Category Archives: Learning Log

Self Evidence – Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

Self Evidence is an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, which is being shown, appropriately, in the Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery.  The three photographers shown were all interested in the idea of identity, or the self, and how to show it.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Arbus is a fascinating photographer who took a collection of images of what she called her ‘singular people’. These were often of people who were different in some way, for instance, the Jewish giant, and the images of people from nudist camps. There are ethical dilemmas in her images, especially when looked at from todays stance. Did she ask permission? Did she explain how she was using the images? Did she pay for them? The answer to all of these is probably no – but nor did any of the photographers of her time. She undoubtedly took images that would be difficult to take today – those of people with a learning difficulty and physical challenges. Nowadays we would need to find out who has the appropriate guardianship and rights of welfare attorney, get formal permission, and credit the people involved. Does that mean the images should not have been taken then, when it was a different world? Does it mean they should not be shown now? What is obvious from the images is that Arbus engaged with the people. For the images of those people in a nudist camp she took the pictures while naked to make them feel comfortable. She talked to the people with learning problems and visited them – something that was rarely done at that time, when ‘mental issues’ were hidden away. She gave them a voice, even if they did nor fully understand what was being said.  Arbus addressed identity by looking at other people rather than herself.

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981)

In Woodman’s short life she took a vast number of images, many which have never been on display. The ones shown in this exhibition are a variety of images mainly of herself or her boyfriend, Ben. They are small, black and white, mostly square. Some have been written across and were used as notes to send to others. Many are partially out of focus. She utilised mirrors, reflections and odd shafts of light to illuminate the important areas. Many of the images show herself partly hidden or on the edge of the frame, such as Untitled (FW crouching behind an umbrella). She becomes a ghostly partial presence. Do the images tell you about Woodman – or hide her? It is difficult to read her images nowadays without considering her suicide at a young age, and wondering what impact this had on her photography – but much of her oeuvre was  taken well before that and it is almost certainly simplistic to assume that all the images were taken by someone who was depressed! Much is experimental, much echoes the type of photography and art she was exposed to.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)

The exhibition of Mapplethorpe self-portraits shows a range of images from those of him in his early bad boy, leather and whips phase to ones with a suited and serious mien to those taken just before his death. They often show him playing a role, holding a knife or a gun, possibly copying stances from films. They become gradually less controversial, although not completely so. There is one from 1985 which shows him wearing horns. Is he playing as a satyr or as a devil? Is it another riff on his earlier images that use themes from the Catholic Church? The final one is of his face and hand holding a stick with a skull. All else is black. A true play on a ‘memento mori’ image, made more poignant because he was clearly aware of his own impending death.  All of the images are beautifully crafted, balanced and set formally within the frame. Whatever you think of his lifestyle and the photographs he chose to take it is impossible to deny that he was a skilled artist, who used his own life to tell a story about a population that was mainly hidden then, and often still is.


It was fascinating to see these three photographers side by side. They all died young, two by suicide, one because of AIDS. They were all interested in portraiture. The photographs they took were very different. Arbus showed her interest in people by taking images of others. Woodman photographed herself, but in an elliptical, sideways way, hiding as much as she showed. Mapplethorpe’s images are clear, in your face and controversial – but does his apparent clarity hide as much as Woodman’s less overt images do?

Robert Mapplethorpe – A Brief History

Mapplethorpe was interested in identity and amongst his huge oeuvre he took multiple portraits, and many self portraits. He was gay, however he initially tried to bury this aspect of himself and conform, but eventually ended up making images that are highly charged, homoerotic in nature, that still have the power to shock, and, over the years, have often been banned from display.

Mapplethorpe grew up in the rebellious years, when the civil rights movement in America was active, gay liberation was starting, the birth-pill became available, and gay pornographic films became mainstream (Deep Throat). He was born into a middle-class family and was said to be a socially awkward teenager. Initially at college he was part of a right wing, strongly heterosexual group, but gradually became more interested in the counterculture movement, started using drugs and became interested in the Cubists and Surrealists. He also met Patti Smith who became a huge influence and support in his life. He initially made mixed media and collage artworks, often based on religious iconography (although with erotic overtones).  He had been brought up Catholic, with all the colour, pomp and rituals of that faith.

Tie Rack – 1969 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

He started photography using a Polaroid camera, initially possibly to make images that he could use in his collages, but then to make images of anything he was interested in, including his lover, flowers, china and odd bits of outdoor scenery.  He took many of Patti Smith, but also others of himself in a range of situations. There is one very early series of Patti Don’t Touch Here showing her leaning against the wall, looking subdued and thoughtful, possibly taken by a very possessive friend/partner/lover. Many off the Polaroid images were snapshots, taken in the moment and for the moment. Speed of production was the thing.

dont touch
Robert Mapplethorpe – Don’t Touch Here © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe took self-portraits throughout his career. They were often partially veiled or broken into fragments, he would hand colour parts of the images, and take his body from unusual angles. While he was a certainly free with the types of images he took, with much play acting there was only a limited amount of true self disclosure. In an interview in 1987 he said ‘I would never take a self-portrait when I was depressed…. I don’t want to see that part of me’ (Wolf, 2019). Does all the highly explicit imagery do as much to conceal as to show?

