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Self-portrait

Welcome, and thank you for stopping. It is very kind of you to do so. There are so many demands on our time and attention so I appreciate you taking the effort to pause here a moment.


My name is Stephen Taylor. I work full time (as an e-learning developer and instructional designer) but in my spare time I take photographs. You can view some of my work on this website. Some of it is also for sale on Alamy and nuMonday, either as digital downloads or physical prints. More of my photographs can be found on Flickr and Instagram as well.

We are always learning (I learnt that in my early days as a trainer) and this blog is a part of my learning process (and possibly yours?). Some of the postings will be on the subject of photography itself, based upon my reading on the subject and viewing other photographers’ works. Other postings will be on my experiences as a photographer seeking to improve my art; some of these will be less about the photographic process and more about the subject itself.

I am sharing them because I hope that people will respond with their own ideas so that together we can learn. I am not an expert in the subject but I am happy to share my thoughts and to have them challenged. I hope that in some respects this blog can become a conversation on the subject of photography.

LRPS

It has been a couple of weeks since I last posted anything. Apologies for that. But I do have exciting news…

I am very proud to have recently been made a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society. The LRPS is the first rung of the organisation’s distinctions. To achieve it the photographer must be able to demonstrate a good technical standard, visual awareness, and an ability to communicate. They must also be able to present their submitted portfolio in a way that gives consideration to its overall appearance.

I thought I would share with you the photographs I submitted to support my application. They are an eclectic bunch ranging from some informal portraits, street photography and a picture of a tea bag! The process of choosing them gave me a chance to think through some of the pictures I have taken over the years. As you should know by now I spend time (rather too much time?) thinking about why I photograph so here are a few of my thoughts on why I took these particular pictures.

Barcelona

I had been in Barcelona for a few days working. On the last day I had a few hours to spare before my flight so I strolled around the city centre one last time. It was a very hot day in midsummer. I noticed these two young men about to disappear from the bright sunshine into the shadows of an alleyway. I was struck by their appearance casually dressed but with very sharp haircuts walking purposely. I also loved the strong colours and the play of shadows and sunlight which I think captured the vibrancy of the city.

Spring light

And I guess I like strong shadows and bright light as the next photograph demonstrates. I loved the patterns made by the shadows of the blinds and how their strong geometrical shapes contrasted with the gentle lines of the the daffodils.

Working out
Resting

The next two photographs are from a series of informal portraits of middle aged to older men engaging in their hobbies. As a person who falls into that age and gender category I wanted to explore how people after a lifetime of work begin to seque into retirement and later life. In these examples by continuing to exercise and keep fit in the gym, and by growing their fruit and vegetables on their allotment. In both cases, continuing to keep active and taking control of their lives whether by ensuring they stay healthy or by providing their own food.

Steps

This photograph was taken on the steps down from St Pauls Cathedral to the Millenium Bridge in London. I had noticed the strong lines of the steps and wanted to capture something that contrasted with them so I waited. I was lucky when these two woman wearing almost identical floral leggings happened to come by. The woman in the foreground is in midstep (her forward foot suspended in the air) which gives the photograph a strong sense of motion. I feel that there are two types of contrast in this image – the strong lines of the steps and the softer floral patterns of the leggings; and then the steps’ sense of permanence and stillness contrasting with the motion of the moving legs.

The face of an ancient yew tree

The first black and white picture is of the allegedly oldest tree in London, a yew tree in the churchyard at Totteridge on the very edges of the city. It is believed to be at least 2000 years old. The photograph was taken towards the end of the Spring lockdown in the UK and I was tentatively cycling a little further (cycling outdoors was always permitted in the UK as long as you did not overstretch yourself). I spent some time looking and feeling the tree before I took this photograph. I wanted to get a sense of the texture of the tree but also of its age. It seemed to me that this was a face that through the march of time had seen so much and would see so much more. It gave me a sense of hope for the future. In post production I lightened the bokeh behind the hole on the right to add a reassuring twinkle to its eye.

Sometimes the best photographs can be made in the most familiar territory especially if you look at in a different way. This street light and building are just up the road from where I live.

