Tuesday, 8 December 2015


Pass 66%
In some respects disapointed as this is not in the First area, as Landscape was, but its still 2:1 area and if I continue to the Final Year and I continue to produce the same or better the outcome will be acceptable.

Overall comments and feedback were encouraging with the inevitable lack of my "voice" and the need to engage fully with contemporary photographic practice. The assessors liked the submission calling it "professional and accessible" with technical skills that are "advanced" and written work being "strong".

I have sought some advice from one of the senior tutors and he has been very generous with offering guidance and support for moving onto Level 3. 

240 HE points in the bag, 120 more to be gained with 3 x 40 point modules and 4 years maximum to complete. BA(Hons) still seems a long way away.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Information for Assessment

Having followed the URL provided with my application you are at the Learning Journal for Photography 2: Progressing with Digital Photography.

Navigation within the Journal is via Index Labels. These can be found on the right hand side of the screen and catagorise the various assignments, exercises, exhibitions visited,   research and writing. Within the assignments are various images that illustrate the progress of the work. There are no images relating to assignments in this journal that are for assesment, due to the various difficulties in displaying work on unknown screens. All images for assessment are printed and in the portfolio box.

With removable disks (CD's USB Sticks) not now allowed (although changed after my work was sent to Barnsley) in the assessment process I have transferred the original work for assignment two and assignment three (as these were delivered to the tutor electronically) to Dropbox. There is no work on Dropbox for assessment, only a copy of work that was sent to my tutor for these two assignments. Work sent to tutor for the remaining assignments is printed and in the portfolio box.

Tutor Original Assignment Two can be seen here 

Tutor Original Assignment Three can be seen here

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Black and White Photographer of the Year (Finalist)

Black and White Photography Magazine host the Black and White Photographer of the Year Competition every autumn. This year I entered 2 sets of images in the main competition (First Prize is a Leica Monochrom Type 246) and a few in the individual categories. I have been informed that one of my sets for the main award has been selected to go through to the second stage of judging. I will now rework the images from raw and print them to A3 for the judges. This gives me the opportunity to make any minor modifications to tonality, cloning and dust removal, together with trying a few different paper types to ensure that I get as much out of the images as possible, both technically and aesthetically. The process will start by making a set of small prints from the jpegs that were judged in the first phase. It is essential that if I make a new set of tiffs from the raw I have the same crop and aspect ratio as before. Stage 2 will be to look closely at the raw conversion and in this case I will run them through Phase One Capture One, which I now believe to be a better raw converter than Adobe CR. Capture One it seems delivers superior Tiff files and the tools for local area adjustment work on the DNG file before making the Tiff. The third stage will be to make a set of full size prints on my everyday paper which is used for OCA work and most other output. It is a satin finish onto which is applied a small amount of gloss enhancer. The fourth stage will be to calibrate the printer for some Canson Baryta and make a set on this high quality paper. If I can find any other papers in the store I will run a set with those and at this stage I will have as many options as possible.
To add to the possibilities I may look at toning. In the past I have made prints with toning to help set the image into a historical context. This work particularly well for the Edward Weston images during Landscape but can be disastrous if applied with the wrong intent. The set I have to work with (I am not allowed to show these until after the winner is announced in November) is quite contemporary in its content and I worried that anything other than totally neutral monochrome will be wrong. The angst of editing and presentation as always is one where a decision has to be made and that is the lot of the competition entrant. The work is to be with the judges by 15 October.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

PWDP Completed - In a reflective mood.

