Sharon Boothroyd

a view of Oxford Castle

temporary beauty parlour, shopping arcade, Oxford

I arrive early on a pre-booked train for the OCA study day with Sharon Boothroyd since the time of meeting appears to have changed; spend a while walking around Oxford before heading for the Jam Factory, our meeting place. When I arrive, Sharon is already there – a mix up means that everyone is now coming at 12 rather than eleven.

OCA tutor Sharon Boothroyd waits for students to arrive

I chat a little with Sharon who has only been a tutor at the OCA for only a few months. She asks me what I have been up to and I briefly relate my short visit to Switzerland to photograph the inauguration of a Buddhist centre. No fee but I was not charged for accommodation and food while there; what I actually got out of it was some photographs of Tibetan Sacred Dance taking place in Europe rather than the Himalayas.

Sharon shows me a fascinating article in The Guardian Weekend magazine (28.7.2012) in which different photojournalists discuss their feelings about photographing people in distress when they might actually be helping them. The words of one photographer, Ian Berry, seem particularly relevant when he says … “When you are working with a camera, you tend to disassociate yourself from what’s going on. Your’e just an observer!” Sharon’s own blog is called Photoparley.

As the midday hour approaches, people start to arrive although only 7 of a possible ten eventually turn up. We start chatting and Jose Navarro’s blog “Why” about the recent shooting inside a cinema showing the launch of a new Batman film; Jose’s main objection seems to be with the BBC using unsubstantiated and poor quality video of a sensationalist nature that has been shot on a mobile phone.

Sharon Boothroyd (right) guides the OCA study day discussion

The day starts with us introducing ourselves by name and saying a little about our involvement with photography and/or the OCA. One student echoes my thoughts when he says he is doing the OCA course to try and inject meaning into his work rather than just make cliched images. Most of us seem to have been photographing for sometime, at least a couple from childhood and the spectre of the Box Brownie is raised. The support offered by the study days is a relief from the isolation some of us feel in our studies. Eddie, a frequent attendee to such days, remarks that he thinks the days are more about art than photography and I guess he has his point though exactly what he understands as art and photography is not something we start to discuss. One student says he is setting up a wet darkroom and plans to go back to analogue ways of workng.

We discuss blogs and their possible content. There has recently been a post on the We Are OCA website about “learning logs” and the different levels of interest they might evoke. I do not completely agree with the sentiments expressed since the occasional out of context remark such as “the coffee was good” can help to create a wider sense of context even though the subject does not in any way demand it. Blogs need to be well organised on the site so one can navigate to what one might want to read or look at. Someone expresses the need for privacy on their blog and not wanting to share it with others since it contains ideas and thoughts that are not necessarily valid points rather conjecture.

Why do we love photography? Eddie, by whom I find myself sitting, loves photography but feels frustrated by his lack of technical ability in actually making photographs since he would rather be developing the aesthetic side. He is attracted by the challenge and so am I.
I do not love photography! I see it as an almost organic approach to life, a way to see the world and understand it intelligently. There can be an obsessive side to it as cameras become objects of desire, adult toys, that we like to play around with. A Freudian interpretation is that the camera represents the phallus and for the middle aged man who no longer has the zest of a younger man, it maybe a welcomed substitute. Cameras can be seems as phallic objects and photography as a kind of totemism.
Photography can give a sense of the aesthetic, the freedom of expression. I find it can help me to stay on my own two feet and not become too dreamy or philosophical.

Who are our favourite photographers? I mention Raghu Rai, the quintessential Indian photographer, who no one seems to have heard of although he is an associate of Magnum. Sharon mentions photographers such as Hannah Starkey who think a lot about the images they create, making a lot of time to produce finely constructed images that also possess narrative. Jill, a new student who has only been with the OCA for about 5 weeks but has done a foundation course in photography, mentions a diverse range of photographers; Jeff Wall and his constructed images, Robert Frank and his use of the frame and text as well as Sebastian Salgado who produces such interesting work with themes such as migration and work. There is someone who doesn’t have a favourite photographer seeing photography as a means of data collection that can later be used; Sharon mentioned Geoffrey Crewdson to him. The name Salgado crops up again as others express their views as well as Geoffrey Crewdson with Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson being inspiring photographers from the past. Someone has seen an exhibition by Anna Fox about Butlins that they liked; Martin Parr is mentioned in connection with this, his images being worth looking at out of interest even if one does not like them very much.

We walk to a nearby gallery to see Sharon’s exhibition. The Art Jericho Gallery as it is called often shows photography in it’s constantly changing programme.

