Notes from Susan Sontag On Photography

I recently came into possession of a copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and was delighted to see it contained hand-written notes made in pencil by a previous owner. It has that wonderful musty ‘old book’ smell, and I’m finding it fascinating to go through, picking up on some of the notes and highlights.

The copy itself isn’t that old. It’s a Penguin Modern Classic with a reissued date of 2008, so it’s no older than that. The original was first published in 1977.

Essay #1: In Plato’s Cave

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Another interesting underline in the first essay:

  • The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.

Essay #3: Melancholy Objects

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Some more interesting underlines from Essay three:

  • Photography is the inventory of mortality.
  • Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.
  • Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions.
  • A photograph could also be described as a quotation.
  • Photographs – and quotations – seem, because they are taken to be pieces of reality, more authentic than extended literary narratives.
  • Photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation.
  • A set of photographs that freezes moments in a life or a society contradicts their form, which is a process, a flow in time.
  • Life is not about significant details, illuminated in a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.

The following seems to sit very nicely with documentary photography, which I’m particularly interested in:

The photographer’s ardour for a subject has no essential relation to its content or value, that which makes a subject classifiable. It is, above all, an affirmation of the subject’s thereness; its rightness (the rightness of a look on a face, of the arrangement of a group of objects), which is the equivalent of the collector’s standard of genuineness; its quiddity – whatever qualities make it unique.

Essay #4: The Heroism of Vision

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Some interesting underlines from essay four:

  • It became clear that there was not just a simple, unitary activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing”, which was both a new way for people to see, and a new activity for them to perform.
  • The proper moment is when one can see things (especially what everyone has already seen) in a fresh way.
  • Moralists who love photographs always hope that words will save the picture.

A particularly wonderful line that really speaks to me about my own practice:

Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees, but neglects as too ordinary.

Essay #5: Photographic Evangels

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Some interesting underlines from essay five:

  • Despite the efforts of contemporary photographers to exorcise the spectre of art, something lingers. For instance, when professionals object to having their images printed to the edge of the page in books or magazines, they are invoking the models inherited from another art: as paintings are put in frames, photographs should be framed in white space.
  • Photography, like pop art, reassures viewers that art isn’t hard; it seems to be more about subjects than about art.
  • Photography entered the scene as an upstart activity, which seemed to encroach on and diminish an accredited art: painting.

Essay #6: The Image World

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Sontag’s essays on photography are considered one of the classic starting points for anyone wanting to learn more about photography than simply how exposure, focusing, and post-processing works.

To-date I have read most of the essays, and have found them hard-going and academic, often needing to re-read sections multiple times in order to understand what is being suggested. Having said that, I do believe what I have read has made me think a bit more about why, what, and how I photograph something – and I am now especially more aware of the thorny issues of representation and otherness.

The book ends with a ‘Brief Anthology of Quotations’, and I will end this post with my own favourite quote, by American photographer George Tice. This pretty much sums up my own photographic experiences:

As I progressed further with my project, it became obvious that it was really unimportant where I chose to photograph. The particular place simply provided an excuse to produce work … you can only see what you are ready to see – what mirrors your mind at that particular time.

Forever Autumn in Swindon

In late 2018 I began work on a three-month assignment in Swindon, Wiltshire. The following photographs were made while staying in the town. This post is titled after the song from War of The Worlds famously recorded by Justin Hayward, who was born in Dean Street.

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The sun rises over Lydiard Fields, Swindon, 2019.

The M4 motorway is one of the main arteries into Swindon. Junction 16 exits at Lydiard Fields, a business park which takes its name from nearby Lydiard Park, a historic country estate with a large Palladian house that is the ancestral home of the Viscounts Bolingbroke. From here it is just a short drive of ten minutes into the centre of Swindon, making it a popular site for large hotels.

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Covered pedestrian bridge, Swindon, 2019.

The railway line running from Bristol to London slices through the centre of Swindon, hence there are numerous overhead bridges in the town. This one is a covered walkway which leads from the Hawksworth Trading Estate directly into the station, convenient for rail passengers who wish to park their cars on the northwest side of the line, avoiding the busy town centre traffic. At dawn the rising sun illuminates the bridge.