Close-up of a used teabag on a tea spoon about to be dropped into a food recycling caddy

And sometimes it can be the details that tell a story. Here’s one of food waste and recycling; that’s a teabag about to be dropped into a recycling caddy. I wanted to include a close-up in my portfolio but didnt want to choose a more obvious subject.

The Holloway Road

Another close to home photograph. This was taken one night on the Holloway Road in north London. It’s the beginning of the A1, a major road north to Scotland. As you may recall I have always had a fascination with roads and where they might lead.

And the final picture is the gravestones stacked around the Hardy Tree in Old St Pancras churchyard near Kings Cross Station. Before he made his name as poet and the author of the Wessex Tales, Thomas Hardy was an architect living and working in London. At the time the railway was being built out of Kings Cross straight through the churchyard. Hardy’s task was to oversee the reburial in one larger grave of the departed dug up to make way for the new railway. He had the gravestones of the rehoused dead encircle an ash tree in the church yard. Many years later, Hardy wrote a poem called the Levelled Churchyard which is partly about his experience in London. I have been drawn back to this strange entwined tree many times but this is my favourite photograph I have taken of it so far.

The subjects in the pictures I ultimately chose include quirky and different viewpoints, trying to see things in a different way and seeking out order in the bustling and ever changing streets. I also, as you could imagine, I chose pictures that were very personal to me, particularly the Hardy Tree.

Becoming an LRPS is a part of my ongoing journey as a photographer. I hope to continue to learn and to share my experiences. Hope that some of you enjoy the journey too.

Thanks for reading.

Other people’s eyes

We should always remember that a picture is also made up of the person who looks at it. This is very, very important.”

Robert Doisneau

To take a photograph is to begin a conversation. We decide what we want to say (the subject matter) and how we want to say it (the composition).

But any conversation involves at least two people. When we take a photograph we are usually trying to say something to someone. It could be to our friends saying, “Hey, didn’t we have a great time on that holiday?”; or it could be to a larger audience saying something more profound such as “The Hand of Man”.

It could be just to evoke a response in the viewer. A photograph is essentially ambiguous – it can mean different things to different viewers – and once a photograph has been shared it takes on a life of its own. The conversation becomes disjointed with perhaps only snatches of words heard. It may be that the response is not what the photographer intended. Very often the audience may come up with their own ideas of what has been said. However they respond it is important to remember, as Doisneau said, that the person viewing your photograph is an important part of the picture.

One way to experience this is to hold an exhibition of your works and view the audience in action.

Making an exhibition of myself

I have been lucky enough to have photographs appear in a few exhibitions including a couple of solo shows. It is particularly interesting to observe how the audience respond. I may have my own views on the photographs and the reasons for displaying them but the viewers could have their own agenda. This is what I found when I decided to exhibit some of my photographs in the town I grew up in, Weymouth, on the south coast of England.

The subject of the exhibition was an old railway that runs along the harbourside from the station to the ferry port. In its day, it would take passengers and freight through the streets of the town. As a child, I can remember trains trundling past the houses, so high up the passengers could almost see into the upstairs windows! Sadly, no trains have run on the line for more than twenty years but the railway tracks remained, running down the middle of the road; a trap for the unwary but mostly ignored. At the time of writing (October 2020, much of it is finally being lifted). I took my photographs in 2017 and was lucky to capture it before it disappeared.

Once I put the photographs together I decided to put some of them on public display.

I hired the gallery space in the local library (only a short distance from the old railway) for a week. Along with the photographs and a few leaflets I left a visitors’ book for comments. This was the first time I had ever attempted anything like this so I was intrigued to see how people responded.

The gallery itself was in a public space so the audience could be any visitors to the library, and not necessarily there to view the photographs themselves. I publicised the event and so some of the visitors did come in purely to see the exhibition but most of them simply wandered over to look at them, as they went about their other activities in the library.

First night nerves

I visited the library most days of the exhibition. Occasionally I would be on hand to talk to the visitors but mostly I would observe from a distance, watching nervously, as people approached the photographs. Sometimes they would walk past them in a matter of seconds, maybe pausing to read the blurb I had written on the subject; sometimes they would pause for a few moments to take in all the pictures, decide it wasn’t for them and then walk on. Others did linger a little longer, moving from photograph to photograph and stopping at each of them. I would discretely time how long they spent at each photograph. The more engaged would move backwards and forwards, returning to previously visited photographs once or twice. Then they would walk over to the visitors’ book.

