Category: Part 1

Project 2 Visual Skills Exercise 1.4 Frame

From the outset I must say that I found the course material on this exercise far from clear and the examples given not very helpful.  I am still at a loss to properly understand what the hand drawn grid on page 29 is supposed to be.  I am also wondering how, for the final choice of images, a number of disparate images taken for the purposes of the first part of the exercise can really hang together as a set.  So bear with me!

Viewfinder grid

My camera, Canon EOS70D, does not have a viewfinder grid as such.  There is a partial grid, with a cartouche within it, but this does not really help with the compositional approach required here.  Instead I have used a three by three grid on the camera’s rear screen, and have shot using Live View.


I have found the instruction to compose in just one part of the grid a little difficult to apply – each square within the grid is relatively small and it is really difficult properly to compose a shot within that limited space.  What I have therefore done throughout is to choose on particular point in the view as the main focal point and locate that in the various grid squares.  For each scene I have therefore taken nine shots, with the focal point appearing in each of the grid squares.  The rest of the pictures have then been left to compose themselves around that focal point.


I have selected the following six groups as examples.  (I took more groups but the others do not add anything.)  1-3 and 5 were all shot at 50mm, 4 and 6 with a 10-18mm wide angle at 12mm for variety.  The chosen focal points are: reflected trees in the puddle; a tree stump in the burn; a small clump of snowdrops; the join between two kerb stones; the ‘ford’ sign; house number on the stone wall.

contactsheet-puddle contactsheet-stump contactsheet-snowdrop contactsheet-kerb contactsheet-ford contactsheet-52

As with Exercise 1.2 Point I struggle with the idea that the relationship between the point, or here the ‘composed’ part of the image, the chosen focal point, and the frame is more important than the over all relationship with the other compositional elements.  I would though say that, leaving aside the sixth group above for now, the least interesting, successful images are those where the composed subject is in the middle of the picture.  As the point is equidistant from each edge of the frame (ok, not strictly equidistant as the pictures are not square) it is a bit adrift.  (What saves it, for example in the ford set, is the relationship to the strong horizontals of the bridge and the tree bough, and in the reflected trees set the strong verticals of the trees and the asymmetrical, raking, leading lines of the edges of the road.)  Clearly the images are more interesting where the subject is closer to one of the edges.

So far as the sixth group is concerned I find it harder to draw any conclusions.  Part if the problem here I feel is that the choice of a wide angle, and close view point to the subject creates such a degree of distortion and make it so hard to identify what the focal point actually is.  That said, the three images where the number can clearly be seen at the right hand edge do have some impact and visual interest and they d benefit from the number being close to the edge.

The horse

While out taking the above shots, quite by chance I came upon the horse standing in the burn at the lower ford on what, after the Square Mile project, I have now come to call “Gara’s round” in honour of that set’s invisible protagonist, pawing at the rocks in the stream bed and splashing water.  As I did not have the luxury of time (the horse moved off shortly after I took these few shots) and because here the subject was so much larger making it impractical to try a full grid of nine shots, I restricted myself to just three, concentrating on the relationship between the horse and the side edges.


The first one, with the horse in the middle, is ok as a composition but I feel again that the image is more animated where the horse is closer to the edge, particularly in the case of the third shot.  I feel this is better than the second because of the way the horse is facing.  In the third shot the his still facing into the over all view whereas in the second it is facing out of the frame, leaving the space behind it as effectively dead.  (I feel that for once the hints of flair from the sun on the lens add to rather than detract from the final image.)

Just on a practical point, I did ask the rider for permission before shooting and she was happy to oblige, but not prepared to hang around!

The final set

As I said at the beginning I am not sure that these really hang together as a set – there is nothing in particular that links them thematically.  I have therefore chosen them on the basis that they work individually.  All were shot with the camera in “automatic” SCN mode.  Apart from the horse, all shots used a tripod to maintain a consistent view point.

The brief says to make a montage or contact sheet of these images.  Unfortunately the software packages that I currently have do not seem to allow the creation of a montage (by which I assume is meant a composite picture of all of the chosen images).  I can create contact sheets (as above) but these always contain the file name, breaking up any montage effect.  I have therefore decided to show the chosen set as individual photos, with technical details beneath.


