Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


Assessment Result!

I got my assessment result email. You may be able to guess from the use of an exclamation mark in my title that I PASSED!

So that was a relief. I mean, I was pretty sure I would pass from the tutor feedback throughout and from my own self-critique / learning journey over the course, but it’s still a huge relief to see it confirmed.

I was a little disheartened when I saw the actual mark (62%) and the breakdown over the four assessment criteria. I realised with my reaction to the mark that I hadn’t really targeted or predicted a %, but evidently in my head I hoped for more than 62%!

Breakdown and comments

  • Demonstration of Technical & Visual Skills:
    • “Very competent technical and visual skills”
    • 27/40
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • “Competent realisation of ideas, presented well, showing consistency in judgement. Effective grasp of ideas and communication of visual ideas”
    • 12/20
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • “Some evidence of creativity, little evidence of risk-taking with a few imaginative outcomes, some evidence of a developing personal voice”
    • 11/20
  • Context:
    • “Evidence of self-reflection and research, and satisfactory ability to analyse and synthesise information”
    • 12/20

The overall comments at the end:

“Your commitment to the course is underlined by the ability to maintain an overall clean and geometric aesthetic throughout the assignments. The responses and re-edits suggested by your tutor have been well responded to and have improved each piece of work.

To be able to continue your development and working practice a better balance is needed between your technical competence and context / creativity of your thematic work. This will come through more research and the ability to analyse and self reflect on your work.”

My reactions

“Competent”, “effective” and “satisfactory” are the words that jumped out. I’d like to get better adjectives next time :-)

I must confess I was initially a little dismayed at being called out on a lack of creativity. However, I do need to take this on board and start to be braver, more experimental – more personal? – in my future efforts.

I’m pleased that I got a reasonably good mark on Technical & Visual Skills as I can now be confident that I’m getting to grips with that and can turn my attention and my learning to the more creative elements of photography.

One observation I had was that I thought the assessors were a little more critical / less forgiving that my tutor was; I subsequently found out from online forums that this is a common complaint and not limited to me or my tutor! I’ll take that on board and for future courses work on the assumption that my tutors may err on the side of encouragement rather than prepare you for the more critical eye of the assessor…!

In the end I realised that if this result scaled up to the final degree mark, I’d get a 2.1, which isn’t bad. I got a 2.1 on my first degree over 20 years ago, and that didn’t bother me too much!

SO – onwards and upwards! (I’m over halfway through People & Place already)



I finally got around to looking at the overall AOP results for the July assessment round. I know that photography isn’t a competitive sport :-) but my interest was piqued by Carol’s comment below that the marks were relatively low this year. So I thought I’d take a look at least for some context – although I still find the idea of comparing myself to others a little odd on a creative course!

Anyway – seeing the context did actually make me feel better! I was closer to the top of the list than I expected. Yes, the average marks were quite low, with two-thirds of students getting a 2.2 equivalent mark (50-59%) this time around. So I’m happier with my 62% now than I was when I looked at it in isolation…



Art of Photography: overall thoughts

I finished Art of Photography about two months ago and straight away got stuck into People & Place. I always meant to write this final AOP post to summarise and reflect on my learning experience over the course, and this week I’ve taken some time out to tidy up my AOP assignments ready for submission, and printed out the representative prints to send in the post. So it seems like a good time to sit down and get this ‘final thoughts’ post written…


My overwhelming feeling about Art of Photography is 100% positive! I’m SO glad I made the decision to get started on it. At the time I wasn’t sure if it was going to lead to continuing to the degree, I was very much taking it as a first step with no preconceptions. Now I am absolutely sure I want to take it all the way to degree, no matter how long it takes. I’ve really loved having new things to learn, and it’s re-opened a part of my mind that has lain dormant for far too long. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to find the time, but it’s never been a chore. A challenge sometimes, but never a chore.

Part 1: the Frame

It’s interesting looking back at my early photos from the start of the course. To be uncharacteristically immodest: my photography has most definitely improved! This section was very much about the real basics of composition and looking back, I was tentatively trying out new concepts without a huge amount of confidence or technical skill. It’s testament to how far I believe I’ve come that I’m actually faintly embarrassed by some of the images I published for the exercises and assignment in this section!

My favourite image from this section is the one below of the ducks on the riverboat.


