Category Archives: Notes

General rough notes.

A Way of Looking

30/0 9/17

Recently I have been thinking a great deal about the art of looking, and it is indeed an art. It is far to easy to glance at an image, whether it is a photograph, a painting or even a sculpture and think ‘oh, I get it, that’s a man, house, apple or a dog.’ What is not easy is to understand what went into the making of the image and even less easy to consider what it means to the artist or what it might mean to another person.
I have also been thinking about the need (or not) of understanding the ‘theory’ of art and its place in the world we inhabit in the 21st century, which is certainly very different from its place in earlier centuries when it was often mainly the purview of the rich or the important, or part of the religious/spiritual world.
Last week I had a ‘lightbulb moment’, call it an epiphany if you will. I would not treat someone for a disorder without carefully examining them, listening to their past and present symptoms, researching the possible range of treatments and thinking carefully about all the options. Why should I not treat art with the same care and consideration?

There are two parallel strands to this. One is about learning how to take the best images I can, which talk, at least to myself, but hopefully also to others, about what is important to me and my view of the world. This does mean being open and allowing others the opportunity of seeing myself, my thoughts. The other strand is doing other artists (I am considering photographers in the main) the courtesy of thinking carefully about their worlds. This means learning about the present themes in all art, being open to areas that I find difficult but also learning how to speak about art in a way that others can understand.

In a recent article about her work, Carla van de Puttelaar talks about the need to study the entire oeuvre of an artist you wish to emulate. Her images resonate with the velvety smoothness of the Dutch Old Masters, translated for modern eyes. In the same journal (SSHOP 30th Anniversary Edition II), images by Romina Ressia also echo that era, with present day emblems such as popcorn substituted for the objects that would have had meaning in an earlier century. It is clear that both photographers have studied the earlier artists intensively, the images immediately brought Rembrandt and the other Flemish artists to my mind, while the modern twists gave them an edge. They are not copies but re-interpretations. The types are as relevant now as they were in the 17th  century, only the look on the faces of the women has changed, less submissive, more in control of their lives and their choices.

To write a meaningful critique of an artist you need to understand them, their history and their influences together with knowing how the type of work they are making fits within the time / era of their work. Is it art, documentary, protest, or portrait? Who was it made for? Is it straight or subversive (and if so why)? Over and above that you need to look, and allow time for your own interpretations to become clear. It is too simple (and something I am aware I am guilty of) to just reflect on what the guru’s say. That may give you a lead in and inform your thinking, but will not substitute for personal opinions together with imaginative thought.

Look – with your mind
Think – with your brain
Write – with your personal voice

Light in All its Glory


Light is probably the most important thing when taking an image. You obviously need an image taking device of some sort, but this can be as simple as a piece of photosensitive paper or a pinhole camera, but light is essential. Complete darkness, although almost never present, makes it impossible to see or obtain an image. My father was a professional photographer, taking colour film images for sale for books and magazines long before the days of stock photography. He always used to say that the light you needed depended on what the photo was for. He would often avoid midday sun – too harsh, but might also avoid the evening light as the golden colour cast, while very attractive, was not what he was looking for. This was well before the days of being able to remove a colour cast by digital manipulation.

Sally Mann in an interview with Chinese Photography Magazine said ‘the light in the South is so different from the North, where you have this crisp and clear light. There is no mystery in that light. Everything is revealed in the Northern light. You have to live in the South to understand the difference. In summer, the quality of the air and light are so layered, complex, and mysterious, especially in the late afternoon. I was able to catch the quality of that light in a lot of the photos…….and also the refulgence or the reflection when light and water interact. There is no coating on the lens of my old camera, which permits a much softer and more luminous light. I am less interested in the facts of a picture than in the feelings. The facts don’t have to be absolutely sharp. I can get information across by appealing to viewer’s emotions’ (American Suburb X, 2013). Her images in the Southern Landscape series reflect this philosophy. They are not clear, sharp and flat but you feel you are looking into the images rather than at them. Sometimes only part of the image is visible, the remainder clouded in mist. The focus is variable – leaving you peering though the murk, wondering and imagining what might be there. I find myself blinking in a hope to see more clearly, to try and see what Mann saw on that day, at that particular time, at that moment. My favourite, much desired image, (simply identified by the year 1998) is very simple. A patch of light, surrounded by trees over grass, or possibly water. I keep changing my mind.

A completely different use of light is shown in the images of Schmidt. He said ‘I prefer black and white photography because it guarantees the viewer a maximum amount of neutrality within the limits of the medium. It reduces and neutralizes the coloured world to a finely nuanced range of greys, thus precluding an individual way of seeing (personal colour tastes) by the viewer. This means that the viewer is able to form an objective opinion about the image from a neutral standpoint independent of his subjective colour perception. He is thus not emotionally distracted. In order to achieve a maximum of objectivity and thus create a photograph which possesses credibility and authenticity as a document (factual information), I prefer to work with neutral diffused light, i.e. to produce an image without noticeable shadows. The viewer must allow the objects portrayed in the photograph to take their effect upon him without being distracted by shadows or other mood effects. In this context, it is essential that the viewer should be able to recognize the depicted objects clearly and in relation to each other.’ (American Suburb X, 2010). Schmidt’s images are very different from those of Mann. They are clear, without obvious emotional content, explicitly showing the subject. As he said – you can recognise the subject easily and therefore make your own judgements on the content, rather than trying to interpret Schmidt’s thoughts and feelings. The images are relatively emotion free, (I do not think that any image can ever be completely devoid of emotional reading) and therefore what you see can become very personal. In his obituary for the Guardian, Delahaye said’ His language is a language of precision and his tool is the most simple one: a small, 35mm camera, and a few rolls of films. His pictures look simple at first glance, and their anti-sentimentality, their refusal of all the tricks of the usual seduction, their concision and their clarity, give them great efficiency. They show what they show but they manage to retain an opacity, a mystery, and they become a support for our imagination’ (O’Hagan, 2014).

Atget, much earlier on in the development of photography, was very aware of the effects of light and varied his technique over time, initially using the relatively neutral light at midday to produce images that give information about the ‘facts’ while images from later in his career are very different ‘Atget’s late photographs, however, are frequently marked by subjective light and deep shadows. Often made early in the morning, these pictures—such as Parc de Sceaux—use light and shadow to create a mood rather than to describe a place; they mark the apex of Atget’s formal and expressive investigations of the medium.’ (,2017).

All these examples are of photographers who usually took monochrome images where it is often easier to see changes in light intensity, together with the effect of the direction of the light. A further layer of complexity is added in when using colour as the temperature of the light varies as well as it’s apparent quality. Light in the morning and evening is warmer, and may be very red at sunrise and sunset, while it is a more neutral colour at midday. The following table from Cambridge in Colour (,2017) helpfully summarises the effects of light throughout the day.

Time of Day   Contrast Colors Direction of Sun
1. Midday Highest Neutral White Near Vertical
2. Evening & Morning High Slightly Warm Mid to Low
3. Golden Hour & Sunrise/Sunset Medium Warm to Fiery Near Horizontal
4. Twilight, Dawn & Dusk Low Cool Pastel Below Horizon


AMERICAN SUBURB X. (2010). MICHAEL SCHMIDT: “Thoughts About My Way of Working” (1979) | #ASX. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Sep. 2017].

AMERICAN SUBURB X. (2013). INTERVIEW: Sally Mann – “The Touch of an Angel” (2010) – ASX | Photography & Culture. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Sep. 2017]. (2017). Making the Most of Natural Light in Photography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Sep. 2017]. (2017). Atget: The Art of Documentary Photography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Sep. 2017].

O’Hagan, S. (2014). Michael Schmidt obituary. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 17 Sep. 2017].


Summary week ending 15/09/17


  • Went to Glasgow and took a series of photos while walking along the Clyde
  • Experimented more with taking selfies
  • Amusing pics of dog in motorbike sidecar.

I have continued to think about:

  • concept of selfies and how they are used. My son is very strongly of the idea that they must have context to mean anything. Overall I agree, but in practice difficult to do.
  • difficulty in managing areas of extreme differences between light and dark in one image
  • Kate Davis and feminism in photos. Feminism and the female gaze seems to be a common thread in my reading at present. Is it possible/probable that we have gone too far? I think that there may be less of an issue now than when i was young – however it is probably just more subtle and hidden.


  • working on Part 4
  • wrote up about Kate Davis


  • Graham Clarke – The Photograph. I am having great difficulty with the concepts here, (even on the 2nd time through) partly in understanding the whole issue about critical thinking and its importance, partly because of the language used – coming from a science rather than an arts background. Need to find a primer!
  • Stereoscope – the yearly magazine from the Arts and Photography students at St.Andrews University. Images, writings intercut with images from the universities Special Collection photographic Archives. It is interesting to see the sort of images that are taken by students – not just those that are picked as major upcomingt alents by BJP, Foam or Lenswork. Work often muted – very much about people rather than places. The one that stood out for me was Tom Oldridge. keep an eye out for his name
  • Lensculture – several interesting articles this week

Summary – week ending 08/09/17

Visited Cultybraggan Prisoner of War Camp near Crieff:
           Opportunities for monochrome/vintage conversions with graphic images
            Problems with very light sky versus dark buildings
Started thinking about selfies and how to explore them:
            Research into academic work
            Practical trials
            ?use of selfie stick
Exhibitions visited:
            Kate Davis at Stills – subversive work on female roles 
            Roger Felton images of Crimea war – compare with Perfect Chemistry exhibition 
            Finished response to tutor report on assignment 3
            Looked at work of Parr and Reas
            BJP October issue:
Trevor Appleton’s work on people using the portrait combined with images of what is important to them. This is the same idea I want to work on around the response of parents to being given the information that their child is autistic. Watch out for the book.

Self Critique on Assignment 3

Self assessment and criticism is an area I find particularly difficult. This is probably not because I am over confident, but because I tend to be very negative about my own work. This makes it difficult to write down the thoughts and also difficult to be objective.

Assessment criteria points

Demonstration of technical and visual skills – Materials, techniques, observational
skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills. (40%)
I think I produced reasonable images for this assignment. I found it hard to keep to the topic, and, because it was a specific idea, some of the images , especially those that didn’t make the final cut, had major flaws, such as depth of field or focus. I was concentrating on what was happening and didn’t always remember to think about the practical issues such as the best camera settings. It would have been helpful to think in advance about the best way to show them, for example, would it be best to have the whole image in focus, or better to just focus on the person taking the image and have the background (their subject) out of focus. I made a considered decision to only have the person on the side of the image and to show the background as a large part as I felt it made the concept more ‘real’.

Quality of outcome – Content, application of knowledge , presentation of work in a
coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of
ideas. (20%)
Having got the spark of an idea for this I feel I thought it through, weighing up the possibilities, and logically explaining my thought processes. This was easier to present on-line with the additional images that showed the progression of thoughts. Next time it might be better to add these images into the printed explanatory essay as will as the final chosen images. I feel that I communicated my concept in both the descriptive essay and the images.

Creativity — Imagination, experimentation, invention. (20%)
I experimented with several possibilities for this assignment before settling in the final one. I also experimented with colour versus monochrome. It’s is difficult to see how imagination comes into this – unless it is about imagining the concept in the first place. This was a ‘sideways’ take on the concept of the decisive moment – thinking about other peoples moment and trying to put myself into their place. It has made me think of several other pieces of work that would be interesting to do as a follow up including the work on selfies and possibly asking other people why they were interested in that place/photography at that time (also – what they did with their images ?post them on line,?print them or what. This would open up the possibility of contrasting their thoughts with mine.

Context – Reflection, research, critical thinking. (20%)
My research on this assignment was too limited. It was about the concept of selfies and how they were used – but then I moved away from this as an idea. I am sure there have been other studies on my eventual idea but I am not aware of them, and not sure how/where to access them.


The Decisive Moment – or Not?

The decisive moment as a photographic meme comes from the book ‘The Decisive Moment’ by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Cartier-Bresson, 1852) where, in his introduction he quotes Cardinal de Retz ‘There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment’ (De Retz, 1717).  Cartier-Bresson describes this as ‘the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression’. Interestingly, the book, in its original French printing was called ‘Images à la Sauvette’ meaning images on the run which gives a different emphasis – focusing on the photographer’s actions rather than the moment captured.

The phase and the book have both been discussed repeatedly, by photographers, critics and others with a variety of thoughts on the subject. O’Hagen, in a review of a second edition said ‘For me, what is interesting about the republishing of The Decisive Moment is that it has happened too late. The book is now a historical artefact. It cements an idea of photography that is no longer current but continues to exist as an unquestioned yardstick in the public eye: black and white, acutely observational, meticulously composed, charming. Colour and conceptualism may as well not have happened, so enduring is this model of photography outside the world of contemporary photography itself’ (O’Hagen, 2014). Zouhair Ghazzal said ‘Granted that the decisive moment is more of a cliché than a reality, even for its own creator, it still has the status of a myth with too much of an unconscious impact on photojournalism to be dismissed too easily ……. The decisive moment is therefore that infinitely small and unique moment in time which cannot be repeated, and that only the photographic lens can capture.’ (Ghazzal, 2014) and then he goes on to suggest that in modern cities there is no centre and no individuality that would allow the camera (or presumably the photographer) to capture a decisive moment. In an extensive article, the psychologist John Suler dissects what it takes to make a decisive moment – summarised in a series of 10 rules the final one of which is ‘The DM photo is a product of a unique set of technical, cognitive, and emotional skills developed from extensive training and experience in photography, as well as from a psychological knowledge of people’ (Suler, 2013).

The theme that the decisive moment is no longer relevant is suggested in the review by Colin Pantall of the photobook ‘The Present’ by Paul Graham when he says ‘what he wants us to see is the antithesis of the decisive moment and the spectacle of the urban experience. Instead we get a very contemporary contingency, a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for……. He is not so much showing us something as posing a question; what do we look at when we look at a photograph?’ (Pantall, 2012).  Writing in Black and White Photography Magazine Alex Schneideman argues that ‘street photography… characterised by chance and the interplay between humanity and the built environment is attractive in concept, but not always worthy of the attention it receives…. it has become a gentle pastime that can be successful by its own standards without delving beneath the surface’ (Schneideman, 2017) implying that there has been something lost in the ongoing urge to simply take photographs in the street without focusing on an underlying concept.

Decisive means settling an issue; producing a definite result and having or showing the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively, while moment means a very brief period of time and an appropriate time for doing something; an opportunity or a particular stage in the development of something or in a course of events (Oxford Dictionaries, English,2017).  If you look momentarily outside the field of photography this is discussed in crime novels ‘What is an event, actually? Blinking is an event, going to the toilet is an event, sitting in a café is an event, thinking a thought is an event too. All the things we do and all the things that happen, are events.’ (Horst,2011), autobiography Life isn’t a matter of milestones, but of moments’. (Rose Kennedy, 1974) and music (Pink Floyd, 1973)

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.

Thought I’d something more to say –I think this is the important idea that comes out of all the above. A moment in time, all still photography is capturing a moment in time, it may be very short, a millisecond or less, freezing a frame to capture the beat of a hummingbird’s wing or a falling drop, or several days as in the photography of Wesely, or when capturing the movement of the stars at night. The meme of the decisive moment carries with it connotations of black and white street images with an aura of the past, a romanticised view of time gone by and expert photographers swinging Leica’s from their hips to catch a sudden event. Is it still relevant? Yes, but maybe not if you only think of it that way. What is important is saying something about where you are in your moment, your time and what is happening in your space in the world!

Is the decisive moment the image that I began these thoughts with or is it the ending one, where the only person watching is me?



Cartier-Bresson, H. (1952). The decisive moment. Göttingen: Steidl.

De Retz (1717). Memoires.

Ghazzal, Z. (2004). The indecisiveness of the decisive moment. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Aug. 2017].

