Thinking about the postmodern narrative and La mort de l’auteur

Barthes (1 of 1)

I have never found Barthes works particularly  accessible, although I persevered with Camera Lucida and enjoyed it very much. For this reason I felt I should read his short essay La mort de l’auteur, a pun I beleive on Le Morte d’Arthur.

Referred to in the course materials by its English name, The Death of the Author, this appeared to be an important text in understanding a postmodern approach to narrative.

I have explored the idea of the postmodern in the past and have a rudimentary  understanding around the notions of postmodernism, particularly with regard to architecture, is an entirely but postmodern literature is a new concept to me.

Well I have to say it wasn’t an easy read and I wonder whether this is down to the translation. It has a particularly dynamic and fast paced cadence that overloaded me with concepts and ideas in sharp succession which frankly  left me floundering. In part because I was still trying to comprehend what had just been said when along came another concept or idea!

I did persevere and read it several times and I have come to what is probably a superficial and personal interpretation of what I think Barthes is saying.

An important theme for me was the idea of the primacy of the reader rather than the ‘authority of the author’. Barthes suggests that too often the biography, politics and wider knowledge of the author has an influence on the reader and how a work is interpreted.

‘ the explanation of the work is always sought in the man who produced it’  (pp2)

There is a sort of liberation for the reader if the author is merely seen as a ‘scriptor’, with authority removed. There are also references to a non linear narrative  and the idea that writing can be a multifaceted medium.

‘We know a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning(the message of the Author-God) but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedge and contested various kinds of writing’ (pp4)

There is clearly much more to this work but I took from this that within a text there can be layers of meaning which are independent of the author and their intent.

I guess my big questions is how can I think about this in terms of making images. I would argue that a photograph however well constructed by the photographer can be widely interpreted  by the viewer. Text can anchor a work, but even then a viewer can choose not to read or agree with the text!

I need to consider the ideas of the non linear, layered narrative as I make sets of images that I want to be coherent, but might not need to conform to serial thinking!


Barthes, R.  (1967) The Death of the Author. Found at: (Accessed June 2016)


Telling a story – Exercise

  • How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?
  • What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

The Dad Project


Copyright Bryony Campbell

Bryony Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project’ is an evocative and moving photo  essay charting the final stages of her fathers life. Tackling the difficult subject of her fathers terminal cancer, the work traces and records her relationship with her father in the final months of his life. The work also echoes the entirety of their relationship. The photographer is as much the subject in and of the work as her father is. There is a visual and written narrative dialogue that runs strongly through the work. The work is also highly reflective and the photographers intent and her emotions about her dying father are to me intertwined.

The work was produced as a photobook with blocks of text that provide real insight into the evolution of the project and the artists reflections and inner debates about how the project would work and its impact on those around. Not least about how the work would attest to a father and daughters relationship. The photographs have an honest beauty about them, capturing poignant moments, grief and sadness but also revealing much about her fathers inner strength in the final stage of his life. There is I believe something very inspiring about this sad and personal narrative.

A feature that stood out to me most was the closeness and love of a father for his daughter, this shines through in the photo’s and video clips. Although clearly very ill, her father demonstrates his love for his daughter through his active engagement in the whole endeavour. There are moving moments in the video clips where her father talks about is worries for his family for the future implying without explicitly saying it, he sees his role as provider for his family ebbing away.

His engagement in the project is perhaps the last way in which he can assist his daughter. For Campbell her camera becomes a third element in the relationship with her father, at times perhaps providing a mechanism through which she mediates her sense of pending loss and a conclusion to the work that is inevitable and inescapable.

There is a bravery that runs through the work demonstrated by both of the subjects and the camera captures moments

Country Doctor


Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Country Doctor was an assignment for Life magazine undertaken by W. Eugene Smith. The work charts the day to day work of Ernest Ceriani, a country doctor covering a large rural area in Colorado in the late 1940’s. Described as ground breaking this is perhaps the classic photo essay, shot on black and white 35mm film (the photographer later resigned from Life rather than shift to using medium format cameras) and to my eye is a protype for many later photo essays. Indeed looking at in detail I was transmitted to my childhood in the 1970s and the wonderful photo essays that were a feature of the Sunday times magazine.

Although intimate in nature and capturing the doctor in many situations, the photographer is an outsider, an observer, trying the record sickens as if not there. To acclimatise the doctor Smith shot for three days without tim in the camera, in part so that the doctor could get used to him being around, in part not wanting to waste valuable and expensive film. Although the work has the doctor in a variety of different situations, some of which views might have though desperate, there is a coherence to the essay that reveals the complex life and work of a country doctor in 1948 rural america.

