Visual Anthropology

‘Visual anthropology can be broadly understood as the anthropological study of the visual and the visual study of the anthropological’ (Banks, 2012).

Writing elsewhere, Banks also states: ‘most anthropologists produce visual representations in the course of their work (often photographs, but also video footage, maps, drawings and diagrams) and all societies make visible aspects of their social life and their cultural understandings. Visual anthropology is concerned with understanding the production and consumption of all these forms’ (Banks, 2017).

So, what is the relevance to my current photographic practice? By specialising in food photography, am I in fact practicing a form of visual anthropology?

I would argue that it is.

When we photograph, we are recording not only the trace of the object, but the trace of that objects purpose. Consequently, in doing so we are inevitably recording something of our society and its culture. The artefacts exist or existed, therefore, we must exist or have existed.

I would also argue that this holds true for all forms of photography – including landscapes, which act as proof of our human interest in our environment for aesthetic, industrial and scientific purposes.

‘Photographs are also of growing importance in research, and they have the potential to become an important element of social inquiry; this is because there is a vast and growing stock of photographs relating to social life past and present, but also because we can generate our own photos on many topics we research’ (Tinkler, 2013).

Trends come and go, arguably, trends that stay change their form – sometimes drastically. Salvage ethnography records peoples and cultures which are becoming extinct. Extinction is a fate that awaits the majority of species – it’s just a matter of time. By making visual records of ourselves, our possessions, our environment, and the things we do, we are recording a trace of our existence for both present and future generations. But, beyond that, for whom?

 

References:

Banks, Marcus (2017) ‘Visual Anthropology’, Discoveranthropology.co.uk [online]. Available at: https://www.discoveranthropology.org.uk/about-anthropology/specialist-areas/visual-anthropology.html (Accessed: Tuesday 05 September 2017)

Banks, Marcus (2012) ‘Visual Anthropology’, Oxfordbibliographies.com [online]. Available at: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199766567/obo-9780199766567-0028.xml (Accessed: Tuesday 05 September 2017)

Tinkler, Penny (2013) Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research, London: SAGE Publications Limited

‘Repeat Photography’ … Revisited

‘Repeat photography, which involves re-photographing a location from the same vantage point, has become a common method to document the changes occurring in the landscape’ (McManus, 2011).

McManus goes on to write: ‘Artists, ecologists, geologists and anthropologists alike have employed this practice. What unites these disciplines across great ideological and cultural distances is their understanding of photography as a truthful witness to the passage of time.’

As a technique, repeat photography is widely used in the natural sciences to compare images of the same scene. Separated by time, independently the images provide data, together they provide information.

Images are evidence of a change having taken place, a before and after. Whilst by themselves they offer no full explanation for a particular change, the collection and interpretation of empirical, contextual data can subsequently identify the cause of that change.

Repeat photography, then, provides a starting point from which further investigations can be conducted.

Consequently, it is no surprise that rephotography is also an established research method within visual anthropology and Reiger (2011) writes accordingly: ‘perhaps the most reliable way we can use photography to study social change is through the systematic visual measurement technique of ‘repeat photography’ or, simply, ‘rephotography’.’

He continues ‘more frequently, though, we are likely to use repeat photographs to study change in a qualitative way. We will be looking for obvious or subtle clues about the changing character of social life’.

I find repeat photography an interesting area for research. Previously I revisited an image from my early days in food photography: the early image being purposefully chosen to allow me to compare images with the greatest possible time lapse.

At the time, I wrote:

‘I think revisiting images of food differs from the revisiting of other subjects because of the highly ephemeral nature of food: there are no fixed co-ordinates to which a food photographer can return in one or two years’ time. Consequently, because the original subject, for me, no longer exists, the real value in this exercise was in appreciating how my photographic practice has developed over time.’

I still believe this to be a robust statement.

Rephotography, to me, has significant value as a tool for evaluating my past and current work – for understanding what my work has been, and what it might become: a means of seeing how my technique has become refined over time. Indeed, repainting an old and familiar subject again and again is an established technique used by artists to improve their technical skills and enhance their ability to see detail.

