Spectacle competing with Narrative

In movie world, there has long been a discussion over whether narrative has been displaced by spectacle.

“Spectacle is a quality offered by Hollywood in its attempt to maintain the distinctive appeal of cinema, of the big-screen event that is so important to its broader commercial interests. Spectacular imagery, of various kinds, sells. It is an intrinsic part of many of the properties on which the studios draw for their big franchise products.” (King 2002 – p178-9)

So, commerciality drives the film studios towards spectacle and some argue, this is at the expense of narrative. I agree and would cite the Pirates of the Caribbean series as a perfect example of films where the spectacle is all, and narrative, virtually absent.

Gunning describes this as the “cinema of attractions”:

“the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event ….. that is of interest in itself.” (Gunning 1990 – p58)

I believe the same thing is happening in stills photography, particularly in competitive, club photography and urged on by organisations such as PAGB (Photographic Association of Great Britain), FIAP (Federation Internationale de L’Art Photographique) and PSA (Photographic Society of America). Such organisations are themselves commercial and need increasing numbers of paid entries to their competitions (salons) and awards schemes in order to survive.

In pre-digital days, competition and award entries were prints or slides that had to be posted. This was expensive, so relatively few entries were made to each event and turnaround times much slower. Consequently, the event judges had longer to view each entry and spectacle was not the only criteria upon which images were assessed. Today, very few organisations hold salons or competitions for physical images. Instead digital images are now emailed, costs have come down and the numbers of events and the numbers of entries have multiplied many fold.

Judges and their time is now one of the most costly aspects of running such events and so their processes and their throughput must be maximised. From my own observations of salons, the time taken to assess and score each image can be as low as just 2-4 seconds. That is certainly insufficient time to look for any narrative in the image. Only technical aspects such as sharpness and a general appreciation of composition are possible in so short a time. Therefore, I would argue that spectacle is the only criteria upon which these images are now being judged.

In the world of internationally competitive photography, where images from many countries are vying for medals and accolades, again spectacle has an advantage over narrative, much as it has in the movie industry.

“It [spectacle] sells particularly well abroad, in markets where nuances of plot and dialogue might be lost in translation.” (King 2002 – p179)

Photographers from around the world now understand that spectacle has an international appeal whereas the nuances of a particular culture’s metaphor and narrative are impossible to read in just a few seconds.

The above are concerned only with the single image. Few organisations, the RPS (Royal Photographic Society) being a notable exception, accept and consider panels of images. With panels, a strong narrative is the essential ingredient and time should be taken to consider this along with the technical, artistic and other attributes of the images. Here spectacular images could be a disadvantage as they would stand out from the panel and distort rather than enhance the overall narrative. Except in the event that all the panel images are equally spectacular.

Of course, the spectacular image can also contain meaningful narrative but I would argue that the spectacle, by overwhelming the viewer with visual treats, the wow factor, actually inhibits the viewer from engaging at any deeper level. It is like being bombarded with visual noise and so unable to perceive any of the subtleties contained within.

However, I believe that, most often, high spectacle can be a just mask behind which there is very little content. The Emperor’s New Clothes perhaps!

So, for me, spectacle is noisy, it shouts for attention. My personal preference, in photography, and what I seek for my own well-being, is silence. I want to experience and to photograph silence. I want my viewers to feel the quiet and calmness that I experienced when taking my images. I try to achieve this by constructing photographs that have significant narrative potential. I want my mages to engage viewers’ imaginations. In other words, I hope the viewer will take time to ask what, why, who and how about the image and so be driven to make up their own narratives. The narrative they create may be nothing like the one that I told myself when taking the image but that is not important. It is the level of engagement between the image and viewer that is important.

The vast majority of my landscape images include a human construct, marks or other evidence that people live or have lived in a particular place. Evidence of human presence automatically raises the narrative potential of an image in ways that (now rare) “natural” landscapes cannot. That humans (other than the photographer) have been there raises questions of why, who and how and will hopefully prompt speculation and “story making” by the viewer.

For me narrative or narrative potential must always come first. If the image is also spectacular that can be a bonus except where the spectacular masks the narrative. The ultimate format for my images is the panel or series where the narrative of the whole predominates and where no single image shouts for more attention than any other.


Gunning T. The Cinema of Attractions in Elsaessar T. Early Cinema: Space frame Narrative. London BFI Publishing 1990, p58

King G, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, I.B Tauris, London and New York 2002, p. 178-179.

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:


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.


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:

































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.