Year 3: done

Done! 3 down, 1 to go.

My calendar arrived at midday (the parcel company website tracked the ETA down to the hour, which took most of the stress out of my day) and I headed down to London in plenty of time to get it all handed in.


Right: summer. I need to start my dissertation reading before too long, but I think I’m allowed a couple of weeks off.

My degree is stupid

The first bunch of marks just came in, and I’m forced to conclude my degree is broken.

Theory side: The module this term was ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices’, which is pretty much what it sounds like, if you pretend it’s 1997. One of the guest lecturers actually puts his photos on the Internet, but only one, and I don’t think Flickr was mentioned once. It was all about photobooks and gallery spaces, which are the primary practices of contemporary wanky photography, and I didn’t feel anything at all. Last term’s module, with its focus on anti-scientific Freudian bullshit, annoyed me no end. But this one didn’t even get that far. Sure, I’d be interested in the lecture for 2 hours, but nothing followed me out of the room. I wasn’t all that interested, but there was still an essay to write.

So an essay I wrote. About Flickr. And it was woeful. I managed my time very badly this term, and knew it would come down to two weeks of crazy work+worry. At the same time my personal life had a few unexpectedly exciting turns, and the essay took the hit. I typed it in a day and a half, in my uncle’s flat in London, with barely any research. It should have been ‘critically informed’, and I found one appropriately highbrow article talking about Flickr (it was silly). I made up bullshit theories about gallery-wall-whitespace having parallels with Web 2.0 page layouts, with nothing to back me up. Most of my topics were stuff I remembered reading about online, and quickly googled to fill in the blanks. My references were all blogs and tech sites. I hit 2500 words without a problem, because it was – genuinely – a long blog post. It felt exactly the same as writing for this site, and I handed it in knowing my notoriously sarcastic head lecturer would rip me to shreds, but I didn’t care – I’d handed something in, and it should scrape a pass.

I got a first – 73. This can only be because I know how to structure an essay. There’s no other explanation: that essay went against everything we’ve been taught, and had hardly anything to do with the module! This isn’t me being modest when in fact it was secretly good – it was honestly appalling. In the end, it apparently all comes down to writing style. While this is good for me personally, it’s stupid. That shouldn’t be the point.

Practical side: We’ve only been given the marks for our workbooks, which are are worth ~25% of the final mark when combined with the photographs themselves. My workbook for the ‘Happy Humanists’ project was less than ideal. I can’t claim it was excellent. I can’t even, hand on heart, claim it was particularly good. But it was ok. It had research, written notes throughout the project etc.. The stuff you need. It was, however, a bit of a departure for me by being scrapbook-style. Notes and pictures were pritt-sticked in, and almost everything was hand-written. A similar-style workbook on a different project netted me 64 – a 2:1 – which was fine. Another, a 16-page typed report, got 63. No problem. I’m not great at workbooks, but they get by.

My Happy Humanists workbook scraped a pass: 43 – a low third. That’s enough to get me in trouble – anything below 50 and they’re worried about you. 43 is going to raise questions. I haven’t seen the detailed feedback yet, but it’s going to be damning. I have to hope the photographs themselves do ok and bump my mark up a bit.

But I’m still pissed off – it wasn’t that bad. Jesus. Somewhere in the 50s, sure, but 43? What the hell? Much as I hate to be this guy, I have to mention these are the teachers with whom I had the fairly exciting public disagreement about how much I cared about visual consistency. Plus, one gave me my only other <50 mark, in the first term of the first year – I’ve yet to drop below 60 with any other teacher. Clearly I’m doing something they don’t like.

Hell, maybe it’s deserved and I’m just annoyed at getting such a terrible mark. Maybe my judgment’s off and I need recalibrating. I don’t know. But right now, 43 feels ridiculous.

I’m not actually bothered about workbook scores, above and beyond their repurcussions for my university career. The marks for the photographs themselves are more interesting to me (although increasingly less so, but that’s another post) and I’ve yet to receive those. But these two marks are way, way off. Not impressed.

Jason Evans

In lieu of my previous post, it’s only fair to mention we had a guest lecturer this morning who despises that kind of writing, saying he’d be happy to see Lacan stricken from the written record. He was the first voice of sanity in a long time. He also recommended a book by Nick Cohen, has a portfolio of completely bonkers and brilliant fashion shots, and likes to take happy photographs that evoke the wonder and happiness of the world, so runs The Daily Nice, which shows one lovely shot every day. Instant fave.