As my interest in visual anthropology increases, I become more interested in way that I can use rephotography. For example, my current project, Cravings, looks at the struggle for an athlete in preparation for competition to maintain a strict ‘clean’ diet, and the desire to consume ‘comfort’ foods as the body depletes stores of fat to fuel the training

How can I, for example, use rephotography to record trends regarding the food we eat? And changes in the way we eat? How fast do food trends come and go? What are the conflicts that surround a particular food trend? Culturally, what will be most interesting for future generations to observe with regard to the way we eat today? Are some things less important to record, or will they all be of equal of equal importance to future generations? How does one decide now, for the future? By deciding am I transferring my own views onto how my images will be viewed, and interpreted, in the future? How does one record in an objective, and unbiased manner?

See also: Repeat Photography & Rephotography

 

References:

McManus, Karla (2011) “Objective Landscapes: The Mediated Evidence of Repeat Photography.” Intermediality 17: 105–118 [Online]. Available at: https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/im/2011-n17-im1817262/1005751ar.pdf (Accessed: Sunday 03 September 2017)

Reiger, Jon H. (2011) ‘Rephotography for Documenting Social Change’ in Margolis, Eric and Pauwels, Luc (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE Publications Limited, p. 133

 

Further Reading:

Tinkler, Penny (2013) Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research, London: SAGE Publications Limited

On Reflection: Week 11, Module Three

Problem …

Identifying themes for projects hasn’t always been a strong point.

To be more correct, more specific, identifying viable themes hasn’t been a strong point. Thinking of ideas isn’t a problem in itself – feasibility is the issue.

Add to that, the crushing self-doubt forcing me to ask myself ‘is anyone really interested in this [subject], apart from me?

A solution …

Two books, Freeman’s The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative, and Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, have been extremely insightful.

Taking storytelling apart, identifying and examining the constituent parts – exploring the narrative, has been an extremely educational process – one from which I feel I have gained enormously.

Taking a long-hard look at critical thinking, working on a series of mini-projects (not photographic in nature) which develop the skills for looking at situations from multiple perspectives, has also helped significantly.

As work continues on the assignments for module three in the last few weeks before submission, this knowledge has already proved itself highly beneficial, and continues to do so.

Seeing the Appeal

Sudek_Simple still life

Sudek, 1956. Simple Still Life

A Simple Still Life (1956) – what is it that makes Sudek’s image so visually appealing?

Sudek’s images have a definite aesthetic – his style is distinctly recognisable. Indeed, it was Sudek’s haunting style of photography which triggered my passion in still-life photography.

The image itself is of the skeletal remains of a decaying leaf, which appears quite dark against a lighter, somewhat patterned or textured background, possibly wood although this is hard to discern.

Typically dark, Sudek’s images are photographic impressions which represent light as a substance which occupies its own space, which has a presence of its own rather than merely influencing the way a three-dimensional subject is shown in a two-dimensional format.

Even in this simple image there is contrast, another trademark of Sudek’s photography being diversity of light values – perhaps better known in contemporary terms as wide dynamic range.

Clarence-white-rain-drops

Clarence H. White, 1908. Drops of Rain

The influence of Clarence White is visible in Sudek’s earlier work – highlights glint from within deep shadows cast by dimly lit interiors, the same highlights appear to glow in a manner which can only be described as vaguely Orton-esque.

Sudek was a master of capturing the ambience in an images lighting – highlights seem to retain the character of the natural light which was their source – it takes very little effort to discriminate between images taken in cold, wintry or warm, summery light and the viewer is immediately transported to another place, another time.

I would go as far as to suggest that the highlights in Sudek’s images have an aura.

Hodgson (2013) suggests that we frequently refer to images as being of something whilst failing to recognise that images are also about something. Barthes and Heath (1977) inform us of a signifier, something which is identifiable in an image and which conveys a denotational message, and the signified or the connotational (implied) meanings, ideas or ideologies which an image attempts to communicate to the viewer.

Consequently, Sudek’s images portray the grim reality of everyday life, the banal: but do so with a degree of hopefulness because where there is light, there is hope.

Was Sudek trying to capture, and in doing so describe, or perhaps re-aquaint us, with the notion that beauty lies all around us: in banality, in decay, even in death, even in the skeletal remains of a decaying leaf.

I am intrigued by what it is that distinguishes between subjects that will make visually appealing images, and those that won’t. I am interested in defining this, and if not defining it, then at the very least achieving some clarification.

Sudek is attributed with the following statement:

‘I believe that photography loves banal objects, and I love the life of objects.’

William Thackeray stated:

‘The two engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.’

In terms of relevance to my photographic practice, this is getting to the heart of the issue. Alluding to a subject’s appeal, or perhaps the appeal of an image, lying (at least partly) in the way the subject is portrayed – aesthetically unappealing subjects can appear aesthetically appealing if photographed in an appropriate way.