In a few days time the 2 year time limit indicates the end of this module. I did not intend it to take so long but personal issues a while back meant delays but for the past month or so I have been able to catch up and the work, especially the journal is now complete. Most of the work for assessment is also complete. The prints are finished, but need labels, the essay modifications are almost complete and awaiting some divine inspiration to know how to rewrite one paragraph that seems to elude me. The assignment write ups need printing and assembly into their folders and the electronic files will be collated when a new USB stick arrives. I assume during the run up to November assessment (sometime in early September) the labels will come from OCA to stick on the box. The box will be delivered by hand to OCA as I cannot risk it being lost or damaged.
Aside from the completion of the submission it is time to sit and think and reflect on the module and look forward to what happens next. Progressing with Digital Photography is not the correct title for this module. Why the word digital is in there I do not know. Progressing with Photography is more suitable, but that could apply to any course after one called Starting with Photography. It assumes everyone is using digital practice and that might not be the case, and while most of us are (or a hybrid practice) there is nothing in the assignments that forces you to develop any advanced digital techniques. I am sure that is not the intention anyway as on its own being good at Photoshop or whatever is unlikely to make your work any more progressive than those with basic skills. The increase in skills really depends on where you are starting from anyway, but I am pleased with the one or two new areas of expertise I have learnt, especially through the book cover assignment where my layout skills, text and use of multiple layers has been useful since.
Being able to make a drop shadow on text in Photoshop may seem to some to be useful and, yes I did it so as to tick the box, but was that really necessary.
At a different level, the module has through the support of my tutor helped me to develop more narrative and be less of an object based photographer and see more in the implied. I have learnt to not be afraid of ambiguity and realise that I do not have to take an idea to the viewer with an explanation of what I am thinking or doing. Less is more and while the images have to be relevant they do not have to be illustrations. Art photography is not an instruction manual for the viewer to be told what to think, it is a platform for semiotics and signs. This requires the photographer to be aware and conscious of the context of where the work is to be seen and then adjust the message through text and the selection of images. We need to be aware that not all of our work is viewed by keen academic arty types, but there are others who need to be drawn in to the work and not made to feel as though the art world is alien to them.
I will have to wait for the November results before I decide where I go next. The natural progression is to Level 3 and the degree, but that may not be where I need to be. I have not discussed the Level 3 syllabus with anyone yet and that discussion will be key to the way forward. I started the degree pathway because as a practising semi freelance photographer I wanted to learn more and become aware of different ways of thinking and making art. The course has shown me how to do this, by introducing me to the various artists, photographers, writers and philosophers who have made a difference and influenced contemporary photographic art. With those introductions I can continue to read and study, maybe even write, and certainly make more photographs. I take a great interest in the work of other students, read about their work and study their approach to practice and theory. I have found it worthwhile to take part in the online forum by helping others when I can and posing questions to them when I have been stuck. 
I understand that this degree course is, by its title "Photography" a wide brief, and we have to teach ourselves. There will be no lectures and there are no facilities, but on the other hand there are no high fees. This doesn't bother me though as I don't need a photography degree to get a job, but I wonder how suitable it would be if I did. As OCA students we get no time in a professional studio environment and many have no access to high quality post processing and printing facilities. This tends to make the course content less focused on photography practice than maybe it would elsewhere. Since I joined OCA there is a tendency to now include more critical theory and visual culture studies. I seem to remember a comment some time ago that OCA had to include more because up until then the content wasn't sufficient and "we were getting away with it". That may well be the situation as I have no idea what level of content others have, but my immediate thoughts were, I wonder how those you have graduated feel with that comment in the background.
Amongst the current cohort who make themselves know to each other through the forum there are certainly plenty of students who enjoy the theoretical study and do well at it. As a subject, critical theory is interesting and have myself become interested in that field especially in connection with postmodernism. I am not so sure though that I want a course that requires me to do more of that than making photographs and looking at the work of others from time to time I wonder if they too should make more photographs and become skilled at that at a higher level. The study of critical theory can and does influence practice, it requires us to think and place our work in context but that work has to be able to be shown in a professional environment and that part of the craft of making fine craft (not art) photography is not championed by the OCA. This in some part is of course down to the student to make the work, know what it should look like (by having seen first class work at exhibitions etc) and then find out how to make similar work. The level 3 modules seem to have split the theoretical studies away from the body of work in two work streams so I hope that allows for plenty of photography in at least one.
Photography is my life, I spend every waking hour thinking about it in some context or another. Whether it is to buy a new lens, a new book, set up something new in the studio or simple read some more from the works of the adorable Liz Wells. Dare I say I did enjoy "photography", but I don't so much now. The OCA has given me much more to think about, reasons to make images and new books to read, but, my own work, my own path is now a thing of the past. I am directed, maybe in a direction that makes me a better artist, time will tell. I want to spend more time entering juried exhibitions and that takes enormous amounts of time. Some may think it is just a quick flick through Bridge and pick something from the past and email it to the jury with the fee. Not so, it requires research and well thought through editing and then making high quality work, picking frames and mats. The time is not proportional to the rewards, but when you are selected and hung you feel something worthwhile has been achieved and an audience sees the work.

Much to think about.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Jane Bown - Photographer

One of the difficulties with studying a subject as vast and a diverse as Photography is to know which of the many eminent practitioners, living or dead to research. On the basis that we should contextualise our work and understand where it fits into contemporary art photography I understand that there will be some that I have to engage with more than others. This has led me to a deeper understanding of the works of Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Karl Blossfeldt etc where my practice is drawing from their oeuvre.  From time to time though lesser known photographers pass my window of interest and although I have no particular connection with their work I know I have to look closer at them and their work. In recent months this has occurred with Jane Bown (1925-2014) largely due to the coincidence that I read The Observer and that much of this module is centred on Press images. Bown worked for The Observer as a photographer for over 50 years, working with film (35mm and 6x6) and mostly black and white. Her portraits of the rich and famous are exemplars of how the art of available light photography is a craft that is not well understood, except by a few. In 2014, directors Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte released the documentary film Looking For Light, featuring conversations with Bown about her life and interviews with those she photographed and worked with, including Edna O'Brien, Lynn Barber and Richard Ashcroft. To date the film is my primary source for research, preferring in this instance the work of a film maker to portray a photographer.