I could be at home watching Comic Relief

Instead I am in a library reading drivel:

Dear Bill Gates,
I swam past your dream house the other day, but didn’t stop to knock. Frankly, your
underwater sensors had me worried. I would have liked to take a look at Winslow Homer’s
Lost on the Grand Banks. It’s a great painting, but, speaking as a friend and fellow
citizen, at $30 million you paid too much.
So why are you so interested in a picture of two poor lost dory fishermen, momentarily
high on a swell, peering into a wall of fog? They are about as high as they’re ever going to be,
unless the sea gets uglier. They are going to die, you know, and it won’t be a pretty death.
And as for you, Bill, when you’re on the Net, are you lost? Or found?
And the rest of us—lost or found—are we on it, or in it?
Your friend

This is a letter Allan Sekula sent to Bill Gates. I have no idea why. It’s from a seemingly drug-addled essay which supposedly relates to ‘Photography and the Internet’. I didn’t have the strength. I made it a fifth of the way through this sort of thing:

In an age that denies the very existence of society, to insist on the scandal of the world’s increasingly grotesque  “connectedness,” the hidden merciless grinding away beneath the slick superficial liquidity of markets, is akin to putting oneself in the position of the ocean swimmer, timing one’s strokes to the swell, turning one’s submerged ear with every breath to the deep rumble of stones rolling on the bottom far below. To insist on the social is simply to practice purposeful immersion.

The resort to tear gas serves not only to “control the crowd,” that is, to prevent the radical redefinition of the use-value of city streets, but also to produce through chemical means the exaggerated liquid symptoms of human empathy and grief. This chemically induced parody of extreme human emotion is in itself an assertion of robotic power. The harsh discipline of tears, mucus, sudden asthma leads the citizenry back to the dry regimen of the everyday. Only the markets are allowed to be fluid.

before giving up. I admit this is a failure. Maybe the next section says ‘hey, for those of you still reading, here is the juicy info; what a lark!’. Maybe it’s just beyond me. Maybe refusing to insight-mine garbled guff means I’m missing deep thoughts. I think it’s worth the risk.

At some point I will stop complaining about bullshit reading material. Maybe in a couple of years.

Here are some things I’ve learnt in this term’s photographic theory classes

Women only have children to make up for their lack of a penis.

This came up in “one of the two most important photographic essays of the 20th century”. It’s an idea originally from Freud, so it must be true. Freud can do no wrong on my course. He’s worshipped as a god, despite the last thirty years of psychological research suggesting his explanatory framework is, well, bullshit. Here’s the ‘fair’ Freud: A Very Short Introduction bending over backwards to give the guy some credit:

The female version of the Oedipus complex is less clearly worked out, in line with the fact that Freud continued to find women a puzzle throughout his life. However, Freud concluded that, while the little girl is also at first involved emotionally with her mother, her discovery that she lacks a panis, and is therefore an inferior being, leads her to become disillusioned with her mother whom she blames for her condition. This turns her towards her father as a love object, and she begins to phantasize that he will impregnante her. The resulting child, Freud supposes, will compensate the girl for her lack of a penis, and, in this sense, might be said to be a substitute for the missing organ. What brings this stage of emotional development to a conclusion is the girl’s growing perception of other men as potential impregnators who will enable her to have a baby and thus overcome her continuing sense of being an inferior kind of human being.

Stated in so bald a fashion, Freud’s perception of the Oedipus complex as constituting the central emotional stage through which every human being has to pass if she or he is to achieve adult stability and happiness sounds crude indeed. We have already observed that Freud invariably strove to reduce the psychological and emotional to the physical. To allege that all small boys fear castration at the hands of their fathers sounds ridiculous when taken literally. But, if we were to phrase it differently, and affirm that small boys are greatly concerned with establishing their identity as male persons, feel rivalry with their fathers, and are easily made to feel humiliated or threatened by disparaging remarks about their size, weakness, incapacity and lack of experience, most people would concur.

Maybe, but that’s not really what he said, is it? In fact, in this case it seems he was wrong about everything until you massively overgeneralise. The defence is usually ‘he was the first to think about this stuff’, which is all well and good1. But if I go to a science class I don’t expect to learn about Prime Mover theory, no matter how awesome Aristotle was.