As well as continuing to take homoerotic images mainly of the gay, male s/m community, (which he was an active and enthusiastic part of) Mapplethorpe also circulated in the art and culture high society, taking a series of portraits of the rich and famous, film stars and artists. He excelled in showing their hidden personality. Mapplethorpe was interested in art history and collected photographs by a range of people, including Julia Margaret Cameron and Minor White. He often used these interests to inform his photography, posing people to replicate statues or earlier art works, such as James Ford in his bathtub – like the Death of Marat painting by Jaqueline-Louis David. He also continued to photograph still life images, often showing them in elaborate frames. He moved to using a Hasselblad with its square format and increased clarity, while taking more images of the famous, posed against neutral backgrounds. He had moved from the immediacy of the Polaroid images to producing perfection in gelatin silver prints.

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

His work became famous and was regularly shown all over the world. He also produced books and limited run portfolios. Many of his exhibitions were contentious, and some were cancelled as being ‘pornographic’ (which they undoubtedly were) – although this raises the ongoing question about whether pornography and art are mutually exclusive. Can they be? And indeed, should they be? Where is the boundary and what side are many of Mapplethorpe’s images on?

Mapplethorpe kept careful control of his work, and, although he did not produce prints himself, was heavily involved in what they looked like, and how many of each edition should be offered. Many of his images were never printed for sale. He was fascinated by symmetry, form and geometry – which the square format of the Hasselblad lent itself to. However, he did not just take nudes, he also took a wide range of portraits and still life images. He always looked for perfection. Something different – he said in 1978 “I want the person to look at least as interesting as they can look… I try to catch something unique in him that no one else has” (Mapplethorpe, 1978, quoted in Robert Mapplethorpe, The Photographs, p57).

Mapplethorpe contracted AIDS and died in 1989, setting up The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation just before he died. Prior to his death he continued to work intensively but concentrated more on still life images of flowers and sculptures. His images remain a fascinating legacy of a complex man.

References and Sources:

Hartley, K. and National Galleries Of Scotland (2006). Robert Mapplethorpe -National Galleries of Scotland to accompany the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe held in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, from 29 July to 5 November 2006. Edinburgh Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art.

Mapplethorpe, R., Martineau, P., Salvesen, B., Gefter, P., Katz, J.D., Linkof, R., Meyer, R., Squiers, C., Getty, P., County, A. and Musée Des Beaux-Arts De Montréal (2016). Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs. Los Angeles, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum.

National Galleries of Scotland. (2019). ARTIST ROOMS Self Evidence | Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Jul. 2019].

Wolf, S. (2019). Mapplethorpe – Polaroids. Prestel.


August Sander – Portraits

Sander’s portraits of people were mainly done as part of his study of ‘types’ – although he also produced numerous images of friends and colleagues (many of which were then included in his portfolio of type)s.

Looking at them overall (at least the ones I have access to) the majority are either full length or ¾ length. Few are just heads. Most of them are standing, but several, especially the older people, are seated. Out of the 60 images in Face of Our Time:

  • 37 are single people
  • 13 are couples (including 2 of a mother and child)
  • 10 are groups (including several families)

The backgrounds are variable, while many are shown in their environments, others are shown against a simple wall or curtain, with few clues as to where the image was taken. They are simply titled, often with just a designation such as Odd-Job Man  or The Young Business Man. Few are identified by name, and those tend to be the images of people that I assume he knew well, such as Bohemians (Willi Bonnard and Gottfried Brockmann), 1922-1925 although in my copy of Face of Our Time this is simply listed as Bohemia.

 Analysing some of the images individually it is clear that he varied his practice depending on what effect he wanted to produce.

  1. Odd-job Man, also called The Bricklayer. This is a very simple layout. It is a ¾ length portrait, against a black background. The man is looking directly at you, eye to eye. He carries a pallet of bricks balanced on his shoulders and is dressed in (clean) workman’s clothes with a cap partly shading his face. His expression is unsmiling, almost severe. He is identified by the tools of his trade and his clothes. The focal point is on his face and although the bricks remain sharp the rest of his body fades into the background.

    August Sander – Odd-job Man
  2. Painter (Anton Räderscheidt). This is a full-length image of a man standing, with his arms at his sides, facing you directly. Here he is carefully placed within his background, a street in Cologne, taken in the early morning. The painter is in the lower right 1/3 of the image, with his bow tie just about on the midline. The street is much lighter in colour and fades into the background. The figure almost forms a silhouette, but there is enough detail left in for it to be recognisable. His face remains the sharpest point of the image, although there is not a huge change across the foreground (there might be more in a larger copy). It is said to be in the style of Räderscheidt’s own paintings.

    August Sander – Painter
  3. The Pianist (Max van de Standt). This is a full-length image. Here the pianist is in a commanding central position. He faces you directly, but the angle of the image makes it appear as though he is looking down on you. He is not smiling and looks very stern. He wears a formal black suit, a bowler hat and a white bow tie. He carries a book (possibly a manuscript) – to suggest the idea of a musician and a walking stick. He is standing inside a grand room, with large windows and what appear to be panelled walls. His head and his right hand (holding the walking stick) are sharply in focus, the rest of his body slightly less so. The background is completely out of focus but retains enough detail to make you think of a concert hall, or a room within a mansion.