Still: riverboat with ducks

Part 2: Elements of Design

This is the section that had the most profound impact on my developing photographic style. From this point on I started seeing the world divided into lines, shapes, points, patterns… I saw how positioning focal points on key diagonals could make a picture more impactful, and so on. I shot the whole section black and white as suggested, in order to focus on the design elements and composition, and this too helped my visual development – I now find it easier to ‘see’ in black and white. In fact sometimes I shoot in b/w JPG in camera for compositional purposes but actually use the colour image that I can develop from the Raw file. This section also introduced me in more detail to the work of a few very significant photographers, most notably Henri Cartier-Bresson. I love how he refers to the innate geometry of the world and the role of the photographer in ordering it in the frame.

There are lots of images from this section that I am proud of, but the one that I have printed out and is hanging above my head as I type is the exterior shot of York railway station.

York, exterior

York, exterior

Part 3: Colour

After the deep immersion into b/w for section 2, seeing the world in colour again was a bit of a jolt. I enjoyed all the colour theory aspects of this part of the course, how colours work together for harmony and dissonance. I had been vaguely aware of such rules but hadn’t really investigated or understood them until this section. The big general learning point for me on this section was about pre-visualisation: particularly for the assignment, I found myself imagining what images I wanted to achieve well before I saw them in real life. This is something I have continued to do ever since.

The image that always comes to mind when I think of the colour section of the course is the most ‘experimental’ one that I included in the assignment, which was singled out for praise by my tutor: the London nightscape from OXO Tower.

15. Contrasting

OXO Tower View

Part 4: Light

I confess I found this to be hardest section for me, especially when it needed artificial (photographic) light. There were a lot of exercises too, with very specific requirements (equipment and/or weather conditions) which made this section feel like a bit of hard slog. BUT! I’m very glad I persevered, as light is of course such an important aspect of photography that one MUST study it in order to better understand and harness it. The exercises and the assignment reinforced a view that I’d held for a long time, that I much prefer natural light to photographic light.

The best image I think I took over this section is probably the ‘texture’ one from the assignment – I like the eyes…

6. Texture: natural light

Texture: Natural Light

Part 5: Narrative & Illustration

I enjoyed this part of the course a lot actually, it let me develop my creative side a little bit! And the assignment was a pure joy to work on – lots of work, much more preparation and follow-up (selection, sequencing etc) than before, but totally worth it. What really came home to me in this section was how you can evoke an emotion, or spread a message, through the photographic choices you make. Until starting this course I was unsure of to what extent the photographer’s intent was really present, and to what extent the interpretations placed on photographic works were more in the mind of the viewer than the creator… but this section is where I began to realise the power of the deliberate intent behind a photo or a series of photos. I’m not saying I’ve mastered such a ‘storytelling’ skill myself at all yet, but just to be aware of the possibilities is powerful indeed.

My favourite shot of this last section is definitely the costumed dancing girl image from the assignment.


Dancing girl


I loved it! I learnt loads, I really fell in love with photography (more than I already was) and as a bonus, became better at it.

Anyway, that’s my Art of Photography experience over now (until I get the Assessment result – eek!)


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Books roundup



Over the Art of Photography course there’s been a lot of books I’ve bought / borrowed / downloaded, many of which I haven’t specifically written about in the form of a book review. Some of these are theoretical/critical textbooks, some are more practical, some are photobooks on a single photographer/project, others are compendiums of the great and good.

What I want to do here is summarise what I’ve got out of each of these books so far – I expect to revisit some in more detail as they become more relevant on future modules of the degree. These are roughly grouped in the following order: photographic theory; photographers; compendiums.

By the way, this is long so no need for anyone to read it unless you really want to. I’m mainly writing it up for my own benefit!

1. The Photograph, Graham Clarke

The book that came with the course notes, and so the first one I had a go at reading. As with Sontag below, I struggled at first as I needed to get into the right frame of mind for the content to really start making sense. I made notes on my initial reaction here – ‘a mix of fascinating, obtuse and pretentious’ is a reasonable summary of that early review! But it bears re-reading, and sinks in more when you have a better grounding in the overall context of photographic history and practice. Re-reading at the end of the course is highly recommended – only very small portions of the text now look obtuse or pretentious!

2. A Short History of Photography (Walter Benjamin)

I found this quite interesting on three specific points, all I think relating to the maturity of photography at the time of writing (it was under 100 years old as a medium). Firstly, he identifies aspects of photography that I believe people take for granted now, such as the ability to see what the naked eye cannot discern; secondly, he compares photography to other art forms, not simply the obvious one, painting, but also to writing and even to music – and his conclusions make you think about the medium in quite a different way; and thirdly, he writes from a standpoint that photography has already peaked, clearly ignorant of the decades of innovation that would follow! So interesting but limited.

