Sunday, 20 April 2014

Notes towards an essay: Mark Power - The Shipping Forecast


This essay has made rather slow progress since my initial blog post about it. This has been partly due to force of circumstances – it’s been an exceptionally busy period in my life - of which more in a future post. But that is only part of the story. I’ve struggled a little with what to say and how to say it and found it difficult to make a start. In part I think this is because I know the work so well, and have known I was going to do this essay for more than a year, so in my head a bit of me feels that I’ve already done it or at least thought everything I need to think and have nothing new to think or say. It isn’t that familiarity breeds contempt – far from it – but just that it all feels, well, familiar. I could very easily go through the motions and write a fairly standard academic summary of Power’s work, key themes and impact. But that isn’t enough for me: I want to get something more from this, and to feel that I have made some real progress in my understanding as a result of the exercise. Otherwise, what’s the point?

My instinct is that I will only learn to see afresh and to understand why the work means something to me by writing about it, working through what I see and reflecting along the way, much as I make sense of the world by photographing it. Mark Power has a considerable body of work and no relatively short essay could encompass all of it, so I am planning to write about particular projects in this blog. I’ll use that writing in part to help me think and in part to allow me to cover aspects that won’t all fit into the essay but that I want to explore. I could of course just make notes on my computer and build them into a final piece, but I want to do at least some of this by way of blogs. I’m never sure who reads what I write but the discipline of pulling my thoughts into some form of coherence for my imaginary reader is one I find helpful. I worry that this could all go very wrong, and that I might end up with nothing new to say at the end of the exercise and just cobbling together bits of the blogs, but I feel I have to try.

In the course of this exploration I will also try different ways of approaching the work, from close analysis of individual pictures to wider consideration of major bodies of work.

The Shipping forecast
Power has made an audio visual of the pictures and forecast. Here is the link.

The key facts of the book can be quickly summarised. The project documents the 31 regions named in the Shipping Forecast. It took four years to complete: around 6,000 pictures were edited down to a final select of 60. Most of the areas documented have a land border, and most of the pictures were taken at that border – the seashore, subject of so much British photography in the 20th Century. David Chandler, in his introductory essay to the book, tells us that the choice of the shore is partly practical but largely artistic.
“Power’s work refers to and extends the tradition of social documentary photography in Britain and for photographers the shoreline, the beach and the seaside town have all traditionally harboured the pageant of British post-war life. Particularly in the 1960s work of the late Tony Ray-Jones (an obvious reference point for Power) the seaside often becomes a bizarre social theatre, a spectacle full of incongruities pinpointing precisely the quaint, surreal character of imperial Britain in decline. ..’darker and more disturbing elements creep into (Power’s) account of this peripheral Britain of the 1990s, at odds with Ray Jones’ images of ‘gentle madness’.” (Chandler, 1996)


Chandler’s essay covers the basic facts and structure of the book well and I won’t try to reprise that here, instead attempting a more personal reflection.

For me contradictions and contrasts abound in this work. It is in essence about the difference between the imaginary landscape conjured up by the Shipping Forecast in Power’s imagination and the places it refers to. It is a rather serious and often beautiful book, that has its origin in a tea towel. It’s austere, sometimes forbidding, yet also humorous. Children’s play on windswept beaches alternates with hauntingly minimal landscapes. The selected pictures are carefully sequenced to interact with each other: for example, one small sequence starts with a picture of a (sad/tired?) child lying on a supermarket floor, his pose echoed by a torn inflatable that looks like a fish, which is itself followed by a piece of ice shaped like a whale. The sequence ends with real dead fish by the banks of the Thames and more children, this time apparently happily gathering the fish and playing.
Boy in supermarketBloated fishIce whaleThames fish

What do we get from this sequencing? A play of ideas and associations, thoughts on waste and environmental matters, on where we get our food from. There is something also I think about how we look at things, how we make symbols of the world and see pictures in the clouds (and in ice) and by analogy, a link back to the subject of this exercise, the interaction between our imagination and the mundane world. And finally perhaps something about the sadnesses and joys of childhood – that move from a place of distraught loneliness that I think most of us have felt at some time, to joy.

