Context and photographs

I read Terry Barrett’s essay Photographs and Context as suggested in the course notes. The concepts were familiar to me as my Foundations tutor had explained them to me as part of my A4 feedback.

Using Taryn Simon’s Contraband series as an example, internal context is limited to what we can see in the photograph. So in her work we might see a plain background and a forensic, highly objective photograph of an object.

So far, so bird corpse on an airmail envelope on a plain background. We might guess that it’s an inside environment rather than a bird on a forest floor, but we can’t tell any more for sure. This is where the external context comes in. We can read captions, wall text, or the catalogue if we’re at an exhibition, or the accompanying text if it’s in printed material.  We learn that these photographs were made during a period of five days when Taryn was embedded at JFK Airport photographing objects that were confiscated from incoming passengers and incoming mail. We’re dependent on this external context to give us more information, and we’re dependent on the viewpoint and perspective of this context.  Terry Bartlett illustrates this very well when he documents Gisele Freund’s discussion of the multiple and often contradictory views that a Doisneau image of a couple drinking together was used to illustrate. We already know that we can neither control nor direct how a viewer will interpret our work, so the importance of external context becomes clear in ensuring that the work can be understood.  For me, this will likely take the form of captions where needed.

The third layer of context is not immediately apparent. It’s to do with the background of the photographer, their perspective, the world in which they live. For example, if we look at the Biography page on Taryn Simon’s website we learn that “Taryn Simon (b. 1975) is a multidisciplinary artist working in photography, text, sculpture and performance. Guided by an interest in systems of categorization and classification, her practice involves extensive research into the power and structure of secrecy and the precarious nature of survival.” This tells us much more about why she has chosen to make this work, how she has labelled and presented it, and how it fits into her broader work. We can also “zoom out” from this airport work and apply the broader context of the security constraints of our world, and the prevalence of smuggling and illegal trade in plants and animal parts.

So we can see that these three layers of context all add to our understanding of an artist’s work and that a work’s meaning cannot be fully understood in isolation from these contexts.


Notes on the Decisive Moment

HCB presents two slightly contradictory views of the decisive moment. He says “Il n’y a rien en ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisive” (there’s nothing in this world that doesn’t have a decisive moment). Yet in his interview he talks of how you can’t go out searching for these images; you have to be receptive and trust that the image will come. The decisive moment, according to Zouhair Ghazzal, is “an infinitely small and unique moment in time which cannot be repeated” (2004). Hence an assignment to photograph on this theme is going to require some thought. Can you really go out and photograph one to order? Is it really decisive? Does it have the right “for this moment only” quality, the right constellation of participant(s) and environment, light and form, stillness and motion? If you took the same image 30 seconds later would the decisive moment be gone, or would another one be served up conveyor-belt style? Is life a stream of decisive moments?

Ghazzal also makes the point that the decisive moment is generally anecdotal. It tells us a small and perfectly formed story, and is done. It strikes me as something of a fait accompli, not least because many are selected retrospectively from a contact sheet, like HCB’s Gare St Lazare ; which could only be chosen retrospectively because he couldn’t see the image at the time of shooting.

I have so many questions around the decisive moment. Ghazzal talks about the US towns with no centre, and the US photographers who made their name photographing the normal, the banal, the mundane where there are no people to distract from the environment. Can we extract the decisive moment from its environment, or do we depend on the environment to give the moment its context?

Given the plethora of images of carnival/flash mobs/street entertainers, where do we look for decisive moments that have not been captured dozens of times before? How do we make images of the decisive moment that tell us more or give us something to think about?

An interesting discussion on the OCA discussion board –the possibility of a staged decisive moment that you won’t personally witness, and/or one that will happen in the future? How true and authentic does a decisive moment have to be? Can you make a conceptual decisive moment image? What about still life decisive moments, like the Fischli & Weiss images that show elaborate constructions, captured in the held breath before they collapse?

So where do I stand? I wonder if the Decisive Moment was more of its time then – with possibly more decisive moments (I’m not sure about that argument) and definitely fewer cameras and phones to capture them. I’m not wild about the “fait accompli” aspect of the decisive moment either, I like the idea of a decisive moment that doesn’t give you all the answers.