3. On Photography (Susan Sontag)

Like Clarke, this hurt my brain at first but on second and third reading it made more and more sense – not that I agreed with everything! But you do have to read it to learn which bits you disagree with… it made me think about a photograph and what it ‘means’ more than I ever had before – and gave me a few new insights that resonated with me. See review here.

4. Understanding a Photograph (John Berger)

I’m still working through this so will reserve full judgement. It’s a collection of essays, but in a more fragmented sense than On Photography is – more of them, written over a long timespan, with disconnected themes. Some of the essays I was quite indifferent to (such as the analyses of specific photos) but the chapters on ‘Appearances’ and ‘Stories’ and the way he dissected (diagrammatically!) how good photographs work… these really resonated with me. So far I’ve found his writing to be more analytical and revealing than Sontag’s. I can see myself revisiting the chapters I’ve read, and maybe selectively reading other of the essays as they become pertinent to my studies.

5. Photography: A Critical Introduction (Liz Wells, ed.)

This, I confess, I struggled with more than any other. Very, very dry and academic, and needs a level of critical theory understanding that I’m not sure I possess yet. I’m afraid I only made it through chapter 1. I must come back to this as my studies progress…

6. The Photographer’s Mind (Michael Freeman)

Having already having read and enjoyed The Photographer’s Eye before I started my studies, I gave a copy of this follow-up to a friend as a birthday present… which I then very cheekily borrowed back recently. I’m only partway through but already I’m appreciating new levels of insight. He’s very good on ‘what makes a good photo?’ – the concepts of aesthetic norms, and what kinds of images are generally held to be pleasing to the eye – or not, as the case may be. I need to continue with this.

7. The Mind’s Eye (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

A slim volume to begin with, and 90% of the content is padding! The 10% that remains (all in Part 1: The Camera As Sketchbook) is however very insightful, as it articulates Cartier-Bresson’s philosophy to taking pictures. It stresses the importance of respect for the subject, and the need for ‘harmony’; he talks about “putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis” when taking a picture. The big thing I took away from his world view is how he talks about geometry; he prefers the term over ‘composition’ and muses on how photography can detect (rather than impose) the rhythms, patterns and lines that already exist in the real world – “if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless”.

8. Scrapbook (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

By far the most expensive book in my collection! And to be very honest, I’m not sure it’s worth the couple of hundred pounds that it goes for! I mean, it’s great – basically Cartier-Bresson curated by Cartier-Bresson. It’s a real education to pore over his selected images, looking for the elements that he saw in the scenes before him – the harmony, the geometry. And it’s beautifully presented. I just wish it was a bit more accessible, price-wise. More people should own this, but it’s prohibitively priced.

9. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer (Vivian Maier, John Maloof)

Fascinating insight into world of a seemingly untutored street photographer who never showed her work to anyone. Blog post reviewing this can be found here.

10. The Last Resort (Martin Parr)

The first of two recommended photo essays for the Narrative & Illustration part of the course, and this one covering a subject that resonated with me – northern seaside holidays in the 1980s! My thoughts on it are here.

11. The Americans (Robert Frank)

The second recommendation for the Narrative & Illustration, and to be honest I didn’t see the big deal of this at first. Repeated viewings of the images – and a sense of the prevailing context and photographic norms – do however reveal why this has such a groundbreaking reputation. I reviewed it here.

12. The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Charlotte Cotton)

I really liked this! It gave me a brilliant insight into the huge range of activity happening under the very broad heading of ‘contemporary photography’. It works really well as a counterpart to the ‘usual’ photography book, full of revered black-and-white prints from the acknowledged masters – this book shows how people are continually pushing at the edges of what photography is / can do / can mean. The nature of the majority of the work covered here falls into what I would call ‘staged’ subjects – as opposed to ‘found’ subjects (and to be honest this isn’t my preferred genre of photography; I am fundamentally more attracted to photography that finds ways to capture what’s there than I am to manufacturing something that I envisage will look good in a photo…) but you can’t deny the imagination on show here. It demonstrates one of the concepts that I picked up from Sontag actually: that the distinctive way of seeing that a photographer has is, in itself, something to admire – over and above individual images or even collected sets.

