The Photographer’s Playbook – Book

As I referred to this book in a previous post I thought I would add a separate brief note about it.

I cannot now remember how I came upon this book but I am jolly glad that I did!  It is subtitled “307 Assignments and Ideas” and is presented by way of a series of short, sometimes little more than aphoristic, contributions by some of the best photographers and writers on photography around today.  Some of the contributions are ideas for assignments, some offer advice and insights into working methods.  All challenge your thinking.

Not all of it you will agree with: I, for example, profoundly disagree with Mark Sealy’s injunction “Forget Berger and read Fanon.”  If I want to know more about post-colonialism and national liberation I will go to Fanon, but I struggle to see what his political and philosophical views can tell me about photography.  Berger’s politics were similar but he brings an artists eye to the subject rather than that of a political theorist.  Nevertheless, it is just the sort of thing to stop you in your tracks and think again.

In so far as we are supposed to be developing our critical thinking on this course, not just our technical and visual skills, this sort of confrontation can only be a good thing.

I have not gone through this book from cover to cover yet.  Nor have I tried any of the specific exercises that are offered throughout it.  Nevertheless it is something that I have found to be useful to dip into from time to time – almost like consulting the I Ching! – to break stuck patterns of thought or to look for another way of approaching a task or idea.

If one had the time it could be used as a sort of Thought for the Day giving a fresh idea for most days of the year!


Fulford, J, & Halpern, G, (eds) (2014).  The Photographer’s Playbook.  New York: Aperture.


Part five – Intention vs Perception

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.


Exercise 5.1

Let us start with a definition of “empathy”:

n. Psychol. the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation.

This is taken from what is now quite an old edition, the eighth, of the Concise Oxford dictionary which was proudly billed as “The New Edition for the 1990s”!  I have not checked but I cannot imagine that the definition has changed since then.

I always thought that I understood properly what empathy is so it was a bit of a surprise to go back to the dictionary definition.  What surprised me is the parenthesis.  Mental identification I always got but “fully comprehending” caught me off guard.  Can we ever really “fully comprehend” another person?  We might have some understanding and commonality of feeling and view point but can we ever really put ourself in their place, see the world as they see it, think what they are thinking?  What about where the other person is from a different cultural background, speaks a different language, lived in another time and place?  Can we ever fully comprehend them?  I would say not, so I would guess that although this exercise is predicated on choosing a subject with which one has “an empathy” (linguistic and philosophical quibble, but  is there more than one type of empathy?) what it is really about is the impossibility of true empathy; hence, the distance between us.

On this basis my starting point for this exercise was to find a subject with which, using the term as flexibly as the brief, I have an empathy and then think about, and explore, what we have in common but what also keeps us apart.

Whilst I had arranged the trip months ago I had read into Part 5 of the course before I had finalised Assignment Four and before I embarked on an island hopping holiday in late August this year.  As a result even before I had got there, and there was no guarantee that I would, I set off on the trip with the thought that the remote islands of St. Kilda would provide some interesting subject matter for this exercise.  (Rather than go into the history and significance of St. Kilda, I simply refer to the Wikipedia entry, the reference for which is cited below.)  What I was interested in exploring is the various types of “distance” between me and the former inhabitants of the main island of Hirta:  physical distance (St. Kilda is more than 40 miles away even from Harris and Lewis, which are already fairly remote themselves); temporal distance (the last permanent inhabitants left in 1930); cultural distance (Hirtans were Scots Gallic speakers and their very style of life was very different from anything on the mainland); physical distance in the sense that none of the original inhabitants remain on the island (apart from the Soay sheep!).  What I was hoping to do though was to touch on some of these distances by focusing on things that we have in common, though I did not know how this would manifest itself until I actually got there.

I had not read Gil Pasternak’s review of Ariella Azoulay’s book (referenced below from CAA Reviews) until after I had returned from the trip but was particularly struck by what Azoulay has said about the possibility “of sharing a certain space with other people and objects without having to be physically present beside them in the same place”.  Despite all of the distances I nevertheless felt strangely close to the old St. Kildans.

Here are the contact sheets, unedited or processed, and not annotated, of all of pictures that I took while on the island:

Of these there are three that I have chosen to fit the brief: one literal image; one with an unexpected element within it that came as a surprise and which I found only when sorting the picture; and one that unexpectedly adds something to the idea of distance that did not initially occur to me when I took the shot.

