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.

 

 

Grounded Theory – as a method of analysis

 

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

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

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

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

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

He lists the following characteristics of “evocative autoethnography”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Pace, p8)

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

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

As Pace notes in his conclusion:

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

Bibliography

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

Pace, S, Writing the self into research: Using grounded theory analytic strategies in autoethnography, http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue13/Pace.pdf viewed on12/11/17

 

 

Three photographers, one location

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Neil Patton’s version.

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.