OCA students inside the gallery

“Representations of the Real” is the title of Sharon’s talk which focuses on her work. She is a full time mother as well as a photographer and her blog Photoparley is worth a visit.

She made her first series of images while a teenager when she was visiting the USA for a summer holiday camp. The images are of people she encountered and shot in black and white. Later on, while doing a degree in photography, she photographed women in Kazan (one of the largest cities of Russia situated in Tatarstan). These are of women in their environments such as their place of work or home and also includes girls. The approach is documentary.

The title of the exhibition that we see on the walls around us is “If you get married again, will you still love me?” and is about the relationship between children and their fathers who have moved out of the family home owing to divorce. The work was done for her masters degree. This kind of break up is not something that she has experienced directly in her life but something she has been aware of particularly through the Fathers for Justice movement which has highlighted the trouble men have faced by being separated from their children. She initiated the project by interviewing fathers who had gone through divorce and ensuing separation from their children; it took about 6 months of talking with such men to make notes on the kinds of situations they experienced since actually photographing the real situations felt like an intrusion. Instead, she created her own sets roping in friends who were given prints in return for acting out the parts other men had experienced. The style of these images is documentary and yet Sharon uses a tripod mounted medium format camera with colour negative film for it’s richness of colour and detail, along with a couple of lights. Fathers portrayed in these photographs have been generally supportive of what she is doing. The images accurately convey a certain breakdown in communication that is characteristic of these kind of situations as one OCA student who has been though the experience of divorce recalls.

one of Sharon’s photos – this was set up in a local shop

Sharon shows us other work that includes “Disrupted Vision” which involves photographing people using a relatively inexpensive polaroid camera, showing the result to the person photographed and making a note of their reaction to their image and writing it below on the polaroid itself; she initially, had people write their own comments but their writing was often illegible or over-filled the space. Sharon is interested in the kind of dialogue that photography can create.

Another body of work is called “The Glass Between Us” and is a series of photographs made looking through the windows of people’s houses; before making these images, she asked the owner’s permission and this was usually granted.

A present body of work is called “Edelweiss” and is about the world of the child seen through adult eyes. For this, her children are the subject. She has also been using other people’s or found photographs and creating montages; this has attracted interest but she is at present unsure of the legality of this work.

Sharon answers questions from the group of OCA students who, along with a few members of the public, are gathered in the gallery space. Someone wonders why she does not use black and white (or to give it another name, “black and shite”) photography as this might help create a much more moody look to her photographs which in many cases are of emotional situations; Sharon however, likes the nuances offered by colour and more expressive of what she is communicating. She does not go for digitally constructing situations either, her work being more performance related with actual people playing out appropriate roles. I am struck by her sense of composition which tends to be informal; this is not really deliberate on her part since she takes many photographs of each situation and what is important is the facial expressions and other body language rather than the arrangement of elements within the frame. What strikes me overall about these photographs is that they are of intimate situations and yet constructed so the sense of intimacy is false; this generates a feeling of awkwardness.

On the walk back, I meet a new OCA student called Gill who obviously has a good insight into the nature of photography; we chat a bit about the OCA. Her blog of the event is here.

inside the building housing the large screen video installation

There is another exhibition running in the same gallery showing images from an abandoned mental asylum but I only look at those from Sharon’s exhibition since this is what interests me; I want to understand what that is all about if I can. Before taking the train home though, with a couple of other students, I visit another art photographic exhibition in what looks like an old factory. This is a simulated video made from various digital sources; I need to catch a train and so do have time to see it the whole way through. It is eerie and intriguing yet the relevance of U.S. soldier training is questionable.

a child plays in front of the Djibouti video installation

Daniel Meadows

The Ffotogallery Gallery, Turner House, Penarth, near Cardiff, Wales

I arrive before the talk at Ffotogallery near Cardiff to have a brief look at the “Daniel Meadows: Early Years” exhibition.

Downstairs, there is an audio-visual room, which is showing short movies about Daniel Meadows and his work. As a student, he hired a studio for several weeks and photographed local people at his own expense while later on, he bought a bus and went around the country photographing people while using the bus as a darkroom, allowing him to photograph people one day and present them with a print soon after. The Arts Council supported him in this.

upstairs at the Ffotogallery

While there are some photographs from Mosside in the 1970’s, upstairs there is a much larger group of photographs largely of people from ordinary walks of life.

coloured photos of Butlins

One section is about Butlins and in colour prints of the time when colour photography was beginning to gain respectability as a form of photographic expression although it’s initial tackiness is perhaps being used by Meadows (also Parr) to comment on a perceived tacky nature of Butlins. Most of the photographs however, are in black and white and made in a straightforward documentary style.

