exercise 1.1

building images from multiple layers


Using the list of artists given above [Nancy Burson, Esther Teichmann, Corinne Vionnet, Idris Khan and Helen Sear] as inspiration, create a series of six to eight images using layering techniques.

– DIC Coursebook – p.21

fig.1 – portrait of the artist as a symmetrical man

My initial thoughts for this exercise grew directly out of the day’s-worth of photographs captured for the introductory exercise. I had noticed that a large number of the pictures I had noticed were ‘looking at me.’ Both Idris Khan and Corinne Vionnet work used common features to structure their layering of photographs; I would use eyes staring out of advertisements for my first go.

Rather than use the pictures I had taken earlier, I spent a couple of days taking headshots, levelling the eyes along the horizontal axis of the pictures as I took them. In Lightroom I cropped the pictures so the eyes were the same size and similarly placed in the frame. I opened them in Photoshop (Elements – I’m a cheapskate and don’t like subscription software, even with a student discount) and quickly built up a stack of layers, aligning the pictures with one another over a white base. I reduced the opacity of the three stacked images to 25%, counting the white background as a fourth layer. I made further small adjustments to even up the size and position of the eyes, and…

fig.5 – composite 1

…there were things that could be done better and there could be more photographs layered onto it, but it worked

For the next layering experiment I remained in the underground, playing with common elements found in the London stations: the numbered mazes that had been commissioned to mark the tube’s 150th birthday- Labyrinth by Mark Wallinger – and the underground’s logo.

Over a number of days, I took two photographs (I also took a third picture of the individual tiled designs for the backs of the Victoria Line platform seats, but haven’t worked out a method to incorporate them into this exercise) at each station between Walthamstow Central and Kings Cross St. Pancras (about half the Victoria Line) and then settled down to start combining them. My first go was simple and straightforwardly graphic:

fig.6- blackhorse road (victoria line)

I could take more pictures and do this for each station on the line, ending up with a series of sixteen that could easily be made into a short book (there is also the much larger book featuring every station on the tube). I could imagine individual images – combined perhaps with the seat back tiling – being sold as postcards at the London Transport Museum. There isn’t much depth to it though.  Next I settled down to work through my original idea for the pictures – visualising a complete journey between two points.

After correcting the geometry of the individual pictures, I piled them up in stacks and tweaked the size of each layer to compensate for the variations in my distance from the signs when I had taken the pictures. After reducing each layer’s transparency to about 15%, I found that there were things that registered strongly – the frame of the maze and the red cross marking the entrance; the red circle and blue bar of the underground logo – while other parts blurred and became unreadable – the mazes became unsolveable and the station names became an indistinct smear. The differences in the tiling of the stations and of the surrounds to the platform-side name signs blurred and interfered with one another.

There is a softened, painterly quality to these pictures which belies the sharpness of the individual photographs used to make them. I like the way the surrounds in fig.8 start to look as if a series of passes have been made with the squeegee while making a screen print or that the picture has been after uneven treatment of a piece of paper with light sensitive chemicals.

The images produced have ceased to be obviously photographic…

I’m actually more interested in images than photography.’ – Corinne Vionnet

To accompany your final images, also produce a 500-word blog post on the work of one contemporary artist-photographer who uses layering techniques. (This can be any of the artists cited in any section of Digital Image and Culture.)

– DIC coursebook p.21

In her series Photo Opportunities (2005 – ongoing) Corinne Vionnet takes repetitions of a single subject as her starting point layering them into rather beautiful composite pictures recording ‘the view’ as it is perceived by the mass of tourists visiting them. As such, she is engaged in an activity at one remove from the people who actually take the component pictures.

Like Martin Parr in his photograph of people pretending to support the Leaning Tower of Pisa (in Small World) Vionnet’s work here is concerned with the tourist experience of taking photographs at popular sites. Some of the work was included in the exhibit co-curated by Parr at Arles in 2011 and several of the places featured in Small World recur in Vionnet’s pictures. The difference is that – unlike Parr – Vionnet does not visit the sites that are her subject matter, nor is she interested per se in the individuals taking the photographs that form her raw material.  

It is all quite ‘meta’; rather than being about the individual pictures, they are about act of taking a photograph of something that is already familiar to us from photographs and how this limits what we see when we visit these internationally famous sites.

They strike me as being an aesthetic rather than a documentary statement, impressionist rather than realistic. If photography (or maybe just art photography) can be seen as oscillating between its straight and its pictorialist modes, these are definitely at the pictorialist end of that spectrum. I was reminded of the more ethereal paintings of JWT Turner, of Monet’s series pictures capturing variations in light – his Rouen Cathedral series, say – and of Gerhard Richter’s overpainting of images based upon photographs.

I was also reminded of Louis Daguerre’s 1838 photograph Boulevard du Temple. This includes a man who had stood (relatively) still for long enough during the long exposure time to register on the image. During long exposures, moving people (or ripples in water or any number of other moving things) become transparent and eventually vanish; in Vionnet’s images exposure time is stacked up along with the resulting pictures, leaving only faint traces of the other tourists caught on the photographer’s sensor as each layer is rendered more transparent. But these traces, multiplied in their hundreds become a ghostly, tourist throng.

Interestingly, despite being made from stacked up pictures, their effect was somehow flat, with depth being replaced by the surface. You are not looking at the index of a 3D place, traced by Fox Talbot’s ‘Pencil of Nature’.