The one high point of this topic was when my lecturer couldn’t bring himself to mention Freudian dick theory in regard to fetishes. He said people fetishise things for ‘a variety of reasons’. This was quite funny.

Western science, and indeed culture, has ‘privileged the visual’ for centuries.

God knows what this is supposed to mean, but they say it a lot. Galileo started the trend of privileging the visual when he looked through his telescope, apparently, and it’s been true in astronomy – and pretty much all the sciences – ever since. The other senses are given far less attention. Apparently.

It’s always spoken about in sinister tones, as if it’s really oppressive. I keep thinking they’re going to draw some profound conclusion, but one hasn’t yet materialised. I honestly don’t know how to respond. It’s not even wrong. I mean, doesn’t walking privilege the legs? It’s just how things are, isn’t it? How are you meant to look at the stars without using your eyes? Maybe I’m missing something profound, or maybe it’s just filling time between drooling over Freud.

Society tells us what ‘perfect vision’ means. There’s no concept of 20/20 vision in nature.

This is also SINISTER AND OPPRESSIVE. It’s all a bit libertarian, my course. Oh look, someone’s trying to help me see better. How bloody arrogant and insulting of them.

I think this meant to be some mealy-mouthed point about culture and its subtle influences. Which is probably an interesting discussion. Or would be, if they could think of any other examples.

I don’t think society says jack shit about ‘perfect vision’. I think society says you need a certain standard of vision for specific tasks, like driving. I think society says your vision can be improved – as a quantifiable measure – with corrective lenses. I don’t think society makes any value judgements about your vision. If you want to stick it to the man by refusing to read eye charts just because someone tells you to, go right ahead.

Before humanity learnt about Cartesian perspective, people had an entirely different concept of the space around them.

This is all a bit odd. Apparently the understanding of perspective fundamentally changed the way we view the world. I’m not totally averse to this idea, but their evidence is so pathetic that I provisionally conclude they’re making stuff up. Here’s the proof: a few lines from the start of Hamlet in which the perspective is changed – because it’s not like Shakespeare was a poet or anything – and an anecdote about showing a film to some tribespeople, who didn’t understand it at all. Yeah, I’m totally convinced. They also say that pre-perspective painting indicates something other than ‘them not having developed perspective yet’, which, to my eyes, it doesn’t.

Oh, and cameras were designed around2 cartesian perspective, which is SINISTER AND OPPRESSIVE. You may think your eyes see things in perspective, but they don’t! As proof: do you ever walk places and notice new things, despite having walked there many times before? Proof that our brains don’t work just through perspective! I’m so glad I came to university to learn this stuff.


Sorry to rant. It just gets me down sometimes. I increasingly feel like it’s a massive waste of my time. What isn’t demonstrably wrong is just facile, unfalsifiable wittering, all presented as terribly profound art theory.

Maybe it is interesting, if you’re not like me. I suppose there’s value in discussing unfalsifiable theories, if you happen to find it fascinating. But I don’t. I just find it annoying. I want to see the modern, evidence-based psychological research into people’s experience of the world, and how they look at art, and how culture influences the way we think. In Our Time recently had an episode on neuroscience, and it was utterly fascinating. I know there’s wonderful knowledge to be had, and it’s so disappointing to instead get psychoanalytic gibberish from the ’70s, by people incapable (suspiciously so) of writing clearly.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to quit or anything. I have another 18 months of this before I hit the 4th year and can study whatever the hell I want, and I can live with it for 18 months. Goodness knows how the essays will turn out, though. I’m not optimistic about squeezing 3000 words from this term’s work.

  1. the other defence, which my lecturer actually said to me, is ‘he wrote really well’ []
  2. ‘designed around’, as opposed to perspective being part of the physical laws of the universe []

Abstract shots, with cheap and cheerful macro lens

This morning’s post delivered a bunch of cheapo close-up filters – essentially magnifying glasses for the lens – so I spent the evening finally taking my ‘abstract’ pictures. I lost any sense of coherence after a while, but I’m hopeful there’ll be something usable. Some of the digital test shots turned out ok:

'Abstract' project - digital outtake 6 'Abstract' project - digital outtake 4

'Abstract' project - digital outtake 1 'Abstract' project - digital outtake 7

'Abstract' project - digital outtake 2 'Abstract' project - digital outtake 3 'Abstract' project - digital outtake 5

I’m hoping the filters didn’t degrade the slide quality too much.

