As is already evident I was challenged and not a little troubled by Assignment four. What though was at the root of that disquiet? As I find sometimes happens for me, once I had stopped thinking actively about what was going on my thoughts started to come together. Whilst on holiday recently I had an opportunity to effectively switch off from that assignment and let go of the post-mortem. Apart from having Exercise 5.1 in mind while on St. Kilda I got back into the mode of taking pictures of the rest of the trip just for fun and without any course related outcomes in mind. That in itself started to resolve some of my thinking about what I had come to perceive as a problem.
Subsequently, having come home again and got back to work on the course, I have been surprised, but also enlightened by the course material relating to Part five, and Exercise 5.1 in particular. This part of the course seems to be addressing directly what has been on my mind. Is this purely coincidental, or has the course been structured in this way in anticipation that this sort of issue is likely to arise at this point? Whatever the case might be does not really matter: what does matter is that this new material helps.
The issue that I have been struggling with is that there seemed to be a difference in my approach and eventual outcome to a specific brief, as set out for the course assignments, and my own projects, unconnected with the course. With the latter, I feel more in control of the process from beginning to end and generally find that the final outcome is much closer to what I had originally envisioned and intended. With the assignments though I feel I have much less control, that more efforts goes into interpreting and satisfying the brief, at the expense of my own artistic expression. As with the last assignment I was so concerned to produce something that fitted the brief the end results turned out to be less than inspired or inspiring. It was only when I consciously broke away from a conventional thought process that I came up with anything that held any interest or value.
But is this a realistic concern, something worth worrying about at all? Is my concern justified? Probably not, but it is perhaps valuable to think about it and keep it in mind for the future.
The first thing I realise when I look properly at this is that even with my own projects there has always been an element of chance, of serendipity. It does not matter how much I plan there is always something that creeps in unexpectedly that changes, and possibly enhances, my original intentions. Looking back it is now hard to see any of my other work that did not change in some way from the original idea in the process of executing it.
Exercise 5.1 is of course directly addressing this. The image of the swan juxtaposed with the helicopter was wholly unintentional – I had not noticed the swan until I started actively looking for the unexpected in order to complete the exercise. The presence of that swan has brought something new and unexpected into the images that also, in the process, enhances what I had set out to do in exploring the distance between us.
There comes to mind an image I made for another project a year or two ago in which I was exploring a particular location (Hexham) through reflections in shop windows, playing with odd juxtapositions as if they had been created by double exposures. One of my favourite shots from that set came about quite by chance:
What I wanted to do here is put the car “inside” the antique shop window. In the process, unnoticed until after the event, what I also managed to do was put the cup and saucer “on the pavement” at the bottom of the picture. I felt this counterbalanced the car and enhanced the over all effect. So much for planning and control.
Although I have not read Ariella Azoulay’s book The Civil Imagination referred to in the course material, (and possibly never will as it sounds from the reviews that I have read to be a somewhat laboured piece of theorising that has to some extent been moulded to fit a particular political point of view, just the sort of “theory” that I find indigestible and ultimately unhelpful), I am nevertheless attracted by one of her ideas. This is that “No one has exclusive authorship over her own gaze” (page 68). As she states earlier, and as quoted in the course book, “Human subjects, occupying different roles in the event of photography, do play one or another part in it, but the encounter between them is never entirely in the sole control of any one of them: no one is the sole signatory to the event of photography”(page 17). I would go further and suggest that this applies not just to human subjects but any subject of photography. I thought I was taking a picture of a car in a window; in fact I pictured a cup on a pavement.
The quotation from the interview with Quentin Bajac (which I do not propose to re-quote in full) is similarly relevant and helpful: “what you produce in the end will probably be quite different from the initial idea.” The remainder of the quoted paragraph is all the more pertinent:
“Some photographers remain really stiff and rigid. They have the idea. They just want to illustrate the idea. And, then you have the opposite: photographers who go out to shoot without any preconceived idea and then, afterwards, try to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and construct something from their images, which is what has happened in photography since the beginning.”
I have to say I feel this thinking is a little too dichotomous and opens up the dangers inherent in ex post facto rationalisation (as I feel is to some extent the case with HCB and the Decisive Moment). Is there not a third way, where you start with the idea but then find that circumstances change it, and that the good photographer is then open to and embracing of those changes? Is this not what Paul Graham, as related by Bajac, was talking about? Certainly it seems to me that here lies my solace: plan but be flexible and open to change and sometimes just trust to luck.
There are a couple of other things that I have come across that help me in this regard. Both appear in The Photographer’s Playbook, edited by Jason Fulford and Gregory Halpern. The first is by Gary Knight, titled “Confronting Expectations”:
“When you work on assignment for a publication, you are expected to deliver what they think they need. And this takes real skill, not one I particularly possess. Generally, I found that the world I was confronted with wasn’t what my editors expected or wanted to see. That can be confusing and challenging.
When this happens, I recommend representing the world the way it appears and not as you think people expect to see it. Remember that the status quo is there to be challenged, not confirmed. In short, if you’re working on an assignment, make yourself a servant of the observed and not the observer.” (page 184).
The other is by Stephen Shore, titled “Intentionality”:
“When I first began teaching, I noticed that the students who most closely adhered to my assignments improved the fastest. I thought I had some kind of special insight and gave uniquely apt assignments. I then realised that what led to the growth was not the nature of my assignment, but the fact that the more rigorously they followed the assignment, the more they approached their photography with intentionality. It was working with intentionality that led to their growth.” (page 317).
At first glance these two positions might appear to be at odds. In fact though I do not think that they are. I think they complement each other and can be read together: what is important is to bring clear intention and focus to the assignment and follow as best you can, but recognise and accept that not everything is under your control and be open to the possibilities, perhaps unintended but that nevertheless still contribute to fulfilment of the brief, offered by the particular circumstances that you confront.
Coming back to HCB, while he said in L’Amour Tout Court “It’s always luck” that is not entirely true; as he went on to say, “you have to be receptive … Just be receptive and it happens”. And there it seems to me lies my answer. I need to worry less about being in control, be mindful of what the world throws in the way of the picture and accept it for what it is, do not strive for something else or try to push it away. Follow the assignment or brief as closely as possible but remain open and receptive to whatever the world actually throws up before you. Look. But be accepting of the things that you did not see first time round and where they work and benefit the outcome, accept them gratefully!
A Zen approach really that well suits my inclinations.
Azoulay, A, (2012). The Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography. New York: Verso.
Fulford, J, & Halpern, G, (eds) (2014). The Photographer’s Playbook. New York: Aperture.