To essay…

or “How to Read an Essay…”

It might seem patronising to want to offer thoughts about ‘how to read an essay’ but I am sort of learner who thinks it is always worthwhile to go back to basics. And here ‘basics’ means remembering that an essay is usually an attempt, an experiment. It is often worth asking about any essay with which we engage: what is being attempted, what is being tried, or tried out?

Simply put: Gerry Badger tried out the notion of ‘a quiet photograph’ in prose, with examples. I want to try out that notion, in practice, but with some reflection in writing.

If we think of an essay only as a noun, it is in danger of being seen as simply a text among texts. Structural and post-structural linguistics has shown great ingenuity in ‘reading’ all kinds of writing as ‘texts’, and even applying textual analysis to what was never written.

The danger is that we see all kinds of communication as somehow argumentative in the same way… in the words of a sage dear to me… ‘They all have their own agenda, don’t they?’

Google offered the following on the topic of “Essay

A short piece of writing on a particular subject.
Attempt or try: “essay a smile”.
noun.  attempt – try – trial – test – experiment – assay
verb.  try – attempt – assay – test – sample – endeavour

Let me illustrate my point by reference to Gerry Badger’s essay on “The Quiet Photograph”. I suspect that when it came to selecting materials for inclusion in the admirable collection The Pleasures of Good Photographs Gerry Badger might have felt some sentimental attachment to this piece. After all the ‘quiet photographers’ he lists, Frank Gohlke, Richard Misrach, Robert Adams, Nicolas Nixon and Stephen Shore (p.217) are favourites of his, some of them close personal friends. What if this was the first piece of writing in which they were yoked together as a kind of tribe? And then maybe this was the first attempt, the first time he has essayed the notion of the ‘quiet photograph’. Maybe this essay has survived only because it launched an intriguing notion which has not really been explored more productively elsewhere? I wish I could offer some of the facts to fill in here where I have essayed only speculation.

The notion of ‘the quiet photograph’ is, for me at least, an intriguing one. This blog is an attempt to demonstrate why that is so. For me, it has pointed up something about my own approach — but by way of contrast. I am anything but a ‘quiet photographer’. I want in future posts to explore a notion I see as related but not synonymous: the notion of ‘slow photography‘. My own skills have been developed in a quite different direction: my photography is neither quiet nor slow. My most recent project has been the hundreds of images on the theme of consumerism and retail therapy that I collected on my phone and processed through Instagram to form the two ‘stained-glass windows’ which went into the recent Your Retail Soulmate exhibition (see example above).

One reason I was able to ‘collect’ so many ‘street photography’ images on my phone so very quickly is that I have been thinking about consumerism and the image environment it has created for a very long time. At least since I saw John Berger’s brilliant 1972 BBC-TV series Ways of Seeing soon after it was first broadcast in the UK. Another is that I have a quick eye, well-developed habits of geometry and composition and I have had several years of practice at just this kind of photography.

The phone was better suited to the ‘style-for-the-job’ than a 10 x 8 camera would have been.

My ‘stained-glass’ windows were a commentary on the image-ecology (you heard it here first, folks… I am essaying that notion, here) of consumer capitalism. The windows contain a mass of individual images but many of the images themselves combine numerous images or image-layers. Attention is demanded in order to resolve the cacophony of image-arguments into specific moments of our encounter, engagement and seduction by the images that surround us.

This is not the place for a detailed account of my own thinking or practice in that project. (I have already put together two small books of images and will be going back to my translation of Walter Benjamin and the essays of John Berger in order to explore these themes more fully.)

Within this blog I want to go on to explore the notion of ‘slow photography’ and to explore issues of authority and modesty, and to look at the implications of the larger formats – and the 10 X 8 camera in particular – for the ‘tone of voice’ of the photographer. In order to do so, I will – in later posts – look at some of my favourite photographers including John Davies, Mark Power and David Goldblatt.

And ‘ecology’ — a concern that links Badger’s ‘quiet photographers’ — is another notion that is worth returning to. Give me time.

[Above] A portrait of yours truly, Lloyd Spencer, in front of one of my ‘stained glass windows’. The portrait is by MartinM (or Martin Musiol) who took a series of 40 wonderful photos at the opening of the Your Retail Soulmate exhibition.


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