An interesting fact about Swindon: the town is not one, but two – the part known as Old Town which was the original settlement, and the new town which developed with the railway works during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The two towns were joined in 1900.

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Melissa’s Suitcase, Swindon, 2019.

Many large businesses and UK government organisations have sites in Swindon, which means a constant influx of business travellers entering the town and staying in hotels for the duration of the working week. Some weeks it is difficult to find a hotel room at a reasonable rate, simply due to the volume of people staying in the town. The threat of Brexit has already had an impact on the local economy, with the planned closure of the Honda plant leading to the loss of c. 3500 jobs.

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Rugs hung out to dry, Swindon, 2019.

Swindon is a town that suffers from a poor reputation. While it may be true that some areas of the town are considered deprived, that is not a blanket description that can be applied. Old Town is showing strong indications of gentrification, and in other parts of town there are heartening signs that a community spirit exists, and that people still trust their neighbours.

An interesting fact about Swindon: the town was originally a Saxon settlement positioned on top of a hill. The Domesday Book refers to Swindon as ‘Suindune’, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘swine’ and ‘dun’, together meaning ‘pig hill’. Rumour has it that pigs were once allowed to run through the streets to celebrate the coming of the 5th New Moon of the year.

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Renovation, Swindon, 2019.

A lot of regeneration and development work has taken place in Swindon in recent years. Since the ‘Planning Swindon Together’ blueprint for transforming Swindon was unveiled in 2012, many changes have taken place in the town centre. Not all proposals have been good, such as the plans for the development of a tower block in Old Town, which were quickly withdrawn following a public outcry. The spirit of regeneration seems to have captured hearts and minds, and renovation work has spread to residential areas of the town.

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Swindon, 2019.

Many people describe Swindon as a ‘rough’ town, and crime statistics suggest there are problem areas, with many reported crimes being of a violent nature. However, despite its reputation there are many other towns in Britain with more severe issues – including higher crime rates and higher levels of deprivation. During the time I worked in Swindon I never experienced anything negative other than my own preconceived notions based on hearsay, and never felt threatened in any way.

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No Parking, Swindon, 2019.

Many of Britain’s towns and streets were built in a time before the motor car. As we embraced this mode of travel during the 20th century, our roads became increasingly clogged not just with commuter traffic, but also with parked cars. Swindon is no exception, and many older residential areas cannot cater for the modern two-car household, which inevitably leads to frustration for residents who are rarely able to park outside their own homes.

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Garages, Swindon, 2019.

When Tony Blair visited Toothill Community Centre in 2006 to launch a campaign against anti-social behaviour, his famous pressure hose pose left Swindon with a reputation for having streets painted with mindless graffiti. Swindon Council started to offer a graffiti removal service, and the war against what is seen by some as vandalism continues, but at high cost for the council. Despite appearing to be a modern problem, Graffiti is nothing new, and examples exist which date back to ancient Egypt and the Roman empire.

An interesting fact about Swindon: as well as some examples of genuine street art, the town has lots of public art, including the Sculpture Trail which features an impressive statue of Diana Dors at Shaw Ridge Leisure Park.

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Street sign with shopping trolley, Swindon, 2019.

Three hundred miles north of Swindon in the city of Glasgow there is an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington that has been adorned with a traffic cone since the 1980s. In 2013, Glasgow City Council estimated the annual cost of removing cones to be £10000 per annum, and put forward plans to raise the plinth to prevent cones being placed. There was a public outcry leading to withdrawal of the plans, and at least one cone remains to this day. Was the careful placement of this shopping trolley on top of a No Stopping sign in Swindon simply a minor act of vandalism? What is it that elevates such an act into art or iconic status?

An interesting fact about Swindon: there are several iconic buildings in the town, including the David Murray John tower, the Motorola building, and the Spectrum building. The latter two featured in the James Bond film A View to a Kill.

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Hawksworth Trading Estate, Swindon, 2019.

While the town centre is busy with shoppers during the day, there is a stillness and quiet around some of the nearby trading estates and business parks, where people go about their daily working lives inside the many factories and offices.

A final interesting fact about Swindon: over the years the town has had links with many world-famous brands and industries including Intel, Motorola, BMW, Rover, Honda, and the Spitfire aircraft.