ISO 320, 62mm, 1/80s, f/5.0


ISO 400, 12mm, 1/250s, f/11


ISO 100, 35mm, 1/64s, f/4.5


ISO 200, 35mm, 1/64s, f/4.5


ISO 100, 50mm, 1/100s, f/5.0


ISO 125, 29mm, 1/50s, f/4.0


Of this set I feel that the second is perhaps the weakest though I do like its slightly off kilter look, its lack of any true verticals, and the distortion from using a wide angle lens from a very low vantage point.

The first image has a certain something extra from the out of focus line that cuts the field of view in two – this was a strand of wire that produced a somewhat ghostly and enigmatic presence because of the relatively shallow depth of field.

In compositional terms I think these have all got something to offer not only in terms of frame but also point and line, and could perhaps just as easily stand as examples for those other exercises as well.  Serendipitously the horses head, the rider, and the two sun spots form a straight line and it is only now that I notice the inner spot and the saddle blanket are almost the same colour!

Project 2 Visual Skills Exercise 1.2 Point – Reprise : Disappearance At Sea – Mare Nostrum

I have been meaning to post this for a while but keep forgetting.  While working on this particular part of the course I visited the Detroit: Unbroken Down exhibition at the Side Gallery in Newcastle.  Making the most of an increasingly rare visit to the Toon I also popped in to the Baltic to see their latest exhibition about migration and refugees. Though not specifically a photographic show,  there were a few photographs in the exhibition, which was otherwise multi-media and multi-disciplinary, two of which are by Wolfgang Tillmans.  One in particular caught my eye as an example of the “Point”.

The photo that struck me is “Lampedusa” from 2008, showing the wreckage of boats used by migrants to reach the eponymous Italian island:


What caught my eye here is the Point, the Punctum in Barthes’ terms, created by the small block of concrete and bent wire in the foreground.  Too unformed in its own right to amount to a shape, it is an inconsequential detail that in itself does not add anything to, and is indeed materially unrelated to the wreckage of the boats.  However it seems to me that it helps to animate what might otherwise be a rather flat, static image.  As Tillmans has clearly decided to include the patch of beach in the foreground as part of the composition – classic rule of thirds – presumably he made a conscious choice to include the bit of terrestrial, rather than maritime, debris.  It is both compositional element, and Barthes’ punctum.  Powerful image in its own quiet way!

Project 3 Surface and Depth – Research Point

I have not finished Exercise 1.4 yet – stuck inside because of Storm Doris! – so I though I would jump ahead to the next part of the course  material.

I knew little of the work of Ruff, apart from what appears in Charlotte Cotton’s book (The Photograph as Contemporary Art. 2004. London: Thames & Hudson), so found these two reviews, so different in some ways, so similar in others, in their appreciation of his work, interesting.

Starting with Colberg, his key point seems to be that what you see is what you get, there is little depth to this work, but the work itself is the point – he uses (misuses?) Marshall Macluhan’s dictum “the medium is the message”.  Rather than delving into the images themselves what Ruff gives us is concept rather than substance, the concept relying “too much on the technique” of pixelation.  In Colberg’s view what we seem to be getting from these images is beauty, but only a superficial beauty.

(As an aside I would quibble with Colberg’s assertion that the use in the gallery of “gigantic” prints is “pretentious”.  In my view this is a lazy dismissal.  It is an all to easy to use put down but does not do anything to define what the real objection is, nor what the put-down actually means.  Take a look at ‘Pretentiousness’ by Dan Fox, 2016, London, Fitzcarraldo Editions.)

In contrast to Colberg’s somewhat superficial review (not inappropriate given his conclusions) Campany’s review is denser and more rooted in academic discourse (though not immune to infelicities, such as the hyperbolic reference to “the state of ‘all photography’ in its terrifying and sublime totality”, whatever that is supposed to mean) but I feel shows a more sympathetic reading of what Ruff is seeking to do.

Campany observes that the images do not so much stand alone as derive meaning and relevance from their association with, or by comparison with, other images in the same series.  This seems to me to be consistent with the view that all of Ruff’s images come from not one but a multitude of actual or potential archives.

