Intent and reason


At the meeting of the Thames Valley OCA group it was suggested that I write down the thoughts that I had when I took these photographs, about why I decided to take these photographs and not others and why I decided to treat them as I have, as opposed to leaving them as taken.

My initial response was that they look like they do, because that’s how I pre-visualised them – a good Ansel Adams’ trait – the fog on a bleakish landscape, the snow isolating the line of the hedge or grasses emphasizing their presence in the frame; the tone evoking a bygone era of warmth (despite) the cold of the day and subject. I knew it would work, I knew it would be easy. The camera I knew would capture enough detail in the highlights to ensure that nothing would be blown, that I could add tone and contain the view within the frame. It’s been done a billion times before.

line in the snow

That this vista was the first I had ever seen was not something I thought about at the time. I was on a ‘journey’ to record, to document and was looking for detail that I hadn’t noticed before. In the back of my mind was the extensive photo archive that rests with the village history group in the village and that I was potentially adding to it, to inform a future date about how the village was. I had decided to walk a different route in the village, to see if I could ‘see’ different things in a ‘different’ way – here’s a view of Mill Lane from the on-line archive. These two shots below seem more like documentary shots to me, but weren’t viewed at the meeting with the same interest as the pretty pics…..

Mill Lane looking south

Mill Lane looking south

Mill Lane looking North

Mill Lane looking North

I used both a digital and film camera; the digital camera records and displays images immediately, downloaded when connected to a computer and ready to display within seconds, maybe a minute or two of post-production. Easy. The film camera depends on the development of the latent image, scanning, and then post processing; I enjoy this delay, I like the phase lag between capture and revelation; partly I think because of the expectation, partly because the image always seems to be different to how the image displays in my mind prior to its manifestation either on screen or on paper. I have said elsewhere that I seem to able to remember the instance of the photograph when I look at the negative, but not always the digital capture, that I can remember the moment, where I was, what I thought about when looking at the negative and that is something I struggle to with digital files. Maybe it is something to do with the physical presence of creation with the negative and the ephemerality of the digital file, maybe it has to do the ‘preciousness’ of the negative, that it comes with limited capabilities of use, that each frame is a frame and not some millions of 1’ and 0’s in a digital file that has a virtual presence? Not sure.

field edge field edge2

It was a virgin view for me because I went slightly further than I would normally do, maybe twenty yards – not much more – to an opening, a gap in the hedgerow onto a field that I normally skirt around. Virgin also, because of the covering of snow, the view of the land underneath which still awaits. A winter fog resting on the fields absented a good deal of ornamentation, removing situating detail and displacing the panorama to somewhere that seemed ambivalent to its circumstance. The field and its border could have been anywhere, North Oxfordshire or Ostend, looking back now I see the field has look of being lost, no sense of place about it – these images have distant horizons leading the viewer away from the place of ‘here’.

But this is still not explaining why I took the pictures, in this place, comprising of some 22 frames with the digital camera and 4 with film, about the right ratios I suppose. That I ‘knew’ the images would work aesthetically still somehow diminishes them, that I knew that if I hang them, either virtually or physically, then people will, if they say anything, say they are ‘nice’ or ‘pretty’ or somesuch.

field edge5 field edge4 field edge3

It was suggested that these warm toned images are an emotional response to the scene that I saw, but my view of land isn’t generally one of a ‘warm toned’ fine print. When I see land I generally see it as an appropriation or as the bane of life or lives tied to it. I see hedges and walls as marks in the land that have divided the spoils, through, seemingly countless generations that have denied the right of peasants to work their own piece of land. I see how the acts of inclusion have taken the freedom away that was once considered common into private hands. That at one end of the village we have Barton Abbey, in the hands of, apparently the thirteenth richest family in the UK (who measures this stuff and how?) and at the other Lord Wills. That none of the land is open or common, that there are a few public footpaths and bridleways is still frowned upon by those who ‘own’ the land that hosts these freeways. But I don’t think that I’m taking anything back when I take the pictures, I’m not appropriating images in the name of Wat Tyler, I’m conscious that I’m concerned about the injustice of it all, but not to a point of wanting to document the land to illustrate those concerns.