Receiving feedback

After an appropriate period, I would wander over to take a look. To be honest most of the comments were complimentary about my work. What I did find was that a lot of people used the opportunity to vent their feelings about the old railway itself. Essentially there were two camps; those who wanted it ripped out because it represents a hazard, and those who wanted to see it stay as a symbol of the town’s history. Both groups could be vociferous. Extensive use of SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS was made.

A life of their own

Following the exhibition some of my friends expressed dismay at comments they thought were irrelevant. I was more sanguine. I had my own reason for taking the photographs but once I had chosen to exhibit them that was irrelevant and the images took on a life of their own. The photographs were on display to provoke a response. My audience had every right to interpret them and to respond to them on their own terms. This also included them using the opportunity to share with me their own experiences of the railway as it was in its heyday.

Once I had chosen to exhibit my photographs they had taken on a life of their own.

As well as a photographer I am also a trainer working in the corporate sector. One of the things I learned very early in that job was about receiving feedback as it helped me understand how people had interpreted what I had taught them. As a trainer, my role is to listen and, if necessary present the information in a different way to aid learning. As a photographer publicly displaying my works I was doing something similar, providing a space for the audience to respond in their own way.

The exhibition was entitled “Fading Lines” which gives an idea of how I interpreted the images. I have included a few visitor comments to indicate how some of the audience responded. One or two did recognise what I was trying to do but others used the opportunity to protest in favour or against the railway, or to reminisce.

The sadness of Weymouth shows in these photos

Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

Keep the rail lines as a nod to Weymouth’s history. Would be great to have a modern tram line to use rather than cars! Keep old Weymouth history alive. Thanks!

Visitor to Fading Lines exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

Track lines [are] dangerous … we are not using them [and] they [are] putting lives at risk

Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

Such nostalgia conjured up in a few rail tracks reminding me of a brighter more carefree days.

Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

I used to work in [a nearby] restaurant in the ‘70s. Folk would book tables so as to be there when the train passed on its way to the ferry.

Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

An earlier version of this blog appears at http://taylored-training.co.uk/confessions-of-an-exhibitionist/

Cycling

The world is a changed place. Once there was normal and now there really isn’t.

As people adjust to the new uncertainties there are a few bright spots. One of these for me has been the growth of cycling. According to recent research in London there has been a 120% year on year increase.

The resurgence in cycling across the UK (and elsewhere in the world) has been in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. During the lockdown in the UK and some countries cycling remained a permitted form of outdoor activity and, as motor traffic levels plummeted, old bicycles were dragged from the back of the shed or the garage.

With the easing of restrictions people remain reluctant to use public transport where they may be in close confiment with others and have started looking for alternatives. For some they have started using their cars more resulting in massive increase in traffic and the resultant pollution. Many, however, having caught the cycling bike, continue to ride their bikes.

Efforts are being made by national and local governments in the UK and elsewhere to make the roads safer for cyclists by taking up road space to create protected bike lanes. However these will take time and they will not exist everywhere.

In the meantime, there are a number of things cyclists can do to help keep themselves safer on the roads. As you may have noticed from some of the postings on this blog I am a regular cyclist. A little while ago, drawing upon my experience as a cycling instructor, I wrote about the process of learning to ride a bicycle if you have never had opportunity to do so as a child. This time I want to write about the next stage – riding your bicycle safely on the road.

Here here are my top four tips:

  1. Be ready to stop
  2. Other people on the road are people too
  3. Ride out
  4. Ride on

Note: I was a cycle instructor working in the UK. The information below relates to the practice of cycling in that country. If you are reading this in another country you may be subject to different regulations.

Be ready to stop

There are two things you can do to be ready to stop:

First of all pay attention to what’s coming up ahead; not just on the road but on the pavements and in side streets as well. There might be a person standing on the kerb twenty yards down the road; do they look like they might be about to step out into the street and into your path?

This brings us to the second thing to do; cover your brakes. Keep your fingers over the brake levers as much as possible so that you are ready to stop at any moment. It won’t be practical all the time but hands over the brake levers should become your default position when riding along.