    August Sander – Painter
  4. Bohemians (Willi Bonnard and Gottfried Brockman). This image is of two men, probably in their late 20’s. They were artists associated with the Cologne Dada movement and known for their unconventional lifestyle. They are seated, showing just their bodies and heads, facing each other, against a pale wall. The left-hand male has his hands resting on the others calves and is looking directly at him. His face, sideways on to the viewer, is very sharp and is the focal point of the image. The right-hand man is looking sideways, showing a ¾ face to the viewer, with a somewhat quizzical look. He is slightly less in focus. This image is easy (and tempting) to make up a story about. They are lovers. The left man is totally focused on and besotted with the other. The right man is more bohemian, less intensely involved, more aware of his surroundings. Thinking about other people. Of course, this is all a supposition, but the image encourages that. The only props are the cigarettes dangled in both men’s hands – but smoking was common in that era.

    August Sander – Bohemians
  5. Secretary, 1945. This image shows a young woman seated at a desk in front of a window, which overlooks a park. She is positioned on the left third of the image, with her neck on the midline. She is glancing up at the viewer, in a ¾ pose, with her hands still resting on the book she was reading. The room looks surprisingly sumptuous for a secretary’s office, possibly her home, or she works in the study at her employer’s house. The focus is on her face, but also on her hands. The background fades away. She looks serious, and studious. This image was taken either just at the end of the war, or just after it. It was a serious time in Germany, and this reflects that.

    August Sander – Secretary
  6. Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne, 1931. This earlier image is a complete contrast to the one above. It shows a person, that I initially thought from the hands and Adam’s apple was male, in what appears to be a floral dress. However, it is a woman, and was included as such in his portfolio. The National Gallery of Scotland website describes it as ‘Her dark silk dress decorated with floral embroidery, the secretary perches awkwardly with hunched shoulders on a wooden chair, smoking a cigarette. Her upheld right hand is drawn almost to her lips, which are slightly parted as if in exhalation. With her short hair, lipstick and carefully shaped eyebrows, this ‘Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne’ is a very fashionable woman, who may be seen as representing the ‘new’ woman of the day, much like Otto Dix’s painting ‘Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden’ (1926). The flat plane of the matt white wall behind her frames the gleaming satin folds of her garment, while Sander’s crop accentuates his subject’s tall thin frame, despite her slouched posture, in a portrait that emanates glamour and poise.’ All of the above I agree with; she is certainly very glamourous. She is shown in a commanding position. The only prop is a cigarette. The focus is on her eyes. There is an alternate image of her in a slightly different pose that looks much softer and more feminine.
  7. Pastrycook. This image is clearly of a workman with his tools. He stands, face forward, dressing in his chef’s clothing, stirring a bowl. He is in his kitchen. There is a plate of small cakes on the counter behind him. The focus is on him and the background is out of focus. He is in control of his workplace and wants you to see this. He is a large man, in keeping with his trade, and a proud one. The background makes it obvious what his job is – and encouragers the idea of a type.

    Pastrycook 1928, printed 1999 by August Sander 1876-1964
    August Sander – Pastrycook
  8. Vagrants, 1929. This shows two men in the countryside. They are somewhat scruffily dressed and unshaven. The images are full length and take up most of the picture. They both look directly at you. They both carry walking sticks and one a backpack. The countryside behind them is out of focus, so they stand clearly against it. Both heads are above the skyline and stand out clearly against a cloudless sky. He has caught them with tired, almost exhausted expressions.

    August Sander – Vagrants

Interestingly, although all these images are recognisable as Sander’s work, he has not used a formulaic process in taking them. Some show backgrounds, some do not. On the whole the images of the more upper class and professional people are less likely to have very explicit backgrounds, but that does not always hold true – The Tycoon shows him seated, sidewards in his luxurious room, with the focus as much on the elaborate embroidered chair as on the man, while Cleaning Woman  is shown against a wall, with only what appears to be a broom handle to mark her trade. Most of the faces (even of the children) are unsmiling, often stern – but that was the expected face for a portrait in that era. The exceptions here are his images of circus workers who are often smiling or looking at each other rather than at the camera. The thing that is consistent throughout is that the focus is always on the person and usually on the face. He used depth of field very effectively to lift the subject from the background so while the surrounds can give additional information, they are not the main event. That is always the person.

For an interesting extended discussion  on Sander’s Types and the images produced see:

August Sander: “A Profile of the People” (2002)

References and Sources:

National Galleries of Scotland. (2019). Secretary at West German Radio, Cologne, 1931. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Jul. 2019].

Sander, A. (2011). Face of our Time: sixty portraits of twentieth-century Germans. London: Schirmer Art Books.

Sander, A., Conrath-Scholl, G., Sk Stiftung Kultur. Photographische Sammlung and Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (2009). August Sander: Seeing, Observing and Thinking: photographs. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel; Cologne.

August Sander – A short review

August Sander’s documentary project ‘People of the 20th Century’ was an attempt to sketch society in Germany at that time. He produced portfolios of ‘typical’ people organised by social categories (he also did the same with landscapes).

Sander (1876 – 1964) was born in Herdorf of working-class parents. He initially worked on a waste mining tip and did photography in his spare time. He moved to Linz in Austria, travelled and worked in a photographic studio. He had a very active cultural life – he was now consorting with a range of people from the professional classes and other artists. From as early as 1906, when he held an exhibition, he was already photoing people in their own domestic settings as well as in a studio. He returned to Germany 1920, initially living in Cologne and moving permanently to the countryside during the WWII air raids.

