I was looking for some inspiration for my fifth assignment. I found I had nearly all the ingredients for a good self-directed project, although by challenging myself to do something different, I had stumbled upon a difficulty I hadn’t factored into the equation. This difficulty was namely the banality of suburbia around my area. My self-directed project encompassed walking around my local area but in the form of walking along the perimeter of an imaginary circle drawn on a map, with the centre being what I felt was most ‘home’ to me. This consequently made me look at my area in an unbiased and new way, because I had little control over where I was going, even though a lot of the walk was familiar. This sounded good to me because it successfully subverted a problem I’d been encountering with my landscape photography where I ‘only’ photographed picturesque viewpoints and then moved on to the next picturesque viewpoint. This was becoming particularly problematic in my local area where I had found a fair few of the ‘prime’ picturesque viewpoints and photographed them.
I tried a method of walking around my area called the dérive, the indirect by-product of which being my hopefully becoming a fláneur around my local area but found this never worked because I subconsciously took ‘correct’ turns in order to arrive again at these picturesque viewpoints. Therefore it was a sort of ‘conscious strolling’, thus defeating the point of being a fláneur in the first place.
So this new way of creating a circle on a map and then walking around the perimeter sounded very promising because then I would have to follow (as closely as possible) this path and so would be forced to make ‘wrong’ turns and arrive at unpicturesque locations. However, as mentioned, the problem I encountered was that a lot of these areas were suburban and I was finding it hard to get ‘picturesque’ photos anymore!
The answer came as I searched rather wistfully: ‘how to photograph a boring road’ into an online search engine. The results were far more interesting than I could have hoped for – specifically two articles caught my eye in particular. The first was: ‘Flat, Dead, Boring Light – An Interview with John Myers (2015)’ – (The ASX Team, 2015), found at http://www.americansuburbx.com/2015/06/interview-john-myers.html (accessed on 14/7/2016) of an interview with John Myers on June 3rd, 2015 by American Suburb X. Although the black and white, deadpan approach that he used for those projects referenced in the interview were not what I was looking for in terms of aesthetic output, I still found a quote that intrigued me intensely. This quote was to do with how Myers envisioned photographing the ‘subtopia’ he saw before him in his local area: ‘And the best of my own photographs were not just constructed visually, but they have a kind of physical use element. It’s not just about how the eye selects and composes but about where you are physically. It’s a subtle difference.’ – Myers (2015). I interpreted this as meaning objects which catch the eye because of their use value at a particular place or time. This was interesting for me because usually I just look at objects visually without really looking at their practical applicational use in their current context so maybe this could be something I would look out for in my project in my own local area ‘subtopia’. Myers work has been influenced strongly by Eugène Atget’s oeuvre and when looking through some of Atget’s (extensive) oeuvre it was obvious to me the ‘physical use element’ evident.
Another article the search engine uncovered for me with this particular search was: ‘The Flâneur, Psychogeography and Drift Photography’ – (Luessen, C., 2012), found at: http://arthopper.org/the-flaneur-psychogeography-and-drift-photography/ (accessed on 14/7/2016). I was intrigued by the notion of seeking ‘details and traces, clues that exist in the present but suggest a degree of loss’ – (Luessen, C., 2012). I could imagine incorporating this seeking of details and traces into my own project, perhaps with objects or settings which had some sort of physical use value.
I would agree that photography (analogue) is an indexical medium but disagree with the implication that digital photography strictly is not – ‘film photography for its privileged status as an indexical medium’ – (Luessen, C., 2012). As long as the digital file is not manipulated heavily and remains as true to the scene as an analogue version would, then the photograph is still indexical to the scene in my opinion. This is especially true when both the contacts from the film and the digital file are printed.
‘The function and logic of the index is important for ramblers of the street … because it also allows for the establishment of a corporeal trace of their own.’ – (Luessen, C., 2012). This quote from the article interested me greatly because it suggested part of the photographer was left in the street or area at which the photograph was taken and related back for me to the Minor White quote: ‘promoting “self-discovery through a camera” – landscape photographs are really “inner landscapes.”‘ – (Minor White In. Sontag, 1977).
Both of these sources of inspiration and indeed writing down my thoughts based on these articles helped me to gain a better idea of what to photograph when I resumed the walk on the perimeter of the circle.
When I actually resumed walking on the circle, I discovered I was also creating a mental criterion for myself during shooting to help me get meaningful photos in banal settings, which consisted of the following:
- Look for objects with physical use value and if possible ones which aren’t particularly permanent and photograph them
- Look out for people who complement these objects or their surroundings and photograph these also
- If possible combine the two
However, I found I had to develop a secondary contingency plan if I could not find these (quite rare) instances of impermanence. What to do if there is no changeable item on display in the environ?