The work clearly reflects the inspiration of both Hiroshi Sugimoto’s exploration of the sublime, Tony Ray-Jones’s social theatre, and the influence of grittier social documentary artists such as Chris Killip. Exploring a quintessentially British phenomenon, it’s a book of an idea, the clash between an imaginary landscape built over years of listening to the poetry of and mystery of words on the radio and what Power found when he went to those spaces.
“When I bought the tea towel back in 1990 the names, which were so familiar to me - Forties, Cromarty, Fisher, German Bight - all came to life. These were real places, and this is where they were. I wondered what they might look like. Did they correspond at all to the pictures already in my imagination, carefully constructed over all those years? And so, quite simply, I decided to find out.” (Power, 2005)
The idea, and the process of exploring an idea, is in essence the thing that attracts me to this work. Sometimes I think that the most interesting pictures exist more powerfully in the viewer’s imagination than in reality (whatever that is): these works serve to stimulate ideas and thoughts in your head, to enrich and challenge your imagination and view of the world. Pictures are so much less definite in some ways than words – they evoke ideas and sensations rather than pinning them down by precise definition, living on in some liminal part of the brain, a half-life of imagination and association. Power recognises the value of the indefinite image in this work when discussing this work in his 2005 professorial lecture.
“Given the confusing, esoteric nature of the words, the pictures which I consider to be most successful are those which are in their own way confusing, unexplainable, mysterious. You must remember that before I began The Shipping Forecast I was a magazine and occasional newspaper photographer, expected to illustrate a given text and very little else, where most pictures needed to contain as much information and be as easily digestible as possible. But now the less I offered - the more confusing the situation depicted - the more interesting it became. Imagine how exciting that was!” (Power 2005)
The work explores a number of themes in its oblique way. The front cover and first image in the formal sequence of the book is the dark image shown above – a mysterious, brooding, sublime seascape. This leads to images suggesting the lonely and often dangerous journey out to sea.  However the frontispiece picture is this one below, a Ray-Jones style surreal social comedy of the sea shore, and the darker images quickly give way to scenes of play.

Umbrella beach scene

We move through the book with images changing in a rhythmic way through a range of overlapping sequences: scenes of play alternate with pictures of loneliness, see see a range of shelters and feel the vast emptiness of the sea, we move from joy to sadness and back again. Pictures of children give way to coffins and funerals: in the midst of life we are in death. The sequence ends by reprising the first image but with a very different feeling. The sky remains dark but the play of light on the sea gives a sense of hope. As we arrive at the end of the land (Finisterre) is the storm moving away, or moving in? You decide.

Good_final pic

We begin and end with the most mysterious, sublime images, carefully constructed in the manner of Sugimoto to contain the vastness in geometric form while offering a window into the sublime, the thing we can’t touch other than in our imagination. Given Power’s refection on the impact of the most ambiguous, least clear-cut images in this work, I think it no accident that it begins and ends with the most minimal pieces, and ends in particular with one whose reading is ambiguous.

Chandler, David: Postcards from the Edge (Introduction to ‘The Shipping Forecast’. November 1996) Available from this link: (accessed 19/04/14)
Power, Mark: Between Something and Nothing; Professorial Lecture by Mark Power. University of Brighton. November 2005. Available from this link: (accessed 19/04/14)
All pictures copyright Mark Power: reproduced here with kind permission from Mr. Power.
The link below takes you to an audio visit broadcast of the Shipping Forecast which you may wish to look at.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Paris 2: Francis Azemard

Francis Azemard
In Paris we were joined by Clive’s friend and fellow photographer Francis Azemard and his wife Catherine. Francis specialises in still life photography and works for some significant professional clients. I was very taken by his website and thought it worth a small blogette. Here’s a link to the website so you can see it for yourself.