Other people on the road are people too

It’s very easy to forget that there is somebody in that car (we haven’t got to self driving cars just yet!). How often do you talk about cars rather than the drivers operating them? One of the ways you can keep yourself safe is to be aware that there are other human beings, many of them with the same concerns you have irrespective of their form of transport.

How does knowing this keep you safe?

Instead of treating the road like a moving obstacle course treat it like a crowd of people you need to negotiate with to be able to proceed. At the heart of this is communication with your fellow road users.

There are two things you need to be able to do to communicate with other road users:

The first one is to be able to look over your shoulders to see who is there and to look directly at the driver behind you. There is an argument that a mirror could do the same thing but a small slightly wobbly reflection of the car behind does not offer the same communication than if you look directly into the driver’s eyes.

The second is to tell other road users your intentions. Typically this will be when you want to turn left or right. To do this, raise your arm staight out to your left or right side. You should combine this with first looking over your shoulder (a mirror, signal, maneouvre for cyclists). It’s worth pointing out that you only really need to signal if there is somebody to signal to. If there is nobody around then there is no point signalling but do keep looking as you make your maneouvre.

Ride out

Use the roadspace you need to cycle on. Don’t stick to the side of the road but ride out. This one can be quite scary when you try it for the first time. It can also seem counter-intuitive. “Surely,” you think, “I am safer over here than in the middle of the lane.”

Remember a little earlier that person standing on the kerb who might have been about to step out without looking? If you ride closer to the kerb you are more likely to hit him – if you are further out you will probably miss him entirely. Also he might have seen you earlier – when you cross the road you tend to scan the middle where most of the traffic is, not the side.

Riding out avoids pedestrians stepping off the kerb, car doors flung open, and cars pulling out from parking bays and from side roads.

It also makes you more visible to drivers behind you which can be a bit scary as you might think you are in their way and they might try and run you down. However, the likelihood of a homicidal maniac coming up behind is very small compared to a momentarily inattentive driver opening their door in your path. Also, if you have been paying attention to what’s coming up behind you then you will know well in advance and can take appropriate action, moving to the side where it is safe to do so to let them pass.

Ride on

The final bit of advice? Keep cycling. The roads are busier now and at the time of writing we are into the autumn; the days are shortening. But the most important thing you can do is not to give up.

if you need help find an accredited cycle instructor who can offer one to one training on the road (in the UK local authoritiesoften often provide this service – check out the Bikeability website for more information). As an instructional designer I once created a couple of short online courses on checking your bicycle and filtering through traffic which you can access at the links below.

Checking your bicycle

Filtering through traffic

Other online training may be available but the most useful thing is to get out there and practice.

We are living in strange times when everything seems different and there is much talk of making the world anew. You can help do that simply by continuing to ride your bicycle.

Fading lines

News arrives from the town of Weymouth on the south coast of England: the old railway track that ran through the centre of town is being lifted. The line was originally built in 1865 as an extension from the station to the harbour. It was initially used for freight and in its heyday it was used to transport fresh fruit and vegetable unloaded at the dockside to the rest of the country.

Later passenger services were introduced to serve the ferries to the Channel Islands and France. I can recall watching huge diesel locomotives pulling carriages full of excited holidaymakers at a walking pace through the town to the ferry port.

Nothing has run on the line since 1999 and now (September 2020) large parts of the track are being lifted. Since its decline the track had become controversial between those who wanted to see it kept as a heritage railway and others who thought it a traffic hazard and should be removed.

Now it is going.

In 2017 I walked the route of the old railway (it’s about a mile or so) and photographed what remained at that point. I had a small exhibition in the library in Weymouth not far from the track. You can read a bit more about the exhibition here.

To commemorate the moment of its removal I have put together a short video of the photographs I took, showing the line in all its faded glory

Ashwell Church

Today I was cycling in the Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire borders, and visited the church in Ashwell. Services are taking place again now and it was good to hear music drifting across the churchyard as I wandered around.

As usual I was looking for the quiet corners and I found it with this upturned wheelbarrow on a compost heap. It reminded me that there is a cycle of life continuing in this place.