‘Interaction’ black-and-white project

After much panic and rushing about I finished putting the project together at 1940 on Thursday, and presented it this afternoon. Well, it wasn’t so much a presentation as a ‘critical assessment’, in which we split into groups, each critiquing the works of another and presenting their thoughts to everyone – it’s a little less stressful than an individual presentation + Q&A, although not much. The brief was 2-5 black and white prints on the theme of ‘interaction’ – basically an introductory project to get some indication of our abilities, I suspect – and my final display looked like this:

Interaction Project - 1 of 5 Interaction Project - 2 of 5

Interaction Project - 3 of 5

Interaction Project - 4 of 5 Interaction Project - 5 of 5

We were told not to say much about our intentions and let the images speak for themselves, so I’ll stay quiet.

It was the first time I’d seen everyone else’s work, and I was totally unable to get any perspective on my own project – I genuinely had no clue how it compared, or what people would think. The others had some great results, though, and I’m looking forward to an upcoming project where we work in teams.

The group’s reaction to my project was generally favourable: they liked the idea and thought the second image (knife in pumpkin) was the strongest, but recommended I remove the last two shots as they were weaker (particularly the final one), just leaving the first three more abstract photos.

Once they finished giving their opinions it was opened to the entire class, who said some nice things, and then the two teachers. They immediately completely disagreed, suggesting that if anything I should remove the first three as they didn’t seem to add anything to the concept and weren’t as good as the much stronger final two images anyway. The course leader recommended I enlarge the two to A3 and present them as a diptych.

It’s interesting to get such contradictory reactions and advice, neither of which I’d anticipated. I suppose the teachers have much more experience of this kind of work, and are, you know, grading it, but I want to produce work that appeals to my peers too. I’m not going to go into my intentions, but I don’t think I expressed my idea particularly well since neither the assessment group nor the teachers really picked up on the overall concept in my head. Having said that, at least one person definitely did have it all figured out, so there must be something there. It’s tricky to get any perspective now – I’ll take another look at them in a couple of weeks and try to see what works and what doesn’t. Plenty of food for thought, anyway. Thanks again to Nod for being a willing Pumpkin Man.

It’s a while since I’ve had a deadline project like this, and I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about how to manage my time. Major point: don’t end up doing it all in a week! The next project is entirely studio-based, which means playing with toys complex lighting equipment toys. Should be fun.

Applying for jobs

Not to be too dramatic about it, but I have two financial crises on the horizon. Well, they used to be on the horizon, but have now climbed my neighbour’s fence and are currently drooling onto his dahlias. My fixed-rate mortgage is going to end in September, and it’s going to go up a lot. And come next February I’ll have a large tax bill to pay. I’ve been living fairly close to the edge for a while now and it’s been ok, but I haven’t a hope of coping if nothing changes, so it is therefore time for me to get a proper part-time job. Which is fine and will be a blessed relief. It’ll also give me a little extra capital, and it’ll be nice to buy books without feeling guilty.

I’ve applied for jobs at the local library before, and as it happens they recently announced two full-time vacancies. But, I can’t pull that off once my university course starts in whenever (I haven’t heard anything since the acceptance letter, which is getting worrying). Happily there are a couple of other options. Today I applied for insanely cool dream job. Really, it would be fantastic. I’ve no clue what my chances are, but if I have no luck I’ll apply for a part-time post at the local Jessops. I was going through all sorts of I’m-24-I-should-be-past-retail-work silliness for a while, but I now think it’d be a good job, particularly if I’m doing the photography degree at the same time. It’s within walking distance and I’d at least have some idea of what I’m talking about. And, you know, discounts 🙂

Four years and counting

So. Photography degrees. Thanks very much for all the advice both on and off-line – I’m touched so many people took the time to help, and it certainly turned me around from my initial negative reaction. I just accepted the offer. 

Four weeks of thinking and the major worries are still there: the travelling will be expensive and likely take over my week, the theoretical parts of the course look worryingly postmodernist, I’ll probably be paying off student fees for years and I’m still concerned I’ll feel small and pathetic compared to better photographers. But screw it all: interesting things only happen when you say yes. Therefore: yes.