I was very struck by the clean simplicity of the cover page above. Just two images and six words. Soft grey text against a white background. It’s very undemonstrative and yet has its own quite distinctive voice, like his work.

Francis Azemard 2

On the ‘work’ page there are just 10 folders, and one thing that immediately struck me is that there is no obviously labelled distinction between personal and professional work. Every set here is similarly labelled. But it is still very easily read. The professional (or client-led) work is on the top row, and I think any prospective employer would have no difficulty in seeing which was which or in finding the client work, while also having access to his personal work which gives other sides to his presentation. There are no words beyond the album titles but one can clearly see who his main clients are. The whole is very easily read but without fanfare: a very sophisticated and subtle presentation, which perfectly complements his work. I think it’s a real lesson in web design and presentation.

All of his work is first rate, though I am particularly taken by the sea and Devon images. They speak to the formalist in me as well as the lover of peaceful spaces. The Pieter Claesz Herring set are very subtle and understated, and I like the humour in the chicken pictures.

My favourite page of all for its understated cleverness is his bio page. I won’t spoil the effect by previewing this on – go see for yourself. Who needs words?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Paris 1: Amano’s Atget amble

Paris, OCA 173 ecopy
This is the first of a series of blogs I plan to write about my recent trip to Paris. I saw so many interesting things that a single blog would be very long indeed so I’m planning to divide it up into bite-sized chunks.
Our first evening in Paris began with a stroll through the streets of Montmartre in the steps of Atget. Fellow student Amano Samarpan had spent time exploring Paris to track down a number of the original viewpoints explored by Atget. Amano will write about his work in more detail (I will link to that when I can) – this is just a short summary of what I got from the exploration. I had expected the exploration to be fun, and it was. What I was not expecting was to learn so much. It was really interesting to stand in Atget’s shows and consider the decisions he made. In the picture above Amano is standing in Place du Tertre, showing a scene Atget photographed. In the picture below you see Amano holding a number of photographs of this square.

Paris, OCA 154 ecopy
All of these are taken from the top end oft he square, looking towards the cathedral of Sacre Coeur, which can be glimpsed at the end of the street between buildings. It was really striking that Atget eschewed this obvious choice and chose a viewpoint that was more mundane and yet seemed to me more compellingly evocative of the spirit of everyday Paris than the grander scene.
Standing in another photographer’s shoes and revisiting their choices is a really interesting experience and one I now expect to try again. It really helps to give you an insight to their decisions.
Strolling through Paris looking at these sites we found a surprising amount of places still recognisable from Atget’s day. The one major difference is the ruined cottage (4th picture below) which has morphed into an impressive block of flats. Overall it was a very enjoyable experience: lovely weather, good company, plenty to see and explore, as you can see from the pictures below. I am very grateful to Amano for the care and thought he put into this.






Sunday, 19 January 2014

Critical review–Mark Power: planning

Mark Power at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, 2012
From The Sound of Two Songs exhibition in Bradford
The purpose of this post is just to record some initial thoughts about my critical review essay on Mark Power. It will also act as a resource and repository of reference material as I progress through the exercise. Mark Power has produced a number of significant bodies of work, most of which are in book form. My plan is to work through each book/project more or less chronologically, making notes and observations as I go. I don’t intend the essay to be set out in this format as I expect to concentrate on one or two aspects of his work but want to be a little more methodical than usual in my approach to the task.