Exercise 3.3

The first part of this exercise requires that I view the timeframes of a camera by taking the back off a manual film camera and looking to see what the shortest duration is that an image can be perceived by my eye in daylight. Sadly, my husband’s old film camera won’t work any more, my Polaroid only works with film in (and has no adjustable shutter speeds) and my Lomography camera has film in. I’ll look out for a cheap manual camera on ebay or in a charity shop.

The second part of the exercise was more straightforward. Once again, I’d done something familiar in the Foundations course where I’d identified and separated out the foreground, midground and background elements of a photograph. For this image, I looked at the bannisters in the foreground leading to the window sill and chaise longue in the midground with the sky and the neighbours driveway in the background. I raised the ISO slightly and shot the image in programme mode. I feel that I should say that the curtain rail is crooked in real life, not just in the photograph.


Motion photographers and research

I have to say that much of this part of the course made me think “oh no, not again…” There’s a lot of similar work in the Foundation in Photography course both in research and practical work, so for now I will concentrate on the practitioners that are new to me. I scanned through all the listed practitioners early in the module, and researched further into those whose work I found striking, particularly Maarten Vanvolsem whose dance photography helped to inform and inspire my work on exercises 3.1 and 3.2.

Project 1 The frozen moment.

The course documentation has prints of Harold Edgeton’s Milk Drop Coronet (1957), a Nikon shot of a lightbulb shattering on a brick tiled floor, and Jeff Wall’s Milk, showing a young man sat outside a brick building holding a carton of milk from which the milk is bursting out. I like the continuity of milk and brick across this selection of images. We are asked if the camera captures motion in these images, or does it fragment time into thin slices to show something new and different.  The first two images (Milk Coronet and light bulb) are definitely slices of time, discrete moments of matter frozen in motion, time and space, at a level of detail you could never hope to see with the naked eye. I think the third image (milk) does this too, but you have a stronger idea of where the milk came from and where it is going, with the arc of white fluid against the geometric lines of the brick wall.

Project 2 A durational space.

Summary of photographers included in course notes:

Niepce (1839, long exposure of several hours, thought to be staged)

Eadweard Muybridge (1877) – “to break down the world and to dissect motion” – images that showed horses with all four feet off the ground. Seen at Revelations study visit on FiP.

AM Worthington (1906) – drops and splashes, baton twirling.

Harold Worthington (1939) – milk coronet and cats drinking milk, use of high intensity flash to isolate motion. I really like his use of flash and am keen to explore it further.

Jeff Wall (1984) – Canadian, born 1946, regarded as “the most celebrated practitioner of staged photography” (Hacking, p523)

Robert Frank (1955) – born in Switzerland in 1924 – worked in Switzerland, New York, South America (travelling), New York (again), and Paris. He was the first European national to receive the Guggenheim fellowship and used it to fund a journey across the US in 1955/56. The resulting photobook – The Americans – is legendary, and I was sufficiently intrigued by the “Elevator Girl” portrait shown in the course notes to order it. I will write a blog post on it once I’ve read it. In the image the girl is in focus, those leaving the lift are blurred. I like the idea of the lift door as a shutter, controlled by the girl and her button panel, it’s almost as if she’s taking her own self portrait.

Robert Capa Normandy Landings (1944). I’m still not very good at engaging with war photography. I find the story of this image mesmerising – that the characteristics that help to make it so memorable are largely due to a processing error by an inexperienced staffer. It’s such a universally known image that I find it hard to say anything that hasn’t already been said. There is so much controversy around his “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” that for me it detracts from his work in general. Comparing Robert Capa to Cecil Beaton I think would be interesting – they both photographed in WW2 but the work is so very different. Capa’s work is focussed on the battlefield, Beaton’s extends to the civilian theatre of war and the impact on civilians, both were engaged to create propaganda for their respective governments.

Hiroshi Sugimoto – I really enjoyed watching the Contacts film referenced in the course notes. I enjoy long exposures for the multi-dimensionality they bring – this one shows time, space and motion. I like how people blur into nothing over longer exposures, and I like the tidal effect that his work implies of people flowing into, then out of, the cinema. He worked in the natural environment too, with mesmerising seascapes. Hacking talks about him measuring “the landscape through time” (hacking, p508) and this excites me.

Michael Wesely – he used exposures of two-three years to photograph city spaces (renovation of the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and MOMA NY). Like many, I would love to understand how he does it. I also wonder if the final images surprise him, are they what he thought he would make?

Maarten Vanvolsem – I read a lot about this photographer’s work when I was trying to find images that showed durational motion in rock climbing. The following is from my exercise.

“The stand-out for me was Maarten Vanvolsem’s essay on dealing with the paradox of motion in a still photograph. I was led there via the course note suggestion of his photographs of dancers. There is a quote that summarised how I thought about photographing climbing: “…dance is the controlled passage of bodies through time and space.” I wanted to show the time used, the space used, the route taken by the body. I think there are a lot of parallels between photographing dance and climbing (possibly fencing too) and would like to research this further.” “

He uses a technique that involves the photographer moving as well as the dancer. I haven’t been able to find the strip-scan mobile app for my phone but am very interested in learning more. He has written a book that I shall read.

Chris Marker – La Jetee – a film comprised entirely of still images. I didn’t enjoy the trailer that I found on You-tube, but I was intrigued by some of the clips where the images changed less frequently and the narrative tied in well with them.

Christopher Doyle – opening sequence to Chungking Express. This was more engaging than I expected, the chase sequence made of long exposures, but not all of them! I liked the idea of time as an elastic quality, and I was intrigued by the idea of using motion blur and a static view as separate background and foreground elements. The supplied link did not have a functional video but I looked it up on You-tube instead.

Francesca Woodman – I came across her whilst reading a book recommendation from my tutor in my A1 feedback (“Girls! Girls! Girls! In Contemporary Art” edited by Catherine Grant and Lori Waxman, published by Intellect Bristol 2011). I was reading on my way to a study visit to Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s, and was delighted to see some of her work when I arrived there. In her very short life she made some amazingly intriguing images, many of them reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, with her in unexpected spaces and engaging with an unfamiliar environment. I found an interesting co-presence of both fragility and strength, especially in the image 1977 Untitled Ny that shows her with a feather against her back, the delicate parallels evident between shaft and spine, vane and rib.

From my study visit notes:

“I was reading an essay about Francesca Woodman in the train on the way to London (Riches, 2011). The chapter was about playfulness, and I was smitten with Woodman’s work. There was something very Alice -like in the curiosity, the scale, the trappedness. I was thrilled to see a display of her work at this exhibition. There was something fantastically ethereal but also very strong about her swinging from a door-frame, or glancing into a mirror as she crawled past. “Talking to Vince” was very Alice indeed, in the same way as Anna Gaskell’s work – with a tight crop in a confined space and an open yet soundless mouth. I would like to explore this idea a little, with domestic spaces such as under the stairs, under the sink, in the utility room, loft and garage. Maybe shed too, although that tends to be a more masculine environment.”



Exercise 3.1 and 3.2 Fast and slow shutter speeds

Thank you to Mike of Rockstar Climbing, Swindon, for making this work possible, with his time, patience and business. I am documenting these exercises together as I took them in the same session. Most shots were taken with ND filter and strobed flash, I have indicated where this was not the case. My flash is entirely manual so I don’t have exif records for the flash, I think if I used off-camera flash with radio trigger then I would get the data as it has to be configured in the camera as well as the flash in that mode.

On the whole I am very happy with this pair of exercises, it’s a long way off where I want it to be but I think I’ve covered new ground. I was excited to actually show climbing in motion as this seems comparatively rare in the photographs that I’ve seen. I’ve found articles on flash photography of climbing gyms, and of “frozen moment” climbers, but very few showing climbing in motion (1). I’m sure there must be more out there though, and if not I shall make them.

Climbing (up and along)

Wide angle lens, no filter, no flash
Wide angle lens, no filter, no flash, 6″, f20, ISO100, processed.

Test exposures as self-portraits using the traverse wall and my 10-18mm lens (no filter)were promising. These would be better if I used my other remote to give me more time to get from the camera to the wall, and also if I was better at bouldering. That will come with time. As it is you can see that a longer exposure will produce motion blur if the subject moves during the exposure.

15sec, f9, ISO100, crop.

I also found that it’s possible for the model to move too fast for the image to register. I worked with ISO 100 but might have got better results with Mike on the traverse wall with a faster ISO. His trousers, a great contrast on every other wall, were too close a hue to the yellow of this wall meaning that he largely disappeared. That said, I do like the image that shows his fingers, one wrist and nothing else.

Onto the main walls, I worked first without the flash. You can see the blur of motion, but even on a 6 second exposure it is less than you would expect. I think part of the issue here is an appropriate speed of climbing and slightly higher ISO. I will have to try this out.

6sec, f20, ISO100

When I added in the strobed flash it made me realise that a lot more was possible. I like the way that the colours seem to flatten in some of the strobed images. Obviously, I suppose, the amount of light reaching the wall decreases the further up the wall you go, which is something to think about. The thing that I loved about the strobed flash was that it really did give that idea of time and motion. I don’t regard myself as a technical photographer but I think I can do a lot here.


I did not make a classic fast shutter speed shot but instead used a longer exposure with strobed flash.  I would very much like to do more work with strobed flash and am happy that I may be able to do so in the new year. I wanted to photograph Mike’s drop from the top of a bouldering wall. I had the camera on a tripod with a cable release, in TV mode, ISO was 100 and the on-camera flash was set to multi mode (strobe). This was not really a fast shutter speed as per the brief, I used a longer shutter speed but used the strobed flash to “freeze” a sequence of multiple images sharply within a single frame. I was happy that the result shows this, in the future I’d like to assess the exposure a bit better. Mike climbed to the top of the wall and I counted in the drop. After a couple of goes I also checked composition before counting in. The landing shot makes me smile, you can see the floor giving as Mike lands on it, and the trail of Mike’s hat. I honestly can’t remember if this one was taken with a strobe.

Here are my two picks of dropping/landing.

Things that went well

  1. Generally, everything worked to a greater or lesser degree, nothing failed absolutely.
  2. The strobed flash was a good idea,  it really helped to show traces of movement but in a more definite way than a long exposure. Also, a long exposure for a drop is actually not that long because you don’t fall that far from a bouldering wall, so strobed flash allowed me to break the fast whoosh of Mike’s descent into a series of discrete slices of time. We are both keen to do more with this.
  3. The ND filter, although probably not essential, gave us a longer working space per exposure and I would definitely use it again. I didn’t ask anyone if I could use ND filter and strobed flash together because by then I was wary of unsolicited opinions. I thought it ought to work and it did.
  4. I am fascinated by the way the multiple planes and angles of the climbing wall appear almost a single flat plane in a taken image, and the way that the image is bisected by the edges of the different routes. I liked the shot that shows Mike bisected by one of these lines, and also how because of the long exposure the holes in the climbing planes appeared to be above Mike, as if he were flattened in a plane below it. I am also intrigued by the way he is almost reduced to a series of flat pieces of colour, at different points on the wall in one of the strobed images.
  5. The shot where you can just see fingers is odd, it would be interesting to try to reproduce this.


Things I would do differently on the next shoot, and before the next shoot:

  1. Use off-camera flash to get the light where I need it
  2. Shoot outside of public opening times to give more options about lighting levels in the centre
  3. Not photograph someone in yellow/green trousers in front of a yellow wall as a long exposure (no wonder it didn’t work!)
  4. I need to practise my flash skills so I can correctly assess both the background exposure and the power, frequency and number of flashes needed in multi mode for each exposure.
  5. Try out an ND filter on a wide angle lens as the 10-18mm lens gave me the narrowest apertures, but I hadn’t been able to source a step up ring to fit the 77mm filter.

Ideas for future development

  1. A further shot with Mike to do this better
  2. A series of images of different climbers showing the different ways people climb, explore the way women and girls climb
  3. Mentally filing this for the self portrait section of C&N, when I get there
  4. Make more use of the single plane of background, even when it’s comprised of multiple planes, by using a wider aperture so that the image will show one part of the background in focus and the rest will be out of focus even though it will appear to be part of the same plane.
  5. Explore photographing motion around the point of a wall where two planes meet to make an angle.

Contact sheets.




