People & Place part 5 – 1: Orienting myself in Space and Place

During the course of this Module I’ve become increasingly aware of my interest in how we as people interact with our environment –  how we shape the landscape and then how this landscape, in turn, affects our perceptions; thoughts; memories and feelings.

I’ve lived in several places but never so long as the house in Sheffield I lived in with my parents from the age of 5 to 22 (when I married) not far from my maternal grandmother’s house where I was born.  That neighbourhood still lives so strongly in my memories and dreams that I was surprised, when I last visited there, briefly, last year that I no longer felt any sense of belonging. The area had changed so much, becomes so run-down and barren of life, that it was as if someone else had once lived there.

Conversely, I don’t feel particularly attached to the town I live in now.  There are no deep memories such as my children being born here. This is part of modern living I guess – on the move. At least part of my modern living. Even so there are some places and spaces here that I do feel an attachment towards. The Common where I walk with the dogs just about every day; the small Church on the hill not so far away; the old Muslim Burial Ground and the Bronze Age Barrows across the road from there. Is it their history that gives me that sense of place I experience – that connects me to people in the past and their lives, beliefs, hopes and fears? It’s as if there are whole other parallel worlds that I connect with through those layers of history.

I’ve referred to Simon Scharma’s book Memory and Landscape before and my growing interest in cultural geography. I had thought that this might be a diversion because I was finding People & Place so challenging as a Module. I’m now thinking, though, that this particular Module began to encourage me to start digging into what connects me with my environment; forced me from my chair of “Isn’t that interesting; maybe one day I’ll ……”. I’ve certainly been technically challenged but the psychological challenge has pushed me into being my own archaeologist; searching for the roots of what binds me to this earth. Discovering how a space becomes a sense of place.

I’m pleased that my notional client for Assignment 5 has provided me with further opportunity to explore these aspects and tread new ground.

27th August 2013

Talk by Tom Hunter: OCA Study Visit 2nd March 2013

Tom Hunter : The Way Home

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As preparation for the talk I read an interview in Photomonitor by Katy Barron .  Photomonitor is an on-line magazine that includes our own OCA tutors Jesse and Sharon Boothroyd amongst its contributors. Sharon was also our accompanying tutor and had organised the visit.

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I had already seen Tom’s work in “Seduced by Art” at the National Gallery and, of course looked at his website

Two aspects struck me in particular from the Photomonitor interview concerning his attitude towards photography. The first concerns his latest pinhole work and how the lens “slowly absorbs the scene rather than grabbing or taking it” giving him time to talk with people.  The second was about people’s attitudes towards Old Masters – “Rather like going to church where you have to bow to these great masters”, and how one can forget the context of a painting so that the subject matter becomes lost in the technical detail of the painting (I hope I’ve understood that right).

Tom has a casually relaxed style; is easy to listen to; engaging and obviously passionate about his work and the area where he lives. Basically, his talk covered the areas that have already been outlined in one of the essays on his website  the difference, of course, is that listening to him speak made his journey come alive; not to mention the images he showed and explained to us. I can certainly understand how he succeeds so well in getting his subjects to co-operate with him.

He has spent a long time looking at his surroundings; exploring his own neighbourhood and using different ways to portray situations. What came through overall in his talk was certainly the way in which universal themes and situations have continued in their different forms and how they can be portrayed, in what I think of as a painterly manner, whilst using ‘ordinary’ people and their lives as a context, through the photographic medium . What’s interesting to me is that this can now be seen as experimental/conceptual rather than ‘copying/mimicking’ as it might have seemed earlier in the history of photography. It seems to me that, on the whole, anything goes in photography so long as you can justify it comprehensively and articulately using the appropriate method of communication.

The other aspect that struck me was that continual search as a photographer for new ways of looking at things and yet retaining some beliefs/attitudes/passions as a core. A humanitarian ethos of respect for others and believing in the importance of engaging his subjects in his work.  Being welded to Hackney and its people and wanting to show that ordinary people have their own unique stories which are worth the telling.  There is also his use of an artistic approach to raise contentious issues and engage in a fight with local authorities.  This is an interesting aspect particularly at the moment having discussed Martha Rosler’s views on documentary in the recent OCA Thames Valley group session.  John  made a comment on my previous post here  concerning the question of whether documentary should appear on a gallery wall and Allan Sekula’s statement that

Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist” (A. Sekula,  1984, p.58)

How does that fit with Tom Hunter’s work?  To me his work is art as well as documentary.  He points to the universality of contemporary stories; bases them in his own neighbourhood and has found his own creative voice. His work appears on gallery walls and in museums. At the same time his images have achieved positive change.