Bookmaking is one of Power’s significant interests: he first became prominent with the Shipping Forecast, and has continued to produce very well-received books regularly since then. there is much for me to learn from each book (lots of interesting playing with the book form as well as really thoughtful sequencing). I own some of his books, which is great, but Power’s website - contains folders for each project  and includes also pdf versions of all the book essays. The essays include some additional material also – I have found his professorial lecture of November 2005 a really useful pulling together of themes and interests.
Power is also a very able and thought-provoking film-maker. His films are available on Vimeo.
I saw his exhibition A Sound of Two Songs in Bradford in March 2012: here are my reflections on that exhibition for ease of  reference
Some additional online sources that I have found helpful (his recent work with Multistory particularly appeals to me).
He is of course a member of Magnum Photos.

Here are some book references:-
• Westminster Childrens Hospital. Photographers Gallery catalogue, 1988.
• The Shipping Forecast. Zelda Cheatle Press/Network, 1996.
• ISBN 1-899823-02-6
• Superstructure. Harper Collins Illustrated, 2000. ISBN 978-0-002-20205-3
• The Treasury Project. Photoworks, 2002. Edition of 1500, of which only 500 were
made available for public sale. ISBN 978-1-903-79605-4
• 26 Different Endings. Photoworks, 2007. Edition of 1000.
• ISBN 978-1-903-79621-4
• Signes. Gulbenkian Foundation exhibition catalogue, 2008.
• ISBN 978-9-728-46246-8
• The Sound of Two Songs. Photoworks, 2010. Edition of 2000.
• ISBN 978-1-903-79639-9
• MASS. Gost, 2013. Edition of 750. ISBN 978-0-957-42721-1
• Swap Shop - Postcards from America IV: Florida. London: Magnet Publishing,

Amano at Impressions Gallery, Mark Power exhibition
Fellow student Amano at the Bradford exhibition

So, much to do and reflect on!  Assignment five will be my last assignment on this course, and for it I am required to make work in the style of Mark Power. I want to be at least thinking about that as I work through the essay. I have a number of ideas that I am considering for new work and projects, but one idea keeps coming into mind increasingly insistently. this relates to a project I’ve already begun as part of my Bognor explorations, but not yet shared, exploring new estates being built on the edges of Bognor. I’ve already begun this exploration as the new estates fascinate me, for a range of reasons. I began it during the module (summer last year) but before I started the essay, and so I need to check that it could be incorporated into the final project. In many ways it relates to some of Power’s themes very well. I have more work to make before I finish this, and in addition some considerable thought to give to editing and presentation. Power has said that he advises students to spend as much time as they can on editing. For the Shipping Forecast he had something like 6000 pictures to edit into a final set of sixty and I imagine the task for the Sound of Two Songs was if anything larger. So editing and final presentation is a significant part of his output and to that extent I think some work with existing images fits entirely into consideration of his work. I’ve been planning to start work on the new estate as my next major processing exercise and hope to share some of the work and some initial thinking on it over the next few weeks.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Portfolio preparation: decisions, decisions…

130210_Bognor_Winter Trees 031 ecopy130511_Bognor trees 004 ecopy130511_Bognor trees 066 ecopy2
130627_DSC0555 ecopy130804 Bognor trees 142 ecopy131006, Bognor Trees 060 ecopy

One of the requirements of the landscape course is the presentation of a portfolio for assessment. The portfolio consists of four images of a single scene, one taken in each season, as well as 12 images taken through out the year, three from each season. Just to make it more fiddly, three of the set of twelve must come from the first assignment. In preparation for this I’ve been photographing some of the same scenes all year. I am particularly obsessed with two trees and have really enjoyed visiting them regularly and seeing the changes. There are some other more urban images which I’ll post in a separate entry when I get them all ready.

The trees you can see above will most likely be my single seasonal set. I continue to take pictures of both trees and am open to a different spring one. The top centre and right images are both for spring and I am not completely happy with them. I like the bright fresh green, the typical spring side-lighting and the interesting sky but the diagonal cloud shape irritates me a bit. I’m torn between the bottom left and and centre for summer: both were actually taken in summer; one in June and one at the end of August. The soft sky and warm colours in the first one fit my memory of last summer best, but the second image is a strong one also and more of a late summer/early autumn rendering. Given that it was taken on the cusp of autumn,  it might be used for that season but the final image also has a strong later autumn feel, with a hint of frost on the fields. This one needs to be seen with more sky to get the best of that interesting cloud, so maybe it doesn’t go so well with the rest? Do let me know if you have any thoughts.