The church at Ashwell has added poignancy in this day and age. It contains some graffiti on one of the walls inside. I was not able to view it today but, from Wikipedia, the text says:

“MCT Expente miseranda ferox, violenta Superest plebs pessima testis, MCCCL”

which translates as:

“1350 Miserable, wild, distracted 1350
The dregs of the mob alone survive to witness”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Mary_the_Virgin,_Ashwell#Ashwell_Graffiti

1350 was in the period when the Black Death swept across Europe. It is a reminder that beneath the seemingly tranquil countryside something darker lurks.

A corner of Ashwell Church in Hertfordshire

Chesil Beach

Many of my photographs are taken along the beautiful Dorset coast and one of the most glorious places to photograph is the Chesil Beach. It’s eighteen miles (twenty-nine kilometres) long and stretches along the Jurassic Coast from the Isle of Portland in the southeast all the way to West Bay further northwest (the latter better known these days as Broadchurch, the television drama series).

I have walked parts of the beach many times, particularly the Portland end, and what has always attracted me are the pebbles. They are worn smooth by the sea and the wind, and sometimes come in beautiful colours. It is said that a sailor landing upon the beach can tell where they are by the size of the pebbles. At the Portland end they are much larger than at West Bay.

These photographs were taken at the Portland end as I trudged along the beach looking down. As you can see I have done a little bit of manipulation to enhance their colours (!).

All the photographs are available in my store on nuMonday as a set of four coasters. Click here to find out how you can buy them.

Self

When you look at yourself in the mirror what do you see?  Perhaps not a great deal; just enough to avoid cutting yourself shaving or smudging your make-up. Next time, take a moment to look a little longer at that face looking back at you, those eyes. Are you seeing yourself as others see you? Or can you see someone else, the person inside you? Sometimes when I find myself staring into the mirror it is almost as if I can see two of me; the person that other people see and the person I think I am.  

Once upon a time we could not know ourselves in this way. We looked through our eyes and we could see various parts of our body but our faces were hidden from us. We might catch a blurred reflection in water or on a burnished surface but it only gave a hint of ourselves. And there were very few means to capture that likeness. It would be a time consuming business to sit for a portrait, a process available only to a wealthy few wishing to make a statement.  

Now, what was once mysterious has become common place. Each morning we stop and look in the mirror to shave, put on makeup, check our hair is okay.  And we all have the means to make our own portraits anytime we like.

How did we travel from an unrecognised self to putting ourselves centre stage? This is a short history of that journey from an imperfect reflection to a multitude of likenesses, from the mystical to the mundane.

Mirrors

… the mirror is a visual bridge between past, present and future.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p38

The earliest mirrors were still water. The first man-made mirrors, 8000 years ago, were polished obsidian, a volcanic stone. Later mirrors were made of polished copper or bronze.  They would have taken time and effort to create and so would presumably have been the preserve of a handful of the wealthy; these objects’ status in society can be seen by their appearance on funerary imagery. There were simpler mirrors which were nothing more than a bowl of water but otherwise the opportunity to observe oneself was limited. In any case, whilst the evidence suggests some early mirrors were of a reasonable quality they still gave limited vision of the observer. For many early people their own reflection would have been an imperfect image.

Despite or because of their imperfections, early mirrors had a role beyond assisting with shaving or putting on make-up. They were seen as reflecting more than just the person’s outer appearance; it was believed that they also could reveal their inner self or soul. That was why it was thought bad luck to break them; you could be damaging your own soul. Some traditions are concerned that a person’s soul upon death or sleeping may become trapped in a mirror – that’s why in some traditions they may be covered during a period of mourning or at night to prevent this.

If a soul could be held within a mirror then the mirror also offered a means of connecting with the dead and, by extension, looking into the past  and the future.  Processes known as  catoptromancy or enoptromancy were used to divine the future. The mirror provided a link between the past, present and future.

Mirrors and our own reflections are more magical than we think.

Portraits

“For most of the modern era, the possibility of seeing an image of oneself was limited to the wealthy and the powerful.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p328

Mirrors give a transient view of ourselves. A portrait captures our likeness forever and this was recognised from antiquity onward.  In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome wall paintings and statues depicted pharaohs and emperors, often alongside gods, emphasising their high status. The same desire for the reflected divine glory continued into the Christian era. These could be in the form of donor portraits where the artist would insert their client into a biblical scene such as the Nativity or the Crucifixion.

