Tone of voice?

What is the “tone of voice” of a photograph? or of a photographer?

What role does composition play? or treatment (processing)?

Perhaps it is easier to understand what a quiet “tone of voice” in photography might be if we consider its opposite: a strident, or emphatic, tone of voice…

I am a sucker for photographs that are self-captioning. Saturday night is the favourite time of the people grouped in the photos on the hoarding below. It was also the subject of a documentary photography project that I pursued for two years along with my friend and colleague, Stephen Griffin. We used an extensive photoblog, which we called HEADROW (click to view), throughout the project. But what about the following “evening” photograph?

I think this is a “good photograph”. At least, I find it satisfying and I find it eloquent. In it I hear a new tone of voice, rather more subdued than when visited this same area five years ago in order to track its rapid re-development.

The composition here is rather obvious. The viewer is able to read the hoarding and assess the way photography is being used there to talk up city centre living in Leeds (Leeds, Live it, Love it is the familiar slogan in the circle next to the photos on the hoarding). The hoarding has been set in the context of the quiet summer evening, the fairly unremarkable (old) buildings, set off by beautiful evening light.

Just around the corner was another hoarding with a slogan and photos that I wanted to record. The light made it more difficult. I only wanted a record. I put the resultant image through Instagram and the result was the image below.

Doesn’t this image form an interesting contrast with the one at the top of the page. Surely a different tone of voice? The peculiarity of the lovely evening light has been transformed into a screaming contrasty colour scheme. A square crop (the original had the same format as the photo above) has put the figure on the left in direct relation to the slogan on the hoarding. The top of the hoarding directs our eyes to his and highlights his unsmiling stare at the camera. The loose tie, the two bags suggest that this is not his favourite time in Leeds city centre.

One might go further, his path seems to take him ‘downhill’. The hoarding has completely obscured the horizon. But the angles here seem to ‘amplify’ the slogan. It has been given a more strident, emphatic ‘tone of voice’.

Propaganda? I am interested in propaganda. Many of my photographs are reflections on the propaganda of modern marketing. I often use angles and diagonals in quite an extreme way. Here my photo of the hoarding was intended to remind one of the superbly designed propaganda images of the past such as the Soviet poster for OVMED state broadcasting (left).

Recently I have been using a number of tools to re-appraise my approach to photography. Instagram has provided a kind of sketchbook for thinking about a variety of new ideas and notions. (Reading Gerry Badger’s essays in The Pleasures of Good Photographs has been another stimulus for this re-appraisal.)

So let me finish off this post with two versions of my approach to (the path that led me to) the hoardings in the two pictures at the top of the page.  

The Instagram version of the scene is a detail cropped from the photo below. Instagram has intensified the colours and made its own sense of the contrast between light and shadows.

Below I have offered the uncropped image as processed by me in Lightroom. It was a difficult edit. I am happy with this result. Perhaps later I will try it in black and white.

Is it a “quiet” photograph? I don’t know. And I don’t know if I care. It was a photograph taken in the quiet. It is a photograph about the quiet. It is a quiet I wanted to listen to and  respond to. It is a photograph of a space in which I wanted to be quiet, to put aside for a moment, worries money worries, personal anxieties.

I knew that I could return later, and that I would have time to reflect on the patterns and rhythms of human life and development.


Responding to an essay

I like the idea of a “quiet” photograph. I want to think a little about the idea of a “quiet’ photograph. I want to do so by re-reading some essays and looking again at work by some great photographers but also by taking my own photographs and thinking about them.

In order to do so I have spent a little time this week taking a variety of photographs. I am not sure that any of them are examples of “quiet” photographs. But they may help me think about the appeal of the idea of “quiet”.

“Without Author or Art: The “Quiet” Photograph is the name of an essay by Gerry Badger in his book The Pleasures of Good Photographs. I am not altogether convinced by the essay. There are several others in the book that seem more coherent and compelling. But it is this essay that has set me thinking and made me want to go out with a camera.

Reception ?

“Perceptibility is a kind of attentiveness.”
― Novalis

Receptivity or receptiveness… being or becoming receptive. How is that done?

The camera opens its shutter and lets in light. In order to be receptive to the world it is surely better to be quiet, attentive… to listen. But how do we open not only our eyes and ears, but also our minds?

The ‘negative capability’ which Keats meant the artist’s receptiveness to the world and its natural phenomena, as opposed to a continual striving to formulate theories or categorical knowledge.

“I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”   

Eugene Atget’s photos are always worth reconsidering. Reading Gerry Badger’s essays have inspired me not only to look again Atget but also has led me to reconsider my photographic habits.

Recently I have been using Instagram on my phone to re-think aesthetic issues and to reconsider where I want to go with my photography. This photo was taken in a quiet corner away from the main streets of Leeds (not far from my bank).

Badger’s notion of “the quiet photograph” excludes any over-obvious compositional ploys. But photographing even the most easily-overlooked corner it is easy to incorporate the what is lent to composition by the architecture and lay-out of space.

So what is the role between composition (which is for most photographers pretty much a matter of habit) and “the quiet photograph”?

Atget’s photographs are so interesting in their own right. They seem imbued with a deeper, more enigmatic silence, than the notion of “still” photography implies. Perhaps I will use the index to Badger’s book to look at the various mentions of Atget and then come back, in a later post, to consider whether Atget’s images serve as a template for “quiet photography”.

It is getting quiet around here

Does it make sense to set out self-consciously to take (or make) a “quiet” photograph, in the sense that Gerry Badger uses that term (in his essay on “A Quiet Photograph”). I was thinking about Badger’s essay as I wandered around this rather strange area near Leeds city centre on a quiet summer’s evening.

It was quiet. The whole area was quiet. More quiet than the rapid developments of 5 years ago had ever envisioned. The blue hoarding on the right marks the site of a huge new building planned (just before the slump of 2008) but never built.

In 2006 and 2007 I took many photos here as one of my “Transformations” projects. I curious about how this new spate of dormitory building would turn out and how the spaces in between would be made habitable and become more sociable.


And to contrast with my approach to taking photos down there (Wellington Street / Whitehall Road area) 5 years ago… under intensive development… mean that there was a kind of narrative of transformation…

  • the story as envisioned by the developers…

  • And I wanted to explore that narrative…

  • not necessarily endorse it…

  • or criticise it…

  • Now… finding quiet time to absorb its quietness…

Gallery culture?

Badger’s critique of the culture of art gallery practice is more cogently and more thoroughly carried out in other essays. But the notion of the ‘quiet photograph’ introduces the intriguing suggestion that there can be a photography outside of the photographer’s own strident voice, … his determinedly expressive voice..

This essay does not strike me as one of Badger’s best. I prefer several of the others in the collection The Pleasures of Good Photographs. But it is this essay which has set up echoes that stay with me in the silence, when I am out with my camera.