An interesting aspect to this work is the way Daniel Meadows has gone back and found the people he photographed almost a quarter of a century ago; rephotographing them and then putting the old and new photographs side by side does create a fascinating insight into the way people age and the way British society has changed over that period.

I have a booked seat but arrive early since there are people who have come without bookings! Before the talk begins, I go to the toilet but someone pushes past and enters before me; as I wait the photographer Paul Reas (have a copy of his book Can I help?) comes up also wanting the loo and I wonder if I should let him go before me. We say “hello!” and both wait; I decide not to let him go in front as that might be psychophantic!

Val Williams, the curator of the exhibition, is not here tonight; she has however, been very influential in putting it together, choosing the photographs herself. She has a special interest in 1970’s British photography (apart from her book on Meadows, she has also done one on his friend, Martin Parr). Birmingham City?? Gallery are also an interested party. Meadows himself does not understand the “art” gallery world. There was an extensive search to find photographs for this exhibition such as inquiries being made to now defunct regional arts bodies.

Raul Reas and Daniel Meadows (right) seated

Paul Reas interviews and introduces Daniel Meadows; he is himself a documentary photographer but of the next generation to Meadows. Reas has a retrospective in Bradford next year, the town in which he grew up. He cites Meadows as an early influence and studied under him at Newport; he has known him for about 30 years. Along with contemporaries such as Anna Fox, Paul Graham and Paul Seawright, he not only learnt from Meadows but also challenged his approach.

The late photographer and teacher Bill Jay cited Daniel Meadows in his book Photographers Photographed, describing him as a peripatetic photographer; Meadows had bought his own bus, converted it into a studio and gone around England photographing ordinary people. He is regarded as being part of the development of 1970’s photography in Britain.

Daniel Meadows was sent away to boarding school at the age of 8, a place he hated. The school did once allow the boys to see TV, the programme being the funeral of WInston Churchill. He was aware that the 1960’s was happening outside the confines of his school where cruel treatment was commonplace particularly from other boys. Art was only a possible option when you had failed at everything else. It was on an art trip from school to the Hayward Gallery in London where there was a Bill Brandt exhibition on that Meadows, aged 18, experienced the possibilities of photography as a viable medium. Bill Brandt impressed him by his ability to move through the class system, from workng miners to old boys at their club in London. Women took their clothes off for him, another source of inspiration for an 18 year old!

memorablia from Meadows career posted on a wall of the gallery

A lot of the portraits and following prints Daniel Meadows made in his early days, were given as gifts to the sitters; in turn, they would invite him into their homes and to events that he was happy to photograph. His book “Living Like This” from this era sold as many as 17,000 copies. He deliberately tried to copy the approach of not only Brandt but also Tony Ray Jones and Benjamin Stone. These days photographers are not encouraged to copy but to be more original and different.

He saw much of his personal work, work that came from him rather than work he was paid to do, as not being serious; now it is the more important. There was a time when he had to photograph Margaret Thatcher who was busy with the Lockerbie disaster and so turned up late. While waiting, he asked permission to do a few test exposures and security eventually said that he could; it was not until sometime later that he received a call congratulating him on photographing Mrs.Thatcher’s handbag, something no one else had managed. Photography is full of coincidences.

He started out working with Martin Parr, his contemporary, who has gone on to radically alter the general perspective of photography; Meadows however, has taken a different route and one quality of his documentary style photographs is that they show what people featured are like. He is a story-teller and also used a tape recorder to record audio-diaries.

When he bought his bus and set out to photograph what people were really like, he expected them to be “rotten” but was surprised to find them “fantastic”. His documents are of time and place, slightly melancholic. Meadows himself often felt nervous, seldom had much cash (it took him a year and a half to raise the money for the trip). People sometimes tried to break into his bus and were surprised to find there was someone inside.

Politics does not feature much in Meadow’s work. He has always hated mainstream politics and has a similar disdain for popular TV although he did work for Granada TV for two years – he saw the culture as rubbishy.

It took him a long time to realise he was making his own photographs. Early work in Moss Side, a part of Manchester, was a conscious attempt to record a place that was being destroyed. Some of the photographs made in people’s front rooms could take him and Martin Parr up to 3 months to arrange.

Meadows had to take maths “O” level 6 times before he passed; hence he did not fit in the hold of the photographer who trained to be a professional.