13. Street Photography Now (Sophie Howarth & Stephen McLaren)

For me this does for street photography what the Cotton book does for more ‘made’ photographic art: it shows the breadth of imagination and vision under one so-called genre. And frankly this kind of subject matter is more my cup of tea. The cliches of street photography – black and white, US cities – are augmented by a vast array of styles and subjects. Colour seems to dominate, abstract shapes and juxtapositions emerge, and the diversity in locations is testament to the ever-widening definition of ‘street’ photography. Very inspiring. Think I’ll come back to this a lot during People & Place.

14. Magnum Magnum (Brigitte Lardinois, ed.)

This is a fantastic compendium of Magnum photographers’ work, with an interesting twist: each photographer has their work curated and evaluated by another Magnum member. so it serves not only as a thorough (if eclectic) guide to the works of these acclaimed practitioners, it also gives an insight into what great photographers think makes a good photograph – what they see in the work of their peers or predecessors. So in each short chapter you feel like you’ve learned something about two photographers – the subject and the author.

15. Magnum Contact Sheets (Kristen Lubben, ed.)

Recommended by my tutor, this was possibly the biggest eye-opener to me. Up until getting this book, I had always assumed that the great photographers got it right in camera more often than not… but the truth, as demonstrated here, is that they shoot as many exposures as they think they need, and pore over the contact sheets (physical or digital) to identify the one where they ‘got it right’. This book taught me that no-one gets it right all the time, not even half the time, so keep shooting! It’s not a review as such, but I did note my favourite photographers’ quotes from the book in this post.

16. Photo Box (Roberto Koch, ed.)

A Thames & Hudson compendium of historic and contemporary photographers, this is themed into subject genres: reportage, war, portraits, nudes, women, travel, cities, art, fashion, still life, sport and nature. Each photographer gets one representative image per category (some are in multiple categories) alongside a brief biography and analysis of their work. Like ‘100 Ideas…’ this is a mainstream ‘dip-in-and-out’ book rather than a serious work of photography history or critique. I’ve found it useful for both inspiration and for filling in gaps in my knowledge. I expect to come back to this book on and off during my People & Place studies in particular.

17. 100 Ideas That Changed Photography (Mary Warner Marien)

This book is a compendium of 100 innovative aspects of photography since its inception, and plots the development of the medium – some technical, some idealogical, some about subject matter, some about usage – in a very digestible, ‘bite-sized chunk’ way of presentation. It’s not a history of photography per se – it doesn’t follow a timeline, and in this respect it’s a book that one can dip in and out of rather than read cover-to-cover. I can see myself coming back to this one many times.

18. Photographs Not Taken (Will Steacy, ed.)

A quirky one, this. It’s a collection of short (1-2 page) anecdotes from contemporary photographers, all on the theme of the photo they didn’t take. Sometimes they didn’t have their camera, sometimes the camera broke, sometimes they were scared, sometimes they were being respectful, sometimes they chose to experience the moment rather than record it, and sometimes they just messed up the shot. Each vignette only takes a few minutes to read. In a sense they’re almost like photographs themselves – capturing a moment, but in words not images.

  1. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  2. Benjamin, W. (1931) A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
  3. Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
  4. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics
  5. Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a critical introduction. London: Routledge
  6. Freeman, M. (2010) The photographer’s mind. Lewes: Ilex
  7. Cartier-Bresson, H (1999) The mind’s eye. New York: Aperture
  8. Cartier-Bresson, H (2006) Scrapbook. Paris: Thames & Hudson
  9. Maier, V & Maloof, J. (2011) Vivian Maier: street photographer. New York: Powerhouse
  10. Parr, M. (2012) The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis
  11. Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
  12. Cotton, C. (2009) The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson
  13. Howarth, S & McLaren, S. (2011) Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson
  14. Lardinois, B. (2009) Magnum Magnum. London: Thames & Hudson
  15. Lubben, K. (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson
  16. Koch, R (2009) Photo Box. London: Thames & Hudson
  17. Warner Marien, M. (2012) 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King
  18. Steacy, W. (2012) Photographs not taken. North Carolina: Daylight


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My shooting checklist

OK, as I reach the end of Art of Photography I realise that I left myself a few loose ends to tie up… a few blog posts in my ‘Drafts’ folder that I never got around to completing. Well, as I await my course materials for People & Place I’m going to close off a few of these draft posts!

Starting with… a callback to a post I made back in October last year about the late Tony Ray-Jones and his notebooks. He carried around a note that he titled “Approach”, a list that amounted to his aide-memoire, or maybe manifesto for shooting his particular type of photography (people-focused street photography, I suppose you’d call it).