The documentary has two stories. The first is that of her life, one full of muddle and insecurity. She was passed around between aunts for many of the early years and then off to join the wrens during the Second World War. Photographs of her though show a happy girl, a girl who did not resent change, someone who was happy to adopt a family, tag along and learn to make the best of what were few options. During the war she worked in map marking and after had no real idea of what to do next. In a demob meeting someone suggested photography and after a few calls she found a course being run by an ex Royal Navy officer. In her own words she didn't enjoy much of the course, preferring to sit and look out of the window and at the weekly critique sessions refused to join in. After college in 1949 she contacted The Observer with a request. "I want to go to Paris, If you pay the fair I will take 4 portraits for you". They said yes and she was given a list of names, so with her friend she travelled to Paris, photographed amongst others Jean Cocteau ( her without a word of French) and returned with the film. Following this test her first assignment was to photograph the philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell, an experience she described as terrifying. The simplicity of the whole business  is quite adorable, but perhaps the world in the late 1940s was a simpler place. No CV writing, no interview techniques to learn, just a naive (by our standards) approach and a bold acceptance of her own abilities. This simplicity follows in her photography. Seldom did she use anything other than daylight, preferring being near a window or at the worst during November and December maybe an anglepoise lamp. Her equipment was simple. Either a Rollieflex or later the Olympus OM1, most of which were second hand and carried about in a wicker basket. As Polly Toynybee (a writer for the Guardian) relates that Bown did not have the persona one thinks of as a press photographer. Rankin describes her as a "package". Home Counties, well dressed small woman who had an amazing talent that probably put her amongst the finest portrait photographers in the UK with The Telegraph describing her (in their obituary) as "a kind of English Cartier Bresson".

Jane Bown Self Portrait 1949

The documentary follows Bown on a trip to old family homes and a graveyard, where with the help of one of her sons she reminisces on her early days at The Observer and in detail some of the assignments. Probably the single most iconic Bown image is of the Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett. Beckett had at first given permission for photographs then later in the day declined. Bown with her tenacity stood outside the stage door for hours waiting for him to leave and put it quite bluntly that he had to have his photograph taken. He agreed that 5 frames were allowed and Bown took 7. His stern semi scowling pose is most certainly not that of a willing participant and has become synonymous with Bown. The full frame image below is the one preferred by Bown. The version often used removes the brick wall to the left to therefore show a complete black background, a version that Bown is not happy with.

 Samuel Beckett - Jane Bown, 1976

Amongst many personal and biographical facts we are privy to in the film there are many photography techniques to be learnt. What we learn early is that the photographer is the second violin in the duet of journalist and photographer when on an assignment. The pairing when sent out would have a meeting place established (probably by Press Officers or Agents) and a prescribed amount of time that the subject would be available. Most often the journalist would start the process and Bown would sit out of the way waiting her turn, getting anxious by the minute as her time slot at the end became shorter. Also interesting is the reaction of journalists if Bown went first in the session and started chatting to the sitter, gaining their confidence. Her inoffensive style allowing them to open up and reveal more than when the journalist (and their pointed, aggressive questions) did the interview. Bown describes The Observer as a family, her family and the thought of working for any other publication never entered her thoughts. Her description of washing her hair in the darkroom and drying it in the film cabinet is an insight of how it was possible then to become part of a place of work with loyalties that have in the recent past become lost. When she married the editor/owner of The Observer, David Astor agreed to give her away as she had nobody closer than him at the time.
Clearly with her various exhibitions and books she is an exemplar of the press photographer from that post war period. Looking closely at the portrait images I am struck by her style. The subject often sitting and her standing (although she is short in stature) gives her a slightly elevated point of view that makes the sitter look up very slightly. A technique that then uses the eyes in a dynamic way to engage with the camera. Also her apparent use of a limited number of focal length lenses with her favourites being 50mm and 85mm. 

Her preferred situation was to photograph the subject near to a window, rate her TriX at 400 and set 1/60 at f2.8. A simple no fuss approach that when inspected closely does work incredibly well. By working quickly (she seldom had more than 10 minutes to complete the shoot) with no fuss the subject did not feel intimidated. A smart, small quiet lady was taking the photographs, using a small camera, there was no threat. They would relax with her and it was then when she would see their personality and take the frame. She never tried to embarrass them with overtly off guard images, all she wanted was to see behind the eyes and capture a moment of them as themselves, not the contrived image of the agent or press office.