Most photographs that are taken will never be seen yet those that are can have a big effect.

Meadow’s approach is humanitarian; there is greater engagement by the photographer with the subject. Meadows was inspired by Ivan Illich‘s 1973 book, “Tools for conviviality”. We are surrounded by tools and we need to choose and use them carefully.

One of his subjects was Stanley who he met as the man operating Britain’s last steam driven cotton mill. Meadows developed a close relationship that continues to this day. There are 2 videos about Stanley in the audio-visual room accompanying the exhibition.

Meadows spent the second part of his photographic like trying to understand the first part!

His photographs carry stories although these are not made clear in the exhibition. He went back after about a quarter of a century to rephotograph them and this makes a fascinating document part of which is visible on a digital screen at one end of the gallery. Talking to the people he had photographed before bought up interesting memories of the time that are not evident or only hinted at from the images.

Although Meadows has experienced disillusionment, his photographic explorations has helped him discover humanity.

The quality of his work was not always of a professional standard but that did not detract from what he was photographing. He would have liked to have the kind of equipment that exists these days that can make almost anyone into a maker of photographs. His equipment was quite basic in his early years and yet it did the job.

Meadows has had good feedback about his work from people who have gone to see it being able to access views from the internet notably Twitter. There are this who wonder what the wall paper must have looked like in his earlier black and white photos to those who found the images brought back memories of former times for those who had lived through them. Some details found in the images are interesting because of the way things have changed – hence, particular types of jeans or shoes common or fashionable then now are no longer made.

Apart from teaching, Daniel Meadows has worked with the BBC, helping to create digital stories, enableng people to make their own stories. The role of the photographer seems to have changed over the years.

Daniel Meadows signs books after his talk

WHen the talk is over, Daniel Meadows signs books downstairs and I buy one and queue to have him sign it. We do not exchange many words. I might have said how I also suffered years of incarceration in boarding schools while the sixties was raging and furthermore also experienced some kind of release on being taken to The Hayward Gallery though I can not remember what I saw there (it certainly was not photography!). He did sign my book and I left feeling that here was a man who had a sense of humanity and joy which shines through his photographs that appear remarkably ordinary and yet have been staged quite brilliantly.

A few weeks later I am back with a group from the OCA and we are met by Helen Warburton of Ffotogallery who gives us a talk about the exhibition and Daniel Meadows as a whole. Much of this can be found in my record of the evening with Daniel Meadows above.

Helen Warburton from The Ffotogallery

One of the striking things about Daniel Meadows is his ability to engage with his subjects; there is a genuine relationship between photographer and sitter. This was not the case when I photographed him signing books at the end of his talk and yet, as Jesse points out, there is a case for keeping a certain distance. There is discussion about Meadows and his old friend Martin Parr, about their differences rather than their similarities; Meadows laughs with while a more satirical Parr laughs at !? I wonder if Meadows really is a more humanistic photographer though since Parr is often misjudged and misunderstood, apparently possessed of a different kind of humanistic outlook.

visitors to the gallery looking at The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited

One interesting project of Meadows is his re-engagement with earlier work in “The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited” in which he sought out and found people he had photographed about a quarter of a century before. A video presentation shows what these people were like in the past and what they look like now; there is also text about them while before they were nameless. The bus that Meadows used in his travels was later bought as an antique and restored at expense to it’s former condition so what might have proved to have been an even more priceless antique has been lost!

Meadow’s colour negative photographs of Butlins from the early 1970’s

Meadows and Parr spent time together at a Butlins holiday camp. Apart from doing their required photographic work, they also found time to make their own photographs of the place with Parr later going on to make a book called The Last Resort of this kind of touristic culture. Meadows photographs show much of the kind of life that went on at a Butlins. Colour photography at this time was new and only just starting to take off.

layout of Butlins colour negative prints

One of the remarkable things about this exhibition and Meadows too, is the way his archive has been preserved along with a wealth of information relating to it. This is largely thanks to Val Williams who has curated the exhibition which was first shown at Bradford; it was Val Williams who  decided exactly what went into the exhibition which is unusual since it is the photographer who usually does this. However, it is thanks to Val Williams that this valuable archive exists.


Out of Focus : a visit to the Saatchi Gallery

“Springs” outside the Saatchi Gallery

Images are snatched from the ether; they are serial, unsequential, layered. They spill out of frames and art turned into objects. Ambiguity is prized.William A Ewing quoted from the catalogue of the Out of Focus exhibition

Another OCA meeting, this time at the Saatchi Gallery where I have never been before although the name Saatchi is famous; I once worked with someone from Saatchi on a project which in the end came to nothing perhaps because people did not seem to like this person in whom they had invested some kind of moral authority that they also wanted to dismiss. Chelsea conjures up not just The King’s Road but some of the artists who once lived around there such as Augustus John who apparently once tried to seduce my mother – he was no longer in his prime then!