His Degree Show in 1994 was The Ghetto. He and others were trying to save their squatted street in Hackney from demolition and themselves from eviction.  He produced a 3D model of the street (in his words to us his neighbourhood became an art sculpture). He had begun using a medium format camera and produced transparencies whose effect resembled being transported into a cathedral with it stained glass windows. These transparencies were placed in the model. His tutors encouraged him to look at Dutch painting and he discovered Vermeer and his use of light and the painting of ordinary people.  After travelling around Europe for a couple of years he went back to his squatting neighbourhood. Possession orders were again being issued, and he returned to Vermeer in his quest to raise the status of the fight with the Local Authorities.

One of his neighbours who had received an eviction order became Woman Reading a Possession Order from Hunter’s series Persons Unknown


Woman Reading a Possession Order (1997) (c) Tom Hunter

Reproduced with his permission

the starting point was Vermeer’s A Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window .  

Another example from the same series is the Art of Squatting .


                                                                                                                                   The Art of Squatting (1997) (c) Tom Hunter

Reproduced with his permission

The Art of Painting (1665-67)  was known as Vermeer’s favourite piece.  Vermeer’s painting has cloth/tapestry on the wall – probably a map of the Netherlands.  Hunter’s reworking has torn wallpaper that, to me,  looks the same shape as the map. Subsequently he has taken influences from other artists and lives of artists such as Millais  and the author Thomas Hardy. Hardy based all his stories on true stories and Tom Hunter started to collect people’s stories from the Hackney Gazette.   He noticed that the same stories repeated themselves over and over again and re-enacted some of them in his series Living in Hell and other Stories

This works for me as an artist in contextualizing my work, giving it multiple layers and asking classical and contemporary viewers alike to question art’s relationship to society (2012, p. 7)

He has wanted both to document life around him; raise issues and represent the beauty and dignity of ordinary people and his surroundings. One of the questions raised during the talk was whether he thought his views had become compromised by moving from documentary to a more elitist area, being shown in the National Gallery or Saatchi Gallery for instance. Tom Hunter’s response was that he had wanted to involve the whole society in a debate about ways of living and being shown in these environments gave him the opportunity to put his points of view to a wider audience. Making scenes look beautiful (as he does) will bring people in from all sorts of backgrounds. In terms of ‘realism’ he described how photojournalists may also compose and stage their images; instructing people to “Move here. Move there”.

I wrote above about Tom Hunter’s easy and relaxed way of talking to us. His view is that you have to prove to people that you’re honest and straightforward and won’t be “taking the piss”. He said there is an art in the way you talk to people. If they say, “No”, then that’s an opportunity to explain and engage them. I think that’s a good rule to follow.  I also hope that he doesn’t lose this as he becomes more famous. I don’t think he will somehow.


Hunter, T (2012) Tom Hunter : The Way Home, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Germany

Sekula, A Photography against the grain: essays and photo works, 1973-1983, Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, 1984.

OCA Thames Valley Group Meeting 17th August 2013: (B) Discussing Martha Rosler’s work

 Martha Rosler In, Around and Afterthoughts (1981)

This was our ‘homework’ for theoretical discussion. Generally, I think it’s important to first have a look at an author’s context and general attitudes and beliefs so that I can take this into account. This time I thought I knew what she was about and so spent more time in reading the piece (three times), making notes, and making assumptions that were sometimes erroneous.  This is partly due to my own experiences at the time she was writing and also because I found her frustrating to read mainly because she seemed to wander around the years and switch between them as if her readers already knew what she was talking about – like a conversation amongst old friends; an in-group discussion. Of course, that’s what she was doing to some extent and I’ll come to that later. It was also a “This is so” analysis of documentary photography rather than a balanced view, looking at it from all aspects.  Whenever that happens I do tend towards looking for arguments against and know that I have to watch out for that – otherwise I’m doing whatever I’m complaining about!

Martha Rosler  (b. 1943) is an American artist who works with multi-media.”Her work deals with the separation of the public and private sphere, exploring issues from everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment”. She is also a writer. In, around, and afterthoughts, is a 1981 critical essay exploring these questions more systematically and attempting to develop criteria to define contemporary photographic activities as meaningful social practice. What Rosler appears to be saying is that, in the earliest years, ‘documentary’ photographers were using their images to show how the “underclass’ of society lived and to gain some amelioration of their conditions. This was from humanitarian attitudes but also to encourage charitable giving to prevent social unrest.  In Rosler’s view such Charity “is an argument for the preservation of wealth” and “the need to give a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes” (p. 177, 2004).

