I have decided to write some Thought Pieces that attempt to summarise and throw some light on the issues that my supervisors raise in our meetings. My intention is to provide more information, raise additional questions – not always with immediate answers, and attempt to identify the range of related issues. I am conscious however, that I cannot be comprehensive in my coverage given the summary nature of these pieces. Ambitious maybe, but I feel I need to make a start on answering some of these important questions.
Initial Questions framed for this Thought Piece
- Definition of essence/ephemeral?
- What is the essence in various creative practices including painting?
- What is the essence of Skye?
- How does object-oriented ontology and other philosophical thinking support my photographic practice?
- How do I access the essence in my photographic practice?
- What strategies can I use to access the noumenal?
- How do I recognise the essence in my images – at the point of capture and in the review stage post photo shoot?
- How do I increase my chances of success in my photographic practice?
- How might I recognise the capture of the essence in contemporary photographers’ work? Is it about their images or how they describe their photographic practice or both?
- How do I demonstrate that I have achieved what I set out to in my practice at the end of my PhD?
- How do I determine research methods that will deliver confirmation that I have captured the essence of Skye?
- Who do I ask, as part of my research, whether I have achieved my aims and objectives in my photographic practice?
A useful starting point for me is always to find a definition of what it is I am seeking to clarify or develop. Essence is defined as:
“‘Substance’ in the metaphysical sense; the reality underlying phenomena; absolute being.”
“of a real entity: Objective character, intrinsic nature as a ‘thing-in-itself’; ‘that internal constitution, on which all the sensible properties depend’.” (Oxford English Dictionary)
And the definition of Ephemeral:
“That is in existence, power, favour, popularity, etc. for a short time only short-lived; transitory.” (Oxford English Dictionary)
Accessing the Essence in Creative Practice
Finding ways to access the “real”, that critical feature or short-lived glimpse is something that not only photographers’ but painters, poets and musicians strive for. While some are content to capture a literal representation of the places they visit, a few recognise the essence of place, that which lies beyond mere sensory perception and find ways and seek strategies to access the heart of their subject. While writers use poetry or poetic prose, musicians seek to capture the essence in their melodies. For J M W Turner, in order to capture the essence of a storm at sea, he strapped himself to the mast of a boat and sailed into a raging storm. For others like Nan Shepherd, it is about spending a lifetime experiencing and writing about her beloved Cairngorms in The Living Mountain (2011) or Monet relentlessly capturing Giverny and the surrounding countryside. What I believe is common to the exceptional in their field is that they elevate the awareness of being – of being aware of being in another and being aware of their own being.
From Experience to Essence
As I examined my photographic intent in relation to the Isle of Skye and as I submerged myself in its landscape it provided me with a chance for introspection and provided an experiential dimension to my work. However, in my words:
“. . . this phenomenological approach – whilst challenging – became an uncomfortable philosophical constraint. Like well-worn shoes it appeared to fit, except there was grit in the sole. That grit was the reality of Skye that transcends personal experience and insists on being noticed.” (Price 2019:1).
It was at this point that I realised that:
“My search is not for literal representation of the world I explore but to reveal its reality, and through that the essence of my experience of that reality.”
I recognised that it was not the phenomenal that inspired and challenged me but, in Kantian terms, it was the noumenal – the hidden reality that lies behind sensory experience. The ontology of Latour, Meillassoux, Ortega, (“I”-ness), Heidegger (Dasein – being aware of being), Derrida and particularly Graham Harman’s (2018) “real object” began to answer my questions: my search was not for meaning in a classical sense but rather to reveal, for anybody that looks, the essential reality and truth that lies below the flux of sensory perception.
Systematic Approach to Field and Processing Work
To date, I have sought to capture the noumenal through various photographic strategies including the reduction to black and white images, reducing the frame to focus on micro aspects of nature, the use of metaphor, intentional camera movement and multiple exposures. Whilst I have had a degree of success, I need to work in a systematic way to experiment how I can increase my success rate in capturing the luminosity, depth and glances of the noumenal. I need to write notes in the field, record what worked and what did not and why – as if it were a scientific experiment. I need to build a body of successful images being clear about how they have achieved my goal. It needs to be something more than a feeling – I need to be systematic in analysing my outputs.
I believe a carefully managed and monitored approach will lead me to a position where I can recognise both in the field and in post-processing those images that capture the noumenal. This may also inform my abilities to recognise similar success by contemporary photographers in terms of their imagery and the way they write about their photographic intent.
Positioning in Contemporary Photographic Practice (see Thought Piece 2)
There are a number of photographers whose work and the description of their practice I relate to. The dark, haunting images of Awioska van der Molen revealing small details in faraway landscapes, the personal exposition by Matthew Murray of the essence of Saddleworth, the act of revealing and concealing as described by Daniel Gustav Cramer and the search for solitude and quiet of Margaret Soraya all serve to provide me with inspiration and ideas to develop my own work. However, I would to like to spend more time researching contemporary photographers as part of my PhD. I plan to write a Thought Piece about this area in the coming days.
Research Methods (see Thought Piece 3)
Again, a topic for a future Thought Piece but my work on this area has led me to think about the research methods I might use to demonstrate my success in capturing the essence or the ephemeral hiddenness. Furthermore, I need to reflect on who I should talk to about this and what methods would best support it.
I have enjoyed writing my first Thought Piece. I would be interested to hear your comments about its format and content and whether as an approach it works!
Harman, G. (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. Milton Keynes, Pelican Books.
Shepherd, N. (2011). The Living Mountain. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.