The work was for an international magazine ‘Life’ and the editor/commissioner had ideas about what they wanted in advance of Eugene Smith’s despatch. Eugene Smith was  something of a maverick and he ignored this direction. The finished work has some associated text but in many respects the story stands in its own right as a purely visual essay.

How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?

There are similarities and differences in both essays so I have tried to contrast them in the table below:

The Dad Project- Bryony Campbell Country Doctor-W.Eugene Smith
  • Self directed in content and time
  • Personally revealing and brave
  • Interactive, the photographer is as much the subject as her father is.
  • Produced over a period of months
  • Participant observer reportage
  • Augmented with extended text and video interviews. The motivation for the project remains immediate and at the centre of each image
  • The project is finite, there is an unavoidable end
  • Highly evocative, engenders a high degree of empathy for the photographer and her father.
  • Touches a note that all who view will recognise, says something about the human condition
  • The work manages the sense of loss through both the photographers and her fathers viewpoints
  • Colour, multi media /video
  • Digital
  • Book
  • A commissioned assignment
  • A clear end date in terms of the magazine contract
  • Shot over a short time, 23 days
  • The work has an associated fee
  • Editors expectation about the type of image (although W. Eugene Smith ignored this)
  • Although intimate the photographer is an observer, a transient visitor
  • The photographer had to work to gain trust (shot for 3 days without film in the camera to put the doctor at ease and to allow the photographer to blend in)
  • Hiding in plain site, in that the photographer wanted to record scene unaffected by his presence, as if he wasn’t there
  • Pure photojournalism
  • short and succinct text associated with each image, providing some context but less significant than the image itself
  • Black and white
  • Analogue
  • 35mm Film
  • Magazine

Although both are revealing and compelling photo essays I do think they are fundamentally different. This difference hinges on the role of the photographer. Eugene Smith was seeking intimate and revealing images that offered readers of ‘Life’ a very unique insight into the world of Dr. Ceriani, but this was achieved whilst still being an outsider. Campbell’s highly personal record is exceptionally intimate in part because she is as much the subject as is her father. The essay is woven with her thoughts and fears and her viewpoint is that of an insider and to my limited understanding typifies notions of reportage.

What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

This is hard to be definitive about but my belief is that the work retains such strong traces of the photographer and her fathers relationships captured in all the media that form the work, photographs, video and text, that they freeze for ever something tangible about their whole lives. The work remains as a touch stone for what they had and indeed what was lost. To this end the work has no end!


Campbell, B (2009):  The Dad Project found at: (Accessed June 2016)

Cosgrove , B. (2012) W.Eugene Smith’s landmark Portrait: Country Doctor 1948  Found at: (Accessed June 2016)

Assignment One- Preparation and planning

The Brief

Two sides of the story

This assignment is designed to give your tutor a feel for your work and won’t count towards your final grade if you decide to have your work assessed. However, the assessors may wish to see it so that they can gauge your progress across the course.

Create at least two sets of photographs telling different versions of the same story. The aim of the assignment is to help you explore the convincing nature of documentary, even though what the viewer thinks they see may not in fact be true. Try to make both sets equally convincing so that it’s impossible to tell which version of the images is ‘true’.

It might be interesting to consider the project as evidence for a court case. What conflicting stories can you make your images convincingly tell? Would it stand up in court?

Choose a theme and aim for 5–7 images for each set, depending on your idea. Discuss this with your tutor.

Here are a few ideas:

  • You could interpret this brief by showing the same scenario from two different angles. Does this alter how we read the situation?
  • You may wish to create an alter ego by using snapshots of yourself or a friend. This could involve photographing them in two very different and potentially conflicting personas.
  • You could make a parody of a dating website profile picture. Create different versions of the same person looking completely different in each one. Which one represents them best and how can we know?
  • Or you may prefer to use your own take on the theme. However you choose to interpret the brief, ensure the images are candid and ‘taken from real life’. Be experimental and take some risks. Perhaps you could make a list of ideas and choose the most challenging or absurd option to stretch yourself.
  • Send your sets of images to your tutor by the method you’ve agreed. Include an introduction of 300 words outlining what you set out to do and how you went about it. Also send to your tutor the relevant pages of your learning log or your blog url.

It’s good to get in the habit of printing your work so try to send prints to your tutor where possible. This is not obligatory but will help when it comes to assessment. Developing your prints in order to achieve the best results is a long process so it’s best to start now.

