Category Archives: Exercises part 2

Exercise: Kubla Khan interpreted through imagery

The brief is to chose a poem and then to interpret it through photographs. I have chosen a poem from the English Romantic movement; Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published in 1816.

Kubla Khan

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1816

Kubla Khan was composed one evening after Coleridge had fallen asleep after taking opium and dreamed the entire poem. He used opium regularly and Kubla Khan was written while he was under its influence. Coleridge liked to consider himself a dreamer whose work was drug induced. After waking from his dream, Coleridge immediately started to write down the poem as he had dreamed it word for word. Unfortunately he was disturbed for an hour and when he retuned to his writing he found that he had forgotten the remainder of the poem.

Kubla Khan
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Read the poem a few times and make a note of the feelings and ideas it promotes and the mental images it raises in your mind.

Where to start with Kubla Khan? I have always ‘felt’ this poem more than I have understood the words. It conjures up images of nature, cultivated gardens, opposites (sunny domes and caves of ice) streams, shadows, light and dark, dreams, fantasies, and unreal landscapes all ‘contained’ within the expanse of palace walls. It is a bit exotic and actually a bit ‘post modern’ in its fragmentary and experimental vibe. And another thing, it is without doubt, green.

How I wanted to interpret the poem visually

The poem relies very much on imagery. We learn of fertile ground, walls and towers, gardens bright, trees and greenery, sunny spots and shadows. I therefore wanted my photographs to include some of these motifs. I knew that taking photographs in my own garden was not suitable because this did not reflect the stately, walled and manicured garden that the poem’s imagery suggests. I needed a background that was more in keeping with the splendour and opulence that I had in mind. I also wanted a sunny day to capture the light and shadows specifically mentioned in the poem.

I cannot divorce the poem from the circumstances that led to its composition. I always think of rich fertile gardens, vivid colours alongside dreamy and hazy hues as a result of sleepiness and images distorted by the effects of opium. I imagine tenuous glimpses of reality, fading away to nothing to signify the lines and stanzas that were forgotten after Coleridge was interrupted.

I knew of a garden nearby; one belonging to a stately home and thought it would be perfect to capture images that I could use for this brief. In contrast to my own garden, there had to be fountains, statues, gates and formal planting. I spent an afternoon taking images with the intention that I would ‘double expose’ them post camera. I wanted a juxtaposition of different element within the garden and a sense of disorientation with a chaotic and disordered feel. I wanted to create dreamy, out of focus images juxtaposing different scenes to portray Coleridge’s thoughts while not being fully conscious and aware of reality. I wanted the final image to represent the fading of the memory. It had to have no visibly recognisable subject but be in keeping with the previous images in style, colour and mood.

Outcome

Overall  am delighted with how these images represent my interpretation of the feeling generated by Kubla Khan. I thoroughly enjoyed the project and have learned about using images as way of interpreting subjects in ways other than obvious and literal.

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Exercise: newspaper captions

Cut some pictures from a newspaper and write your own captions

I chose a series of images of Theresa May taken at yesterday’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Mrs May suffered a coughing episode during her speech and The left wing Guardian’s front page showed the following headline.

This is an example of ‘anchorage’ where the newspaper guides us to see the conference as a shambles and to see Mrs. May as less than successful in her intention to re-launch herself as a strong (and stable) leader. The use of the word ‘nightmare’ clearly wants to portray a complete failure of her ‘dream’ and leaves no room for any positive interpretation at all. An expected response from a left wing newspaper.

But what if the Guardian had chosen this headline?

These are both examples of anchorage where we are ‘told’ how to interpret the image. The first headline shows an unflattering and negative image (who wants to be publically associated with ‘spluttering’?) of our Prime Minister and serves to erode her authority, credibility and popularity. The second would have shown her as courageous and stoical and determined to battle on.

The power of headlines; In the first no-one would blame Mrs May for leaving the conference defeated and humiliated. In the second she could have gone home with her head held high and having earned respect for her determination. The headline presents two very different interpretations of the same event; the images are the same.

Exercise: The Dad Project and Country Doctor (comparison)

Eugene Smith (Country Doctor) and Bryony Campbell (The Dad Project)

See my previous posts for details of the work of Smith and Campbell

Smith’s Country Doctor

Campbell’s The Dad Project

Photo essays

Both these works are examples of photo essays, they have a narrative, they tell a story.

