” is not a good predictor that the final image will be a success.

Conclusions
Overall my experiencing feelings of “Intuition” or “Recognition” at a location are by far the best indicators that I will produce successful images.

“Belief”, based upon having seen quirky elements and or juxtapositions at a location, maybe a good starting point for taking images but I am not so good at turning this into successful compositions unless I also experience “Intuition” or “Recognition”.

Most of the locations for the images in this sample were only visited once. Consequently, I had little choice over the lighting conditions and this certainly had an impact upon my success rate.

Additionally, when “Belief” is the sole driver, perhaps I need to visit the location more than once in order to better understand it and its possibilities. This technique did work with my multiple visits to Cramond Island. For future field work I should plan to travel less and spend longer at each location.