The main point Campany seems to be making is that Ruff’s work intentionally seeks to break down artificially imposed barriers and taxonomies that seek to keep different ‘schools’ (“modern regimes of the image”) or forms of art separate.  Ruff, by reducing works to their constituent parts, in the case of digital images, the pixels, breaks down the barriers, reduces (but not in any judgmental sense) all these images to their (lowest) common denominator. This approach goes further in that it gives structure and meaning to phenomena that it would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend.

It is perhaps interesting that Colberg did not expand more of the issue raised in his opening paragraph about whether Ruff’s work is photography.  Campany suggests that the question does not really matter in so far as Ruff is breaking down barriers.  This is art, that just happens to be made from photographs.  No distinction needs to be drawn between the two.  Colbert’s dismissal of the debate suggests that his view is very much the same.  He also seems to agree with Campany that Ruff is aestheticising images of otherwise questionable quality by breaking them down into their constituent parts, pixels.  It is though interesting, but something upon which I cannot comment not having seen either the “pretentious” Gallery prints, nor the images in book form, that they disagree about which format does the works true justice.

Project 2 Visual Skills – cropping and framing & Walker Evans American Photographs

I recently got hold of a copy of Walker Evans American Photographs  and have  just reread Lincoln Kirstein’s essay.  I have long admired Evans’ work and he is someone to whom I expect I will continue to return.

A couple of points occur to me in connection with this book and the course material.

Firstly I do not know why Kirstein says “you will search in vain for an angle -shot”.  Unless he means something that is different from what I would regard as an angle-shot, the second part of the book in particular is full of them!  Yes, Evans’ default mode is the full frontal view but not to the exclusion of other visual approaches.

Secondly I am puzzled by the comment in the course material that”there seems to be a clear distinction between cropping and framing in Evans’ work”.  Perhaps I am missing something here but I simply do not see that.

By “framing” I understand the use of compositional elements to give an image form, to identify, for example, the main subject and those elements that are subsidiary.  Framing effectively shows you what to look at and what you are looking at.  Sometimes that can be done by using what is clearly a frame within the overall frame of the image.  There are various examples of this in American Photographs, such as the pictures on pages 5 and 7.

Cropping on the other hand is the removal of parts of the original image, removing extraneous detail or to change the emphasis of the picture.  Cropping can be useful where, for example, it has not been possible to frame the photo properly at the time it was taken.  Cropping is one of the few functions that I use with any degree of regularity in Photoshop.

One of the most striking uses of a crop that I can think of is Nick Ut’s 1972 Vietnam war photo of Kim Phuc burned by napalm.  The image we are used to seeing now is a cropped version of a picture that originally showed a much wider scene and more people, including soldiers and other photographers.  There is no doubt that the cropped image is much stronger.


Coming back to my puzzlement, unless you can compare an image with an earlier version, how can you tell whether a photo has been cropped.  I cannot in all honesty look at any of Evans’ work and say with any degree of certainty or confidence that it has been cropped.  There are plenty that might have been but I do not know.  And I do not get any sense from the work that there is such a distinction.

Looking back at my own work to date, I am not at all sure that the less successful pictures look cropped.  What I see is more a straightforward failure of the original composition.

The reference to Victor Burgin is unfortunately not very helpful as I do not have access to this particular article.  Taken out of context I am not sure what Burgin is really saying.  As a result I also do not fully understand the point that is being made about Stieglitz.  (Same problem with Foster as I have not been able yet to look at a copy of his book.) Yes, in the absence of any sense of composition the image only takes form by reference to the frame.  This is perhaps the photographic equivalent of Turrell’s work.  I do not though get any sense of cropping in the sense above.  To help me with this I tried a Stieglitz-like ‘Equivalent’ of my own:


This is a patch of gravel in my garden.  As with the Stieglitz there is no sense of any composition.  Any one part of the patch of gravel could stand for any other.  The image, like a Skyscape, is given form simply by pointing a camera at it.  The edges of the picture, the frame, create the image.  There has been no cropping and I do not get any sense of a cropped view.

Clearly I need to do more work on these concepts as I am evidently missing something!