Seeing Shapes not Things

Along with Narrative, seeing Shapes, especially Geometric shapes is very important to my being inspired to make an image. I’m not yet sure whether perceiving a pleasing arrangement of shapes comes first, followed by narrative creation. I know shapes are key in the initiation my of “Design” and “Belief” images but I also suspect they are key for my “Intuitive” images as well (see “Image Analysis by Initiative” post, from 13/06/2017). “Spectacle” images are primarily initiated by the quality of light and “Recognition” images by the narrative they have sparked within my memory.

The images in this post were all initiated by “Intuition” and or “Design”.

In trying to understand this feature of my work I have exaggerated the shapes from various images in the way I had perceived them at the time of taking the picture. Examples:

This image of Buchaille Etive Mor and the tree plantation is all about the shapes, balance and the image rotation around the vanishing point. It has very little to do with any potential narrative. There is a bridge in the scene, but it is so small as too be insignificant to the composition.

Garth Ness, Shetland

This is a very simple construction of shapes that I perceived as a two-dimensional scene with no perspective depth. My aim was to enhance this two-dimensional effect thus making the horizon appear like the edge of the world.

As with the previous image there is a single, strong rotational point but, this time, it is not the vanishing point. It is where the side of the building meets the horizon. The positioning and size of the 3 pieces of wood (bottom right) provides balance and weight to that side of the image.

This image has far more narrative potential than the last with its derelict building and the unsettling nature of the apparent void over the horizon.

Lerwick, Shetland

In my mind this image does not have a subject. Instead the landscape, water and the building form a single assemblage of geometric shapes that, again, I perceived to be two-dimensional with no perspective depth.

In this image there is no single rotational point. It is more about the balance and arrangement of various geometric shapes, lines and tones. For example, the way the sea and sky colours are reflected in the glass of the window.

The dark areas of seaweed underwater are the first non-linear elements that I have focused on. They contribute to the balance of the image by adding weight to the base. It was not their shape but their tones that caused me to emphasise them.

Ness of Sound, Lerwick

This image can be perceived in two-dimensions or three. In two dimensions the land horizon implies a deep void beyond.

In three dimensions the sheep track moving from the right side up to the horizon is critical to the arrangement. Along with the sea horizon it guides the viewer towards a point that appears also to be the focus of the concrete gun emplacement. Additionally, it helps create a subservient position for the viewer by emphasising the slope and that the viewer is looking up towards the gun emplacement.

Vatersay

This image is all about triangles, from the folds of the nets, the holes in the nets, to the shards of glass. The soft curves of the dunes and grasses are well integrated with the nets so that, at first, it may be difficult to extricate the shapes that made the composition attractive.

The shards of glass provide both an interest in that area of sand and a source of narrative creation.

Unst

A mirror but not quite a mirror.

I find the abstracted version of this image almost as pleasing as the original.

Unst 2

This is the first image where I have interpreted a very amorphous shape, the clouds, as a strong directing element pointing towards the subject of the image, a gun emplacement.

Along with the clouds, the mirror-like water, forming a dais for the subject to sit upon, give it a superiority, making it the key element, the subject, of the image. The other building provides an element of balance but the island is mere detail that could be removed without impacting upon the overall image.

Unst 3

A soon as I saw the potential of juxtaposing the concrete foundations with the old WWII Power house I chose this vantage point to link the two elements. Then I adjusted the camera height to ensure the horizon aligned with the top of the power house, with only the gable end emerging into the sky.

The only essential elements in this image are the foundations, the power house and the horizon. Everything else is just a canvas upon which these elements are arranged.

Unst 4

This final image in the set was also perceived as a composition of lines and shapes. When abstracted down to the key elements the result reminds me of paintings by Wassily Kandinsky.

Conclusions

What I find interesting in this exercise is how often the perception of shape in compositions ignores whether the shape could be a subject or is just part of the background, the canvas. Instead it is the intuitively seen interplay between elements that builds the patterns and compositions that inspire the making of the image. It is also interesting to see which elements have been intuitively ignored and merged into the background.

Most often there are dominant, usually geometric shapes that appear to sit upon a canvas of sea, sky and or land. However, occasionally, the whole scene is perceived as being two-dimensional. In such cases the sea, sky and land also functions as shapes and not merely as a backdrop.

Viewing the scene from a low position, where nothing is visible beyond the land horizon creates an unsettling impression that there is a void beyond. It also helps the image to be viewed in two, rather than three dimensions.

This type of photography depends upon simplifying the scene down to a few basic elements. This is another reason why I am more successful in remote, sparsely populated, usually treeless, locations where achieving a simple composition is much easier.

This area of research is far from complete. I’m sure there are more learnings to be made from these and other images. So, the conclusions may change over time. However, I do believe that my intuition is being highly influenced by how my perceptions of shapes and the juxtapositions of such shapes within the scene is operating.

What do I see in my images?

Alan Thomson suggested that you would find it interesting if I described, in more detail, what I see in my images and why I took them. So, here’s deconstructions for a couple of photos I took recently.

Of course, the lighting was stunning for this image. Any photo of these turbines would have been good but why did I choose this arrangement?

I have often imagined windfarms as invading armies, a bit in the “War of the Worlds” style. I chose this arrangement because the front turbine is definitely the one in charge and the other 4 are like a line of following squaddies. The front turbine is also raised up on a, well lit, dais giving it further authority. Also, the curving steps and the balcony made me think of a pulpit and the place from which the invaded would receive instructions. This was also why I chose a low viewpoint, emphasising its power.

Finally, the dark storm clouds behind speak of what’s about to come.

This is what I mean by my photography being driven by narrative. I usually start with just an intuition but then the narrative develops as I think about the scene.

Now for a more abstract narrative.

This first appealed because of the ambiguity of the scene. I saw (as I seem to do quite often) that the concrete block and metal bars could be interpreted as an artist’s installation, deliberately placed in this environment. By making it large and placing it in the middle of the frame I have given it a significance which, hopefully, asks the viewer to think of it as a piece of art rather than the banal object that it is.

That is the same reasoning I used when I chose to assemble my exhibition images with large white borders in good quality white frames. It’s a variation on the concept of “all fur coat and nae knickers”.

However, this image has a far greater meaning for me than would be obvious to any viewer. That is because of the lighting and the colours. The greens in the grasses and the bright, pale skies remind me of the colours and mood of a Rupert Bear annual from the 1950’s. When I was taking images in this location I was very calm, quiet and absorbed in the moment, just like, as a child, reading Rupert Bear books. In this image I have captured my emotions of the moment, but I doubt anyone else would get that.

My point in writing this piece is to show that there is a lot more depth to be found in photography if you can get below the surface of the scene and ask yourself why it appeals and what it means to you rather than just accepting that it does and pressing the shutter.

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.

 

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

 

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.

 

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 – http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Andrew_Wyeth/Alvaro_&_Christina.html

Edward Hopper – Early Sunday Moring – http://artsnfood.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/closely-looking-at-edward-hoppers-early.html

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.

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/51509989466051566/

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.

Conclusion

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.

Bibliography

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

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