I think contemporary food photography is overly commercialised. I also think that images of food can exist as works of art in their own right in addition to carrying a message – that is to say, have aesthetic value whilst also having a socio-political theme.

Food imaging, as a genre for photography or painting, is strong enough to stand on its own two feet and entertain us, and robust enough to serve the dual purpose of informing or educating us.

Food photography is a symbol of our disposable, commercial society – food is merely a commodity, any pleasure that it brings being temporary. And yet, in the past, images of food have been so much more, and I think can be, and should be, again.

There is huge appeal in Sudek’s images and each one presents me with a fantastic learning opportunity. I am currently exploring the use of monochrome images in food photography – drawing a direct line between my photography and that of Sudek. I think it is both interesting and informative to explore this concept: black and white images strip away some of the identity provided by colour, and as a result introduce some ambiguity. Additionally, black and white images focus the viewer’s attention on content and meaning – important at the moment as I explore the photographic narrative, and develop my skill in this area.

To return to our original question which, posed alternatively, might become why did Sudek choose to photograph this particular subject? What was it about this subject that captured his attention, that captured his imagination? What quality of this subject made him realise the potential for a strong photographic image?

Have we become desensitised to the beauty that surrounds us – are some, like Sudek, more ‘sensitive’ to the beauty that surrounds us? Did Sudek share an important characteristic with da Vinci – that of retaining a childlike inquisitive nature with regard to the world around them?

 

References:

Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana

Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc (accessed 19 February 2017)

On Reflection: Week 10, Module Three

Time to start planning for future projects.

I have an idea for something very different!

Ideas, in fact, for several projects which will be quite unexpected.

I’m keen to get cracking on bringing these ideas to fruition …

There is still a lot of work that can be done in terms of story development – improving my narrative skills. This is a key area for me to work on.

Nevertheless, I feel that there is a discernible difference in terms of the quality of work that I am producing now compared to 12 months ago, not only in terms of the project theme, but also in general terms – I think the overall quality of my work has improved as a result of exploring the visual narrative.

Again, significant time has been consumed preparing the module three assignments, and I’m feeling very positive about the outcome of this week’s efforts.

As the first year of the MA draws to a close, how do I feel with regard to my original intentions for my project.

Time for a review …

In October 2016, I identified my aims as being as follows:

To explore the knowledge, technology and methods employed by the old masters to control light, and how the atmosphere and aesthetics of food images are influenced by light and various lighting styles

To investigate what knowledge of the elements of design was available to the masters

To rationalise the symbolism used by the masters, evaluating their reasons for its use as well as the sources of their information.

I think I have made significant progress towards achieving my goal. My knowledge in relation to these three areas has increased notably, and my ability to evaluate and contextualise has improved.

Admittedly, there is still room for improvement, and for the further acquisition of knowledge – but this is a two-year MA programme and we are only at the halfway point.

So, do I feel I am on track? Clearly, there are two-sides to be considered in answering this question and I can only speak from my own position.

But, yes – looking back over the past 12 months I can identify areas where my knowledge and ability has increased in breadth and depth, there are tasks which I have completed which I would never have dreamed of 12 months ago.

I look forward to the second year with eagerness and perhaps most importantly, refreshed confidence.

WIP Critique

Muffin

Morris, 2017. Untitled #1

Cadbury Eclair

Morris, 2017. Untitled #2

Jelly babies

Morris, 2017. Untitled # 3

Ginger beer

Morris, 2017. Untitled # 4

Ruffles

Morris, 2017. Untitled # 5

Overall, the narrative is of the struggle for an athlete in preparation for competition to maintain a strict ‘clean’ diet, and the desire to consume ‘comfort’ foods as the body depletes stores of fat to fuel the training – cravings.

In support of the main subjects, a variety of tapes, strappings and topical treatments together with a selection of exercise manuals tell the story of an athlete in training for competition. Selective focus leads the viewer’s attention to the main subject, a Black Forest muffin, Jelly Babies, or some chocolate eclairs – items to be consumed as a weekly treat, perhaps part of a ‘cheat’ meal taken as a reward for the effort invested in training, and also to maintain a link with reality. A sheet from a tear-off calendar indicates the dates on which the food items were consumed.

The relationship between the subjects makes reference to an effective diet itself being a relationship: that of a careful balance between exercise and calorific intake.