Initial ideas and planning

Whether it is the right approach or not I had been giving some serious thought about the assignment for some weeks before I needed to make a start on the work. I looked at the options within the brief and had broadly set my mind upon the idea set out in the first bullet point of ideas for this assignment. Namely to interpret the brief by showing the same scenario from two different angles. Through this approach I felt it offered the possibility of exploring whether the differing viewpoints altered how we read the situation? This seemed to me to be a good way to consolidate the learning of part one of the course and in particular to consider how images form a narrative and how the photographic process can control, indeed manipulate what the viewer draws from an image or set of images.

I had some initial ideas and used a mind map to plot them out, below are some scans from my notes file.

MM 1

To assist in decoding my scribble the core themes are based around using a stark contrast of some sort to establish/emphasise a potentially differing view point.

Pastoral /Industrial, being an exile in the rural flatlands of East Anglia there are some sharp contrasts to be found between the collective ideas about the beauty of the countryside and the reality of a very industrial landscape that is pressed to its limits at the hands of large international conglomerates. I thought there could be some interesting opportunities with this theme. Timing wasn’t going to work for this though. In a another couple of months the peace of where I live will be disrupted by the mammoth machines that take from the soil (which I think would make a good project), but I need something sooner.

Day/Night offered a simple way to consider a place at different times of the day, town or city centres for example take on a different form during the day to how they are at night. This I thought was a simple but perhaps effective theme with some potential

Wealth/Poverty is a bit of a well worn track but I was struck by the news that several new food banks are to open in the seaside town of Lowestoft not far from where I live. The town’s past fading former grandeur has been a theme I have explored in the past. I thought I might contrast the seafront and holiday makers spending money, with the run down town, boarded  up buildings and  high level of rough sleepers.

Clean/Polluted was another contrasting theme that i thought a possibility. I work in different places in east Anglia and many of the larger towns and cities have  rivers running through. Rivers can tell a story, one of leisure, beauty, pastimes such as boating or fishing.  Additionally some of the rivers I am familiar with have issues of pollution, refuse being dumped in them and issues with agri-chemical run off getting into  the water courses and rivers. I thought this had some  potential as an idea too.

Having developed these potential themes  I sketched out a bit more detail, in particular some specific locations and localised themes that might  be used. Below is another page scanned from my notes.


After some further thoughts I decide to settle on the Wealth and poverty theme. In part because I felt I didn’t have enough time for the pollution them and because th time of year was not quite right for the industrial perspective on the land, serious harvesting won’t start where i live for a noter couple of months yet. The night and day  theme remained a possibility, but I had been in Lowestoft recently for work I noticed the crowded promanade and thought this might be the most prudent purely from a timing point of view. Particularly with a looming deadline! and

So I further developed the idea and again I have included below a scan from my file notes.

How one idea leads to another

In preparation for the assignment I visited the location and began to plan and scout out the ideas for both sides of the story. I spent some time in the  town of Lowestoft  itself photographing  decay and dereliction, in particular there were lots of shops, pubs and restaurants closed and boarded up, some covered up as if wall papered with very dated ‘fly’ posters advertising events that had long passed. There were also quite a few rough sleepers in the town. I have to confess to a sense of unease when taking images of such individuals, it is hard not to feel like I am exploiting them. I have no inhibitions about street photography and will happily walk up to strangers and take a photograph, it is much more about my sense of the innapropriate with people who are experiencing hard times and whether this is a suitable subject to make images off. I know from a photo documentary perspective I need to work through this issue though

I also spent some time  on the seafront in the town, near the pier and on the long east facing promenade. I made some images of the crowds, people buying ice creams, doughnuts,  fish and chips, in essence people spending money. I have always really liked Parr’s (2008) work ‘The Last Resort’, through looking at Parr’s work I discovered Ray-Jones and find his 1977 work:  ‘A Day Off’ utterly inspiring. My images were far from the content of either of these two works and I realised this as iIwandered the promenade with my black box and lens.

Inspiration perhaps comes at strange moments. I sat on a bench watching the seaside visitors pass by me.  People of all types, wealthy (judging by clothes, although this is perhaps stereotyping) less wealthy, people of different cultures and ethnicity, people of different  ages, couples, families, a steady two way stream that was a microcosm of the British.

I sat for about an hour not taking a single image, just watching. It was whist doing this that I noticed something that caught my eye and imagination. There were a  number of couples with a child and they seemed to be oblivious to where and what the child was up to. This is not unusual maybe, but I was struck by how young some of the children who were being ignored were. I chose not to take pictures of families ignoring their children. In part because of the difficult and potentially contentious nature of the subject.