In 1985 she was awarded an MBE and again in 1995 a CBE. 2000 saw her receive an Honorary Fellowship of The Royal Photographic Society and in 2009 she received an honorary degree from The Open University, 40 years after her first assignment.   

The documentary film has an air of sadness as we see her late in her life. Bown spends time being very contemplative of her life and perhaps due to her age she doesn't smile very much. At one point she reveals that in the whole of her life the only times when she was happy was when she was working and taking photographs

A selection of her portraits can be seen here.


She died on December 21, 2014

Edit: 22 August 2015

I now have a copy of Bown's book Exposures, Guardian Books, 2009

One of the facets of photography practice that I champion is the print. There is no photograph without there being a print and while others may say this is untrue in the digital age I disagree. There is of course the opportunity to see images on a screen either for the viewers gratification or for the purposes of post processing and editing. The later of the two is of course part of the technical/artistic process in bringing the image from concept to realisation, if the image needs a digital phase in its manufacture. To view photographs on a screen is a transient act of some visual stimulation but there is nothing lasting. Once the button is pressed it is gone and as a photograph it no longer exists. Exposures is a book of 130 monochrome photographs by Jane Bown (and one or two others who photographed her at work) that with some rudimentary care will last forever. It lays here on my desk open at page 6 and I am looking at a portrait of Eve Arnold. It will be there all day while I work so that I can glance at it or if I feel the need stare at it. I may turn the pages randomly and let it fall open somewhere else, who knows as it and my actions in owning it are now totally in my control. Each time I look at it I see something fresh, a small area of tone that I consider, ask myself if Bown noticed that or if she wanted something more or less. At no time do I have to interact with a switch and become binary and my time appreciating the work is never linear. The quality of the production, printing, paper choice and the text is sublime with no aspect of the purchase that one would or could criticise. Nor the price, which direct from the Guardian bookshop is now £24. The same as some coffees and a snack at a motorway services for two people.
I guess at some time in the future I will look at all of the pages in chronological order, but for now a random viewing technique is preferred, once again a non digital activity, as I dont have to chose a page number and click on it, I just allow the pages to fall open at random. Bown's portraits are more than head and shoulders. They are more often head and upper torso and that allows us to see more of what surrounds the subject. For the most part these images are to illustrate a story in The Observer, so seeing for instance Edna O'Brien, p 108 we see her, her upper torso and her arms which are at an angle as her hands are holding her neck. A charming woman with a necklace and a bracelet, both understated pieces that tell us she is not a loud brash woman. Behind her a couch and bookshelves, heavy with books. Again we know from the style of the furniture and the number of books that the lady is well read and has good quality artifacts around her. The place looks cosy and comfortable. If Bown had gone in close we would have seen O'Brien's head, maybe shoulders but nothing else. By stepping back we still know what she looks like and we see more and know more. The essence of good communication.
In contrast the portrait of Boris Karloff p, 116 is a much closer crop. The landscape format slices off the top of his head and the bottom of his chin is on the bottom of the frame. It is heavily side lit with most of the left hand side in deep shadow. It is a moody severe image. The background is not really definablele, maybe a seat back, which looks like a railway seat or aeroplane. This ambiguity is good because we are not to know and Bown has worked here to make sure it is only the facial features we see. The methodology and practice suits the subject, a mysterious man. The book is without doubt a masterclass in portrait photography away from the studio and has inspired me to look at it every day and make way for this type of work in my own practice if I ever get the chance.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Exercise Part Five - Web Slideshows.

My initial reaction to web based slide shows was less than complementary. The Slide show as the name suggests is from the time of 35mm (in the main although I have seen 6x6) transparencies being projected onto a screen or white wall. The slightly more upmarket slide show was an audio visual where commentary and/or music was played during the projection. This could be quite complicated with multiple projectors and an automated trigger system to change the slides with faded changes, multi image projection and sometimes the inclusion of entertainers and dancers. Large motor companies often employed the techniques to launch new products and the experience with loud music and creative lighting was the forerunner of the promotional video. The experience then was limited really by the technical prowess of the artist or photographer. At an amateur level the camera club slide show was a way of the members showing their work with one projector and at the other extreme a corporate extravaganza. It is likely that in some small way this still exists but in the main projected images are now from a digital source and with computer control can be quite elaborate.