Exercises 3.1 and 3.2 fast and slow shutter speeds – objectives and preparation

I got a surprising amount from this exercise. I had already done similar technique exercises as part of the OCA Foundation course, in which I photographed someone sawing wood for the slow shutter speed task, and for the fast shutter speed  I put glitter stars inside a balloon and hair conditioner on the outside, then photographed it being burst. I wanted to do something a bit more challenging for this pair of exercises.

I have started roped indoor climbing again after an extended break and am learning bouldering from scratch. I was intrigued that most climbing photographs are of “the frozen moment” variety, whereas most climbing is about the process of movement, the sequence of moves that takes you efficiently and hopefully elegantly from bottom to top or left to right. I was curious about showing climbing differently – the traces and blurs of motion. I wanted the image to be about the motion and the time, not the climber and the moment. For the fast shutter speed exercise, I wanted to concentrate on the moment when a boulderer is airborne, when they might choose to drop the few feet from the top of a bouldering problem onto the safety flooring. I didn’t necessarily want a high ISO single flash image though and thought I would explore alternatives. The descent from bouldering (or roped climbing) seems to be rarely shown in images outside of technique guides, and I wanted to show that moment of falling, of landing.

I shall do a separate post on research as there was a lot to look at and I would like to give more time. The stand-out for me was Maarten Vanvolsem’s essay on dealing with the paradox of motion in a still photograph. I was led there via the course note suggestion of his photographs of dancers. There is a quote that summarised how I thought about photographing climbing: “…dance is the controlled passage of bodies through time and space.” I wanted to show the time used, the space used, the route taken by the body. I think there are a lot of parallels between photographing dance and climbing (possibly fencing too) and would like to research this further.

I was fortunate that Mike Aston, a friend and owner of Rockstar climbing in Swindon was happy both for me to photograph there and to be part of the images. We agreed a date and time that would have the least impact on the centre’s normal operations and that did not clash with any pre-booked groups.

For technical preparation I knew I would need to use a tripod, remote shutter release and long exposures, so I went to Rockstar a few days before the shoot to assess light levels and work out which lenses would work well at longer exposures. I just took my camera and lenses, not the tripod as I was not planning on taking any shots. The centre is in a large modern industrial unit which has some natural light in the entrance area from a large glassed entrance, the climbing area is reliant on electric light all day. Sharp focus on the climber was not a goal for the long exposures, however I knew I would need an exposure that was long enough to allow motion to be made and recorded whilst not being so long that the scene over exposed or the traces of the climber vanished altogether. I assessed parts of the centre where I could photograph safely (much of the floor is crash matting which is not stable for tripods when climbers land on it) and I needed to be clear of drop zones at all times. For each location I noted the min/max exposures that were possible with my camera working in tv (shutter priority mode. I also considered whether or not I would benefit from using a neutral density filter. I asked on the OCA L1 Facebook page and received several thoughts, some of which were very helpful. I chose to get a filter which provides 3 F-stops of slowing the light. I didn’t want anything stronger as the centre was not that bright anyway.

Part way through my recce visit things got a little odd. There was another photographer on site, we got talking, and within seconds of me saying what my plan was he told me (and the centre owner) that my plan wouldn’t work. Presented here with some considerable editing, he said that my camera wasn’t good enough, that I wouldn’t be able to get long enough exposures and that an ND filter would result in the climbers vanishing altogether. He thought the only way I could get it to work would be to take several “action” exposures with flash and merge them into one image in Photoshop. Doubtless that would work, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do so I left. I was furious for some time afterwards, as I knew I had confidence in my preparation and plans. He did however make me consider flash – not in the way he suggested, but instead strobed over a long exposure. I had found the strobe function on my flash by accident and thought it could get results that I’d be happy with. I decided to try it with on-camera flash as there were already enough unknowns in the session without setting up off-camera flash and triggers, and that was getting towards too much gear to use whilst the centre was open to the public.

His comments did make me wonder if I had made some poor choices and as a result this exercise was probably as well prepped as many assignments that I’ve done. Of course I’ve been thinking of appropriate replies since I left the building, but I’m trying to take the learning opportunities that this offered me. Images in the next post.



Article (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 22 November 2016).

Rockstar Climbing, Swindon