I started to count the number of times I saw a child I judged to be less than 6-7  where parents were oblivious to the slow progress the child was making along the promenade. occasionally  a parent turned and called or shouted to the child and they then caught up with their parents. Although not true of the majority of families with children I witnessed, I did see a significant minority of relatively small children being ignored.

I felt it inappropriate to make images of children being ignored by their parents given the potential for this to be miss interpreted. There is boundary that where I believe photographers need to be rightly cautious about.

I also thought about press reports of children going missing and this gave me the idea for the narrative I might explore in this assignment.

Although some way from my original thoughts and ideasI felt I had hit upon an interesting narrative to explore. I then set about planning a set of staged images showing the world from the viewpoint of a child and the viewpoint of a parent. I thought. I sketched out some thoughts and ideas and then decide upon a shopping trip seen from two perspectives.

Bob 4-5759


Getting the imagined child’s viewpoint right need some thought. In my own work I predominantly  use cameras with waist level finders and thought this might assist. Needing to do the work digitally, I managed to borrow a camera with a tilt screen on the back that in effect mimics a waist level finder. Securing and authentic child’s physcal viewpoint was achieved keeping the lens of the camera at a relativelly consistent height above the ground. After some thought I created a simple ‘plumb bob’ using heavy bolt as a weight , a length of string and a camera trip socket securing screw. the type used to run a strap through the cameras tripod bush. Calculating the height was done by looking through the family archive of photographs . I used images made when my now 18 year old daughter was around 6 years of age. Measuring where her eyes were on some of the images against objects of known height allowed me to arrive at a height of 31″. The plumb bob was then set to this length in order to maintain the lens of the camera at this height. Children will stretch up and bob down at times but using this simple all be it inelegant device did allow a good degree of consistency in the viewpoint of the child.

Bob 3-5756

Bob 1-5751

Bob 2-5752

I then set out making the images, around 400 were made across two days and it is from these that I settled on about 50 for final review and selection. This edited set was then further edited down to what became the final tutor submission.

My notes and final selection are set out in the next part of the assignment page on my blog.


Boothroyd, S. (2014) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley

Parr, M, (2008) The Last Resort, Dewi Lewis Publishing, London

Ray-Jones, A (1977) A Day Off- An English Journal, Thames and Hudson

The Real and the Digital-Liz Wells (2009)- Some thoughts and wider reflections

Initially I read this short excerpt from Liz Wells Book: Photography: A critical Introduction and felt it was a useful brief commentary on the changing nature of how images are made and interpreted.

However,  having re read it a couple of times I think it is saying something much more profound. The question does digital technology change  how we see photography as truth really only scratches the surface of the point I think she is making.

Wells starts by succinctly suggesting that with advances in technology,  image making has been transformed and not just the technological capacity to create new ways of making images but also transformed  photographic practice in a range of spheres such as commercial and art image making. This raises key questions though about the nature of the photographic image and how it is perceived, in particular the long established link, or at least the perceived link between an image and something real. The notion of a photograph being a momentary slice in time , related to a real event, place or thing. She rightly points out  that there is nothing new in photographs being manipulated. Any survey of the history of photography will reveal examples of manipulation from frivolous  fakery to down right deception .

It is however photography’s link to notions of the ‘real’ and the ‘truth’ that are in question in this piece of writing I think. Rightly or wrongly documentary photography and photo journalism have been linked to  revealing a truth, revealing something that might otherwise have remain hidden.  I touched upon this in my blog entry here.

Citing Barthes (1980) and his notion that a photograph contains or retains some sense or ‘trace’ of something real, it is this tennis link from a the flat and lifeless two dimensional images hat is a photograph to some thing that once existed, that anchors the idea of photograph to some notion of truth. This idea is set against notions that painting and other creative media are for more ,inked to the whim and skill of the artist than they are to the real or concrete. Well’s uses this point to make the relationship between a photograph and something real. But as stated I think there is a deeper point being made. I remember vividly the opening comments in Camera Lucida and Barthes (1980) description and reflections upon seeing an early photograph of Napoleon’s younger brother and looking at the image and thinking:

‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the emperor’

To Barthes the photograph reveals something much larger that that which is contained within the frame. Wells suggests that our very understanding of the world around us is shaped by the meanings we glean from images. Citing Pierce , the american semioticians notion of indexical signs, Wells I think is suggesting that image manipulations has wider implications than just fakery.