In the 1930s (In the US) Roosevelt’s Administration responded to the Depression by instituting a “New Deal” – Relief (for the unemployed and poor); Recovery (of the economy) and Reform (of the financial system). One example of this was Farm Security Administration (FSA) created in 1937 that had a special photographic section  Again the images were used to gain sympathy for the plight of the poor and also to encourage the population to accept the New Deal and the move towards social reform.  The photographs achieved the aims of the FSA and did bring in money for general relief. However,  Rosler refers in particular to the photograph of Florence Thompson taken by Dorothea Lange; how Florence Thompson became a ‘symbol’ of the Depression and yet did not directly benefit Florence and her family (p. 185, ibid). All this is what Rosler terms “liberal documentary”. “Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome” neither the victim nor the oppressor are blamed, “unless they happen to be under the influence of our own global enemy, World Communism”.

As I wrote earlier, Rosler does tend to skip around the years so I am making my own ‘logical’ order here.  She moves on to state how, “ 60s radical chic has given way to eighties’ pugnacious self-interest” (p.180) so that in the 1960s, photographers took the view that they were not there to reform but to show “what is” (I think of Robert Frank and William Klein here for instance) and thence, as photography moved into the Art gallery photographers aspired to achieve a higher status and fame. Her conclusion is

Perhaps a radical documentary can be brought into existence. But the common acceptance of the idea that documentary precedes, supplants, transcends, or cures full substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary” (ibid, p. 196).

In our group discussion we identified these different stages and particularly talked about photo-journalism; the role of war photography and other documentary that portrays misery and powerlessness. Does that change anything? If not, what’s the point. Are we as photographers just exploiting our subjects to take photographs that people will look at for an instant and then move on?

During the discussion I told myself that we were really only talking about an extreme – war photography and similar.  I began to  think about documentary photography that had influenced change, even on a more individual scale. Dana Popa and her project around sex-trafficking and how this work has informed a project to assist the victims. Jodi Bieber  and how her photograph of Aesha Mohammadzai the young Afghan woman mutilated by her husband’s family, led to free reconstructive surgery in New York. I hope that there are many other similar stories of the power of photographic images to influence change, but I still cannot help but feel despondent that, whatever, is done violence and war continue unabated so, is there any point?

Reading about “Radical Documentary” I began to think that this was concerned with marching alongside protesters; taking part in protests; gaining publicity for radical views. I think I was imagining Rosler as similar to the young Jane Fonda.  I was also linking into my experiences of social work training in 1978/9 at the mention of documentary photographers and ‘social work’. In the first term we had a series of lectures on radical social work – Thomas Szasz and “the myth of mental illness”; Howard Becker’s Labelling Theory; how social work was an agent of an “iron fist in velvet glove’ governmental authority, just placing a sticking plaster on the fundamental ills of the capitalist society. I remember feeling horrified and saying there was no way I wanted to be involved in that kind of oppression.   At the same time, I had this “Yes but ….” view. Surely that didn’t mean that one shouldn’t do anything right now to help people whilst waiting for the revolution to occur. There are so many shades of grey.

That’s the danger of making assumptions. I had to come back home after the Thames Valley Group meeting and read further to gain a more informed understanding.

Further Reading on Martha Rosler and “Thinking Photography”

Postmodern ideas encouraged new thinking around social documentary photography and Martha Rosler (along with Allan Sekula and Fred Lonidier was a member of an informal study group formed in California during the mid-1970s. The three of them were soon at the core of what was being called in the mid-1980s

…the new documentary, or the new social documentary, created by sophisticated, college-educated, politically active intellectuals who wanted to use photography as an important element of social critique.

(p. 438, M.W. Marien, 2002)

The group was influenced by Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and the breaking down of the “aura” of the original work of art.  They were also influenced by the thinking of Bertolt Brecht – his notion that “less than ever does a simple reproduction of reality express something about reality” and Brecht’s understanding of how to affect an audience with a story. Brecht believed in constructing obviously artificial situations and disrupting the anticipated narrative with the unexpected.

The group linked conceptual Art with political protests/activism and so helped to form a new philosophy and practice that was very different from that of earlier documentary photographers. They wanted to find a way to comment on social oppression without generating what they called ‘victim photographs’ that only evoked self-satisfying sympathy or voyeurism among viewer.

Assumptions about the  causes of poverty and the power of photography to report them were challenged in relation to renowned images from the past (hence In, Around and afterthoughts) Presentations of gender and ethnicity in film and advertising were examined and also incorporated into visual analysis of the power of images. There was one comment by Mary Warner that reverberated with my own perception, mentioned above, that Rosler was writing for an in-group that already knew what she was talking about:-

The new documentarians wrote in language that required familiarity with history and philosophical distinctions, an obvious obstacle to non-intellectual audiences (M.W. Marien 2002, p. 441)

In the early to mid 1970s, Rosler had made three photomontage series called Bringing Home the War” (c. 1976-72) that combined mass-media images of the conflict in Vietnam with pictures taken from design and architectural magazines. Almost 20 years afterwards she revived this series in response to the Iraq War.