I finally got around to having a go at my own ‘rules to remember’ checklist. This being the 21st century, I put mine on my phone, and made it my lockscreen wallpaper, so I see it every time I pick up the device :-)


I did nick a couple of the points from Mr Ray-Jones himself…

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Book: On Photography, Susan Sontag

I confess I tried to read this book [1] early in my studies, but it really didn’t sink in. More recently I had another go, and after having read more widely since, this time the ratio of what I understood to what I didn’t understand improved greatly! A third read further helped, as I formed opinions on which parts I agreed with and which I didn’t. So, worth persevering.

Initially, Sontag’s haughty, knowing writing voice distracted me; she makes everything she says sound like an immutable fact, rather than what it really is – a theory, based on opinions. Similarly, she makes sweeping assumptions applying her theories; she uses terms like “the photograph”, “the photographer” and “the photographic enterprise”, implying universality. I found it easier on second reading to mentally replace these definitives with (e.g.) ‘some photographs’, ‘old photographs’, ‘successful photographs’, ‘photographs of people’ etc, and these qualifiers helped the flow of comprehension.

(Ironically, Sontag could see this habit of generalisation in others whilst practicing it herself: when she says “Steichen’s choice of photographs assumes a human condition or a human nature shared by everybody”, it’s easy to replace Steichen with Sontag and photographs with theories…)

Anyway, enough literary criticism! What of the content?

Where the book was successful was when it made me think of a photograph, or photography as a medium, in a new way. There are a few key ideas from the book that did this for me; they sparked new connections in my brain, and I want to document these before I forget that they were once new realisations.

The moment made eternal

“Television is a stream of under-selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.”

“The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces.”

This articulated beautifully something that is very powerful about a photograph: that it freezes a moment in time and space, opens it up for examination, doesn’t move on. It doesn’t resolve itself into a future beyond itself, happy or otherwise. The tension in a harrowing photograph is more than ‘this happened’, it’s that ‘in this photograph it continues to happen’.

Nick Ut’s 1972 image of the South Vietnamese girl after the napalm attack is a case in point: a TV report of the same incident would have shown what happened in the seconds or minutes afterwards, provided some kind of resolution to her story on that day: she was taken to hospital, she is recovering, or even – she died from her injuries and is now at peace. But in the frame of the photograph, she’s always nine years old, naked, in excruciating pain, terrified beyond belief, screaming. That’s what makes the picture hard to look at. The viewer is powerless to resolve the frozen-in-time situation. Sontag calls it “the moment made eternal”.

I found this concept fascinating. I’m not sure to what degree as a photographer you can identify at the point of clicking the shutter that the moment is worthy of such freezing, such scrutiny. However, it did illuminate to me one of the elements of a successful image. I suppose it relates to the ‘decisive moment’ thinking attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who also apparently said that a truly great photograph is one that you can look at for two minutes. Choosing the right instant to freeze and extract for scrutiny seems to be one of the skills of a great photographer.

Admiring a way of seeing

“[A position] with criteria which shift the centre of judgement from the individual photograph, considered as a finished object, to the photograph considered as an example of ‘photographic seeing’.”

The above quote was actually in the context of the evolution of accepted wisdom on what made a good photograph – from the ‘Westonian’ dogma of adhering to technical quality criteria to the more contemporary view that takes in a whole range of styles and considers the ‘vision’ of the photographer and the emotions evoked in the viewers over and above measures of technical quality.

The lightbulb moment for me was realising that when people admire a certain photographer – above and beyond liking individual photographs – what they are really admiring is the way that person sees the world. If you make a trip to a photography exhibition you are saying, “I like the way s/he sees things”. The photographs furnish the evidence of that ‘way of seeing’, but it’s the vision that you’re admiring. I guess to an extent you could say that an appreciation of novelists, poets and painters is also predicated on connecting with their world-view to some degree, but with photographers it is most literal: you get to see (in the frame) what they saw (through the lens). You’re getting behind their eyes.

How to apply this? One of the challenges for a photographer is finding a distinctive ‘voice’ or ‘vision’ (without resorting to gratuitous taboo-busting). For a start, I need to be more mindful of subject matter and how I approach it; I need to ask myself before I hit the shutter: has this photo been taken already? what am I seeing here that I don’t think other people would see?

Past and present

According to Proust […] one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

“The photographer is the contemporary being par excellence; through his eyes the now becomes past.” (Berenice Abbott)

Much of Sontag’s writing is predicated on the viewing of photographs as it had been practiced for most of its history – as a window into a nostalgic past, of which the photographs are scarce reminders.