Secretary at West German Radio, Cologne – August Sander

Sander used a large format camera and planned his images very carefully, trying to reflect real life. He collected the images with a goal ‘to provide a true psychology of our time and of our people’ (Sander, 1925). His plan was to produce a massive work, containing somewhere between 500 and 600 pictures called Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century) that was divided into 7 sections. He was looking at taking images of human ‘types’ that were true to nature, he did not want to distort reality but was happy to ensure that an interesting image was made and was undoubtably influenced by the painters of his age including the Surrealists. He was interested in understanding the theory of photography and its use as a way of communication. The concept of ‘types’ and the underpinning use of physiognomy (the pseudo-science that suggested that you could tell much, or all, about a person by the shape of their head and face) has a complicated ethical stance, and has been linked with the eugenics policy of Weimar Germany and the Nationals Socialists.  Interestingly, very few of Sander’s portraits show a typically Aryan type.

Painter [Heinrich Hoerle] 1928,  by August Sander
Painter [Heinrich Hoerle] 1928, by August Sander – one of the Persecuted

His life was impacted on by political situation, friends were imprisoned, some died in concentration camps, his own son, Erich, was imprisoned and died before his release. It is difficult to know what Sander’s position politically was. Before the war he was strongly engaged with the artists, (especially the group known as the Cologne Progressives who were associated with Marxist views), other intellectuals and the ‘left’ culture. His relationship with the Cologne Progressives, his multiple photographs of them and of their work is discussed in detail by Dorothy Rowe (Rowe, 2013). His son had very clear political views and was imprisoned for them. Sander himself took a series of photographs of the Jews and included them within a group called ‘The Persecuted ‘. It is undoubtedly true that what he could publish during the time of the National socialist rule was limited and may well not have reflected his inner thoughts.  Certainly, later he planned to include images of both the persecuted and political prisoners in his portfolio.  His political ideals and morals are discussed at length in an article by Rose-Carol Washton Long (Long, 2013) who argues that although Sander did not openly write about his political beliefs, his friendships, photographs of prisoners and the persecuted and the arrangement of images within his portfolio suggests that he had much more sympathy with the left wing than is commonly thought true. There is an interesting article on this section of his portfolio at:

From August Sander, Stirring Portraits of Nazis and Jews

Sander’s book Face of Our Time was criticised by the German National Socialist government as it did not show the ideals they ascribed to, and the printing blockers were destroyed and as many copies as could be traced also destroyed. This has now been re-issued by Schirmer Art Books with a translation of the foreword by Alfred Döblin (Sander and Döblin, 2003). Döblin remarks that Sander follows the tenants of the Realists, that is, ‘the great universals are effective and real’ and therefore he has, by means of his photographs and the way he has arranged them, formed a sociological history of his time. The types that are photographed now (1920-30’s) are, with the exception of farmers, different from those that could have been photographed 100 years ago and presumably, if the argument for ‘types’ holds true, are different from those that could be photographed now. He ends by saying ‘Entire stories could be told about many of these photographs, they are asking for it, they are raw material for writers, material that is more stimulating and more productive than many a newspaper report’ (Sander and Döblin, 2003).

The Rhine loop near Boppard
The Rhine loop near Boppard – August Sander

Although he is mostly remembered for his portraits, he took pictures of places, landscapes and nature with equal precision. He was interested in showing life as a whole and how it fitted together. He took images of uncluttered nature and of the human encroachment on it. A bridge is as valid as a forest as a quarry.  He didn’t just take the pretty images, the picturesque as many earlier photographers did. ‘Life as it’ is could be taken as his motto. He also was interested in the fine details of things; hands, texture of skin, parts of plants. He documented his time in its entirety, concentrating on local images of people and places to stand for the ‘types’ he felt important.

Hands – August Sander

As well as taking images he painted, drew, wrote about photography and gave lectures (some of these on the radio). His lecture Photography as a Universal Language is available in a translation by Anne Halley (Halley1978) in Seeing, Observing and Thinking (Sander et al, 2009). It is a fascinating insight into his thoughts, starting from the development of language and social reasoning. He says ‘pictorial language….is the most suggestive medium for advertising or coming to an understanding or achieving an end, because the image provides faster orientation than written language…….via photography we are capable of conveying fact, our thoughts and our ideas to all the peoples of the world: add a date to it, and we’re capable of capturing world history’.  He describes it as ‘a global language’, understandable by the masses. There is a clear western, European, intellectual bias here in his thoughts as he makes a number of unfounded assumptions about the universality of understanding of images, and also that the ‘masses’ ware less likely to understand written explanations. However, these biases are understandable in the context of his time and background. He is also clearly aware that photographs can lie, ‘besides its significance as proof of truth, photography also has at it’s disposal the most dangerous potential for deception’.  Sander then talks at length about the innate ability of people to understand what people are like on first impressions, from how they look, from their ‘physiognomy’ (at which he thinks females are better at than males).  He thinks that the face tells you what kind of work a person does (the theory behind his dividing people into ‘types’). He includes an assumption that this also applies to a person’s political beliefs. He feels this only holds true if you do not attempt to confound the images by dressing people up or putting them in clothes from another era. He concludes ‘By means of seeing, observing and thinking, and with the aid of a camera and a date, we can capture world history and influence all of humanity by means of photography as a global language’.

While Sander’s political views are unclear, they were grounded in the complex and changing political situation of the time. His ideas about ‘types’ of people were also associated with the current thoughts in Germany and are of dubious relevance today. He did, however, take a vast number of fascinating images and his thoughts about ‘seeing, observing and thinking’ are as valid today as they were in his lifetime.


Reference list and sources:

Halley, A. (1978). Photography as a Universal Language. Massachusetts Review, Winter 1978, pp.663–679.

