Assignment 2 – The Archive

The Question

Produce a series of images in book form which use a readily available online archive (or archives) as their starting point or subject.

The Book

This is the link to my book” Portrait in a day”:

my book


To start work on part 2, I first reflected on my tutor’s comments for assignment 1 and have developed several strands in the exercises leading up to this piece. I have been “pushing my practice” through illustrating an interest in photography in social, economic and political representation. I have also been exploring different presentational styles with an eye on advertising imagery and the history of art.

Throughout my work on Digital Image and Culture so far I have been fascinated by the concept that so many of the references I have investigated do not seem to have any respect for picture quality in their presentation. They appear to have thrown the rule book out of the window. Joachim Schmid and Erik Kessels work on found images which, as long as they fall into a specific category, can be the poorest quality imaginable. Stephen Gill, in his project “Hackney Flowers”, used backgrounds which were purposely damaged and ageing. Corinne Vionnet, whilst working on her project involving popular tourist sites, used found images, sometimes of very poor quality, to create a more evocative overlay in the style of an oil painting. Similarly in the field of painting as art, Idris Khan is much more interested in finding a political statement such as in his series “Death of Painting” currently on display at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.


 Death of Painting

All the above examples have enhanced their presentation creating atmosphere and heightened reality.

In addition to the references provided in the course material, I have studied various videos about the artists referenced and visited galleries which display their work.

Another huge influence has been the book “Failed It” by Erik Kessels which describes how to turn mistakes into ideas.

Looking at other examples of the use of found images has provided me with many ideas. Projects which have been successful and have strongly influenced me are as follows:

  • Evan Roth – Self Portrait – a copy of every photograph which has passed through his cache. This gives me a very different angle on self portrait.
  • Miska Henner – Dutch Landscapes – This demonstrates tenacity in his search routines and finishes with a political twist.
  • Corinne Vionnet – Holiday Destinations – This finds beauty amongst the mundane.
  • Penelope Umbrico – Flickr Suns – This  work on thousands of sunsets teaches us how to deal with clichés, something which I am very nervous about.

Jesse Alexander has produced a list of clichés as has Martin Parr.. Kittens, swans, thatched cottages are on the list. It almost  seems like an I-spy book.

The best reference which I have come across to help me understand clichés is a paragraph in Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography”:

“Photographs create the beautiful and – over generations of picture taking – use it up. Certain glories of nature have been all but abandoned to the indefatigable attentions of amateur camera buffs. The image – surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny, they now look too much like photographs.”

This is blaming photographic mass production for the loss of wonder. She says that photographs are the product of the aesthetically naïve.

Interesting also that this book (which I keep very close to my person) was published in May 1977, over 35 years ago and we have been moving extremely fast ever since.

The sense of superiority generated by the rejection of clichés is all too apparent within the art world. Adolph Loos, in his architecture,  promoted plainness as a virtue with his famous quotation  “Rejection shows advanced cultural superiority”.

In “The Meaning of Culture” by John Cowper Powys he comments on the role of the viewer and level of sophistication he / she brings to the subject.

“The less cultured you are, the more you require from nature before you can be roused for reciprocity. Uncultured people require blazing sunsets, awe inspiring mountains, astonishing waterfalls, masses of gorgeous flowers, portentious signs in the heavens, exceptional weather on earth, before their sensibility is stirred to a response. Cultured people are thrilled through and through by the shadow of a few waving  grass blades upon a little flat stone.”

I will carry this concept forward to investigate it further in future assignments.

The Project

For my own project I used Flickr which provides a huge archive of over a million subjects.

I started to investigate the various Flickr groups for inspiration. Although my previous comments suggest that I am surprised by the referenced artists using poor quality material, I have become inspired by them.

Flickr groups which interested me were as follows:

  • Aesthetics of Failure
  • Doors and Windows in Decay
  • Film Noir
  • Rothcoesque
  • Abandoned
  • Utterly surreal
  • Light Junkies
  • Stick figures in peril
  • Artistic Blur

As curator I had to decide whether to use any of my own pictures or some of my found images from a recent visit to the bookshops and antique stores in Hay on Wye.

My final plan was to look at pictures on Flickr showing blurred portraits using the influence of these evocative pictures by Robert Frank and William Klein (1954 / 55):

William Klein, New York, 1954-55 Robert Frank, Movie Premiere, H

These pictures have always intrigued me and this project follows on from some work I completed within the module “People and Place” where I took studio shots to try to recreate the 1950s feeling.

One of these pictures is shown next and although I was not fully satisfied, I saw this as a step in the right direction:

ColinC 1

The biggest problem with achieving the perfect picture was that I was working in studio conditions and I was constrained by the size of the space. The pictures by Frank and Klein were in situ and managed to capture the atmosphere so much better. Also they are in black and white which was appropriate to describe the glamour of the 1950s.

Apart from the above purposeful portrait, I photographed my grand daughter in Australia in similar style:

Australia 20101121 018C

This was a simple mistake but did very well in local club competitions.

All the above were shot to show the subject as a blur and because of the shape and strength of subject the blur dominated. When looking at the large database of similar images on Flickr I was led to investigate whether the pictures I was looking at were purposeful blurred portraits or errors.

I like to think I can see which of the flickr portfolio was a mistake but I don’t believe I could be certain.

What I do know is that there are some extremely successful (evocative) shots and it is these that I have decided to work with to produce my book.

The book is a pure set of found images, converted from colour to black and white where necessary in order to heighten their impact.

I have been strongly influenced by the book “Night Walk” by Ken Schles in which he shares some of his night time experiences with the viewer. I see this as a powerful self portrait and although in my case the images in my book are not my own personal experiences, they are the result of a brief slice of my life (the two days I spent working on putting the book together) and as such can be regarded as a self portrait in the same way that Evan Roth’s self portrait was developed.


I feel I have “pushed my practice” by considering the use of found images, something I have not previously considered.

The effect of the “less than perfect images” can be used to create an image which appeals directly to the viewer.These imperfect images carry powerful. social, political and economic messages. They can be used to artistic effect or to highlight a particular theme.

I have found by using the book to present my work that it gives me scope to investigate a subject in some depth. In a book one can juxtapose complementary photographs to develop a scenario. With print on demand it could also provide a commercial outlet for photographers , this could also be advertised digitally on facebook, twitter or whatever.

It is important to note that found images became legitimate inclusions in works of art many years ago (for instance Picasso, Gris & Duchamp). This is not something new, merely an acceleration of the use of such ideas.

The question I have started asking myself and others is:  Do I still enjoy taking photos? There is a lot of material available which is trying to persuade me that picture taking for pleasure is a thing of the past and I find this quite disappointing.


Kessels, E. (2016) Failed It. Phiadon

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Penguin Books

Schles,K. Night Walk. Steidl

Cowper, JC. (2008) The Meaning of Culture. Pornona Press


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