Initial Questions framed for this Thought Piece
- What is contemporary practice?
- Why is positioning my work within contemporary practice important?
- Should I position myself in the context of photographers or other creative artists (such as painters, writers, poets) too?
- How do I position myself relative to others and on what basis?
- Similarity of subject matter?
- Similarity of place – Skye, Scotland?
- Similarity of approach? Black and white, reduction, metaphor?
- Similarity of technique? Multiple exposure, intentional camera movement?
- Similarity in theoretical underpinning?
- Similarity of intent and how they describe their work
- Who do I identify with and why? I find it easier to identify with the likes of Fay Godwin, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt and Minor White.
- Why is this exercise difficult for me? Is it because I tend to see the exercise in terms of comparisons rather than positioning?
- Who, – Roman Loranc, Awioska van der Molen, Daniel Gustav Cramer, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Matthew Murray, Chris Weston, Valda Bailey, Victoria Crowe and why?
- Particular series or works that resonate? Mirrors and Windows, The Pool, Tules, etc
- New ideas in terms of photographers and works? Stretching my Mind? Cindy Sherman
- New ideas in terms of presenting/curating work? Victoria Crowe, Sophie Calle
I like to start with a definition and in this case the clarity is required in terms of what is considered contemporary?
“Of or characteristic of the present time; modern; (esp. of furniture, clothing, etc.) having modern, as distinct from traditional, features or styling; (sometimes) spec. designating music, architecture, etc., which makes use of new, often experimental, ideas and techniques.” (Oxford English Dictionary).
This clarification limits me to consider only those photographers currently practising.
Positioning My Work in Contemporary Practice
I do struggle with this concept, but I recognise that it is important. I struggle because I feel that in some way through positioning, I am making judgements or comparisons about my work vis a vis another which I find uncomfortable.
Why is it important to compare and contrast my practice with that of others? I guess it gives a sense of legitimacy of ideas and practice, it certainly provides inspiration and it helps to provide a sense of “home” in what is, for me, a solitary pursuit – it can provide networking opportunities too. It is important in terms of providing a professional grounding and, if I consider other creative artists too, then it gives me a wider context to my work and allows me to approach and develop my photographic work in an informed way. This dual sense of theoretical underpinning and context provides the foundations for a rounded creative professional.
To date, I have tended to refer not only to other photographers’ work, but also to artists and writers such as J M W Turner and Claude Monet, and Nan Shepherd and Robert Macfarlane. I have also delved into books by those who have explored the Isle of Skye through walking or climbing the mountains such as Seton Gordon.
One of the questions I continually ask myself in approaching this exercise is on what basis might I determine a sense of positioning with another? In my case, is it similarity of subject matter – small aspects of the landscape – or should I seek out those who take a sublime approach to representing the Island? I do not see a lot of similarities in terms of photographic intent here. Or should it be similarity of the place we are seeking to represent? This has, to date, been more successful and has indeed informed and at times complemented my work. For example, I have used others’ words alongside my images, to provide an additional sense of the place and additional context to my images.
My early attempts at positioning tended to be those photographers that work with black and white imagery and I tended to look further back in time to the likes of Minor White and Ansel Adams for technical and framing insights, to Bill Brandt for his mastery of light and shade and Fay Godwin because of similarities in place, subject matter and approach. More recently I have looked further afield and as my work has become more experimental, so I have investigated those whose imagery is more creative. However, what has become more important to me, is how others talk about their photographic practice, what they are trying to capture in their images, and what story or message they are seeking to convey to others. Furthermore, a clear intent, based on well-researched concepts and ideas is important.
My Inspirations in Contemporary Practice
For example, Iain Sarjeant (2014) in his project, The Pool, focused on a tiny stretch of water. He said of his work that:
“By singling out and focusing on individual elements, these complex and competing patterns are simplified and a sense of depth created.” (Sarjeant 2014:1).
In search of quiet and solitude in the landscape is a key driver for me and Awoiska van der Molen (2017) and Margaret Soraya (2019) inspire me in this respect.
“I go away from everything in the present to move in these quiet situations to be able to leave things behind me and become quiet in myself”. (van der Molen 2017).
“I have to experience aloneness; I must find that peaceful place that I go to whilst immersed in a landscape that speaks to me. (Soraya 2019).
From a theoretical point of view, I find the words of Gerry Badger (2010) about the quiet photographer helpful too:
“. . . his or her artistic persona from first to last is modest, self-effacing . . . The “quiet” photographer focuses upon modest rather than determinedly grand subjects, eschews quirky tricks of technique or vision and perhaps crucially presents the work in an understated way.” (Badger 2010:210).
I am limited on space in this short exposition but could also name Daniel Gustav Cramer, Roman Loranc, Thomas Joshua Cooper and Valda Bailey as influencing me in some way in my creative practice.
Researching Contemporary Practice – the Deep Dive
I feel a need to be more open in my exploration of contemporary practice particularly in the area of curating and presenting work. For example, I visited the artist, Victoria Crowe’s Exhibition in Edinburgh last year and was fascinated by a moving image of her work accompanied by classical music.
I need to seek inspiration from those whose work does not immediately resonate with mine nor perhaps attract me on first viewing. I need to spend more time reading about photographers’ motivations in their work and how they speak about what they do. For example, I enjoy the photography of Cindy Sherman, and her early Film Stills work in particular. I also find Sophie Calle’s projects fascinating and her combination of words and images is something I wish to explore further in my own presentation. But these are very famous and successful photographers and there are many more that I need to become familiar with and understand.
A Note of Caution
I think my previous resistance to engage fully and comprehensively in a positioning exercise, is about my wish to develop my own style and voice and whilst we have to accept that there is probably nothing creative that hasn’t been done before, it is nonetheless important to find your own path. Whilst, as I said earlier, looking at practitioners’ work can be inspirational, there are many who seek to emulate a particular photographer in style and presentation. They may be reasonably successful in doing so but have little chance of developing and enhancing their work beyond that point.
So, as in my first piece, I feel I have barely scratched the surface, but nonetheless, have faced up to some reticence on my part and noted some of the reasons for this. I have recognised a need for ongoing enquiry of what others are doing as a means of positioning myself in contemporary practice.
Badger, G. (2010). The Pleasures of Good Photographs. New York, Aperture.
Sarjeant, I. (2014). The Pool. Chicago, Triplekite.
Soraya, M. (2019). “About Margaret.” Retrieved 20 October 2019, from https://www.margaretsoraya.com/.
Van Der Molen, A. (2017). The Photographers’ Gallery interviews Awoiska van der Molen.