Long, R.-C.W. (2013). August Sander’s Portraits of Persecuted Jews – Tate Papers | Tate. [online] Tate. Available at: [Accessed 13 Jul. 2019].

Photography as a Universal language, (1931). Westdeutscher Rundfunk. 12 Apr.

Rowe, D.C. (2013). August Sander and the Artists: Locating the Subjects of New Objectivity – Tate Papers | Tate. [online] Tate. Available at:

Sander, A. (1925). Letter from Sander to Erich Stenger.

Sander, A., Conrath-Scholl, G., Sk Stiftung Kultur. Photographische Sammlung and Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (2009). August Sander : Seeing, Observing and Thinking : Photographs. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel ; Cologne.

Sander, A. and Döblin, A. (2003). August Sander: Face of our time : Sixty Portraits of Twentieth-Century Germans. München: Schirmer/Mosel.

Sander, A., Sander, E. and Nunez, G.B. (2018). August Sander – Persecuted/Persecutors : people of the 20th century. Gottingen: Steidl.


Notes on Ovenden -John Thomson (1837-1921) – Photographer

Notes  taken from the book John Thomson (1837-1921) – Photographer by Richard Ovenden

  • The quality which strikes the viewer most is his ability to get under the skin, so to speak, of whoever, or whatever, he was photographing (p.vii)
  • His photography on the streets of London seeking to examine the self of the great city, the soul of the British empire (p. Xii)
  • Wet collodion
  • Born in Edinburgh, working class family, initially apprenticed as an optician, attended the `school of Arts, studying natural philosophy, then maths and chemistry
  • Travelled initially to Singapore to work with brother acted as a photographer, travelling widely, went to Siam took pictures of the royal family, Cambodia (note typical European disregard for native cultures
  • 1866 back to Britain, started writing and showed pictures and lecturing
  • Returned to Far East in 1867, Vietnam then Hong Kong china. Pictures, landscapes, the poor, the monasteries
  • Back home 1872
  • The camera should be a power in this age of instruction for the instruction of age…. Photography is alike a science of light and a light of science… (p. 29)
  • Started producing books and magazine articles, initially all about his `eastern travels, also lots of lectures
  • 1876 started the project on the street life of London, produced as a monthly periodical
  • Next 40 years mainly spent photographing the society elite, including royal family, connections with the Royal Geographic Society allowed for more articles and also portraits of explorers
  • Travel and associate photography linked from very early days, often via the grand tours made by aristocratic sons Thompson however was a lone traveller, a freelancer
  • Romantic appeal of ruins, initially in Ankor Wat, often used a high viewpoint, impressed with technology of original builders,
  • Some images show a sense of loss and melancholy, picturesque
  • Interested in old places and architecture still being used e.g. bridges, monasteries
  • Photos of the street, physical aspects, social
  • Used types to categorise the lower orders! So, did he give realistic documentation? Started similar images in Asia, notable racial stereotyping and insensitivity but common to the era. Gradually more sophisticated and more aware of the economic conditions
  • Often took pictures of older women, and does talk about them as individuals, also boatmen showing a degree of sympathy to their difficulties
  • Took some ethnographic images, reverting again to types in Formosa
  • Peking multiple street images and interest in poor. Trying to show the reality of life on the street
  • Went on to take pictures of street scenes in London. Done in context of lots of Victorian writing about the problems there.
  • Smith well experienced in journalism and connected with the social reform movements (p.79). Lots of parliamentary talk, little effect.
  • Interested in street traders. Did put people outside of the rest of society.
  • Probably partly based on previous work by Mayhew London labour and the London poor illustrated by wood-engraving
  • Comments by S and T “ nor, as our national wealth increases, can we be too frequently reminded of the poverty that never less still exists in our midst” (p. 81) from preface to street Life
  • Other photographers also documented the working class e.g. Newhaven project, many people concentrated on the buildings, ~Annan’s Glasgow.
  • Reproduced by Woodburytype process giving rich tones and sharpness
  • Images inevitably staged, partly because of restrictions of equipment, use of fast lenses with short depth of field. Also crowd control and multiple distractions
  • Very much used types (continued right up to Sander) but the accompanying essays do talk about the specific people in great detail, does not sentimentalise them
  • Westminster review ‘it is to be remarked as worthy of all praise that these pictures of London life are free from the patronising characteristic spirit so repulsively pervading even popular and useful writers’ (p88)
  • Long history of formal portraiture from king of Siam onward, helped with access. He was aware of the customs of the country ie straight on with no shadows in China
  • Also took formal photos of street people
  • London portraits helped by royal connection!!!!
  • Landscape images probably influenced by other photographers as well as by contemporary painters – notion of the picturesque. He felt the photographer had to act as an artist not just a recorder. Collected Chinese scroll paintings and probably influenced by this style. Interested in pattern and texture.


Ovenden, R., Puttnam, D. and Gray, M. (1997). John Thomson (1837-1921) photographer. Edinburgh: National Library Of Scotland, The Stationery Office.