Sloane Square and the beginning of The King’s Road, Chelsea

Make the mercifully short walk from Sloane Square Underground to the gallery in pouring rain

It is suggested that we read a review of the exhibition by Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian newspaper. It is not very complimentary, describing the exhibition as a big sprawling mess yet it also recognises it as a significant exhibition of contemporary photographic art with a number of key players and obviously it exerts a fascination for O’Hagan. He mentions that the book accompanying the exhibition by William A Ewing is helpful and I have picked out a few quotes such as the following … “I believe that we are missing something essential if we don’t acknowledge that photography covers a much broader field than what is found on museum or gallery walls.” The reviewer from The Times wrote … “I left feeling rather perplexed — the variety is astonishing but it feels uncurated. The catalogue suggests looking at this show through “an appropriate lens — a kaleidoscope”. It made my eyes go a bit funny.”

Entrance to the Saatchi Gallery

The OCA suggest we take one or two photographers whose work we like and look at them as a way to understand a little of what this exhibition is about; it is not easy to restrict oneself but Mitch Epstein interests me while I can not help be attracted by the work of Katy Grannan that features so prominently.

OCA CEO, Gareth Dent, whittles down the list of photographers to see

This exhibition is perhaps not easy to understand for the layman although there is nothing to stop the casual onlooker enjoying it unless they are rigorously stuck in the traditional view of what art should be. Ewing is helpful in deepening one’s view of what it might all be about writing that “the fields of photography overlap and interconnect in dynamic and complex ways” while OCA tutor Clive White echoes Ewing’s comment that photography is “a world, with continents, countries, extremely varied terrain, unsettled lands, over-populated areas, and boundaries that are vigorously contested” while he singles out one of these groups as Amateurs, described as “A savage folk, Amateurs know no history, nor follow any rules.

From left to right, Gareth Dent, Sharon Boothroyd, Clive and Francesca White

I look around the Saatchi Gallery website and come across a page of links to videos of discussions that have taken place there recently. The most recent is entitled “Photography and the art world” (art world is actually spelt Art World, the capitals announcing it’s importance!?). I decide to watch this and end up making notes because the debate is not only lively but also an interesting reflection on contemporary photography and photography as a whole; it also turns out to be a good introduction to the Out of Focus exhibition.

The first speaker is Hannah Starkey, for whom photography gives freedom from the tyranny of words (being a dyslexic she seems to have trouble talking sometimes repeating words until she gets them right) who did a degree course in vocational photography. For her, it is the medium that most succinctly expresses the human condition which is why she loves photography. She works towards making a portrait that both sitter and photographer are happy with and says that consideration and observation are qualities of photography that she respects. She makes allegorical photos with layers of meaning. The following is a statement in her own words about her work which appears in the book Art Photography Now by Susan Bright in the section Narratives … “By carefully constructing my photographs and controlling all elements within the image, I can express to others how I view the world around me. Also, by collaborating with the people that I cast for my characters and working with them, I find out how others view this world … I then use this history, both cultural and personal, as the framework for the work.

The next speaker is Susan Bright, the author of the book in which the above quote appears. As a writer about photography, she is concerned with the medium which she says is dogged with questions not so much about whether it is art or not but more exactly, what is it’s place in art ? In the introduction to her book Art Photography Now, she says … “Photography is constantly changing and hard to define. Its discursive and somewhat promiscuous nature has tended to confuse many people as to its status and value as an art form. The trouble is that it lends itself to many varied uses.” For instance, what is it’s role in auction houses, archives or agencies !? There is confusion about photography and about it’s purpose … “Meanings can slip and slide depending on context, and the fact that photography lacks any kind of unity and seems to have no intrinsic character … “; this is helpful in understanding what the exhibition is about.

She is particularly attracted by the work of Cindy Sherman about whom she writes “exclusively photographing herself and using the formulaic appearance of certain types of photographs, from the publicity shot to pornography, Sherman has continuously questioned the construction of feminity in contemporary society.” She was however, inspired initially by Ansel Adams, on seeing one of his “3 dimensional prints“. She mentions his “stylistic elegance” but does not include him in her book since he is no longer contemporary. Nevertheless, she talks about him in her introduction to the landscape section since along with Edward Weston, he “took American landscape photography to its formal conclusions.” Adams was a modernist who self-consciously and self-assuredly declared his work as art … “They dazzle and seduce with technical and sensual qualities that aesthetically idealise the landscape.

Susan Bright chose photography as a medium to study and write about partly because it has a short history but actually she found it to have a very complex one; photography is many things … trade, value, intention !! There are so many photographers trying to make a living through art photography; one needs to learn the language of photography to be a photographer. It is no longer correct to say “We are all photographers now!”

Bright thinks we should celebrate the confusion surrounding photography, that the art world does not really get photography. There is a lot of freedom at the moment since what photography is has not been established … photography going through an identity crisis – a good practice would be to enjoy the confusion, it can allow one to do things one might not be otherwise able to. Of the confusion, she writes in her book that “in the acceptance of photography, new areas of confusion are emerging. Just as we think we are beginning to recognise the medium, or at least to characterise it, important technical changes see certainties slip through our fingers once again.” This however is not sounding the death knell of the medium but indicative of “vital elements that are important to its existence.” Photography has always confused people and probably will continue to do so.

It is an oversimplified idea that Black and White equals photography; colour equals art.

One might consider how many photographs one sees in a day !

The next speaker, some of whose work appears in the exhibition Out of Focus, is Mitch Epstein whose book American Power won the Pictet photo book award; he has worked as a photographer for 40 years. ALthough he does not appear in Susan Bright’s book Art Photography Now perhaps because of his somewhat modernist rather than post-modernist stance, he does exhibit regularly in galleries.

OCA student Ariadne, makes notes in front of an Epstein photograph

Epstein is not trying to defend photography since it does not need to be defended; he does however, talk at length about the position of photography in the art world where he says it tends to get short shrift since it is not fully understood being quite a young medium. There is a lot of written reflection on painting, centuries worth in fact, yet not merely so much on photography. Starting out as a photographer, he was helped by Szarkowski’s pioneering ideas on the unique nature of photography and its elusive meaning.

The art world sometimes denigrates representational photography believing it not to be imaginative and inventive enough since it is apparently just showing the real world as we already know it. However, it helps us discover things we would otherwise miss and to see the familiar anew, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary as in the work of Atget, beloved by the Surrealists. Photography as art accomplishes a convergence of mythmaking and memesis that is impossible in any other medium.

To see our actual world in a photograph, tricks us into recasting that world into something more meaningful and shocking; a subtle and deep effect! It is easy to overlook masters of straight photography particularly in the internet age which values speed. Furthermore, it is easier to see art in a constructed work such as painting, conceptual photography or where the artist’s imagination can be seen to have created something rather than in a representational photograph where the imagination of the artist is embedded. It is hard to see the art in a representational photograph because the artist has chosen to embed his imagination in an uninvented subject matter; the photograph itself is the invention! The art world forgets that an imaginative concept does not have to be overt in order to be an animating force in a work of art; art not a matter of flaunting the imagination rather imbedding it in the world one is describing.

Mitch Epstein mentions the silly definitions people make in order to divide and conquer. The opposite of straight photography is conceptual photography but one can not really separate the two; all photography is both straight and conceptual.The photographer should not need to shout loudly anymore than a playwright should do !!

Epstein considers his equipment as a painter might his brushes and paint; spends a lot of time composing, getting the cameras into exactly the right position for the light etc The photograph isn’t made until one brings something to it, something of one’s life experience. The picture is made when something inexplicable enters in. No photographer simply wanders around just snapping the world around him – need to set every mechanic and compositional element – still not made until one brings something to it while something of the inexplicable is also required. There is the vantage of light and frame, a need for research.

Art is the convergence of the right mechanical tools and the artist’s practiced intuition; it requires athleticism, resourcefulness, psychological resilience, the extra element that we can not control, what Walker-Evans called “an unapproachable thing”. It can’t really be named but the artist needs to be aware of it and ready to receive it; a fleeting thing!

Takes a lot of effort to make a fine so called straight photograph, something that art critics can miss all together. Would one consider someone like Lewis Baltz as just a snapper? He has been described as thus by one critic.

Epstein ends by saying there is no difference between old art and modern art just between good art and bad art !! Unfortunately, it seems “we humans can’t handle so much reality!?” is this the problem photography has !?