Technically all five images are well exposed, having good dynamic range with retention of details in both shadows and highlights.

A natural vignette which results from the fall-off of the natural light used to light the various scenes adds to the aesthetic appeal and works well with the black and white images – together creating and enhancing a sense of a drama.

Furthermore, black and white images of food are extremely uncommon and as a consequence this series of images, being a significant departure from the way other contemporary food photographer’s present images, is quite unique. I feel that the monochrome treatment brings a timelessness to the images in addition to focusing the viewer’s gaze on the content and meaning.

The five images follow the same simple formula – a book, supporting props and a main subject. Something familiar, something shared helps ease the viewer into the images whilst providing continuity throughout the series. Variety is provided by the way the elements are arranged – something different in each image to hold the viewer’s gaze. Elements which bleed out of the image create intrigue – suggesting that this scene is only part of a bigger story.

But what could I do differently? Would retaining colour make the image stronger? Could a different composition alter the strength of the image? How can this composition be described? What could be changed, in terms of the subjects, to change the strength of the image?

Images were produced and evaluated in colour, and it was felt that, as a series, black and white had greater aesthetic appeal.

Different combinations of props were tried with each main subject, in different compositions – initially on paper in the form of an Excel spreadsheet ‘storyboard’ before being refined during shooting. With regard to the main subjects, however, these are fixed – change these and the project theme loses its integrity and purpose.

Using a storyboard to plan out the complete series of images proved very beneficial – and provided a way of getting deeper into the heart of the images. I also feel that investigating the use of the visual narrative helped in the successful design of these images. Consequently, I aim to apply these concepts to the remaining images in this series, and also to future projects.

With regard to the visual narrative itself, the images serve a visual anthropological purpose (an area I am becoming increasingly interested in), documenting one aspect of the athlete’s diet. The images also make reference to ‘clean’ eating as a concept – with arguments both for and against this form of diet being topical.

In terms of describing the composition, shooting at a wide aperture places everything except the primary subject out of focus, producing an attractive bokeh – this is the compositional concept of simplification.

The main subject in each image, the obvious point of interest, is placed off-centre, with satellite objects providing balance and further interest. The space between objects varies in both size and shape, also creating interest. Where the primary subject is a group, a triangular presentation creates a sense of stability and strength.

When finalised, the series will comprise 18 images in total. These five images represent those which have been produced to date. These are strong images which work together well as a series.

In summary, the intention was to produce a series of still life images which individually carry a message and together form a narrative whilst having both identity and integrity as works of art in their own right. Czech photographer Josef Sudek produced many beautiful monochrome images which featured ordinary objects photographed in an extraordinary way. It was also an objective to explore Sudek’s methods in using natural light to create the characteristic aesthetic of his images. I think these images are a significant move forward in terms of my understanding of both his techniques and the rationale behind his work.

Have I been successful in capturing light, as an entity with a presence of its own, in a Sudek-esque manner? Have I been successful in recreating Sudek’s aesthetic?

You decide …

Josef-sudek-caravaggio

Josef Sudek, 1956. Still Life after Caravaggio, Variation 1

On Reflection: Week 9, Module Three

As the end of module three approaches, albeit belatedly for me, the shadow of my nemesis grows darker.

Video presentations take me out of the zone in which I feel comfortable. And producing a presentation for module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, examining the motivations for my photography and briefly discussing some methods and strategies for image-making and image-sharing, is something I am finding particularly difficult.

For me, this period in my life will always be associated with the longest case of ‘writer’s block’ imaginable – it is hard for me to see how an idea could be worked on for so long, with so little progress.

Two issues to consider then …

Why do video presentations make me feel so uncomfortable?

And what is it regarding the making and sharing of images that has been so difficult to pin down? Why has it been so difficult to put my thoughts down on paper? I’m making images, and I’m sharing images – so why don’t my activities translate so easily into words? Too much to say? Or perhaps not enough?

Test shots for the Work in Progress portfolio have been very successful. The images, shared with peers who, having completed their own assignments for module three, have been kind enough and generous enough to provide critique which was incisive and constructive, have been warmly received.

Consequently, I am feeling positive about the current project.

Several other factors contribute to this positivity, not least of which I believe to be the analysis of feedback from previous portfolio submissions – examining ‘things gone right, things gone wrong’. It has very much been a case of making small improvements, and much larger, more frequent failures. It is these failures which have, perhaps, taught me more than the successes.

After some significant delays, things are starting to come together …