John Thomson – Street Life in London

Tickets - the Card Dealer
“Tickets” the Card Dealer John Thomson

John Thomson (1837 – 1921) was born in Edinburgh from a working-class family and ended up one of Queen Victoria’s photographers. During his remarkable life he worked as an optical glass technician ,  ran a photography shop in Singapore, travelled widely in the Far East, took pictures of both notable figures such as the King of Siam and Chinese mandarins and street workers, together with images of the scenery and buildings – all while carrying the cumbersome equipment need for the wet collodion process and both making and fixing the glass plates in temporary accommodation. On his return to Britain he resided in London, initially lecturing, writing articles and producing books about his travels then taking  images of the London street people which were published in a series of magazines accompanied by articles by Adolphe Smith, while at the same time taking formal portraits of the great and good of London, including Queen Victoria and her family.

Thomson’s street images are some of the earliest examples of social documentary photography. He was preceded in Scotland by Hill and Adamson with their images of Newhaven fisherfolk, these very picturesque images are limited to a very small subsection of the population and also by both Thomas Annan, with his pictures of Glasgow slums, and Archibald Burns’s images of the Edinburgh tenements. However, both Annan and Burns concentrated on the buildings and the people are only shown fleetingly, if at all. Thomson’s images, accompanied as they were by extensive essays by Smith, tell much more about the background and lives of the people he photographed. Richard Ovenden, in his extensive work on Thomson says ‘His photography on the streets of London (is) seeking to examine the self of the great city, the soul of the British empire. John Thomson’s journeys were dominated by the quest for light…….and he found light in both the outer reaches of Asia…… and the underbelly of Victorian London’ (Ovenden, Puttnam and Gray, 1997, p.xii).

In the book Street Life in London  Thomas and Smith say in the preface ‘We are aware we are not the first on the field…..we have sought to portray these harder phases of life, bringing to bear the precision of photography in illustration of our subject…….to enable us to present true types of London poor and shield us from the accusation of either underrating or exaggerating individual peculiarities of appearance’ (Thomson and Smith, 1877).  In an article by the Westminster review, quoted in Ovenden, the unknown  author says ‘ it is to be remarked as worthy of all praise that these pictures of London life are free from the patronising characteristic spirit so repulsively pervading even popular and useful writers’  (Ovenden, Puttnam and Gray, 1997, p88).  Leach says ‘All of the photographs in Street Life in London display John Thomson’s characteristic visual acuity. He was by this time highly versed in his craft, having for many years lived the life of the consummate photographer-explorer….This odyssey seems to have brought fresh insight into the perception and understanding of his homeland, motivating him to use his camera to show the viewing public not that which they could never see, but that which they chose not to see.’ (Leach, 2016).

The  most famous image from Street Life  is The Crawlers , a very striking image showing an apparently elderly and destitute female holding an infant in a classic Madonna and Child pose, although, in this case,  we learn from the accompanying essay that the two are not related, but that she is looking after the child for another previous denizen of the streets who has a managed to obtain some work.

However, there are several other fascinating images. One of those images, and the one that holds my attention, is that of “Tickets” the Card -Dealer. It shows an middle aged and somewhat scruffy gentleman, holding a paintbrush and working on painting a sign for a fruit seller.  Tickets is not looking straight at you, as was the convention in much portraiture at that time, rather he is looking downwards at his work. His expression is melancholy, and he looks exhausted. His hair is untidy, and in spite of the image being taken indoors he is wearing a heavy coat. The only area of brightness and gaiety in the picture is a flowering plant in a bucket. Although this image was taken almost 150 years ago it could be a picture of any person down and depressed today. The gentle author in his Spitalfields Life series comments ‘When I look at these vital pictures, I am always startled by the power of the gaze of those who look straight at the lens and connect with us directly, while there is a plangent sadness to those with eyes cast down in subservience, holding an internal focus and lost in time’ (gentle author, 2011) – this perfectly describes the look on the face of Tickets. Tickets life, as discussed at length in the accompanying article, is not  one of a bad man, or a lazy one , simply one who has had recurring episodes of bad luck which has led him to travel around the world from his native Paris, via America and back to Britain, intending to travel on to France, but arriving here just in time to discover that the political climate in Frances made it unwise to return there. He is left in a life he does not want, in a place that is not his own, having to cope with the despair that causes. The photograph perfectly shows this while being gentle and understanding rather than patronising or sentimentalising the situation.

The images in Street Life were printed using the Woodburytype process. This photomechanical printing process was renowned for its lasting nature as well as the sharp, saturated images in a reddish-brown colour. The sharpness is enhanced by the slight relief between areas caused by the process.  For a detailed description of the process see:

This process, and the details it allows for , emphasise the skill of Thomson, taking pictures of people using a slow and heavy camera, while out in the street and needing to not only direct the people he was photographing, but also managing the inevitable crowd control caused by the curiosity produced by using a relatively new process in a poor area as at that time most photography was still either studio based or a hobby of the wealthy.


“Tickets” – the Card-Dealer is a beautiful image, taken by a remarkable and skilled photographer who, as well as taking images of landscapes, buildings and the rich and famous, used his skills to highlight areas of social injustice. He was one of the first to do so. In Overton’s words ‘The quality which strikes the viewer most is his ability to get under the skin, so to speak, of whoever, or whatever, he was photographing’ (Ovenden, Puttnam and Gray, 1997,  p.vii) and he used this to try to help people. We would do well to emulate both his skills and his ethos.


Anon (1877). Politics, Sociology, Voyages and Travels. The Westminster Review, 52.

gentle author (2011). John Thomson’s Street Life in London | Spitalfields Life. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Jul. 2019].

Leach, G. (2016). The Crawlers: The Genesis of Social Documentary Photography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Jul. 2019].

Ovenden, R., Puttnam, D. and Gray, M. (1997). John Thomson (1837-1921) photographer. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, The Stationery Office.

