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The Charm of Context

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Watchers and Thinkers, 2018
Rodin Exhibition,
British Museum
, 2018

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[19Dec20] This started life on the blog: I'll copy that in first then enlarge and whittle.

[18Dec]I made a book of the course (C&N) last "year" and enjoyed it so much that I decided to do this every year. Bill Brandt pervaded my C&N and so it was straightforward to use him as a peg to hang the whole book on but I have been wondering what will be the backbone of the I&P booklet . I might have found it this morning.

I came upon, by chance (while looking for the report on the November Assessment results), an OCA chat thread (Scottie, 2016) where a fine art student seeking feedback on his work from others wondered why photography students often began their responses by apologizing for their lack of expertise and agency in the matter.

My consequential thoughts delivered this —

The OCA course is about two things:
1. Taking photographs pertaining in some way to assignment briefs that manifest creativity and risk and writing 500, sometimes 1000 words explaining lucidly, articulately and informedly that they do those three things.
2. Learning to write perceptively about other peoples' (usually more-or-less famous other people) photographs.

The (possible) plan is to run the opening editorial along these lines and then try to weave it through or demonstrate it with the two or three essays and two or three photo-series that follow.

For the front page image, I might go with a snap from the 2018 British Museum Rodin Exhibition.

My first thought involved the title A fair likeness and I bought a few peripheral books (a novel, a beginners' book on sculpture) to hunt for a way in. See Likeness.

Bill Jay cautioned his students (2001) that fame, in the world of photography, is a relative matter — almost all 'famous' photographers are only famous to those with a keen interest in photography: those on the Clapham omnibus are unlikely to have heard of them.
and 'fame has absolutely nothing to do with merit, achievement, talent, contributions to society or culture, brilliance in a chosen field, lifetime dedication or haircut'.

[19Dec] … one of the later posts in the chat (from Nigel Robertson, Nigel503923) offered,

One of my favourite writers and commentators on photography is The Guardian's Sean O'Hagan. In this interview he tells of his background and to a degree justifies his position in that position. Nigel Robertson, OCA chat
That's a good piece. O'Hagan advises,
I’m not writing for an art magazine where one can assume that the reader has a certain familiarity with the subject or with the history of conceptualism or whatever. I can’t use dense, theoretical language to deconstruct works by Jeff Wall or Gursky, nor would I want to.
My formative inspirations were non-fiction writers like Joan Didion, in particular her first two collections of essays, The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I like Truman Capote’s essays as well, much more than his fiction. And Gay Talese’s classic collection, Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, which has just been published as a Penguin Classics. On the more contemporary front, I’d recommend John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection, Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America, which is a very personal take on music, politics and culture. As far as photography writing goes, it always amazes me how many great photographers are also great writers – Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, Danny Lyon. And Eggleston’s short illuminating afterword from The Democratic Forest still resounds. We ALL need to be more at war with the obvious right now! Sean O'Hagan, 100 words interview

The Eggleston steer is crucial. I cannot afford the book but the afterward might be here - - he says,

I had picked up The Decisive Moment years ago when I was already making prints, so the first thing I noticed was the tonal quality of the black and white. There were no shadow areas that were totally black, where you couldn’t make out what was in them, and there were no totally white areas. It was only later that I was struck by the wonderful, correct, composition and framing. This was apparent through the tones of the printed book. I later found some actual prints of the same pictures in New York. They were nothing – just ordinary looking photographs, but they were the same pictures I had worshipped and idolized, yet I wouldn’t have given ten cents for them. I still go back to the book every couple of years and I know it is the tones that make the composition come across.
I am afraid that there are more people than I can imagine who can go no further than appreciating a picture that is a rectangle with an object in the middle of it, which they can identify. They don’t care what is around the object as long as nothing interferes with the object itself, right in the centre. Even after the lessons of Winogrand and Friedlander, they don’t get it. They respect their work because they are told by respectable institutions that they are important artists, but what they really want to see is a picture with a figure or an object in the middle of it. They want something obvious. The blindness is apparent when someone lets slip the word ‘snapshot’. Ignorance can always be covered by ‘snapshot’. The word has never had any meaning. I am at war with the obvious.” William Eggleston,From a conversation with Mark Holborn, Greenwood, Mississippi, February 1988

Which brings me to one of the oldest photography quotes and one of my favourites, from Fox Talbot (see the page on Kelsey, 2015)

William Henry Fox Talbot and His Picture Machine

Queen's College, Oxford
Queen's College, Oxford
Figs. 1 and 1a
Queen's College, Oxford, 1843
W. H. Fox Talbot

Kelsey quotes Fox Talbot (1844-46) from The Pencil of Nature (as does Thompson (2016) in Why photography matters),

It frequently happens … - and this is one of the charms of photography - that the operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he has depicted many things he has no notion of at the time. Sometimes inscriptions and dates are found upon the buildings, or printed placards most irrelevant, are discovered upon their walls: sometimes a distant dial-plate is seen, and upon it - unconsciously recorded - the hour of the day at which the view was taken.The Pencil of Nature

Pleasingly, Kelsey shows the photograph Fox Talbot was referring to, Queen's College, Oxford, 1843, and even a detail of the clock tower on which the "distant dial-plate is seen" (figs. 1 and 1a).



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Eggleston (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

Fox Talbot, W.H. (1844-46) The pencil of nature. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. Cited in Thompson, J.L. (2016) Why photography matters. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Jay, B., (2001) 'How to be famous, sort of', in Sun in the blood of the cat. Tucson, Az.: Nazraeli Press, pp.27-32.

O'Hagan (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

Scottie (2016) Do you need to be qualified to comment? [online]. Available from [Accessed 18 January 2020].

author, (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

author (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author, (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

author, (year) Book Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) Title. Journal. Vol, pages.

author (year) Title. Newspaper. Date. pages.

Page created 19-Dec-2020 | Page updated 19-Dec-2020