This is the literal image:

This shows one of the original cleitean (in English, cleits) used by the Hirtans to store food and provisions: a turf covered stone structure.  This is juxtaposed against a contemporary storage tank for the current temporary residents (not sure if this is for fuel or water as I could not get close enough for a proper look).  The same basic humans needs are , or have been, met but there is a distance between the technologies used.

The unexpected element crept in with this photo of (weather permitting) daily helicopter flight from Lewis bring mail and some supplies.  Again this highlights a technological distance between former and modern inhabitants.  The original Hirtans were completely reliant on ships for anything that was not otherwise available on the islands.

This is not the greatest picture in its own right – it was taken with a 135mm zoom lens at it longest extent and the helicopter was some distance away – but nevertheless it serves its purpose.  The unexpected element, that I feel gives the image a certain poignancy, is the presence in the lower left corner of a swan.  (I believe, having spoken to the ornithologist who accompanied the visit to the island, that this is a Whooper swan migrating south from its breeding grounds in Iceland).  This swan has much in common with the present inhabitants of the island, as they are all temporary and will all move on, south and east, after a while, and in the sense that flight is now the main mode of transport to and from the island (other than for the day trippers), avoiding the vagaries of sea travel.  There is though a huge distance between a bird’s flight and a helicopter!

The third image  is ostensibly just a bit of a joke:

This appears in the window of one of the few buildings in the village on Hirta that is still occupied, in this case by the small National Trust for Scotland  team.  I took the picture simply because it amused me.  There is though, in retrospect, a poignant and serious message in this light-hearted attempt to deal with what can be a very lonely and isolated place that resonates with the fate of the former inhabitants:  things got so difficult for them that they had to leave the island altogether, never to return; today the privations of living on this remote and weather-beaten archipelago can be alleviated by a bit of confectionary.  That alone possibly says more about the distance between us than anything else.



Allen, R.E. (ed), (1990). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.,_Scotland

Assignment four – Reflection on feedback

Although it was a struggle, and even at the end I was not entirely confident about the outcome of this assignment, it seems the effort was worthwhile as my tutor has given some very positive and supportive feedback.  As ever though there are some challenging questions that I now need to reflect upon.

Despite my own misgivings it seems there might still be potential in the images that I took as the first attempt at this assignment, that they have some narrative potential, and that this might be enhanced by taking a lead from Christopher Doyle and experimenting with different coloured lights.  This is something that I am going to have to think about as it is not immediately clear to me what that narrative might be or where it might go.  I had not approached this shoot with any sense of narrative as such in mind, although I was interested in atmosphere and ideas of concealment and only partial exposure of each scene, so I am going to have to completely change my mindset when looking again at these images.  Because I have enough else on my plate at the moment this is not going to be very high on my list of priorities but maybe once I have got the next assignment out of the way, and worked out the practicalities of producing different coloured light, I will have another go and see what comes out.

A major issue that needs to be addressed is the framing of the final images and why I have presented them in this way, with irregular dark borders.  I have had to go back to the original, pre-processing pictures to work out what has gone on here and must now admit that it is the result of little more than carelessness on my part.  I was clearly in such a hurry to get this finished and posted before I went away on holiday – I would have struggled to finalise the assignment in time for the date I had agreed with my tutor if I had waited until my return – that I simply did not pay enough attention to such details.  Indeed, looking back, it is not clear that I actually processed them at all.  Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

This is annoying as it does relate to an issue that was very important to me when approaching this final set.  Clearly I had got myself into quite a state about it as although I had thought a lot about approaches to presentation of the final images, and spent a good deal of time composing explanations in my head, it is now clear that I did not in fact write anything down!  The blog post for the final submission went through so many changes and tweaks that I obviously lost sight of the ball and did not realise that I had not actually addressed what for me is a very important question.

When I embarked on this final set I felt that there were three possible ways of presenting the images that would relate to and have an impact on what I was trying to achieve.  One approach would have been to do what Sugimoto did and include not just the screen but also the wider context of the movie theatres and drive-ins.  This approach I rejected because Sugimoto was shooting different locations and those locations were as much the subjects as the films that were showing.  I on the other hand was shooting in the same place for each film so the context and surroundings would have been the same in each picture.  That would not have been very interesting in its own right and would also not have added anything to what I was trying to say about light.