Stulik, D. and Kaplan, A. (2013). WOODBURYTYPE. [online] Available at:

Thomson, J. and Smith, A. (1877). Street life in London. London: Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington.



A Square Mile -update

A Square Mile – A Walk in the Park

I did the Square Mile exercise at the very beginning of this course of study, now over 2 years ago. At the time I was pleased with it. It was the first time I had done a piece of work that was designed to ‘tell a story’ for many years. Looking back, while I still think it was interesting (I focused on the very changeable weather in a Scottish spring) in reality the images did not tell much about the local area and what it means to me. It was about the wider place – Scotland, and the time of year – spring, and the weather – variable!

If I redid this exercise now – and I might yet do so – I would concentrate on the places that I go to and see regularly, my street, the local coffee shop, the comic book store, the library and the people I meet at these places. It would be an interesting exercise to stand outside my house and take pictures of everyone who walks along the street over a few hours. I might get some very odd looks and need to do a lot of explanation, but it would tell a lot about the area especially if I got a little bit of information from everyone – who they were, what they did, and why they were there.

Simply thinking about this shows how much my attitudes to photography have changed over the 2 years and also how much my confidence has grown. At that stage I would not have thought about asking relative strangers to allow me to take pictures of them – now I am considering the implications and the need for a card to give them together with an information sheet on the project!

Theories of Identity

Theoretical Underpinning of identity:

A person’s identity is made up of a series of layers that come from a combination of genes, early nurture and experience as an adult.

Humans are a species that has more capability for conscious thought (as far as we are aware) than any other species on outer planet.  Susan Black says, ‘Humans belong to the group of conscious beings that are carbon-based, solar system dependent, limited in knowledge, prone to error and mortal’ (Black, 2018). As part of our make-up we have an identity, which is part physical, part psychological and part social. Erickson, a behavioural psychologist working in the 1050’s  (quoted in Black, 2018) defined identity as ‘either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and (alleged) characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) socially distinguishing features that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or (a) and (b) at once).’  That is, he is saying that identity is a social construct dependent on the groups you belong to and the things you are interested in. Black, however, argues that the physical identity of a person is equally important and asks, ‘How much alteration can a biological entity sustain while remaining recognisable as the same individual and maintaining its traceable identity?’ (Black, 2019).

Maintaining your identity is important and is emphasised in the multiple stories from around the world of lost, stolen or fake identities both couched as history and as fiction, often in folklore. This means names (as a crucial part of our identity) are central and finding out that our name is ‘fake’ may be very traumatic. Our name and heritage are our base, our bedrock and it should not be made of sand! The importance of our perceived heritage can make a profound impact on who we are.


Our initial identity comes from our genes. Our genetic code is very similar to that of  chimpanzees and the other great apes who are tribal species where the strongest aim to be the leader of the tribe and may be very aggressive in obtaining that goal but when they get there they will often protect the weaker members, while still remaining aggressive to outsiders.


Behaviour is believed to be caused by environment. As humans we absorb the stories that flow around our culture to make sense of who we are and what we want to be. In Europe this follows on from the Ancient Greek tradition of individuality featuring a strong person who aims to be a moral leader. This probably developed from the need to be an entrepreneur, because of the limited pastures and need for each small group of people to be self sufficient. Aristotle shows that individuality was key. There was also frequent engagement with foreigners and different beliefs systems and values that allowed further for the development of individuality (provided you were rich and strong enough). This is thought of as the ‘independent construal – the inherent separateness of distinct persons. (Markus and Kitayama, 1991)

This was very different from ancient China with its wide pastoral areas and need for large projects and grand schemes. Group harmony was paramount rather than individuality. Harmony came from people who knew their place in life and stuck to it. Confucius was a major exponent of this. Identity is part of a group! This concept continues to hold in much of the  Eastern world even today and may lead a very different views of  of who you are and how you should interact with others with a need to consider multiple perspectives and seeing things in a wider context rather than as single objects and a simple right or wrong in the Western world. This as described as the ‘interdependent construal – the fundamental connectedness of human beings to each other’ (Markus and Kitayama, 1991).

There are similar variances in other cultures even on a relatively small scale. Southern USA males are often said to be more belligerent than northern ones, northern Chinese people who live in small communities are said to be more individualistic than southern ones who rely on large communities to work the large paddy fields.

These theories of the development of identity are very broad based and obviously do not explain individual variation but may well underpin some of it.


A person’s identity consists of an internal interpreter which makes up stories to explain why things happen and the underlying emotions and drives. In the modern world, especially in the west, there is an assumption that you can (and should) be a hero. A star of your own story. Be perfect. There is a (wrong) assumption that everybody thinks like you do. This has led to a massive ‘wellness’ industry. It is true that meaningful core projects (work, hobbies, religion – it varies from person to person) do act to improve our well being and are essential to our sense of self identity. However, the self (your identity) is formed from series of overlapping layers that often seeks validation from others. Your ‘self’ changes depending on where you are, your role and on how other people are treating you.

The onset of personal computers and the internet was a game changer. You are visible and have to be the best at everything, perfect or others see that you are not! The problem is that we end up judging others very harshly. No time or space for the underdog. We lose sight of the fact that we a a social species and depend on others and also that what we do impacts on a lot of people. Individual responsibility is a myth. This has led to the development of a new pattern of identity especially in the younger generations. The selfie people, where the ambition is to be known!  Social media plays on that, and also on a the (very basic) need for tribal approval.