With the decline of overtly religious iconography portraiture was used to emphasise the absolute power of the monarch. Many artists became more than tradesmen, turning into trusted servants of the king. The classic example of the power portrait would have been that of King Henry VIII painted by Hans Holbein.

With the expansion of the middle classes portraiture moved downwards but it was still the preserve of the very wealthy keen to mark their place in society. For the remainder there were very limited means for a likeness of oneself  to capture. They continued to rely upon their reflected image in a mirror.

Self Portraits

“The moment when a man comes to paint himself – he may do it only two or three times in a lifetime, perhaps never – has in the nature of things a special significance.”

Lawrence Gowing, quoted https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/27/self-portrait-culture-history-james-hall-review-profoundly-human

From early on, artists began to appear in their own work. These would be typically religious scenes and the artist would include themselves in a group of people, for example Piero della Francesca added himself as a sleeping Roman soldier in his fresco, Resurrection (1463). This may have been done for practical purposes; the artist was available to act as a subject for his work.  

Gradually the artist began to creep into portraits of others. This is most notable in Las Meninas, (1656) painted by Diego Velázquez where he is seen standing next to his easel painting the picture we are looking at. The ostensible subject of the picture, King Philip IV of Spain, and his wife, Mariana are seen reflected in a mirror at the very back of the picture, apparently posing for the painting Velazquez is working on. They appear to be standing where we as the viewer stand looking at the picture.  Alongside are members of the court and most of these are looking towards the King and Queen, or us.    

The most prolific self-portraitist was probably Rembrandt. There a are probably forty self-portraits attributed to his own hand as well as many sketches and drawings.  Sometimes this was because he was the nearest available model (and cheapest). On other occasions he may have been recording his own expressions for use in later projects. In any case we have a record of his changing appearance throughout his career.  Like many other painters he would have worked in front of a mirror and there are suggestions that he occasionally had to rework his portraits to show him the right way and not as if he were a reflection.

A large number of women artists produced self-portraits. A notable example was Madame Lebrun working in the 18th Century as a portraitist; a self-portrait was one method of showing off her skills to potential clients. It could also be argued it provided with an opportunity to present her own self-image in an era when the image of women was filtered through a masculine perspective. One of her self-portraits includes her daughter; she wanted to show herself in a positive light as an artist (a worker) and a mother.

The photographic portrait

“… our loathsome society rushed , like Narcissus , to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate . A form of lunacy , an extraordinary fanaticism , took hold of these new sun worshippers.”

Charles Baudelaire 1859

The invention of photography in the early nineteenth century industrialised the portrait process and began the democratisation of the self-portrait. A French photographer, Andre Disderi, patented the carte de visite, a photograph printed on thin paper and mounted on card. He also came up with the idea of taking eight photographs with a single negative driving down costs further. Sitters would be brought into a naturally lit studio, posed with a few props, and told to hold still for a while as their photograph was taken. Once done, the next in line would be ushered in to undergo the same process.

All this industry met a need – there was a craze to be photographed, to keep a likeness of yourself and your family, or to share them with others.  It has been suggested that this could come from the pleasure we experience when seeing people we recognise. Arguably our very survival is based upon that recognition; as babies we learn to recognise our parents and gain pleasure when we see their faces. It might be the same process runs through the desire to be photographed?

The photographic self-portrait

“I am an African chief, in a western chair with a leopard skin cover, and a bouquet of sunflowers. I am all the African chiefs who have sold their continent to the white man. I am saying: we had our own systems, our own rulers, before you came. It’s about the history of the white man and the black man in Africa.”

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jun/19/photographer-samuel-fosso-best-shot

As with painting, the self-portrait became popular with photography. Early examples included the American photographer, Robert Cornelius, taken in 1839 and the French photographer, Hippolyte Bayard  “Self-portrait of a drowned man” (1839-40). He was the developer of an alternative photographic process that was eclipsed by the daguerreotype. In his self-portrait, he presents himself as a drowned man.

A self-portrait can be empowering; it allows the subject to take control of how they would like to present themselves. This can be particularly relevant for certain groups who have often been the subject but rarely in control of their appearance. Two recent examples of this are Cindy Shermanand Samuel Fosso.