The final speaker is Geoff Dyer, a writer on photography who starts by bluffing the audience in an attempt to humour them which does work to a certain extent. He delivers a few quotes …

real battle for recognition of pictorial photography is over !” (Camerawork 1906)

Is photography an art?” asked Susan Sontag in 1962 according to her diaries; she also wrote “art is never a photograph!” Logically, one might ask whether art even art !? Nowadays, few question whether photography is an art .. except perhaps some photographers !? Photographers feel excluded as do Jazz musicians yet this is actually one way of trumpeting their achieved status, helpful for them to act so!

Steiglitz on Weston – “if he’d only forget trying to be an artist maybe he’d come close to being one!” Steiglitz according to Walker Evans was “a screaming aesthete who forced art into quotation marks and into unwanted earnestness”.

a photographer in a gallery of photographs

There is a danger now that art can force photographers not into earnestness but into knee jerk irony with a light conceptual gaze, a light conceptual reduction. There are problems with achieved respectability

Joel Sternfield referred to 1970’s colour photography as “the early Christian era of colour photography” ; not much chance of being accepted then if working in colour more likely to be “fed to the lions“! No institutional acceptance! Egglestone’s show at MOMA marked the turning point !

Some of best art has been produced in circumstances where it was largely believed to be anything but art while there is a tendency for artists to be accepted as photographers should they choose to work in that medium. The practice of blowing photographs up very big can be to make them look like art even if they are shit !!

GB Shaw said “He would willingly exchange every single painting of Christ on the cross for just one snapshot!” For GB, thats’ what photography has going for it, a reference often quoted by the photographer Philip Jones Griffiths. Geoff Dyer finishes his talk by reading out another two quotes. One is from the late MOMA director of photography, John Szarkowski who said that “Walker Evans’ work is rooted in the photography of the earlier past and constitutes affirmation of what has always been photography’s essential sense of purpose and aesthetic, the precise and lucid description of significant fact

It is Lee Freidlander who regards photography as a generous medium since it accepts many different types. This final aside is perhaps a good introduction to the “Out of Focus” exhibition which contains work by some 39 artists from around the world whose work covers many different kinds of genre. The title of the exhibition, Out of Focus, appears to be a reference to this for photography has no homogeneity, no easy definition – it is composed of many continents. Gareth Dent who introduces the day says he can give no simple definition of the work we are going to see because it is too diverse, it presents a very broad view of photography.

The OCA group assemble outside for the study day

Before entering, I acquire a cheap version of the large-sized art catalogue; this contains reproductions of all the images in the exhibition and like the gallery, a distance is kept between caption and photograph so that one can look at the images without trying to project a suggested meaning onto them. This helps because although it is nice to have some kind of reference for the images such as who they are by and what the subject is, looking at the photographs with an open mind helps one to discover meanings that might otherwise go unnoticed.

first gallery in the extensive “Out of Focus” exhibition showing work by Katy Grannan

The first gallery is composed of large portrait photographs by Katy Grannan made of people in the street with their permission. Against plain white often textured backgrounds, the subjects are portrayed graphically with harsh light being used to bring out the details in people’s faces such as wrinkles. How accurate are these photographs as documents? It seems there has been an emphasis not just in detail but colour that appears to have a slight magenta shift. The images seem rather unsympathetic of the subjects and there is the suggestion that the photographer may be ridiculing them; this seems unlikely but there is an obvious attempt on the part of the photographer to show the unglamorous side, the side that people don’t really want to look at. This work could be considered as a reaction to the glamour photography with its’ airbrushed faces that dominates so much of contemporary media and the business of celebrity.

A woman comes up and tells me not to use any photographs of her. I have no idea of who she is but it turns out she is an OCA student and after looking through my photographs later on, I see that she is in some of the group shots often near the centre; it seems that she is unaware that I am using an ultra-wide lens and assumes I must be focusing on her when in fact I am making group shots with her somewhere near the centre; only one of these works as she mostly has her back to me. If I do use it then I can black box out her face or use some other kind of digital trickery. It is always a bit unnerving when people come up for no apparent reason and tell one to stop photographing them; it can make one question what one is doing in a rather negative way. At the end of a day, another woman comes up to ask whether she can acquire copies of the photos and I tell her that they will be mailed to the OCA. Perhaps I whould offer to share them with the group as a whole; something I can do through my Flickr account.

fellow OCA students in the Saatchi Gallery

The second gallery is full of monochromatic landscapes with some slightly cryptic captions such as “Soaring Yellow Morning Breath” of a giant yellowish rocky outcrop and “Ultimate Earth”of a landscape with forest, lake and mountain. This is certainly a far call from Ansel Adams’ landscape photographs though there is a similarity in composition and subject matter. Some are quite pleasant to look at and in the right context, an office or even a home, might prove attractive but altogether in a gallery space they look a bit like what an amateur might produce at a camera club after playing around with cross-processing in an attempt to make something “arty”.

