assignment 1 – beauty and the sublime

Produce a series of​ ​8 photographs​ that convey your own interpretation of beauty and/or the sublime within the context of landscape. You may choose to support, question or subvert accepted definitions of these terms. Your images don’t necessarily have to be made in the same place or type of location; however, they should complement one another and attempt to function as a cohesive series.

– LPE Coursebook, p.57

Beauty is a concept encoded in the way a picture is put together and presented to the viewer. A moment can be extended to hold something timeless, possibly even containing an element of truth (that’s what Keats thought, anyway). The sublime is quicker, hotter somehow. It bypasses the head to communicate with our darker emotions. Beauty is stable, existing outside of time and history; the sublime is evanescent, speaking to our fears even as we struggle to work out exactly what it is that confronts us. Beauty endures, while the sublime dissipates, like the weakening potency of a radioactive element whose half-life has passed.

If the countryside is expected to be conventionally beautiful – in summer at any rate – it  is harder to take the necessary contemplative step back from a city; you are confronted constantly by sights and scenes, without ever being given the time to drink it in or to try to make sense of it all. Should the city then, be viewed as a location tinged with the sublime, unsettling and dangerous – the very opposite of nature and the natural; how can it be aestheticised and turned into something beautiful?


fig.1: great stone sea stacks

fig.2:  cliffs, towering above you

fig.3: livestock, living among nature

fig.4: fearsome symmetries

fig.5: sites of ritual significance

fig.7: effects of the light

fig.8:  shelter from lowering skies

The pictures of Orkney were selected (from many, many others) either because they rhymed with things I knew I could photograph in London  – the Old Man of Hoy and the 50s clock tower, cliffs and the sheer walls of the blocks of flats that are springing up on any available plot at the moment, in Walthamstow – or because they were ‘typical’ of rural beauty, but generic enough that their equivalent should be findable in the city if I thought hard enough – sunsets, or symmetry arranged around a vanishing point.

The links between the paired pictures work.  Looking at them, you can see something of what I think about pictures and picture making (and you can see that I have a decided fondness for triangles) but you can’t tell much about how I feel about the places I have pictured. It’s all a bit cerebral, somehow.  Maybe the pictures that directly involve aspects of lockdown – the shrouded exercise equipment; the dark emptiness glimpsed within a pub – invoke something of the sublime –  though it will be interesting to see how quickly that may dissipates, as things develop over the course of the next twelve months – and they all repay a good, long look, I think. But are any of them actually beautiful? I don’t know. 

 

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assignment 1 – approach, editing and presentation

town and country; before, during, but not after, covid

About a year ago, approaching the end of DIaC and looking forward to starting landscape, I assumed I would be able to get to Orkney at some point during 2020. While there, I would put together a long-list of images to use in this assignment. There would be plenty there to play with while examining ideas of ‘beauty’ and the ‘sublime’. However, there was also the danger that I would get caught up in ‘views’ and the ‘picturesque’, that I would just end up taking all the same pictures I always take and that it would all seem a bit stale. So, maybe it was a stroke of luck that Covid put an end to all that…

By November as I began to think seriously about the assignment, it had become apparent that I wouldn’t be travelling north anytime soon, but I didn’t want to jettison the idea of using photographs from Orkney altogether. I had started taking pictures in Walthamstow, as one of the possible candidate sites for part five’s self directed project, and began to realise that some of the pictures were not that different to the sort of pictures I have taken back home on holiday, but a lot more urban. As well as subject matter, there was also formal and compositional continuity in play.

fig.1: an orcadian is a farmer with a boat (but a shetlander is a fisherman with a croft)

I did a search of my Lightroom catalogue using the keyword ‘Orkney’ and got an unsurprisingly large set of results. I narrowed this down to 150 or so, and then did further sifting to arrive at 30-odd images. A final edit left me with eleven pictures which I thought had an equivalent among my London pictures (or, if I didn’t already have one, it would not be too hard to work out where and how to take one).

fig.2: candidate images – contact sheet – (click to open larger)