On the Internet however my experience so far in looking at them as a reader of on line news is that they serve no practical purpose other than filling some page space. That is assuming you can find the slide show. Again my experience so far is that they are well hidden and not on the menu listing. This sounds a bit harsh and is applicable to the daily news rather than a feature. Daily news requires one or two photographs with a story (editors are unlikely to promote photography above copy) and at the end of a week the on line website of the publication will put all of the images together on one page and they can be seen continuously as a slide show. They have little or no connection to each other (Baby George, Hurricane in Florida, Death of Cilla Black etc) and the order they are shown is likely to be by editorial hierarchy, so maybe baby George will be shown first and the hurricane last. The man in the street reader will decide at what point he has seen enough and stop the show before the end. Photographers who are looking at the news image as a genre will look longer and maybe pause to have a closer look and consider the image technically and aesthetically.

The feature is likely to have more images and can be image driven in specialist publications and as a result if the reader wants to just look at the images without the copy then (say) 10 to 15 photographs can be seen as a slide show. In this instance the show has more content as the images are linked by a time line, geographical or low impact to start and high impact at the end. Skill is required in editing the images into a suitable number that can deliver the story in full and at the same time not have that many that the viewer becomes bored. Determining this length of the show can be judged by knowing the audience and understanding their needs. A Sunday supplement has a casual readership, perhaps a person using an iPad, looking a a story with a passing interest but also wanting to see the quality and depth that a broadsheet is likely to produce. It should be interesting and informative and give enough to allow the viewer to explore the story or subject later with further reading. On the other hand a specialist publication will need to provide more images with more detail. The readership of say a F1 on line magazine will want photographs of drivers, their team, the car from every angle, close ups of technical features and plenty of action from the circuit. For the enthusiast it will be difficult to over produce.

Looking closer at a selection of on line slide shows I have chosen the following:


Unfortunately if I comment on the photographs shown here today they will be different of course when the link is opened next week. That doesn't matter because why I choose Reuters is to show how first class their photographers are and the production qualities of the website. Somewhat strange however is that here there are two slide shows. The first is called "Photos of the week" and is a good selection 21 images covering everything from the explosion in China that killed 50 plus people to a greased pig competition in Canada where the contestants wrestle with pigs. It is all spoilt by having to see adverts every 6 pictures but we live in a commercial world. The next slide show is "Editors Choice" and is 32 images of the same stories. I then wonder who edited the first show and wonder why there are two with similar content. Reuters continue with more slide shows further down the page. The shows now become more focused on a subject rather than the general news. Included at the time I write this are features from Gaza, Cuba, Prince George and an archive going back some time. It is clear that Reuters with the pedigree for producing outstanding images are keen to promote the work of their photographers.


The Guardian is one of my favourite daily broadsheets in the UK. I don't necessarily align myself to their politics but their photography and its editing is some of the best. The Internet has spread the Guardian to a worldwide audience and the link above takes me to their home page for slide shows. The coverage of world events is almost the same as Reuters and this is to be expected. Images and copy from world events came be transmitted in seconds to any news desk in the world so the days of a "scoop" by a journalist working for a single publication are probable over. There are thousands of amateurs and freelancers who can do good work and their contribution is encouraged by many. The Guardian site does have one feature that I like and that is the vertical scrolling of the images rather than horizontal scrolling. To just use the down arrow key is much simpler than having to point the mouse at an arrow on the screen. Reuters and The Guardian are similar in some respects as they are both considered "serious" news organisations and their work is presented in an authoritative way, well edited, well post processed and perfect image quality. Another feature of both is that they are not actually slide shows. The user decides the speed of the show by clicking to get the next image. This is far preferable to the automatic show where just as you are looking at the image, its gone and the next one comes up. With the auto slide show you can go to settings etc and adjust the timings but who wants to do that?. The viewer should not be asked to make adjustments. Far better to allow the "page" to be turned as you would with paper copy.

 Moving on from the daily press I intended to look at the Sunday press, in particular the supplements where I would find a different type of image. I was hoping here to see the feature in all its magnificence, where a top quality magazine can use the best photographers and the best equipment for taking and output. This turns out to be disappointing because there is nothing free to look at. The Sunday Times Magazine, a maga zine that I hold in high esteem for quality in every sphere is pay to view. The supplements were available so can be seen on line in theory but as soon as detail is clicked, they want money. 

It would seem then that since this course module was put together there has been a closing of doors in the on line media world and we cannot view as much as we once could.

The exception however is also a classic. Time Magazine. 


The page layout is classic, white with plenty of space and no gimmicks. The content is enormous and the whole experience of looking at photographs here is sublime. It has an almost academic feel to it and is a joyous experience with hours of content.

The Media as they now call themselves (it was The Press when I worked there) have bigger pockets to fill and I guess with everyone having a mobile phone, wifi, 4G etc there is a possibility that the paper copy of these publications will die if the on line version is free. With advertising space being sold I would have thought there was a case for free distribution of news and the advertising will pay. An advertiser will reach millions through on line advertising as apposed to the news in print which has a limited circulation. The on line version is also much more flexible as there is no print deadline and the stories can be changed in minutes as the news happens. Some such as Time do a first class job, others a good job and there are others who without paying we will never know.