From my literature days I am aware of narrative poetry. My first thoughts turn to Beowulf and then to Homer’s The Iliad. I am no expert on either of these poems but in the former the setting is Scandinavia, the subject is the hero, Beowulf, and the events relate to his slaying of the monster, Grendel. In The Iliad,  the setting is the city of Troy the subjects are a king and a warrior, and the event, the Trojan War. Simplistic interpretations but nevertheless my understanding of narrative poetry helps me to relate to narrative in imagery.

Likewise, these two works by Smith and Campbell tell a story, they each have a setting, subjects and events. In Smith’s series the setting is the small town of Kremmling, Colorado, USA, the subjects are the doctor and his patients and their families and the events are those unpredictable and random challenges (injections, babies, heart attacks) that arise during the doctor’s 24 hours of being on call. In Campbell’s series, the setting is her father’s home, the subjects are the cancer, the father, the daughter and other close family members and the events are the life details that unfold during Dad’s deterioration (spilled drinks, sitting in the garden, crying).

How does The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?

Colour and black & white

The 1947 Country Doctor series has a monochrome format but The Dad Project is in colour. In 1947 black and white photography would have been the norm. However, Smith’s use of black and white gives a sense of drama and prevents us being distracted by the colour of people’s clothes and furniture etc. The focus in these images is the doctor himself and the medical crisis so colour is not really a main issue. In Campbell’s’ work though, the use of warm colours (the yellow of the bedding, the pink of Dad’s shirt) conveys a warmness that compliments the warm feelings between the photographer and her father and lifts the images as much as is possible from the sad circumstances.

Position of photographer and subject

In Country Doctor the photographer is not present in the images but rather creates a reportage style of documentary where the images together reveal the bigger picture of the doctor’s work. Smith’s insider approach gives us close access to patients and families as he has full access to the homes and situations as they occur; the photographer is immersed in these people’s lives. The doctor appears in all the images which overtly links the separate images together as a series. The doctor is in the thick of the action and the images contain all the information we need in order to interpret the situation.

In The Dad Project, Campbell appears herself in some of the images. We see her eating at the side of the bed, crying, holding her Dad’s hand and laying in his empty bed. Unlike Smith’s series people do not appear in every photograph. We see images of a milk bottle, a drink stain, a glass, a menu and tablets. Campbell is photographing some of the ‘motifs’ of the situation that allow us to interpret the scenes more slowly and ask us to use our imagination more. What is the red stain? She tells us that it is a spilled drink but I wouldn’t be surprised if most viewers think of blood in this image.

Narrative

Each of the photographs has a written narrative underneath. In Smith’s series we are told that ‘Dr Ceriani (is) looking at a 7 year old boy’s injured hand’. This narrative is matter of fact. It briefly states detail about the subject and the event. The narrative is not always necessary though. Without it we would still see a doctor tending to a young boy’s hand.

In Campbell’s series we are told, ‘Dad left the hospital bed in the living room empty, when he returned to the hospice. I think the others found it strange that I slept in it’. (Campbell, B. 2017). This narrative is more emotional and provides more context for the event being portrayed in the image. We need to know why she is laying in her clothes in a hospital bed. Campbell’s narrative provide the context as we cannot fully understand the image without it.

Purpose

Smith’s Country Doctor series was considered ‘important at the time for drawing attention to the national shortage of country doctors and the impact of this on remote communities’ (Magnum Photos, 2017).

Campbell’s The Dad Project I see as more of a cathartic experience for the photographer ‘as she says goodbye to (her) dad with the help of her camera’  (Campbell, 2017a). In addition to bravely approaching the difficult subject of dying, this series shows to the viewer that they are not alone with their suffering and in fact, like David says, ‘everyone has to die at some time’. (Campbell, 2017).

Staging

The Country Doctor series has a less staged appearance than The Dad Project.  Perhaps the doctor did pose when photographed resting in his kitchen or receiving a night call dressed in his towel, or even when sleeping on the operating table. However, the images have a natural, unplanned and spontaneous feel about them. The little boy with the injured hand is clearly distressed and the little boy with the foot injury is clearly curious.