Both photographers have used the genre to subvert how they are often viewed in mainstream society: for example, Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” – a series of self-portraits showing herself as a typical character from  Hollywood Movies, subverting the genre to take control of her own image and that of other women as they have depicted in male dominated movie industry; or Samuel Fosso’s Self-portraits  of himself as a westerner would see an African man.

The selfie

“Because it draws on the long history of the self-portrait, it’s likely that the selfie in one form or another will continue to play a role in shaping how to see people for a long time to come.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p69

That leads us on to the much maligned “selfie”. On the one hand we are all artists now in control of how we portray ourselves. On the other hand our experiences of the world around us can only be meaningful if we have inserted ourselves into it (sometimes inappropriately and occasionally at great risk) and snapped ourselves.

The selfie has become ubiquitous. back in 2016 Google reported that 24 billion selfies were posted to Google Photos. That was one platform four years ago. The number has surely grown by now, along with the expansion of photo sharing apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and more). https://blog.google/products/photos/google-photos-one-year-200-million/  

Research suggests that the bulk of selfies are taken by women (http://selfiecity.net/), they tend to have a very limited lifespan and they are often used as a visual form of communication; the mobile phone created for speech and text is now more frequently used to share images.

This brief history has shown that over the millenia we have moved from the mysterious and barely seen to the mundane and ubiquitous but along the way we have begun to take control of how we portray ourselves. Whilst many people bemoan the rise of the selfie, it should be celebrated as a means of self-portrayal.

A praying angel and a tilting shed

Cycling through the Hertfordshire countryside on my ongoing project to uncover the corners of country churchyards, and I came upon this in Codicote. I loved the juxtaposition of the praying angel and the leaning shed. Curiously, the angel was all on their own, away from the rest of the gravestones.

Objects

The earliest photographs were very often still lives; a collection of objects brought together and artfully arranged. In the eyes of the photographers this helped legitimise the new process as an art form, harking back to a traditional genre in fine art. More practically it was an easy subject to take photographs of in an era of bulky photographic apparatus and a requirement for long exposures.

The subject matter tended to be what was easily available. William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of one of the early photographic processes, took pictures of objects he found around his home at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Still life photography can be used give the objects depicted greater meaning – to represent something beyond what we can see; or it can offer an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the subject itself, especially if it is something mundane and often overlooked.

Recently I have taken some photographs of old bike parts I found lying around at home. The parts have been acquired over several years, no doubt as part of some “project” that was never quite started. Photographing gave me an opportunity to reflect on each of them and to consider their past. Here are some of those thoughts.

Pedal

It’s the first push of the pedal that does it. Now you’re setting off along the road and it could take you anywhere.

Looking at this pedal I could imagine the foot that would have pressed down on it starting off on their own journeys; from the mundane to the epic. How many revolutions has it made; pushed down on and pulled up over and over again? What road surfaces did it spin a few inches above? Were they smooth tarmac or dusty tracks?

It looks well worn with plenty of marks, perhaps grit thrown up from the road, or perhaps where the bike was propped against or wall or even fallen over.

The other prominent feature (for a cycle geek like me) is that cap on the end; it unscrews and you could get inside to replace and regrease the bearings. I wonder how many times it was taken part; are the bearings inside the same as the ones when it was first manufactured?

Derailleur

This rather eleagant piece of engineering has a brutal function; to literally derail the chain from one sprocket on the freewheel and land it on another. This one is a Shimano 600 Arabesque, probably made sometime in the early 1980s. How many times was this rear derailleur shifted back and forth and what purpose? Into the smallest sprocket to find that extra gear and push the bike on further and faster; or into the largest one to spin more easily when climbing that hill or at the end of a long and wearying ride?

Brakes

These brake blocks look well worn – they also look like they were out of alignment a little bit; the middle has worn more than the edges. What speeds did they have to control? What swoops and turns? What were those descents like? Was the road long and straight so the brakes were barely needed, or did it switch and turn with frequent touches of the brakes into each corner? Were the brakes ever called on to stop the bike suddenly and how well did they do it? (some bicycle brakes, especially older ones, were never very reliable!)


Each of the photographs above are available as limited edition prints from my store on nuMonday. All prints are A4 size on Hahnemühle Photo Lustre 260gsm paper and mounted on a white A3 board with a black bevelled edge to show the image off. It comes in a protective cellophane sleeve. Click on the links below to find out more about each print and how you can purchase them. For a short period you can buy the prints for just £20 each.