A while ago this year I was asked to revisit the photographs that were held in stock for advertising at a small hotel in Menorca. A few new shots were taken and to offer something to the client slightly differently I prepared them as a slide show. It is still a work in progress operation and I think it will never be finished as there are changes that my work shows that make it unsuitable. The show needs some music and perhaps a bit of editing but I include it here as evidence of me having attempted a slide show. 

Biniarroca Hotel 


Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Britt Salvesen on New Topographics

I have a natural empathy with the 1970s as it was the time of my life when I started work, I loved every moment because there were no restrictions on how and what we did, life was a pleasure. It is not surprising then that I find New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape (NT) a part of the history of photography that is interesting and relevant to my study. Having obtained the original catalogue I can now spend time looking at the work in print, something I prefer to screen images. Britt Salvesen, Director and Chief Curator at the Centre for Creative Photography, University of Arizona is the author of the essay that accompanies the catalogue and I have used that as a guide to my research.

Salvesen opens with a look at the history of photography prior to 1975 and the formation of the New Topographics (NT) as an idea and its curation by William Jenkins. NT is an exhibition of landscape photography that opened up a new direction for photography with a title of the exhibition that is unusual and does not really explain much of its content. The survey of the land and its features are the study of Topographics and is generally associated with the work of a surveyor. Topographic surveys record the features of the land, what is on the land (buildings, walls, roads etc) and the contours of the land, often expressed as a height above a datum, sometimes from sea level. The product of this work is then represented through scale drawings and will typically include a plan and various cross sections. From this work an architect or engineer will often design and plan new works onto the landscape. The topographic photographer's work is no different although the resulting output is a series of photographs where we can see clearly what is there and how big it is. The combination of surveyor and photographer will give a complete and concise description of what was there on the dates the work was carried out. 

The exhibition shows the work of ten artists by way of 168 photographs. The artists were:
Robert Adams
Lewis Baltz
Bernd and Hilla Becher
Joe Deal
Frank Gohlke
Nicholas Nixon
John Schott
Stephen Shore
Henry Wessel, Jr.

Up until William Jenkins, assistant curator of twentieth century photography at George Eastman House brought them together they were not part of any cohort although some had achieved exposure in the art world. Their coming together however did mark a significant point in the history of photography and the term New Topographics has become a label and validated approach to landscape photography. Salvesen makes the point that at the time "neither the original viewers, nor the curator, nor the participating artists anticipated the outcome" Forty years on from this event and its significance enriches the landscape photography discourse as much as ever. It is surprising that many of the artists had never met and for many they never saw the exhibition in Rochester. In fact at the time it was seen by only a small number of visitors as it had a limited audience and it is by serendipity that it has gained such notoriety and influence. The history of NT can be traced back to the 1960s and in particular the work of Walker Evans and Ed Ruscha, both having completed work associated with the cultural landscape. John Szarkowski at MOMA in New York had sustained Evans's work from the FSA and in 1971 curated a major retrospective spanning the photographers forty year career. Some of the NT artists were heavily influenced by Evans, particularly Gohlke who found affinity with his work and that of Eugene Atget. Salvesen describes Evans work as ...."these elements of 'documentary style', a nuanced, deliberately oblique formulation that can be broached via the broader concept of the vernacular". Salvesen uncovers how the NT artists looked to the work of Ansel Adams and Minor White with a degree of scepticism while at the same time acknowledging the early impact on them by these well known names. Deal went to Yosemite and says it was like seeing everything in quotation marks, while Baltz criticised the dramatic high contrast printing style, which by the 1960s seemed overblown and embarrassingly self conscious. The NT photographers had a wish to depict the mid 1970s America without glorifying it or condemning it. Jenkins wrote of the participants as photographers who can foster ambiguity around the very issue of attachment.... the makers attachment.... the viewers attachment and a detachment of generations of the photographers expressive capacity. Walker Evans, when asked by a student to describe why he photographs billboards, Evans said "I love them". The student then asked is there as social comment here and Evans replied "Not in the least... I photograph what is in front of me...".

So photography based upon attraction, where the viewer is seduced has moved towards photography that does not reveal the motivation of the photographer and this adds a complexity that is undertaken by all of the NT photographers in varying ways.
It is to Jenkins then that the cohort were assembled. Jenkins work as a curator was not well paid but he was expected to travel and meet artists, visit exhibitions and look at portfolios. Jenkins first got to know Deal when he was photographing the art deco houses in Rochester NY. His stylised, detail orientated formal approach was heavily reliant on the influence of Evans and these images are where the seeds of an exhibition on architecture were sown in Jenkins mind. At around that time Jenkins also saw the work of Baltz in Los Angeles and upon his return to Rochester and further discussions with Deal the architecture/landscape idea grew.