Another approach, which is the one that I ended up with by default of not having done anything different, was to keep some element of framing.  The intention while actually making the pictures was to give an element of context and to acknowledge, if that is the right word, that these images are made from moving pictures shown on a screen.  It seemed important to me at the time to recognise the artificiality of the light, of the images, and their presentation, by including at least hints of the fact that they were being shot while displayed on a TV screen.  In a way I think I wanted to make it explicit that whilst making something new with my photos my raw material was the work of others.  What I failed to do though was to ensure that in the final set this element was consistent throughout.  As a result this initial intention has not been properly fulfilled.

The appearance in some shots of a control menu on screen is also part of this approach.  It is also partly serendipitous as for some reason the menu showed up only on some of the films but not all and was difficult, if not impossible, to turn off so that it did not appear.  This is something else that needs to be consistent to work properly and unfortunately it does not and as such those that remain should probably be cropped out.

The third approach, which I was not keen on at the time, would have been to crop out everything that was extraneous to the main part of each image.  At the time I was perhaps more influenced by something like Sugimoto’s approach and felt that some limited element of context and framing was desirable.  Now I am not so sure, not least because of the need to make the final set more consistent.  Also, I can now see that what is more important to me than all else in this set is the light rather than any sense of physical context.  I have therefore now cropped the pictures properly to create a more coherent, not to mention neater, set below:

This not only looks neater and more coherent but I think also works better at getting towards what I was trying to achieve.  In retrospect I can now see that the elements in the original set that hinted at the physical medium of the television were actually a distraction (if only because of the lack of consistency).

Another question relates to the appearance of subtitles in some of the pictures.  Again I ummed and aahed about these, whether to keep them, their possible significance and what they bring, if anything, to the final set.  This is a tricky one but I decided to keep them despite the fact that they do not appear in all of the shots – not all of the films were subtitled and not all of the sequences that I photographed had subtitles.  The primary focus and point of interest in the assignment was of course light.  The subtitles appear quite by chance.  I had no idea that they would show up as clearly as they do and I was more interested in the particular sequences in which the appear from a purely visual point of view.  They do though reflect the fact that these film sequences also included sound, specifically speech.  (I was struck by how important music was in the Wong Kar Wai films in particular – it was a while since I had seen any of them and I had forgotten what a significant role music plays in each of those that I chose for this assignment.  Apocalypse Now also of course starts with a sequence where the music, “The End” by The Doors, is every bit as important as the visual imagery. Music is famously central to 2001. Oddly though, apart from The Sacrifice (and even then not a great deal), music plays much less of a role in the Tarkovsky films.)  At one level that fact is not relevant when viewed strictly from the point of view of light.  However it might also be said that the subtitles are also a product of light and are simply part of the image and as such are also worthy of consideration and inclusion.  

In truth I am not sure what the subtitles really add to this specific set in so far as it deals with light.  Nevertheless I decided to include them as they offer a hint of a potential alternative set of images – it would be possible to put together a different set where the text is the more important element and construct a new narrative across scenes from the various films, though that would need a lot more thought to identify chunks of appropriate dialogue.

More than that though I feel that the first two captions, “Call me what you decide” and “I have a secret to tell you” add an extra layer of mystery to what are already quite enigmatic images.  They emphasise that the images are open to interpretation, and are not easy to decipher.  They are an invitation to find in the pictures whatever you can.  The third one, “Just love me”, might be said to work in a similar way, though inviting acceptance of what you see without having to interpret too much.

Or is it a cry from my own unconscious reflecting my struggles with this assignment and an anxiety that the outcome be found to be acceptable?  No, let us not go there!

Could the subtitles themselves act a captions of the images?  Yes, but I do not think that really works here when not all of the pictures include text. Otherwise I am not sure the set really needs captions at all.  The names of the films appear throughout the final set more to simply identify where the image has come from rather than for any other purpose.

I explained in the last post why I chose the order in which the final set appears.  In so far as the focus is on light I remain happy with this sequence and do not feel any strong urge to revise it.  I can though see that other arrangements could also work.  One would be to order the images by reference to where they appear in each film.  I think this is an interesting possibility that opens up the chance to create a new, different dialogue or narrative across the sequence as a whole.  I do not feel this really fits where the brief is concerned with light but would certainly be valid if the temporal elements were more important.  Just for the sake of argument though I have had a go at reordering them on this basis to see what such a set might look like.


The effect is very different.  I do not immediately get a sense of a new narrative nor a visual logic to this sequence.  Thinking about the events in the individual films at these points does not help me much either.  On balance therefore I think I prefer the straightforward chromatic approach that I chose originally.