The contact sheet is made up of the eleven  Orkney pictures (1, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 16, 19, 21, 23 and 25); the pictures in between (up to #26) were taken as I went out for essentials, or for exercise, over the last couple of months in Walthamstow. It didn’t take too long to narrow things down further to nine pictures taken in Orkney and  around fifteen from Walthamstow .

fig.3: sudden flashes of illumination

(The final four ‘fog’ pictures are included here because I am fond of them and the way they work nicely in a neo-Pictorialist sort of way. I particularly like the way #27 makes me think of Steichen’s 1904 Flatiron Building picture – at a stretch it could be used instead of #6 as a sublime, urban cliff-face –  but #6 is better for my purposes and more threatening somehow. Like the two diptyches – fig.1 & fig.3 –  included in this post, they aren’t being considered for the assignment any more but it would be a shame if they didn’t get at least a mention in passing.)

Some pairings are obvious, but others needed more thought. The three alternatives for stone sea stacks all work in different ways. And also, laid out like this in a two by two grid, make me think of a postcard, but that’s the picturesque again.

Then settling on a pair for the photograph taken at the Ring of Brodgar,  the  ‘fog’ picture, taken on the roof of Sainsbury’s carpark is quite beautiful I think, while the shrouded exercise machines in Thomas Gamuel Park have a hint of the sublime around them, or at any rate some form of memento mori. It is a hard choice to make.

Both these pairings will make the final cut , but not all of the others will fit; some pairs will have to go completely.

fig.4 – fearsome symmetry

Then I thought about presenting the final images as eight diptychs (which is what I have done with the rejected pairings used in this post) but somehow that seemed to reduce the impact of both pictures, making it more an exercise in contrasts (between city and countryside; between rural and urban) rather than a meditation on beauty and the sublime . Also, there is a danger that this would be interpreted (quite rightly) as sixteen photographs rather than the eight we have been asked for in the brief.

So, I decided to make the Orkney pictures into an animated slideshow  (which would place them fair-and-square in the past, and into ideas of holiday and the picturesque) while the London pictures would be presented as individual images, composed and able to be viewed flat on a gallery wall. Their titles would make the link between each picture and its pair.

I’m not a fan of digital slideshows that mutely dissolve image into image into image, but I was knocked out a couple of years ago by the recreation of Roger Maynes’ installation, made for the 1964 Venice Biennale, at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2017.  The noise of the 320 slides clanking through the gates of five projecters was quite an overwhelming – maybe even sublime – experience; perhaps I could capture some of that, through sound effects (of my father’s Aldis projector and with a simple in/out picture transition, coded in java and then assembled in iMovie). I have added a voice over too, to provide the rhyming titles for the Walthamstow pictures as well as attempting to introduce a bit of Victorian, magic-lantern-show, showmanship.

One pairing still needs to go (eight photographs and the slideshow unfortunately equals nine) and I suspect it will be the last one, if only because the Walthamstow image is the only portrait composition left and it would stick out a bit. A pity though – it’s the most sublime of both sets, confusing in what it shows (a fierce sky reflected in the windows of a locked down pub with a black void in its centre) and  – once you twig what’s going on – redolent of how powerless we can feel in the face of the ongoing pandemic.

If, by the time I am preparing LPE for assessment, a physical element has become possible again, my submission for this assignment  will consist of seven A3 prints and the video slideshow. While A3 isn’t really big enough for the prints  – in my mind, the Walthamstow pictures are much, much larger while the slideshow clanks away, noisily looping in a windowless room, off to one side of the exhibition space – it does hark back to the days when exhibitions of photographs – for reasons determined by both the technology of making photographic prints, and also the modernist view of what ‘a photograph’ should be –  consisted of modestly-sized  prints, arranged around the walls of a gallery. Also, the role of the OCA as an artistic gatekeeper is acknowledged by my adoption of  the assessment standard of A3 (on matte or semi-gloss paper, with wide borders for handling) for levels two and three of the degree.

My eventual submission for the assignment will consist of seven photographs from Walthamstow, and a slideshow to create the eighth piece of work. I just need now to decide which of the Walthamstow photographs are the final seven and whether the slideshow goes at the front or comes at the end.

