My aim in attending the portfolio reviews was to gain feedback at this early stage in the development of my photographic practice – to test the change to colour and the use of different reductive strategies, intended to unsettle the viewer and not allow them to focus on any particular aspect of the image, in the Among Trees images for example. All but the last reviewers, had specifically expressed an interest in seeing developing and emerging bodies of work. I hope to follow up with some of the reviewers at a future Format event or through direct contact.
I have produced this piece as a Discussion Paper, because I am at the stage of feeling that, through the process of these reviews, I have unearthed some big themes in my practice and research, and I need to spend time reflecting on their impact on my photographic work and the development of my thesis. I will need to seek help in identifying critical theory and practitioners that might inform my thinking.
Studium and Punctum
Perhaps the comment that had the most impact on me and the one that caused much reflection is that my images have no punctum. The term punctum, coined by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980), describes an element of a photograph that is poignant or like a wound, a prick, or punctuation. Barthes identified a duality between the studium, meaning to study, and the punctum. Through this process of study, the viewer might reveal the photographer’s intentions in anchoring the image within a societal context. Barthes argues that good photographs include a co-presence of the studium and the punctum. As I reflect more, I wonder whether my images have either a punctum or a studium? Is this a problem and are there other examples of artists that take this de-contextualised approach? Is this revelation the result of conscious or non-conscious intent on my part and what does this say about me, my story and my images? How does the lack of a clear object affect my search for being? This comment deserves further consideration in the context of my practice and its development and also needs to be considered in the context of my use of the square format image.
A further related point is that most of my images do not have a horizon line. It seems to me that the removal or lack of a punctum, a horizon or natural focal point, destabilise the viewer by removing sensory cues and context. They are reductive strategies.
Context and Sense of Place
Another theme in the reviews was about sense of place – something that has been raised by my supervisors in our meetings. Again, I now need to do more research and reading to understand the relevant critical theory and the impact and relevance to my photographic practice.
Two of the reviewers were familiar with the Isle of Skye and were able to understand the body of work and my search for the ephemeral hiddenness, or the essence, of Skye. The others felt they needed some context, what does Skye look like, and what is this place that I am trying to depict, in a personal search for reality and being? They also wanted to know more about my connection with the Island. I have spoken before about this issue in my work and while in many ways I kick back from wishing to reveal the wider vistas of where I make my work, seeing them as inconsequential or not part of my practice, on the other hand, I make a big splash about Skye, its vulnerability as an Island, its fragility, its ever-changing weather and light and my search for something that is hidden within this mysterious place. How do I reconcile this duality in my work and my research?
A number of photographers that I admire do take a similar approach: Daniel Gustav Cramer in his work Trilogy (2003-2013) cropped tightly around aspects and areas of nature providing us with no sense of place or geographic location. Edward Burtynsky’s recent work Natural Order (2020), completed during lockdown, also focuses on aspects of nature photographing chaos turning into what Burtynsky calls natural order and Awoiska van der Molen (2020), the subject of a recent blog, crops tightly and reveals little in her hauntingly beautiful black and white landscapes of The Living Mountain. To a varying degree, all of these photographers concentrate on small aspects of the landscape limiting the viewers ability to identify and focus on that which might reveal the location or the wider context. It leaves me pondering, how I might reconcile these contrary elements, motivations and intentions in my work and indeed legitimise my approach through contemporary critical theory and practice?
Black and White or Colour images?
One of the difficult choices in putting together my portfolios for review, was whether to produce and present black and white or colour images. I chose to submit one black and white portfolio, The Ephemeral Hiddenness of Skye and two recent colour portfolios The Autumn Collection and Among Trees, giving the reviewers the option to choose which of the collections they wanted to view and talk about. Two chose to look at the black and white collection first and two the Among Trees Collection. I asked the reviewers whether they had a preference and they all said I should continue with both and make choices later down the line. However, all commended the black and white images.
Production and presentation of my work
All the reviewers asked me about how I planned to develop the body of work and whether I had considered how I would present it. The first reviewer picked up in particular, that she felt the Among Trees Collection was more extendible in terms of scope. Many of the suggestions in terms of presentation mirrored my own thoughts – that they could be presented either as very large prints, or equally as a set of postcards or small images. A couple of the reviewers mentioned that an immersive experience and presentation would work well, giving visitors a sense of being among the trees or the reeds, and they also suggested that short video or audio pieces might add to the experience too. Another reflection from me is whether my work is about single images or collections and whether contact sheet presentation might convey the essence of Skye more effectively.
The other common thread in terms of presentation suggestions was the production of a book – specifically a square format photobook perhaps with appropriate words alongside. This format is something I researched for my MA but chose ultimately not to pursue because of time constraints. However, I would like to revisit this and work with one of the reviewers in considering this option.
With a little space from the reviews now, their usefulness is becoming clear, not just in terms of practical considerations and views about my work and its development but also in terms of focusing me on at least two revelations or contradictions in my work to do with studium and punctum, and context and sense of place. I intend to think about these themes in my next practice period, starting next week, and then to follow this up with consideration of the practical and theoretical strands in my research. I will also use this draft as a basis for the meeting I have with my supervisor next week.
Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography. London, Vintage.
Darwent, C. 2007. Daniel Gustav Cramer. https://goo.gl/4NI8sB
Galleria Carla Sozzani (2007) Trilogy: Press Release
Parisi, C. 2010. Interview with Daniel Gustav Cramer, in Klat Magazine (No 4, October 2010)
Van Der Molen, A. (2020). The Living Mountain. Amsterdam, Fw:Books.