 

Information sources:

Born Again Swindonian (https://swindonian.me/).
Information Britain (http://www.information-britain.co.uk/).
Swindon Advertiser (https://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/).

Marine Drive

I don’t photograph landscapes very often, especially not my local landscape which most people would describe as totally flat and somewhat dull. However, yesterday evening I went out and tried to make a short series of interesting pictures just a few minutes drive from home. I’m pleased with the results.

Marine Drive is a coastal road in Southport which cuts through an extensive marsh/wetland area where most photographers come specifically to photograph the amazing bird life. It is a recognised RSPB nature reserve site.

Sadly, the area was recently the focus of a search for Adam Seaton, a student who went missing in early August 2018. His body was eventually found in the nearby Ribble Estuary in January 2019, suggesting he may have got into difficulties while carrying out research for geography work he was about to undertake at Edge Hill University.

Liverpool Comic Con 2019

Today I spent a couple of hours photographing some of the visitors to Liverpool Comic Con, held at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool. The wind was crazy, with gale-force gusts blowing hair and bits of costumes everywhere, but spirits were high, even as people queued in the cold to get in.

Comic Con is a big deal, with several events taking place in different citities throughout the year. Many attendees are dedicated enough to go to all the events.

Bec and Takk go to Comic Cons in London or Manchester, and are trying Liverpool for the first time this year. Dan goes to a Comic Con event at least once a year, and loves meeting up with friends. Charlie is attending the Liverpool event for the first time in a while after moving away from the area. Jess comes every year!

Truly a fascinating subculture, with such a diverse and friendly group of people.

An Interview With Myself

Introduce yourself

Hello, I’m Brian. I like to take pictures and I nearly always have a camera in my hand.

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How and when did you get into photography?

I’ve been taking pictures since I was a child, so most of my life. Digital photography wasn’t around when I started and my parents didn’t have much money so I couldn’t photograph as often as I would have liked. I remember borrowing their cameras when I was little, and learnt about exposure, shutter speed and aperture using a Zenit-EM. When I started working I bought myself a 35mm Canon SLR, then digital came along and I was delighted to switch over. I have taken many thousands of photographs since then.

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How would you describe your work and what are the ideas behind your images?

I have tens of thousands of images in my archive, some good, some not so good! In terms of genre I tend to switch a lot and have tried landscape, beauty, fashion, portrait, street, and documentary photography. Some of those are single images which stand-alone, while others are groups of images that work together. I usually start off with an idea of some kind, either for a single image or a project, and try to construct my pictures around that idea. However, they are not deeply conceptual and things don’t always come out exactly the way I intended!

Some of my images feel a bit safe, and I really have to push myself to produce more gritty, edgy work. Interestingly, the type of camera I use can make a difference. If I’m going for a snapshot aesthetic, using a compact point-and-shoot seems to help me achieve that. If I’m looking for something more crafted and painterly where quality is essential, I’ll use a DSLR. That’s not always the case, but it’s often a starting point.

My work is often described as quiet, calm, and peaceful. These are actually personal qualities of mine so perhaps it’s true that photographs are really a reflection of the photographer and not just about the subject.

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What do you think of genres in photography? Do you consider yourself a documentary photographer, street photographer, or portrait photographer?

Probably a combination of all those things, so essentially just a photographer.

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Which photographers inspire you?

So many! William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, Martin Parr, David Bailey. That’s naming just a few famous ones. Less famous contemporary photographers who inspire me are Bieke Depoorter, Carolyn Drake, Mark Power, Peter van Agtmael, Rob Bremner. I’ve just realised most of those are Magnum photographers.

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Would you describe your body of work as consistent?

Probably not, because I like to try different things. I do struggle with this at times, as everyone says to make it as a photographer you need to specialise. However, in my defence I recognise that I don’t need to be a professional photographer to make good pictures. Actually, I think it’s probably easier not to be a pro, so you can keep experimenting and shooting in any direction you like, free of commercial pressure of any kind.

I have noticed that my work is sometimes pictorial, sometimes documentary, but nearly always moody with lots of contrast, depth, and layers. Perhaps that’s where some consistency starts to come in, but I do mix things up and change my style quite a bit. I have been known to go minimal!