No, the images came because I can do them, years of working monochrome images in silver gelatin prints, concerned as much with the aesthetic of how the tones are represented, researching developers, films, zone system, papers, lenses, cameras, spot meters, chemistry, enlargers, printers, inks and ink systems, places, weather conditions, seasons and more just to produce pictures that exemplify an understanding, the control of, the medium of – what I thought was called – fine art monochrome photographic prints. I think it is a skill that I learned over years/decades of wandering around places that Ansel Adams/ Weston and so many others did in the past. It enabled me to ‘see’ clearly in monochromatic terms of what was in front of me, how it would look as a print. That these views in the field in front of me were, to a large extent, monochrome anyway hardly mattered; I saw pretty images and I knew it would be easy to depict them as such either on the screen or as a print.

When I took the film images I seemed to expect that they would have greater value – at least to me, as I didn’t really expect that many people would want to see them even if I mentioned that I had them, why would they? The value comes from investment I suppose, making an exposure commits the photographer to develop the latent image, having to make choices about developer, about how to re-create the image through a scanner and further work to ‘clean-up’ the image (or not); to then process the image, in a darkroom, with choices of crop, enlargement, paper/developer combination and post fix treatments or in the ‘lightroom’ what editing needs to be done and if printing what size, ink system et al. Each film negative frame has a monetary value, whilst digital frames are free – could that be it? No, I don’t think so, because I have a lot of images that have great value to me that I’ve taken in the post digital revolutionary age.

I’m still not getting to place where I can realistically say what I thought about these scenes when I saw them and at the point that inspired me to capture them and what I was thinking at the time. Only to say that I knew they would be easy to re-present. I didn’t think that I would use the digital images from the ‘journey’ I took the film camera because I wanted to use that as the medium because I knew it would ensure that I took my time, paced the shots, composed them more carefully. Value them.


9 thoughts on “Intent and reason

  1. It seems to me that you are not clear on what your thoughts were at the time other than that these photographs would work well on an aesthetic level….so maybe that’s just it. But for others looking at them their reading might be quite different. I for one read them as a conscious or unconscious response of the photographer to the place and its aesthetic qualities.

    I’ve just been reading a new book by Lucy Souter called ‘Why Art Photography’ and in it she recounts how she always asks her students the same question at the start of her art photography course. The question is

    ‘What is the difference between an art photograph and a handbag?’ She says she always gets the same range of responses which she describes as “Some are natural modernists; they believe that an art photograph has aesthetic, expressive and craft value for its own sake and that it is inherently more precious than a mass-produced handbag. Others are critical realists. They argue that photography’s function is to tell important social and political truths, whereas an expensive handbag is a mere frivolity…..There is usually a small group who we could call fashionistas who hold the view that the commercial fashion industry makes and important contribution to individual’s identity formation….others are cynics; as far as they are concerned the photograph and handbag are only worth whatever someone is willing to pay for them…All of these students are right in their own ways, and it is my job to help them to see each other’s point of view…’

    Its an interesting question…not sure how I would answer it…somewhere between the aesthetes and the critical realists I think..

  2. Thanks Keith for this and for your comments at the meeting. It is important to me to be able to both listen to others talking about their work and what they feel about mine (no matter what worth I put on it!). No matter how I tried I couldn’t drag anything more out of memory other than ‘these will work’.
    Interesting quote from Souter, maybe if she’d asked about Billingham bags she might have got a different answer 🙂 I wonder if she asked at the end of the course?

    • Who and when? The photographer or the reader, and if the photographer before or after the event? If I thought I had made one person think about what the image was about then I think I would be happy. Up until now, all my photographs have been about how the ink has been laid on the paper.
      I have seen conversations about your photography asking questions – so don’t give that :0)

  3. Oh definately both photographer and viewer, whereas a handbag rarely makes you think.
    To elucidate, I’ve noticed with some of my own photographs – ones that I realised seemed to have some kind of ambiguous meaning for me, at some point after I had taken them I noticed they were actually communicating something to me that was totally unexpected – firstly i really didn’t expect anything like that to happen with photography, but also i totally didn’t expect to see what i saw in them. It was a surprise and it has given me cause to think and make more work. Also I know that this isn’t just me being weird becuase of things other photographers sometimes say:-)
    With the viewer – well I know that definately happens from my experience of looking at other people’s photographs.

    • We spoke a bit about this at the weekend. I certainly see ‘stuff’ in my pictures long after I made them, and I’ve got lots to look at. Though I think that it works better when I look at a series of images taken on a theme which I’ve done quite a few times in the past. It is though the conversation about images that inspires the ideas to go out and photograph again. And like your last statement; looking at other peoples photographs and listening to the photographer generally gets my mind racing to reconsider what I’ve done (or more preciseley what I haven’t done yet).

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