How much of our personality is due to genetics? How much nurture? Behaviour is a combination of situation and genes.  People are not all the same. Identity is a core part of your person and is undoubtedly partly secondary to your background. Showing a person’s identity therefore becomes complex. A simple snapshot can only show a fragment, but will a million images tell anything more?


Black, S. (2018). All That Remains. [Place of publication not identified]: BLACK SWAN.

Markus, H. and Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), pp.224-253.

Storr, W. (2017). Selfie. London: Picador.




Grayson Perry – Picturing Identities

Grayson Perry (born 1960) is an English multimedia artist who, among his large oeuvre, specialises in making portraits. His portraits are not, however, simple representations of a face or a body.  He spends considerable time with the person, or group of people that he intends to portray, getting to know them, talking to their friends and colleagues, joining in with their activities and, probably most importantly, thinking before making an image, which might be a piece of pottery, a tapestry or a painting.

Perry is known for his eclectic persona. He is a transvestite (and proud of it) and a television personality. He comments on the contemporary arts scene, and on what he sees as British prejudices. He has made several television programs about making art and portraiture, two of which All Man and Who We are as particularly fascinating. Unfortunately, episode 1 do Who We Are does not seem to be available for download on any source available in the UK, but episodes 2 and 3 are well worth watching.

Who We Are 2 looks at how you can show families in portraits.  He looks at 3 families

  • A religious group who act as an extended family and live together. Here he notes that ritual makes up an important part of their lives, together with the need to be accepting of others and also give things up to act as a single unit. He comments that ‘other people act as a mirror, a reflecting surface’ and that allows you to understand yourself and him to understand the group
    • He made a reliquary casket showing the caring aspect of the family, based on the older form of religious icons

      © Grayson Perry
  • A complex family unit of 2 white gay men raising a mixed-race child. This brought up issues about how you define yourself, both about race and the LGBTQ+ axis, together with the fact that society tends to put people ‘in pockets’ and to tell their story you need to tale the back out again. Identity is formed of multiple layers, a feeling rather than a conscious knowledge, and these need to be explored to make an image
    • He made a pottery jar showing the surrounding and caring aspect of a family

      © Grayson Perry
  • A couple of older people one of whom has Alzheimer’s disease. Here he looked at how the loss of memory affected identity. Taking away the layers, especially when you loose professional accomplishments. Identity then starts to rely on the memories of others – but the carer can also then loose (or change) their own identity, becoming a shadow. Your identity can also be part of being a couple – so if this is lost it changes – Alzheimer’s is described as “ a random bombing raid on the whole of the mind”.
    • He made a funeral urn for memories, composed of multiple photo shattered and cut apart, then recomposed.

Who We Are 3 looks at tribes, groups of people whose identity is bound up in their culture.

  • Belfast people – where portraits that reflect the past violence are still everywhere. Symbols tell a story, might be tattoos, might be clothes. Possibly an ‘old-fashioned view of what Britishness is, and very different from the view in other parts of Britain. Thinking about how identical I’d affected by where you live, especially by where you were born.
    • He made a flag that was in many ways a caricature, wondering if humour could help the situation, but a risk of it being offensive

      © Grayson Perry
  • Obese women – looking at how your identity is fashioned by what other people think of you. How your body can make you an outsider, a negative impact similar to the effect the one that other minority groups get from the world. Being in a group allows acceptance and may improve confidence with a positive effect on mental health.
    • He made a series of statues, playing on the theme of the Willendorf Venus. Objects of beauty.

      © Grayson Perry
  • Deaf people who have their own culture based on a visual not spoken language and which can be very different. Not hearing is often seen as a disability but should be considered a difference. There can be a conflict between cultures especially if you are born into one but live within another. How does that impact on your identity? It becomes an internal (and external) negotiation.
    • He made a very visual and colourful silk screen printing based on a set of hearing aid covers

All Man 1 looked at the identity men give themselves.  He looked closely at the culture of extreme ‘macho’ men including cage fighters. The surface personality may be very brutal but underneath the person may be very gentle. The fighter described “being broken inside” and “its all we have left’ coming from a run-down, working class area with little opportunities for work remaining.  The risk of suicide is high. Men are not encouraged to recognise their feelings. He made a banner that echoed the banners that are still paraded in the villages and towns and also a very ‘frilly’, gentle pot, a very feminine object to commemorate the life (and death) of a man who couldn’t cope and who had killed himself. A masculine banner and a feminine pot. Cloth and pottery. Hard and soft. Both working together to tell the story.

© Grayson Perry


Both series showed the depth of investigation required to produce a meaningful piece of artwork that told a story of the person or group of people and their lives. Emotion is needed, both from the person and the artist. A connection of some sort needs to be formed. To make a good portrait you need to be part detective, part psychologist.  You need to look at what the person shows to the world, and also what is underneath it, consider their lives and the lives of other around them and the culture they live in now together with the one they were born into. Not a simple task.

A New Start

Identity and Place is the third part of year 1 of my photography degree with OCA. So far I have taken about 15 months per section. I hope to manage this one in the same time frame, although, as always it will depend on external circumstances. There is a lot of studying to be done. A lot of images to be made. A lot of thinking. The course is about identity – who you are, who other people are and how you can depict them, based on how that has happened in the past and how other artists are doing it now. It is also about place, and specifically how your identity is linked to places, and how identity may alter in different places.