Pedal

Derailleur

Brakes

To caption or not to caption?

A few weeks ago I wrote about my plan to carry a notebook with me when I was out photographing to capture some of my thoughts and motivations for choosing a particular subject and composition. I have to say that with most of my intentions it has been somewhat erratic. On the occasions I have made a note, though, it has been interesting to see how far my intentions have been met in the photograph. That then led me on to thinking about the role of words with photographs.

To caption or not to caption?

In an effort to answer that question I decided to take a look at what photographers more famous than myself felt about the subject; borrowing other people’s experiences, as it were.

“I don’t like captions.”

Josef Koudelka

At one extreme, the Hungarian photographer, Josef Koudelka, dismissed captions entirely: “I don’t like captions. I prefer people to look at my pictures and invent their own stories.”

“[captions add] clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings.”

Dorothea Lange

On the other hand, Dorothea Lange, documenter of the American dust bowl in the 1930s, took captioning very seriously.  She wrote in a letter: “This is not a simple clerical matter, but a process, for they should carry not only factual information, but also added clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings.”

The most obvious reason for the differing viewpoints is the purpose of the photographs themselves. Koudelka had been a painter and he saw photography as an artform; Lange was producing photographs to tell a story of the plight of the migrants travelling across United States to try and make a better life for themselves in the face of devastation.

The writer, Jerry L Thompson, photographer, and author of “Why Photography Matters” divides photographers into two sorts: the journalistic ones who care only about the information their work imparts. He argues, “their pictures need captions, and the captions often do the same work as the pictures, though with less visual impact.” (p41). The second sort are the pictorialist ones who care about how the picture looks. For these people their photography is an art and  “their pictures need captions no more than a symphony needs a … story the music can be thought to tell.” (p42).

Lange would have been one of Thompson’s journalistic photographers and her captions added to her work. They tended to be very factual and straightforward, reflecting the fact that she was working under government contract for the Farm Securities Administration, so her words reflected that organisation’s style and purpose, for example:

Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon. Note the kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Negro men are sitting on the porch. Brother of store owner stands in doorway. Gordonton, North Carolina.”

Alfred Stieglitz was the pioneer of photography as an art form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; he could be described as a pictorialist photographer.  However, he did tend to caption his works. Unlike Lange’s captions, they were shorter, perhaps more like titles. His captions were more to do with how he wanted the viewer to interpret his work. They gave a bigger message, a deeper meaning to the photograph. He captioned one of his photographs of a steam train rolling along railway tracks under a lowering sky, “The Hand of Man“. He was perhaps trying to convey the sense of a man-made landscape in an age when most landscape photographs tended to be of the countryside (the photograph was made in 1903). Without that title what might the picture represent?

A photograph on its own and out of context can be ambiguous. Take a look at any of your photographs of your own family and friends, perhaps on holiday or on special occasions. To you and the subjects, and others who know you all, they are very significant. Imagine, though, someone coming upon your pictures in years to come when everyone in them are long gone. What might they make of your photographs? The people in the pictures now are strangers and any original meaning is lost. The viewer can put their own meaning onto the photographs.

One interesting exercise is to come up with your own caption to a photograph. This is a popular part of the BBC TV quiz show, “Have I got news for you”. The participants are asked to come up with a humorous title to a news photograph; their suggestions are not usually flattering of the subject matter and tend to subvert the original image. You could do this to any photograph not necessarily for humorous effect but as a way of helping you interpret it. Take a look at the picture at the top of this page. It is one I took a few years ago. How might you caption it? I would be intrigued to know your responses.

The caption can be used to provide additional information to support the photograph or it could be used to provide a deeper meaning for the image. Or a photograph could have no caption at all. In which case, could photography be said to be a language itself?  Can it be learnt? I think that will be a subject for another blog entry.

In the meantime, how did you caption my photograph? Here’s a couple of versions:

St Luke’s Church, Old Street, London. One of the churches designed by the eighteenth century architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor. A student of Christopher Wren, he designed a number of churches in and around the City of London following the Great Fire of 1666, of which this was one.

Gothic.