I will post this now, and put it up for review on the various online forums available to students at the OCA. While I wait for responses, I’ll try and get the exercises written up, aiming to send the links to my tutor by the end of the month…


Reference:
  • Maynes, R. (2017) The British at Leisure [Installation of five projectors, showing 320 transparencies with jazz accompaniment] London: The Photographers’ Gallery. 03/03/17 – 11/06/16.
  • Steichen, E.J. (1904, printed 1909) The Flatiron. (Gum bichromate over platinum print) Online: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267803 (accessed: 22/2/21)

why landscape, place and environment?

at the start of the module…

Gerry Badger, in his book accompanying the 2007 BBC series The Genius of Photography (I think – of course, I can’t find the exact quote now, when I need it – I need to work much harder on making notes) defines three constant strands of photographic subject matter: people, objects and places. In earlier modules, I have systematically dealt with photographing the first two. I have turned my camera on people (Identity and Place in particular) while much of my work for  Digital Image and Culture was concerned with picturing objects (stuff) and using the resulting images to depict a version of myself as I moved through the world.


wood

However, I have always seen myself a primarily a photographer concerned with place. This is the course I’ve felt I have been working towards during the first two levels of study at the Open College of Art. So what do I want to get out of it?

  • I want to up my game technically: apart from too many of the photographs I’ve taken recently have been a bit snatched, with the real work taking place later. I’d like to get a bit more exact here, a bit more considered. I should get into the way of putting a camera on a tripod and taking my time. I’d like to get a bit better at printing (even if there will still be no physical element to the assessment, when I get to that point); I’d also like to put a lot more thought into digital display – many more people will see my work online than will ever be able to see nice large prints, even if the assessors can…

  • I found the experience of working on a single, body during the second half of  DIaC extremely satisfying. One of the most attractive things about Landscape, Space and Environment was the sixth assignment, worked on and developed throughout the course; I signed up for the module a day or so to late to have this formally enshrined in the course, but – as my tutor pointed out at our initial (virtual) meeting – there’s no reason why this cannot be incorporated into the idea of a self-directed project (assignment 5).  

  • Over the past six years, I have developed a fondness for working in a more conceptual way; there is usually an element of self-referentiality lurking within my work now. This is no bad thing, and providing the work is personal, something people can identify with, rather than drily cerebral; people should want to look at the pictures and to take pleasure from them, rather than simply do work on an exercise of decoding them. I don’t want to lose this aspect of my practice.

  • I’m hugely aware that making a picture that even comes close to capturing the experience of standing in front of a view (and I’m becoming aware of the difference between a view and a landscape) is a very hard thing to do.  I want to increase the likelihood that a photograph I take in a location manages to catch some of the charge of whatever it was that made me stop and take the picture in the first place. Of course, this does not mean that I want to return to taking single good, pictures, but I would like to make each part of a series work a little harder, a little better.
    trees

In earlier modules, I have based at least one assignment (and a fair bit of coursework) per module, around places; these projects have been among my most successful work. So, to bring this post to a close, here are some starting points for this journey through Landscape, Space and Environment:

 

 

 

 

about me

portrait of the artist as a photographer

I was born and grew up in Orkney and, after after attending university and then  living and working in Glasgow for a decade or so, moved to London around the turn of the century.

I have been here ever since, working and getting older.

When I was forty-one, rather too late to be of much use as the basis for a radical career reset, I had the blinding epiphany that, for as long as I could remember, the action of putting things together linked pretty much everything I had enjoyed doing and had been good at. Lego, Airfix models, ideas, stories, people and things, building stuff, seeing what went well with what – all of them involved some degree of construction. This facility for assembly has underpinned most of what I have done to earn a living since leaving university, but has only occasionally resulted in something I would describe as self expression.