In the third gallery, one is initially confronted by a couple of Mitch Epstein’s large photographs. These are carefully composed as Mitch described in the discussion that began this particular blog. A new student objects to a certain asymmetry in one image and poor use of light in the other. I can not help but remark that photography is true to life rather than the principles of art! In one of these images, it is industry that dominates and in the other nature; both show the relationship between the two and are part of a larger body of work that won Epstein an environmental award. Other work in this room contains intricately made black and white montages of aerial city centre views by Sohei Nishino, a tableau of nature-landscape images by Matthew Day Jackson and views from the inside of vehicles by Luis Gispert.

looking at a photo-work by Mathew Day Jackson

The fourth gallery shows the work of John Steziker and his schizophrenic poraits (my description) in which a face is portrayed by using two photographs placed together or a photograph placed over a face; the associations seem quite obvious here suggesting the anima and animus or the persona that hides the real. Although striking and suggestive, these photographs do not have a great deal of appeal. I miss the small circular photographs that were covered up by stickers being placed on them by archivists.

In the fifth gallery, I am struck by the work of a South African photographer Michael Subotzky whose images are somewhat outrageous. One is of an operating room where someone is lying prone and a drama is being enacted around them; another shows a dead goat with its insides removed as an offering to the gods.

There is work by Mariah Robertson that looks more like art than photography with garish designs on a long sheet of paper that runs up the wall and along the floor; other images look more like photographs. A group of photographs that run along a part of the gallery wall are by Sara Vanderbeek; I feel drawn to these and intrigued by the design. Am not sure this is an obvious attempt to mirror the work of the artist but quite a lot of work here does seem to be referencing painting such as the portraits of Daniel Gordon whose portraits immediately remind me of some of Picasso’s portraits from his Cubist period and beyond.

“Pornographic” images by A.L.Steiner on view in Gallery 9

In gallery nine, there is a grotesque montage by A.L.Steiner of photographs portraying women with naked breasts. I do not like it very much but it does make me laugh as it seems to be an obvious parody of the kind of big breast images and corresponding psychology that is part of the psychological make up of some men. In fact, this room contains other pornographic images that are shown in a particular way that makes one question the nature of the male gaze. It seems hard to take these images as pornographic in intention though obviously some visitors will see them in this light and perhaps draw their own voyeuristc pleasure from it. I mention to Gareth and other who are discussing it the practice of putting erotic sculptures on the outside of temples not to glorify sex but as a way to say that this belongs to the outer world of desire.

looking at photographs in Gallery 10

There is quite a lot of humour in some images and one is of a woodland scene in which there is a false waterfall made up of polythene sheets that are draped in a way to make them look like flowing water. This is one of a couple of photographs by Noeme Goudal from her Les Amants series and might be seen as a satire on so called “beautiful photography”

The photographs of Hannah Starkey draw my attention since she features in both the debate and Susan Bright’s book. Of her work she says, “Working within the language and medium of photography, including Photoshop, is enough to keep me occupied.”

a member of the gallery explaining work

I find myself pausing to reflect while looking at this exhibition, on the practice of putting photography in a gallery to look at. People come to see what they expect to be art and if photography does not live up to their expectations then they may consider it poor or not worth looking at simply because it does not correspond to preconceived notions of what art should be. There is also the idea that if a work is big then it is art while if it is small it is photography! There is so much to see here that one can not take it all in although some themes do emerge such as Marylyn Monroe (at least a couple of images suggesting her) while coloured monochromatic images also occur more than once.

There is confusion in this exhibition because there not bodies of work rather than fragments; the selection of work seems to be a result of images being cherry picked, as good examples of the artists on show. What made Saatchi collect these particular images? Was it a conscious choice on his part to collect photographs he liked or even loved or was he trying to amass a body of work that contained the best photographers of the time. Perhaps it was an investment decision. I don’t think one has to like the photographs on show or even enjoy them; it is enough to respond to them in one’s own way and according to one’s own taste. One tutor points out that this is the kind of work thet is exemplary – one does not have to aspire to it but is a useful reference for one’s own work. There is no point in making photography fit into a particular framework.. difficult to know what if anything this exhibition is about but it can be considered a comment on the star of photography as a whole, out of focus perhaps because it is not concerned with popular notions of the photographic medium. It is described as a “rag bag of stuff” by one member of our group.