130210_Bognor_Winter Trees 013 ecopy130511_Bognor trees 121 ecopy130627__DSC0542 ecopy130804 Bognor trees 105 ecopy131006 Bognor Trees 032 ecopy131105_DSC7461 ecopy

And here is my second set of totems, The first of these was part of my original winter assignment and will be used in the set of 12. I’m thinking I might use one or more of the others at different stages in the seasonal set of 12. Again I am not sure about the spring one (second left on top row). I like how the cloud shape echoes that of the tree but the contrast is maybe too strong and the white fluffy cloud at the top doesn’t work so well. It might be helpful to crop a little more so that it is not visible, as this picture is shows the tree slightly smaller than in others. In terms of visual interest I think late summer/early autumn (2nd from right on top row) and autumn (far right on top row) are the strongest.I like the range of wild flowers and plans in the late summer one, and the edge lighting and touch of frosting on the later one. The final picture was taken in November so still autumn (what has happened to the polytunnels?).

Whatever I decide about the portfolio I intend to continue this exploration for a little while. I am very drawn to the trees and may aim to have one from each month so that more subtle changes can be explored. For a future project I would like to understand farming and agribusiness in the Bognor area and want to get up courage to ask the farmers who own these polytunnels to let me make some work with them, perhaps as part of a final year exploration.

Overall I am fond of these pictures and love the trees. I do worry that they are a bit plain conservative and may not be well-received at assessment but hey-ho, not much to be done about that now. I had hoped to find a really compelling site I could revisit during the year but other than the trees and one house (which hasn’t been an entirely successful choice) I have struggled. I am a little daunted by the idea of completing the portfolio as there isn’t a single underlying them and I’m not sure how it will come together as a set. I do have some ideas to explore, which will be shared here in due course.

It seems to rain quite a lot when I go out to the trees: here is one particularly miserable day. Not sure that the rain shows up so well in the main picture but the view from the car shows quite how wet it was.

131031_DSC7125 Bognor rain and trees ecopy131031_DSC7153 Bognor rain and trees ecopy

Assignment three–tutor comments and reflection

2013-08-16 13.26.29 Mwanza to Kilimanjaro 1100px2013-08-21 15.58.24 P1020035 Kilimanjaro to Dar 1100px
2013-08-24 11.39.55_DSC4995 Istanbul to London 1100px2013-08-14 18.32.54 Istanbul to Dar 1100px

I received a typically prompt response to my submission. There were no major suggestions for change. Overall Norman found this an imaginative outcome, pushing the bounds of landscape (literally): this entailed some risks but in this case the result was positive.  “There is no doubt you have chosen some striking images to use for this assignment and created a strong and imaginative outcome to this theme.”

Norman found the images which had greater contrast and colour most effective. I had been discussing presentation options and he suggested that I might consider a tetraptych of four of the pictures. The pictures chosen are those above – I’ve pasted in cut Norman’s mock-up below as he also suggested some changes to the contrast and vibrance in one of the images. The reproduction below suffers from being just cut out of a document so isn’t as subtle as would have been intended. By coincidence I have already had four small canvasses printed of these images – my selection was different in one respect from Norman’s – and had planned to put them up in just this format. I have noted that one of the pictures (the bottom left one) has come back kind of washed out and may get it reprinted with additional vibrance and contrast. For assessment I may print these in grid format on an A3 sheet rather than making separate image (prints of these aren’t essential for assessment but I would like to have something in the box to represent this work in physical form, in addition to the digital presentation).