However, I do wonder to what extent our relationship with photographs is changing in this temporal respect. Now the gap between taking a photo and sharing it for others to view can be down to seconds – we are often viewing the very recent past, or the ‘evolving present’. We ‘consume’ most photographs much closer to the point of creation than previously.

The ‘past’ of Sontag’s hypotheses doesn’t need to be that long ago to trigger the effects she discusses; I remember getting my holiday photos a week or two after I came back, and being briefly transported back to my holiday mood – today I can Instagram a photo from the beach, and my friends can see it, smile and scroll past it in a matter of seconds. It’s all very ephemeral.

So, many of Sontag’s observations on the power of photographs assume a passage of time, and this passage intensifies some of the connotations she discusses. This in one of the ways in which her generalisation fails to convince the contemporary reader, as our consumption of photography not only increases in quantity but also speeds up, it’s now a minority of photographs that demonstrate the powers she describes.

This is one of those realisations that seems obvious after the fact: time intensifies the power of images. Being cynical, it means that a mediocre picture can achieve some kind of greatness just by getting old – its ‘oldness’ becomes its point of interest for the viewer. So maybe a random selection of images from a prolific 2014 Instagrammer will be viewed as art in 100 years’ time…?


I’ve rambled on long enough. Suffice to say that On Photography has made me think about photography in different ways – it’s stretched my brain. And to quote Oliver Wendell Jones, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions”!

Now onto Barthes…

1. Sontag, S. 1979. On photography. London: Penguin

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Photographer: Lisette Model

A short break in assignment work for a quick book [1] review. I was in Nice at the weekend for the carnival and found a bookshop stocking the ’55’ range of Phaidon books, each being a ‘primer’ covering the career of a particular photographer. They are small and inexpensive books so I picked four photographers whose names I recognised but about whom I knew not much (aside from Model, I got the equivalent books on W. Eugene Smith, Walker Evans and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy).

The text is entirely in French, in which I am conversant but far from fluent! It took me the best part of an hour to understand the 13-page introductory essay / potted biography. So whilst each image is accompanied by an explanatory paragraph or two, I made the pragmatic decision to not translate all these but to make my own conclusions purely on the images themselves.

Subject matter and style

Lisette Model, Phaidon 55 range

Lisette Model, Phaidon 55 range

Serendipity struck immediately when I saw that her most famous early work was a series of images from the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in the 1930s – I was perusing pictures taken mere yards away! And the location of some of my assignment shots too.

Model’s images of Nice were however very different to the colourful, joy-filled place that I was trying to capture; it established early on her signature style of unflattering, unforgiving portraits, often cropped tight to give the subject no space, no means of visual escape. In terms of subject matter, she was attracted not to traditional notions of beauty but to vulgarity; a noticeable number of her portraits depict what could politely be described as ‘corpulent’ bodies. She seemed to seek out evidence of vulgarity and excess, particularly among the rich in the Nice series. In her other early 1930s European work she chose to shoot other types of subject on the edges of society: the old, the frail, the blind.

Once relocated to the USA, her style evolved a little – for example, her work based on reflections in shop windows, which looks like it influenced later photographers such as Saul Leiter and Vivian Maier – though her choices of subject remained: the extremes of society. She took unflinching portraits of the very poor and the very rich, and her lens treated them with equal (dis)respect. She variously depicted society’s flaws on the faces of individuals: vanity, insecurity, ignorance, excess. Her portraits of the lower working classes and the poor are sometimes surprisingly unsympathetic. She had no interest in flattering or beautifying subjects; the portraits comes across as quite aggressive, almost confrontational.


Model had a surprisingly short career as a working photographer – she seemed to spurn the notion that she knew what she was doing, and played the role of the lucky amateur – and moved onto teaching. That her most famous student was Diane Arbus is no surprise, when you look at some of Model’s 1940s portraiture, especially the transvestites and hermaphrodites of the New York alternative scene; in these you can see the foundations of what Arbus turned into her own signature subject matter, the ‘freaks’ on society’s edges.

In choosing to focus on characters that range from merely unglamorous to full-on grotesque, Model challenged accepted notions of photographic beauty. In her work I can see the same kind of photographic thinking that inspired not only Arbus but in a way, Robert Frank, especially in The Americans [2]; that photos don’t have to be beautiful, or of beautiful subjects, or be technically perfect, to move you. Looking at any black and white street photography that focuses on characters, it’s hard not to be reminded of Model’s style to some degree.

1. Sussman, E. 2001. Lisette Model. Paris: Phaidon
2. Frank, R. 2008. The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl