Roger Brown - Photography as process, documentary photographing as discourse.

© Roger G. Brown 2010.

Photographing exercise

In my article p197-p222 I speak of photographing as being a form of speech act. A saying, that has Propositional, descriptive Locutionary content (an Inscription of knowledge) and Illocutionary, expressive and imaginative content (an Inspiration value). These two aspects together with a third, the Perlocutionary that act as description, stimulus and aspiration together, in varying proportions, make up an utterance that is meaningful. Here, of course, that means the making of a photograph and series of photographs (p204).

Later I draw attention to the five-fold aesthetic of photography devised by John Szarkowski of The Thing, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and Vantage. We shall consider three, The Frame, Time and Vantage point (p206-207).

Here is a straightforward exercise for you to try that will bring out more clearly these values in your photographing. In all cases the photographs will retain their fundamental empirical value as descriptions and a source of knowledge. What will change is some of their constituents to make them more appealing, melodious and communicative.

I must mention too that you do not need expensive and sophisticated camera equipment, only something that will let you control the shutters speeds and the lens apertures used. A mobile 'phone may not do (it depends on the model) but a compact probably will. If you have an SLR then so much the better because of the greater range of choice in type of lens and means of independent (non-automatic) control available. If you can use Manual 'M' settings. Ignore all the various forms of automatic 'P' or manufacturer's pre-set special option settings, 'Sport' etc.

Exercise 1: Light
This part of the exercise is about recognizing (seeing) and using imaginatively different qualities of Light.

The subject: Choose a subject that genuinely interests you (see Hurn and Ravilious p207). This would be better for being outside rather than indoors for now. Your subject should have sociological value (you are sociologists after all). For example, I am writing this in the autumn and yesterday I visited a beautiful landscaped garden. The weather was clear and sunny and the light quite stunning. But everything changed according to the mood of the light, from dull to inspiringly beautiful. I was fascinated by the plays of light through the trees and plants and by the ways in which people were moving through and experiencing the beauties of the garden.

                1a Light behind you: Having chosen you subject make three photographs (or six if you prefer) in full daylight. Position yourself so that the sunlight is behind you and falling straight towards the subject. This is the Locutionary value.

                1b Light coming towards you: Now, with the same subject change your camera position so that the sunlight is shining straight towards you, through and over the subject. Be careful to shade the lens to avoid lens flare and image degradation (your hand or a hat held over the camera will do the trick). Make three or six photographs.

Process the images and compare and contrast the results.

Both groups of photographs will describe and give knowledge of the appearance of the subject, probably in some detail. But what of their mood, their appeal to your imagination and feelings? Those made with the light shining straight onto the subject I would expect to be worthy, clear, rather ordinary and even dull by comparison. Those made with the light shining towards you and the camera, through and over the subject, I would expect to be more lyrical, thrilling, even poetic.

James Ravilious frequently used this kind of light when photographing farming life in Devon. So do I. My photograph of the Occidental Petroleum oil rig gas flare (the original is full colour) was shot at dawn against the early morning sunrise (Fig 1, p209). My photograph of the interior of a fish processing shed in Aberdeen was shot in black and white with the overhead fluorescent light in front of the camera. The light shines through the steam making it both visible and evocative and gleams from the surfaces of the wet fish. All of the photographs of the medieval skeleton are made using light in this way (p211-p216).


Dull light and imaginative light (Locutionary and Illocutionary values)
                1. Choose a dull, overcast day. It could even be raining. At lunchtime (i.e. about midday) choose a subject and make three or six photographs of it. Make sure all of your photographs are fully in focus and pin sharp from front to back.

                2. Now return to your subject at another time or on another day. Choose (a) at Dawn and no more than two hours afterwards; and (b) at Dusk and no more than two hours before sunset. There must be some sunlight but a high haze or some light broken cloud will not matter. At each time make three to six photographs of your subject.

Process the images and compare and contrast the results. I would expect the first group to look dull, flat and lifeless. The second group I would expect to be full of interest, mood, colour, and unexpected delights. A world in which you can enter with pleasure. These are the illocutionary and perlocutionary values coming to the fore.

In Case Study 2 accompanying my article, the photograph Fig 15 was made into the light on a dull, heavily overcast day. The photograph Fig 12, however, was made early in the day shooting against the rising sunlight, on a morning that was lightly clouded. I enhanced the effect by choosing a wide angle lens to exaggerate perspectives in the sky and the canal bank, and chose to include the reflections on the surface of the canal water. I find Fig 15 worthy, informative and rather dull but Fig 12 imaginative and interesting. Both are full of descriptive detail (knowledge) but one plays more on the illocutionary values. See if you agree with me.

Exercise 2: Light and Szarkowski's aesthetic considerations: Frame, Time, Vantage point

Not forgetting what has been learned from exercise 1, this exercise introduces three additional variables, with sub-variations, for you to consider.

                1. The Frame: By this is meant the edges of the picture created by the camera viewfinder or viewing screen that are replicated, more or less, in the final photography. The Frame is not neutral but places a hard boundary around the image and around the endless flow of life. Thus it simultaneously excludes possibilities and includes others. We must suppose these are choices thought important by the photographer and introduces a degree of subjectivity into the photographing. This is equivalent to the widely discussed issues on writing ethnography.

The frame also affects the internal geometry of the picture, it's internal composition. It does so by creating space and by creating forms and values inhabiting those spaces. It creates a foreground and a background, more or less emphasis on certain constituents of the picture. The most familiar geometric value is the classic Rule of Thirds. This is a compositional device that divides the internal space of the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally. It states that important constituents should be placed on those thirds. This creates a visual asymmetry that we also find harmonious. It creates a dynamic rhythm to the composition. My photograph in Case Study 2, Fig 13 is such a composition. The subject, Mrs Lottie Hughes is placed off centre to the right. The bottom two thirds of the picture is made up of heavy forms, her body, the chair, the furniture leaving the top third light. A similar composition is in play in Fig 14, a Resident's Association meeting where the dominant standing figure is place on the left of the picture and the seated audience fills the bottom two thirds of the picture frame.

The second familiar value is the making of positive and negative spaces inside the picture frame. These are sometimes referred to as a gestalt, a foreground and a background that the foregrounded subject inhabits. This can be seen in these two examples, but what about Fig 16, Mr & Mrs Jeffries? Here the subject, the married couple, are placed deep in the middle distance of the picture and centrally in the frame. Why? The answer is because I wanted to make greater use of the negative spaces surrounding them; the furniture, the room; the pictures on the walls. Details that spoke about their life together and their shared, common identity (and difference). It also enabled me to use the geometry of the forms created by the stair case, the wall structure, the armchair and sofa to both frame the subject within the frame and draw the eye towards them. Yet leaving the eye with lots of other information to ponder.

                2. Time: This has two aspects to consider, (a) the cosmic time when you make the picture and (b) the time internal to the picture established by the speed of shutter and the control of movement. By cosmic time I am referring to the time of day or night, which we have already discussed. Here we are speaking about the camera controls  and use of shutter speeds.

                2a. Fast shutter: Choose a subject in which some constituents are moving. Make three or six different pictures with a shutter speed of more than 1/250th of a second (i.e 1/500; 1/1000; 1/2000).

                2b. Slow shutter: Choose the same or a different subject but again with some constituents that are moving. Make three or six different pictures with a shutter speed of 1/4th second or slower (i.e. ½; 1 sec; 2 sec). Place the camera on a support to hold it still and to avoid camera shake which will distort the results.

Process the images, compare and contrast the results.

With the group 2a you should expect to see all movement in the subject frozen into stillness. Exactly what and by how much will depend on the speed with which the subject was moving and the shutter speed in use. The faster the shutter speed the less movement will show.

With the group 2b pictures the opposite will be the case. Some parts will be static but others will have blurred through the period of exposure. Again by how much will depend on the shutter speed selected and the speed with which the subject is moving.

Although I do not have an example to show you, water in landscape photographs running as a stream, river or waterfall can be made quite beautiful by photographing it using a slow shutter speed. The results will look diaphanous. My photograph in Case Study 2 Fig 17 (p219) of a Christmas lantern procession will give you some idea what to expect. The slow shutter speed that I used has resulted in the glowing, swaying lanterns blurring through the exposure.

                3. Vantage point: For this part of the exercise change the position you are standing in to view the subject.

                3a. Normal height: But first make three or six pictures at your normal height and eye level to give you a datum base line.

                3b. High viewpoint: Find a high viewpoint or a number of different high viewpoints that will give you a bird's eye view looking down on your subject and make three or six different pictures of it.

                3c. Low viewpoint: Lie down on your tummy and looking up at your subject see what the world looks like from the viewpoint of a frog! It will be strange. (If any of you reading this have small children do you remember the shock of how big and different the world looks when you lay down on the floor to play with them? I do). Again make three or six different pictures, process the images and compare and contrast the results.

You may not have realised it but in this exercise I have given you fourteen (14) variables to play with when photographing. The point is that the empirical, knowledge content of the subject has not changed. What has is how we see it. All of these variables you can further modify, for example, a high viewpoint shooting against the sun with a slow shutter speed. The choices are yours. I think the choices replicate the choices we make with spoken and written language, how we say things to communicate to others. You will notice there is no appeal here to symbolism or to deliberate lack of definition, vagueness, distortions that sometimes are used on the pretext of art, solipsism and self expression. These are photographs that fulfil the sociological intention of communicating to others empirical knowledge of interest.

Bertrand Russell has written, "…when we ask not, 'what sort of world do we live in?' but 'how do we come by our knowledge about the world?' subjectivity is in order. What each man knows is, in an important sense, dependent upon his own individual experience: he knows what he has seen and heard, what he has read and what he has been told, and also, what, from these data, he has been able to infer." (Russell, Bertrand 1948: Human knowledge, its scope and limits. London. George Allen and Unwin).

Ricoeur well understood that Meaning is not a fixed value but variable. I, as the author of the photographs have made selections, decisions and choices. I regard that as both a matter of ethics, to be honest and to work with integrity, and craft. In other words a praxis and phronesis. People will take different things from the pictures according to their circumstances. I can make pictures that are as dull as dull can be or I can make them in ways that will stir the mind and imagination. For you the same applies; photographing is something to take pleasure in. I hope you will do so.

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