I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of semiotics and I am reading about Pierce and signs at present. I am familiar with the social psychologist George Herbert Mead a contemporary of Pierce and the founder of the symbolic interactionist movement in social science. Mead suggested that we make sense of who we are and the world around us through symbols, the most powerful of which is language. Language and visual signs and symbols are linked and after language signs are a very powerful mechanism for making sense of the world. Wells hints at this in her reference to Baudrillard’s assertion that the Gulf War never happened, what really happened was a series of political, technological and human actions. In this stamen he is perhaps redesign the notion of war as a separate set of references points, Wells for me makes the most important point in the excerpt in that it suggests to me that technology and the use of other visual media through advances in technology have the potential to reshape who we perceive events and make sense of the world around us.

So what does all this mean? Well the photographs relations with truth, whether real or not is a powerful tool in shaping meaning. Advances in technology mean that how we understand the world is potentially manipulated at multiple levels.

I am conscious this is a somewhat tenuous reflection on the article but it has really fired up my thinking about how meaning is created in visual media and how through tech biology the potential for things to be manipulated is significant. Also there is a blurring of what once we might have seen as different approaches into a wider and more difficult to define notion of visual culture.

I really need to get to grips with semiotics, this is intellectually very exciting though!


Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, Vintage , London

Meade, G.H. (1934)  Mind, Self and Society, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Wells, E. (2009)Photography: A critical Introduction Routledge, Abingdon


Exercise (4) The Manipulated Image

Instead of using double exposures or printing from double negatives we now have the technology available to us to make these changes in post-production, allowing for quite astonishing results.

Use digital software such as Photoshop to create a composite image which visually appears to be a documentary photograph but which could never actually be



I have to confess to finding this a particularly difficult exercise. In the context of the course I can see the value in its intention but I none the less Ifound it challenging.

Creating a manipulated image that ‘ could never actually be’  raises all sorts of ethical as well as creative questions and although Boothroyd (2015) suggests that:

‘….the use of digital manipulation doesn’t necessarily equate to a lie’

I none the less wonder where the boundaries of what is acceptable lies. I have already commented in two previous Context and Narrative blog posts that currently this is a very live debate given the controversy that photo journalist Steve McCurry finds hime self in regarding the alleged digital manipulation of some of his work. I

That saidI have had a go at the exercise within the time I have available but I recognise that my image is somewhat rudimentary as well as cliched! That said I did manage something!

To a large extent it was n’t ant sense of ethics that hindered me in this exercise. I found this hard because I have very limited Photoshop skills. I do use Photoshop, but my work never involves the full power of the programme. As a predominantly film based photographer I do genuinely attempt to create my images in the camera, I know many photographers will say this , but with my Hasselblad and Pentax medium format  cameras their controls are pretty basic by the standards of modern digital photographic equipment. Once I have made an image on film  I then develop it  and in most cases the scan my negatives or positives. The scanning process produces some artefacts and is still not quite a good as wet printing, so I use some minor correction in Lightroom to finish my work.

Dust is the enemy of the film scanner and in spite of canned air, blower brushes and a very clean scanner I still get dust on my scans. Although some of this can be removed with software I don’t like the effect this has so I with “ICE’ switched off I do all my dust removal using the cloning tool in photoshop. That is my main experience with that programme

So what did I do?

Well I pushed my boundaries and I selected something of a cliche in the approach I took to create my ‘hoax’ image. Using a well trodden path I produced I very rudimentary flying saucer image. The actual process to make the images went as follows:

Selection of a base image from my own catalogue of work- I chose a simple black and white image, I then searched and found a stock photo of an alien craft ( used in a Lollywood film). Next I used the lassoo tool to delineate and remove the stock image from its background, I feathered the edge a little to remove the harsh edge. I then created a version in a separate layer. This was then converted to mono and I made some highlight and shadow adjustments in an attempt to match the tones in the base image. In reality I just made it ‘less bad!’ I then combined to two to make the image below. Not quite front page quality but I feel it meets the brief, all be it in a very basically and i’m not expecting a call from the tabloids any time soon.

beach sally copy

What did I learn?

Well I pushed the boundaries if my Photoshop skills and I also gained some useful insight into what is involved in manipulating images beyond the sort of adjustment i make.

It also made me think hard  about Wendy McMurdos work. Although this work demonstrates the investigative nature , indeed the power of digitally manipulated images to reveal something we would not perhaps have noticed (I am referring to the intense concentration on the faces of children in her Young Musicians Series) , I am frankly struck by her patient expertise in the manipulation process its self!


Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley

Interview with Wendy Mc Murdo found at: (Accessed May 2016)