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Do you prefer single images or projects?

I like both, but there’s something incredible about the project work of photographers like Alec Soth, Bieke Depoorter and Carolyn Drake. When you get a great series of images the whole collection adds up to so much more than the sum of the parts. Synergy!

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How do you stay motivated?

I sometimes go through dry spells where I’m uninspired and don’t feel like making pictures, but I always come out the other side. Taking my cameras on days out or holidays usually helps to unblock my creativity.

Advice for people getting into photography?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to be a pro. You can make beautiful images in your spare time and have a tremendous amount of fun, stress-free, while doing so. Also, don’t get too hung up about only shooting one thing. It’s so easy to get stuck in a pigeon-hole as a street photographer or horse photographer or whatever. Just be a photographer and shoot whatever you want to!

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Casting Call – 2019 – for Horse Lovers

Next year (2019) I’m looking to create some romantic and emotive portraits of people with horses. See my ‘Portraits with Horses’ Pinterest board above for some wonderful examples of the sort of image I want to make.

In order to make it happen, I need volunteers who would like to have a go at being a model for the day and have access to a horse (either their own or a friend’s). No prior experience of modelling is necessary, and this casting call is open to adults of any gender/age. You don’t have to be as styled as the models in the images above – it’s the emotional connection with the horse I’m interested in capturing.

If you’re interested, please get in touch – but please note I am UK-based.

I’m a keen rider myself, and have photographed lots of equestrian events, so I know a bit about horses and am used to being around them.

Featured in British Horse magazine

One of my images from the BHS Northwest Dressage Championship at Bold Heath Equestrian Centre was featured in the November edition of British Horse, the magazine of The British Horse Society.

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It was only a small feature, but it’s been a while since any of my photographs have appeared in magazines. The last one was a hair and beauty editorial for 69 Magazine, which was a long time ago!

I hope to get some more features in British Horse next year.

Rediscovering my Canon G9

Ten years ago I bought myself a Canon G9 compact, and absolutely loved it. Me and that camera went everywhere together, but inevitably when I got my Canon 6d the G9 was relegated to ‘The Drawer’, where it has resided ever since.

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I recently rediscovered it, charged it up, and tried a few test shots. I’ve been working in London recently, and couldn’t be bothered to take a heavy DSLR with me along with my luggage, so I decided here was a perfect chance to slip the Canon G9 into my bag and give it a workout in the city.

 

I was delighted with how the little camera performed, and loved the way it was so small and discrete, attracting virtually no attention as I snapped away. It feels great in your hand, small but substantial. I’m not about to sell my DSLRs and lenses, but I am convinced that the Canon G9 still has a place in my arsenal of photography gear.

One of the things I found I could do with it was produce images that had more of a sense of urgency and immediacy than the ones I create with my DSLR. I can get similar images if I attach a flash head to my DSLR, but there’s something raw and honest and rough-around-the-edges about the on-camera flash of the G9 that makes for a grittier vibe.

 

In terms of limitations, the Canon G9 has a few that the Canon 6d doesn’t suffer from. The biggest one for me is the fact it has a tiny sensor vs. the 6d’s full-frame – which means you seriously lose out on depth of field, and the quality of low-light shots is also severely limited. The G9 is also noticeably slow compared to the 6d – there is a lag of a few seconds between switching it on and being able to take a picture, and then you have to wait until the picture is saved to the card before you can take another one … delays like this inevitably lead to missed shots.

Overall though, I found that as long as I worked within the G9’s constraints, it was possible to get some great pictures with it – far better images than I can get with a mobile phone camera.

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From now on, I’ll be making sure my G9 is always fully charged and ready!

What pumpkins do when Hallowe’en is over

I went to the Hebden Bridge Pumpkin Festival last weekend. A trip to Hebden Bridge is always something I enjoy, as it’s such a pretty little town with a wonderful vibe.

This time I noticed quite a few changes since my last visit. Some of the old shops had closed and quite a few new cafes had opened, some with a definite hipster feel, making me wonder if Hebden is becoming a little too gentrified.

One thing that hasn’t changed though is the creativity of some of the folks who live there, as these pumpkins show. This little collection made me chuckle, and wonder what pumpkins do when Hallowe’en is over!