Photographers had been showing architecture in the landscape since the 1839 but Jenkins and Deal found no evidence of treating the built environment as a subject on its own. Any previous attempts at showing structures and buildings were more likely to be well known landmarks with elements subjectivity installed by the photographer rather than suburban housing portrayed with critical analysis. Deal pursued this in his own work, changing the way he photographed the Rochester facades to give more space around the building and seeking out the ordinary. When shown this work was not well received. The critic Gene Thornton described the genre as lacking "technique and life". When describing R Adams Denver Views he declared "...I felt I was looking at pictures made without human direction by mere machines..."
These comments were not universal and others wrote of Baltz's Tract Houses project as making "aesthetic something that in reality has no redeeming aesthetic quality"
Salvesen points out that this form of pictorial pleasure, cerebral as apposed to cathartic, is altogether more compatible with advanced painting, sculpture and installation art than with mainstream photography. These pre New Topographics reviews point to a new attitude towards photographic innovation and as it had not yet coalesced into a style it resisted assimilation to existing critical vocabularies. Modernists were finding it difficult to relinquish the basic requirements of subjectivity.

The NT photographers, while being a disparate group of individuals, together were forming a sceptical opinion towards the previous generation. Robert Adams did acknowledge the impact of Ansel Adams while explaining that his work was essentially different with its own aims. Baltz criticised the dramatic high contrast printing. By the 1960s the Ansel Adams photographs were seen by this cohort as overdetermined, overblown and embarrassingly self conscious. It was without doubt Walker Evans who the group were looking towards as inspiration and the construction of a new style, one where, as Gohlke put it "... the photographer seems to be absent...".
The NT photographers were depicting the USA of the 70s without glorifying or condemning and transmitted this with well crafted prints with no darkroom tricks and assembling them into a unifying narrative.
As Salvesen describes it "it is about the environment and the land" with Adams being most explicitly aligned with environmentalism and possibly the one most lured by sentimentality proffered by the landscape. As Americans became prosperous they had leisure time to explore Yosemite, the Everglades, the Grand Canyon etc. and with photography becoming a popular pastimes these areas generated an affection with the public who saw them as pure and pristine. Salvesen is conscious of the possibility that NT might in retrospect be considered as environmentalist but the show was resistant to being aligned with any propaganda. One reviewer (William Wilson) did describe it as "ecologically based social criticism" but on the other hand it is possible to be critical and describe the work as not critical enough as there are images that question land use and the aesthetics of the architecture. Pictures of essentially controversial land use that engender feelings inside are difficult to be come detached from as a photographer and in some cases perhaps impossible, especially for Americans who tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves.
What I think we end up with are photographs that epitomise the paradox of being both boring and interesting. This is how Robert Adams summarises his objective, "a normal view of the landscape. Almost." What I think we are getting towards is a position somewhere between Ansel Adams and a snapshot taken by a resident of his new home. They needed to be as technically fine as Ansels but convey a detachment one gets from Roberts.

Jenkins worked closely with Deal on the curation of NT and they collaborated closely on the title. Deal it seems did most of the work towards the title and wanted something that tried to say contemporary landscape photography and indicated a break from the past. The result New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape is open for debate and asks questions over what we are to expect.
New has connotations of improvement, progress, recent or contemporary in fact anything other than the past. Topographics is nothing new although has more of a general reference to maps and the original dictionary definition of it being a detailed description of a place or tract of land. The contributing photographers had varying responses to themselves being "topographers",with Adams questioning the geographical focus and its implications of objectivity. Jenkins and Deal had agreed that there was a need for a sub title to make it more explanatory. Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape is full of words that require further investigation. Photographs simply asserts the medium and identifies a specific practise and that they are objects as apposed to the word photography. The compound adjective man-altered is gender specific although there is little feminist objection generally to the whole being described as mankind. The noun it modifies is landscape in the singular and is denoted here to be something imagined and created or used by humans. There is no reference to a before image of the landscape only the after which is then a record of construction and disruption, socially and physically, beneficial or detrimental.
The selection of the photographs and who had the final decision on inclusion is not clear although Jenkins and Deal, one as curator/author and the other as artist/designer had the responsibility for the projects realisation and final content. With ten artists it was never likely that a harmonious agreement would be across the board. Adams and Gohlke expressed reservations about the whole idea and Adams was never enthusiastic about being a part of the show. In part this was due to Jenkins having described it at one stage as a post Ansel Adams endeavour. Adams in his younger days held a deep respect for Ansel Adams' work and probably could put his devotion to landscape photography entirely down to Ansel.

