Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Book review : Behind the Image : Fox and Caruana

Behind the Image, by Anna Fox and Natasha Caruana, was not on the reading list for TAOP when I first started, but since then it has appeared as an essential reader for this introductory module and indeed for several other modules on the Photography degree path.  It is essentially a guide to the tools and theories which underpin photographic research and focusses on the processes that drive successful photographic projects. As such, it is clearly an ideal companion to many of the projects we undertake as part of OCA study. 

The book is immensely readable and draws examples from a range of photographers covering different areas of practice.  The initial chapter sets the scene with an overview of the essential processes from planning a project, moving through the research phase and finally to delivery.  The authors focus on several key areas which I think are likely to get overlooked in the rush to take pictures, and these are the actual title of the planned work and its intended audience, obviously key factors but easy to pass by, and they also emphasise the benefit of a solid research proposal in driving the structure of the final work.  The first chapter concludes with a review of the work done by Natasha Caruana in documenting the Aberfan mining tragedy and emphasises the importance of building up a relationship with the people involved in both the history and present of a project and pacing the development of this relationship to eventually gain deeper access to their lives and really start to understand and photograph the impact of the event.  Record keeping and the potential value of mind maps in developing ideas and project strategies are also covered, along with some suggestions of how to utilise these.
Sourcing research materials and collating their contents is covered at some length, although I found this personally less useful as it is close to what I do in real life, as is the keeping of accurate research records and records of personal ideas.  Another suggestion was to actually take photographs of yourself working and record the process of the development of the project rather than just shooting images as potential final copy.  I tried to adopt this idea when I was doing the Light and Illustration and Narrative assignments and found it a really valuable way of retaining ideas and recording personal progression.

There is an interesting section on street photography which emphasises the need for research here too.  Things can happen fast and Fox proposes location visits to look for good angles, backgrounds, light direction and situations that might arise, or indeed can be made to arise.  I have yet to make any sort of serious effort at street photography and it is good advice.
There is extensive coverage of post-production and editing for different photographic genres from street to fashion and again the emphasis is on exemplary record keeping, both of practical aspects of the project and of ideas and thoughts as the project progresses.  One of the most interesting aspects is around the taking of numerous ‘test’ photographs as an active part of the research process, as a route to identifying the final images and as a mechanism to attain continuous improvement.  This is less applicable to street photography than to work in a studio, but I am personally aware that that I just don’t take enough images as I progress through a project and try too hard to conjure up what I visualise as the final image too soon in the process. 

The chapter on ‘Compiling your research’  is highly applicable to the OCA course as it covers workbooks, sketchbooks, blogging and storage of archive material.  It even suggests starting your own blog, so at least I’ve got one thing right …

Overall, the book has an emphasis on the understanding, evolution and recording of research process as a continuum which allows later reflection and expansion in the light of developing experience.  It draws from some excellent examples in terms of the specific real projects described (Aberfan was for me the most poignant and meaningful of these, but then I’m old enough to remember it) and how they were researched and executed.  The text is lively and easy to read and the layout and reproduction neat and clean.  Well worth a read to emphasise some key pointers in getting project photography right from the outset, though the £23 price tag is steep for what is on offer I thought.

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