My answer was to photograph people with a background which symbolises a certain degree of wear or history – a much more common combination.
There should still be a reason for photographing certain people in certain streets…
Therefore my ideal is to photograph impermanent objects with transient people complementing them.
If this is not possible I will photograph just the people in their more permanent settings or a setting where the setting consisting of some interest because of age/use.
A less direct method of finding ‘traces’ of physical use value in my local area I found was to look to the side rather than straight ahead on the perimeter of my circle walk. This ‘looking to the side’ was in part inspired by Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), where, as I found when I went to his exhibition: Gathered Leaves, (2016) in this post, he tended to look to the sides of the river rather than along and directly of the river. I however, was instead replacing the river with the roads on the perimeter of my circle walk. This produced some surprising results for me, including noting often overlooked lanes connecting actual streets to each other. These lanes exist in my local area quite numerously and so I came across several in my particular ‘unbiased’ walk. The fact that I wasn’t walking down these lanes myself didn’t bother me; I was merely ‘glancing’ with my camera when I took these shots to the side to find other views in the landscape.
I was adamant that I would photograph something of interest but I soon came to realise this meant still looking out for picturesque views along the walk. Instead, I retrained my eye to find objects that interested me because of their impermanence or use value rather than how they fit in best with the picturesque composition.
By walking on my own predetermined set path of the unbiased flâneur, I was intersecting other people’s own set paths through their daily lives as they walked in the area and so gaining a (brief) insight into my local area’s inhabitants (or passers-by) I might not have come across otherwise. By photographing these transient moments, I was offering a snippet of their lives in the context of my local area, made possible because of photography’s indexical attributes. The camera is thereby intersecting what is already known of the area by recording transient moments which, at least not in such a simple way, are the only way of recording instances in time where paths cross and then drift away again. Because of the impermanence of the paths being crossed by flâneur and passers-by and because of the fleeting permutations of the nature of photography (including composition and lighting), the resultant photograph is the only certain, semi-permanent thing produced because of these crossings. This in my opinion makes the camera a powerful tool when used like this (walking on the perimeter of a circle) in these situations (intersecting other people’s daily lives), because it opens up possibilities of recording accurate-enough renditions of what is an unbiased approach to documenting an area.
One photographer who interested me greatly from the New Topographics was Stephen Shore. He utilised colour in his work, unlike the majority of the other New Topographics photographers. Although the work Shore produced in Uncommon Places (1974-79) was less objective than other New Topographics photographers’ because of this use of colour in my opinion, it still offered a convincing portrayal of how the landscape had been man-altered. As well as this the use of colour added extra vibrancy to the landscapes, something I was hoping to convey in my area because I was looking to show the extra character and personality I believed my area possessed.
Another aspect of Shore’s work I noticed was that he wasn’t avert to including people in the frame, something the other New Topographics photographers were less inclined to do. The reason the other New Topographic photographers seemingly purposefully did this may have been in order to reflect the true banality of these man-altered landscapes but I would suggest photography is never truly objective and in a way they were romanticising the landscape to their own ideals either way. As The Kelly Dennis puts it: ‘Photographs by New Topographics photographers indisputably romanticize their subject, for all that they reflect the depredations of the landscape.’ – Dennis (2005) found at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/05/new-topographics-landscape-and-the-west-irony-and-critique-in-new-topographic-photography-2005.html accessed on 11/8/2016. By utilising colour and including people occasionally in the frame, in my opinion Shore added extra vitality and believability to these images comparative to other New Topographics photographers and in doing so communicated a bit more of himself to a potential viewer about his inner landscape than without the colour and human presence.
Dennis, K. (2005). In. The ASX Team (2012). NEW TOPOGRAPHICS: “Landscape and the West – Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography” (2005) | #ASX. [online] AMERICAN SUBURB X. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/05/new-topographics-landscape-and-the-west-irony-and-critique-in-new-topographic-photography-2005.html [Accessed 11 Aug. 2016].
Luessen, C. (2012). The Flâneur, Psychogeography and Drift Photography. [online] ArtHopper. Available at: http://arthopper.org/the-flaneur-psychogeography-and-drift-photography/ [Accessed 11 Aug. 2016].
Shore, S. (1974-1979). Uncommon Places. [Photograph] Available at: http://stephenshore.net/photographs/six/index.php?page=1&menu=photographs [Accessed 11 Aug. 2016].
Soth, A. (2015-2016). Gathered Leaves. [Exhibition] 6 Oct. 2015 – 28 Mar. 2016. Science Museum, London.
The ASX Team (2015). Flat, Dead, Boring Light – An Interview with John Myers (2015). [Online] American Suburb X. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2015/06/interview-john-myers.html [Accessed 11 Aug. 2016].
White, M. (n.d.). In. Sontag (1977). On Photography. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, Page 86.