Jenkins retrospectively commented "People come to me and think that I understand this because I invented it, and I didnt really understand it very well then. I think my essay (in the catalogue) reveals that" What Jenkins is reminding the reader of is that NT was an experiment. Readers of the essay may never find what they are looking for as Jenkins it seems may have rushed the writing, never expecting that a generation later it would be dissected by academics and writers wanting to find every nuance of the NT exhibition. The essay is essentially a centre around which the artists are asked to contribute and they are all quoted, so in essence it becomes a conversation. Jenkins essay is concise dealing with the themes of style, objectivity and the document although some critics at the time were less than impressed, describing the exhibition as a "Topographical Error". As Salvesen writes when he starts to finally bring the whole work into a summary "... that through style works of art have meaning... even if in NT that does not include personal, idiosyncratic or self contained meanings" The confusion of genre and subject can be considered a self conscious aspect of NT.
The problem of style is going to challenge the viewer (much less in 2015 than 1975 perhaps) due to expectations being derived from modernist examples of the genre. The straight prints, uniformity of subject matter, the built environment, perfect sharp focus, minimal grain and tonal range were features that had little aesthetic value, previously associated with expression, abstraction, narration and the unique hand printed one off example with high contrast and darkroom manipulation.
Jenkins concludes, NT may have been a "stylistic event" but the actual photographs are far richer in meaning and scope than the simple making of an aesthetic point.
The exhibition was hung in the Brackett Clark gallery in George Eastman House. The room was divided with temporary walls, some white, some grey. The artists work was presented in groups interrupted, all framed with metal section frames and white mats.
Visitors to the exhibition were asked for their thoughts and although taking into account their age, assumptions of Eastman House as a venue, experience with photography and prints the response was wide and difficult to summarise. Some examples include:-

He couldn't have been doing it for his enjoyment, because they are very dull pictures in my opinion.

They obviously didn't take it from an artistic point of view. It looks like it was their job, their project

Viewers apparently admired the lighter printing style which at a simple visual level distinguished them from the high contrast, expressive, chiaroscuro seen in photojournalism at that time. 
The exhibition was on view for nearly a year in Rochester after which it travelled to two other locations which accounts for the lack of contemporary reviews. In Los Angeles Robert Woolard drew no conclusions and said there was no way of knowing if this was a passing phenomenon or if it is avant-garde with an enduring attitude to the artistic medium. 

In conclusion, NT was a paradigm shift for photography although what is surprising is that no follow on cohort or curator took up the legacy to develop it and continue the discourse with an evolution that would provide heirs to the tradition. Jenkins left Eastman House soon afterwards to teach photography in Arizona and finds the attention NT receives to be bothersome and disproportionate. In addition none of the artists clung on to the NT and instead wanted to work on their own and have individual identities. All went on to produce significant bodies of work and receive varying amounts of support. It is not until the mid 80s and later that the true legacy of NT becomes apparent. Through the work of Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky (with others) they take the style to another level. Biographer and archivist Susanne Lange says that they have taken it "to absurdity" using the abstractness, serial sequences, order and structure as the actual subject matter of the image, heightened by vivid colour and immense scale. In the USA the NT artists did little to influence others in the style of NT even though most of them at some time later in life did teach at universities. Despite the recognition the artists subsequently received the NT exhibition is only one line on their CVs, .. a group show, Rochester, 1975.

New Topographics is in contemporary photography deployed as if it were a universal standard and a kind of masterclass for all photographers to aspire to. It was in reality a loose set of artists who Jenkins and Deal noticed at the time as having something to say about what they saw around them and forced the viewer to look at the present and think about the future. We may see it as a nostalgic period but the lessons from then are completely relevant in our contemporary practice today.

Reflection and Learning Outcome

The research and words above are just the tip of the iceberg when looking at this phenomenon. We all know something of NT, it is difficult to have got this far in photography without some exposure to the work and most will have an opinion on how it affected them. For myself it was a step change a year ago when I finally saw past the work of Ansel Adams and wondered if there was indeed more of a narrative in the banal than the high contrast overworked expressive image. At this change point as a photographer you realise you will abandon most of your audience who liked your "nice" photographs and instead you will be working alone, for yourself and perhaps others of a like mind who will "get it" and take the time to look past the image on paper and see the message beneath. Building a narrative into image making is something I now spend far more time considering, rather than considering the viewer and their reaction as my prime objective. The craftmanship behind these "type" of images is required to be of the highest standard, similar in impact to editing, in so much as when it is done well you may not see it. Banality for some is another word for uninteresting and that is the challenge ahead, to prove them wrong.


Salvesen, Britt., 2013. New Topographics.Arizona: Steidl.