Suggested further reading/reference for this work:
Google - landscape photography at its best
Norman also gave me some book and reading details for my critical review of Mark Power. I will incorporate these into a separate post setting out my plans for that work, so that everything related to the essay can be found together.
It was pleasing to get positive feedback on the work. I’ll look further at the contrast and vibrance of some of the images – we’ll see how successful I am when they are printed. On to the next!

Monday, 6 January 2014

Another year older, a new one just begun...

Repeating mistakes
2014-01-01 12.38 combined 1100px 75pc copy

It’s been very interesting to look back at this year from the perspective of my photography, and to look in particular at progress against my aims as set out in this blog post last year. I have made progress in all areas but not completed much, so my achievements list isn’t nearly as impressive as last year.

Key achievements for 2013
Made progress in the Landscape module – three assignments completed, most of my seasonal images and portfolio images taken.
Continued to make pictures for both the Norbury/SW16 and Bognor books.
Made and shared a number of films for the A Graceful Death project. See here for details.
I attended my local carnival this year and made a set of pictures that I was quite pleased with. They are unlikely to fit into the book I am planning on SW16, which explores the landscape and built environment, but I did enjoy doing this and may consider another locally-based project as part of my level three exploration.
I also edited a lovely set of illustrations for a forthcoming children’s book. The process of scanning and the edits needed to get the image ready for repro was a good learning curve for me. I will write about that when the book is ready to be published so I can share the pics.

Plans for 2014
Complete Landscape module to a high standard, ideally for July assessment.
Complete both Bognor and Norbury/SW16 books and hand in alongside Landscape module. These are not formally part of the module as they’re likely to include some pictures taken before I started but are so linked to it that I want them all to be part of the package.
Start level three courses, ideally around August.
Continue the series of images including my sky pictures and some of the sea and land pictures that involve very minimal or reduced information. No working title for the project yet but hope to turn it into a book eventually.
I will make some more films (and complete processing on some that are already in the can) but this has to take a back seat to my core landscape work for a little while.
More of an intention than a plan as such: I do want to learn from some of my difficulties in 2013 and spend a greater percentage of my time focussing on my own work. Mustn’t volunteer for too much, and especially nothing major between now and June when I hope to hand in the completed landscape course.
Make a portfolio website between completing this course and starting level three.

Learning points and room for improvement
Overall last year was a difficult year for me. It started well enough but when I began my Tanzania project (an aid-related project sponsored by my Department) this took up a great deal of time, mental and physical energy and quite a lot of my creativity. It was a great and valuable experience but it really was too much for me on top of my job and degree. I know I’d have regretted not taking up the opportunity and do believe that what we are doing will be valuable to the Tanzanian economy, but really must learn to say no even to good things sometimes if I am not to keel over. Last year I also had a good deal of things done to my flat and worked on the A Graceful Death project with a big exhibition in Bridport in November. All worthwhile and even necessary things. But I hope 2014 will be a less interesting year in some ways. I’d like more of my creative energy and imagination to be reserved for my pictures. We shall see.

I’ve looked again at the film and blog on productivity that I posted with my review of last year. I do the thing of breaking scary stuff into bite sized chinks and that’s really how I got through the worst time last year, but think I need to try again to be more focussed and productive. I’d like to be more relaxed also but am not the sort of person who can relax easily. If I feel that I am getting things done and making progress it is much easier to relax as well. To help keep me on track I will aim to monitor this and maybe make another reflection at the end of the Landscape course.

This is quite a short and business-like review of the year. I’ve read some really excellent and thoughtful ones by other people and had originally thought of doing something similar myself but it hasn’t worked out that way, perhaps in part because I spent so much mental energy on my last assignment, which possibly brings me back again to my earlier point, that I can’t expect to be endlessly creative without taking time in between to rest and recharge those mental batteries.

And in conclusion…
I wish everyone who reads this a Happy and creative New Year, wherever your creativity takes you, and whatever life blows your way!