In Campbell’s series , the image of dad’s feet when sitting in the garden,  the milk bottle and menu images are all staged with inanimate objects. Other images were likely pre- planned; waiting for dad to fall asleep, the nurse in his uniform, the hand holding for example. This gives a slowness and respect to the images when compared to the action and drama of Smith’s images.

Anchor and Relay

Written narrative can be described as an anchor if it fixes the meaning of an image, like a label. It can be described as relay if it changes or adds to the meaning of an image and supplies some extra information that is not seen in the image alone.  Both practitioners have used narrative with their images and both have provided additional information along with their images.

Narrative in Country Doctor

The narrative included with Smith’s images provide additional context that is not obvious in the images themselves. The narrative is quite brief but the viewer does receive some additional context from the wording. Below are examples of relay narrative:

  • Doctor Ceriani operating on Lee Marie Wheatly, a two and a half year old child who needed emergency surgery after having been kicked in the head by a horse.
  • Thomas Mitchell, who has gangreen in his foot, being operated on by Dr. Ceriani.

We are given extra information regarding the cause of the medical emergencies and the age of any children being treated. This provides greater context for the viewer and clearly shows the extremely wide variety of situations that this doctor has to deal with.

Narrative in The Dad Project

In The Dad Project we read the following:

  • The sunlight supported me this year.
  • Sitting in the garden became an event, then a days activity, and eventually a strain that he endured only to comfort us. Or was it to comfort himself? I wondered endlessly, but really there was no difference.

In Campbell’s narrative we are not only given additional information about the situation (e.g. that Dad was ‘sitting in the garden’)  but we are exposed to private thoughts and feelings (or, was it to comfort himself?). This is a very intimate portrayal that encourages empathy and highlights the huge complexity of human relationships, emotion and feeling.

Summary

Smith’s images are more obvious and we need little in the way of explanation to interpret them. All the information we need is contained in the photographs, though the inclusion of small amounts of extra detail does help in placing the doctor’s work in context of the variety of emergencies he is challenged by.

Campbell’s images are more ‘open’ and benefit from the additional narrative for the viewer to fully appreciate the story. This photographer has captured the ‘unseen’ feelings of love, compassion and grief.

Regarding BOTH series; they both show humanity at its best.

 

What do you think Campbell means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

The accompanying text which Campbell wrote two years after her father’s death provides much of the context for the project. She describes the effect that the project had, not only on her and her father during its making but on many thousands of people after his death.

Bryony Campbell described her photograph series The Dad Project as a ‘story of an ending without an ending'(Campbell, 2017a). A linear storyline is chronological  and has a beginning, middle and end. The Dad Project tells the story of the end of David’s life and is chronological in that it shows his deterioration over a period of time. As such, this linear narrative would normally have an end; in this case David’s death.

However, the project itself has not ended. Its impact is felt by the ‘tens of thousands’ of people who have viewed the series.  The work continues to inspire and comfort and as Campbell says ‘the life of the project is defined by it’s audience now, and as they continue to send me wonderfully heartfelt messages of appreciation, this continuous presence is very affirming for me’. (Anon, 2017)

The impact that the project has had and continues to have, two years after David’s death has meant that some of David’s values of family life has continued to inspire others and ‘keeps his memory ever present’. (ibid)

I think that because this is a story that many of us are likely to experience and perhaps dread, it has resonated with strangers and touched their lives and as such the project may have ended from a photography point of view but from the way it has captured people’s emotion it will never end.

 

Bibliography

Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 29 Sep. 2017].

Campbell, B. (2017). The Dad Project – Briony Campbell | Photography & Film. [online] Brionycampbell.com. Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/#BrionyCampbell_0215-1000×667.jpg [Accessed 29 Sep. 2017].

Campbell, B. (2017a). The Dad Project – Briony Campbell | Photography & Film. [online] Brionycampbell.com. Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/?overview [Accessed 29 Sep. 2017].

Magnum Photos. (2017). Country Doctor • W. Eugene Smith • Magnum Photos. [online] Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/society/w-eugene-smith-country-doctor/ [Accessed 29 Sep. 2017].