Watching this video and seeing the images on websites such as this  I could see Brecht’s influence. It made me think of  his War Primer   and also the recent  re-worked version War Primer 2 by Broomberg & Chanarin  that did take my breath with its poignant images and words despite my being used to seeing countless images of war, death, violence and bloodshed. I think this is what Martha Rosler and her colleagues were aiming to achieve; to find this new way of drawing attention. The main problem as I see it is that as with any genre the viewer gets used to seeing a particular type of image so that the new quickly becomes the old and then yet newer ways have to be found.

Some further thoughts

Subsequently, John Umney sent the Thames Valley Group a link to a recent post on Duckrabbit   with John Macpherson’s conclusion that maybe we should “accept that it [the war photographer’s job] may only usefully serve to mark, and honour, the passing of the fallen, and as a consequence to remind we who are left alive how lucky we are”. I agree John Macpherson’s final sentence that this is an unsettling and disquieting notion and yet it fits with the view of documentary photography that Martha Rosler pointed towards in 1981 and is still working to overcome.   I feel more heartened by a link from the Duckrabbit post to  a post about faked images and separating fact from fiction on the BBC blog News from Elsewhere

I’ve left to the last another issue that the Thames Valley Group touched upon which concerns what makes an ethical photographer and documentary photography.  Aspects which came up for me where should documentary images appear on a gallery wall; the importance to me of explaining and engaging with people; how my practice fits with my personal conscience. Other suggestions were that documentary photography should make people ask questions and should represent some type of truth/reality. I think the last is probably the hardest given that we all have our own versions of the truth and is there such a thing as a generally accepted truth. this is something I need to work on more.

20th August 2013



Rosler, M ( ) In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) (1981in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings 1975-2001 (2004) MIT Press, London

Marien, M.W. (2002) Photography: A Cultural History 3rd Ed, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London [accessed 19.8.2013]



OCA Thames Valley Group Meeting 17th August 2013: (A) Overall View

Thames Valley Group Meeting : 17th August, 2013 in Thatcham

(A) Overall View.

I missed the third meeting and so it was good to meet up with everyone again. Nine of us gathered together, with Sharon our attending tutor, for what proved, as usual to be a very full day.

Portfolio Review

As before I was struck by the sheer variety of work and interests, indeed passions, that absorbed each of us, and how much we could learn from each other. What was also reinforced for me was the importance of expressing our own vision.  I know this is pretty much drummed into us by tutors but I always realise it anew when I see so many different responses to a piece of work.

Interesting aspects and questions raised included:-

  • If photographs have been taken in a particular location is that location the best place to exhibit them and how can/should ‘permissions’ be handled (e.g. release forms)?
  • The contrast between seeing a person and then hearing their voice separately illustrates how the image can deny the reality (reference made by Sharon to Taryn Simon’s work)
  • How attaching one image to another anchors them together and so follows the voice of the artist and his/her intention. What effect does this have on the viewer?
  • How does contextual information in an image inform the reading of that image?
  • Is there an actual difference between female and male landscape photographers?
  • How captions; text and words influence the reading of an image. How they can be used to add information rather than directing it.
  • Much discussion on editing/processing photographs. How far can we go with this? Should there be ‘rules’; do each of us have our own ‘rules’.
  • If I take a photograph of a work of art – whether the whole or a detail, can I call it “my art”.
  • Thinking how taking photographs at the same event, by the same photographer,  can lead to very different outcomes and effects depending on how they are to be used.
  • Using an evocative approach in building a narrative around place and the use of sound. Sharon provided the example of Interval II  the work of Suki Chan, a video that including the murmurations of starlings.

I presented some work I’ve been doing towards Assignment 5 of People & Place and the feedback was very helpful for me in clarifying my emotional response to that environment. I’ll be writing more on this in a subsequent post.

Afternoon Discussion

We didn’t have as much time as I would have liked for the discussion on Martha Rosler’s 1981 Essay In, Around and Afterthoughts. It raised some complicated issues regarding the nature of, intentions and effect of photography, particularly documentary and so, for me, it deserves a separate blog post – to follow.


Everyone had brought work to show and discuss and so this took up much of the day. As I said above, I gain a lot from seeing and discussing other people’s work as well as my own, but concentration can fade after a few hours. The discussion on Martha Rosler’s piece was therefore limited. It raises a lot of complex issues and so I came away thinking I/We had only skimmed the surface and it deserves much deeper analysis and discussion, particularly as we touched upon some wider issues. I have done some more reading on Rosler and the Study Group she belonged to and so now feel much clearer about the issues which is why I’ll be writing a separate post.

I’ve given myself a lot of general questions as well – all of which arose from the morning discussion.  To begin with I’ll be thinking and reading more around the area of Women Landscape Photographers.

19th August 2013


Rosler, M ( ) In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) (1981)  in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings 1975-2001 (2004) MIT Press, London