Then, as I reached the end of my forties (a good decade professionally, as well as personally) I decided I wanted to spend the next decade or so developing something for myself, rather than for the benefit of my employers…

I’ve been taking photographs since I was ten;  I’d been aware of the OCA’s photography degree for some time, but had never quite got round to it. So, 29 days after my 50th birthday, I signed up for The Art of Photography (ph4TAoP) and now, six and a bit years later, here I am…

If you’re interested in how I got to this point, my earlier blogs are here:

London

‘[London] is a bit of a blessing for a photographer like me, as there is so much to play with: iconic backdrops, architecture from many different centuries, a wide variety of cultures and demographics, four distinct seasons and generally nice light.’

– Alan Schaller (Guardian; 12/11/20)

When I first started planning what to do with Landscape, I was thinking in terms of making pictures in quite a few, geographically diverse locations; Covid (and to a lesser extent a desire to reduce the number of flights I make) has changed all that.

This is not a bad thing. I have generally taken more care with pictures I have taken while ‘away’ than those taken when I am ‘home’. Only a fifth of the pictures posted to my flickr feed are in the album ‘London‘; a large proportion of them are of details, or things which are not specific to their place. In my lightroom catalogue, only thirty percent of the pictures are tagged ‘london’; even if you take into account the absence of ‘place’ tags for many of the pictures, the amount of time I spend in the city is not really reflected in the number of pictures I take there.

So, if the current pandemic-imposed limits to my world mean that I need to look more closely at the small corner of East London where I live, I can take heart from quotes like the one at the top of this post:  I have access to subject matter aplenty and I have the time to do it justice; I just need to work out how to fit it all into the coursework and the assignments…

 


reference:

Hooton, C. (2020) ‘Real-life Giacomettis take a rainy riverside stroll: Alan Schaller’s best photograph’ In: The Guardian 11/11/2020.  At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/nov/11/real-life-giacomettis-riverside-rainy-stroll-alan-schallers-best-photograph (Accessed 12/11/20)

 

part 1, exercise 1 – preconceptions

when I hear the word landscape, what do I think of?

This first exercise is notionally very simple: write 300 words that explore what the term ‘landscape’ means to you.

  • What does it immediately evoke?
  • What sort of images and ideas come to mind?
  • Are there certain sorts of landscapes that you have a preference for?
  • Which landscapes do you feel an urge to photograph?

The purpose of this activity is to get you thinking about traditions and conventions within landscape practice, and encourage you to consider why (and indeed whether) they exist. It will also serve as an interesting reference point when you come to the end of the course.

– LPE Coursebook, p.26

the edge of the rainforest, from the air

Landscape is a physical thing: ‘the landscape.’ It’s what you see laid out before you, when you stand at a viewpoint. It draws your gaze out from the foreground, up (or maybe down, if the viewpoint is an elevated one) and off towards a distant horizon. You can feel yourself drawing in a deep breath in the presence of landscape. Landscape is spacious.

burray, from holm

Landscape is rural and green. It may be have been tamed and gently rounded or it may be bleak and jagged.  Landscape can be nostalgic and landscape can be sentimental, harking back to an earlier, better way of life. If the landscape contains obvious signs of modernity such as barbed wire or pylons or tarmac roads or machinery, these things probably should not be dwelled upon.

flotta

Landscape is a genre of painting, now shared with photography.  Landscape takes a step back; it provides context rather than a single, isolated detail. If the action of people depicted within the landscape is what makes it interesting, it is probably no longer a landscape. If a landscape depicts the sea it is a seascape; if it depicts the urban environment it is a cityscape.

brasilia

Landscape is considered; a landscape photograph is not a simple snapshot. Landscape is stillness, interrupting motion. If I am walking, or on my bike; if I am driving somewhere in a car and have a sudden urge to stop and to look;  if I chance upon something which seems characteristic and will help me remember a place – these things all are triggers for my making something that may be termed a landscape.

clapton from walthamstow marshes

‘Landscape’ is one of the two fundamental formats available for a photograph or a print (the other is ‘Portrait.’). It is, of course, possible to take pictures of a place with your camera held vertically, just as you can make pictures of people with the long side of the frame parallel to the horizon, but there still are  people who will tut and wag their fingers at you.

There are rules to landscape; but, of course, rules can be broken.


We are also asked to write a few words to explain why we are taking this particular course. Those words can be found here