Horst, J. (2011). Dregs.

Kennedy, R. (1974). Times to remember. New York: Doubleday.

O’Byrne, R. (2001). H. Cartier-Bresson: l’amour tout court. [online] Vimeo. Available at: [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

O’Hagan, S. (2014). Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back -but his Decisive Moment has passed. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 4 Aug. 2017].

Oxford Dictionaries | English. (2017). [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Aug. 2017].

Pantall, C. (2012). photo-eye Book Reviews: The Present. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Aug. 2017].

Pink Floyd (1973). Time (The Dark Side of the Moon). Harvest Records.

Schneideman, A. (2017). Thinking Photography. Black and White, (February), pp.62-65.

Suler, J. (2017). Photographic Psychology: The Decisive Moment. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Aug. 2017].


Thoughts for July

I have been following, with some bemusement, several posts both on the OCA EYV mail thread and on the OCA year 1 Facebook page. There seems to be a small number of very vocal people who are clearly dissatisfied with the thoughts behind the course and the marking system. The problems could be summarised as:

  • I don’t feel I get enough support
  • I don’t like being told what to do
  • I don’t like the type of photography we are being asked to look at – too artsy, not beautiful, too much meaning, not enough meaning!
  • I’m not learning how to make better (read prettier) pictures
  • It’s too hard
  • It’s too much theory

Some of the above are obviously mutually contradictory.

I am not in the above camp – but I do wonder how much these vocal people reflect the general perceptions of a distance learning environment and some of the inevitable difficulties that occur. I have had the dubious advantage of working in a profession where I have always had to do a lot of self-directed study to keep up with any new developments, and was aware how hard this can be before starting the course. I am also studying for personal interest, that’s not to say that a long-term goal of making images that are good enough to attract attention and maybe even sell is out of the question!

I also am very aware that I actually signed up to do an Arts degree (and hope to be able to finish it). In any degree course there is bound to be a lot of ‘theoretical’ work, both reading and writing, and you are going to come across a range of works, some of which you will like and some of which you may hate or despise. I also think that it is likely that my tastes and specific interests will change as I see more different images and also as I read more about the thoughts and aspirations of the individual photographers. Certainly, I have already come across several artists that I would never have found before, and at least one that, on initial viewing, I could not see any value in, but whom I now really appreciate, and go back to.

I admit I am struggling to find enough time to do as much as I would like to. This is partly because I keep getting distracted and would spend an untenable amount of time following side paths, which, while fascinating, does detract from time available from doing the actual course work.

I also keep changing my mind about how to approach some of the assignments. I would probably find a little more hands on guidance or discussion helpful here, and should probably benefit from attending the study days when they are near enough or joining a local (ish) study group. Maybe a way forward would be to get up courage to post some of my images on the appropriate thread on the OCA website to ask for comments.

The issue about tutor support is a significant one. The tutor I have for EYV has not had any contact with me other than responding after my assignments, however that response has been extensive and very helpful, commenting on both my photography and my research, with several suggestions about how to take it further and appropriate links. Interestingly he has given some diametrically opposite advice from the tutor I had some years ago for TAOP. My previous tutor directed that every image should be labelled with all the image data, this one said not, commenting that you would only look at this if the photograph was intrinsically boring! (Although it can be interesting to know how someone else has reached the effect they have achieved).

Over the last month I have done a fairly large amount of personal photography that doesn’t directly feed into the course requirements. We have been away on holiday on a tour of Northern England and been to several events to do with the Romans and also to a very large military re-enactment. I have been able to use some of the confidence I developed in taking portraits for assignment 2 to good use here, and have, I think, made more interesting images of these events than I would have previously.

I have also made a small photobook for our wedding anniversary using 3 inch square close-up monochrome images of ears, fingers etc, which I would probably not thought of doing before the course. This is something I may well develop for future work and have wondered about using for the final assignment, my initial plan had to do some images around the environmental impact of the forestry commission and logging in Scotland.

So this is where I am at the moment. Trying not to get too diverted. Considering what to take forward. Generally happy that I am slowly improving.