This painterly surface is visually appealing – you are more likely to print and display one of Vionnet’s pictures than you would be with a single snatched snap. Each layer may have ended up on Facebook or Flickr or wherever on line; many people may have ‘liked’ them; but none of them would – alone – have been regarded as definitive. Vionnet’s images aren’t definitive either, but they do have a greater presence; Vionnet’s action and status as ‘an artist’ has lent them some of what Walter Benjamin termed ‘aura.’ If everyone is a photographer now, Vionnet has sidestepped this by affecting the guise of an artist using photography…  

For the next part of my response to this exercise, I decided to experiment a bit with  Vionnet’s method. I looked on Trip Adviser to see what it recommended a visitor to Orkney (where I grew up) should see. I picked two of the top ten:

(There is something here around religion, religious sites and the modern pilgrimage made by tourists that might be worth developing later.)

For the cathedral I made an open search for images on Google, followed up with a second search in the Orkney group on Flickr; the Italian chapel was based on a general search (“italian chapel” orkney) on Flickr. I downloaded around thirty images for each of the pictures above (far short of Vionnet’s hundred, but I reckoned my macbook’s processing power would not be up to having many more layers active in photoshop at once) and stacked them up in layers.

Looking at installation views of Vionnet’s images (on her site, beneath the slideshow of the finished images of Photo Opportunities) her work’s print  size starts at A2 (59.4 x 42.0 cmwith many of the exhibition prints being much larger. Getting images of a high enough resolution to print to that size on it’s own (taking a conservative 100 dpi as a starting point – 150 is the recommended starting point for digital C-Prints; 200 for inkjet) is not easy if you’re sourcing downloadable images online – you’d be looking for a file measuring 2400 pixels along it’s long edge and 1600 on its shorter one.

I had tried to work with much smaller images while making the St Magnus  and Italian Chapel layered images and limited the number of layers to the low thirties, but the files were still huge – half a gigabyte for the Italian Chapel – and I was noticing my computer slowing down as it processed changes to the files. As well as raising questions around aesthetics, this is also becoming a technical problem with Vionnet (and others dealing with huge files and huge prints) distancing themselves from the vernacular user…

At this point in my thinking, I opened the exercise up on OCA Discuss. It was fig.5 (the combined picture of three faces, or rather eyes) that most people seemed to like best. As well as our programmed ability to recognise faces, even where there are none actually to be found – something we discussed in the thread –  this comes down – I think – to people liking pictures of people above pictures of things. We like a pretty view, or a clever piece of design, but really we want something to feel a sense of engagement with.

I have been reading (re-reading for the first half) Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics and when I came to the second chapter (The Vocabulary of Comics) the section on the way we perceive our face as an abstract mask, while seeing others in far greater detail, making it easier for us to identify with the more abstracted depictions of faces shown in most comics (or sequential art, in McCloud’s – Will Eisner’s – phrase) I was struck by the way that this could perhaps explain the preference for the layered face.

I took some more pictures of adverts on the tube, concentrating this time on faces, looking directly out at me. I stacked up ten male faces and ten women, making sure that the eyes were aligned. I worked with the transparency of the individual layers until I was happy and added them to the discussion thread.

A suggestion was made that I look at the work of Thomas Galton on the now-discredited idea of criminal ‘types’ for possible context. This chimes with some of the collections currently on show at the V&A as well as sending me back to the exhibition Images of Conviction at the Photographers’ Gallery back in 2015.

My experiments also led tutor Clive White to suggest I tried flipping a picture of a face and then combining the resulting mirror images; ‘it can be very uncanny,’ he said.  I tried it with a photograph of my daughter:

fig.13 – alice, symmetrical

When I’d posted it, Clive said the effect worked better with older faces ‘that have been etched with experience,’ an interesting contrast with Thomas Ruff’s Porträts that were on show at the Whitehall Gallery last year, which Ruff reckoned worked because their subjects were young enough to still have faces that gave little away.  I tried it with a picture of my own haggard self. It now sits at the top of this page.

I began to wonder whether I could tidy the them up, hiding how they had been made…

And at this point, I stopped further experiments and got on with writing this all up. There’s plenty to think about still:

  • Is this just a way of standing out from the photographic, vernacular herd?
  • To what extent should you (possibly not should, but a different modal) try to disguise the extent of your intervention.
  • How do you inject meaning into work that can easily be seen to be simply graphic or aesthetic?
  • How does the stacking up of images relate to the notion of time in a picture?
  • How can all this be applied to the sort of things I want to do with photography?

…but I’ll leave them to simmer away as I work through the remaining exercises and reading and move towards putting the assignment together…


preliminary exercise – part 2

As I suspect very few people will have scrolled down through the pictures that open the previous post – linked below – I have put section two (this bit) online as a separate post that people might read.


Write a short reflective piece in your learning log. What have you learned from this exercise?
– DIC Coursebook, p.13


  • Has it alarmed you?

‘Alarmed’ is a bit excessive; unsettled might be better. I’m aware that moving through the city, I am presented with an almost never-ending stream of images which form the visual equivalent of quite-loud, constant background noise.  And, just as I cease to notice the noises around me (and smells for that matter) I am adept at tuning them out, turning them into a background that can be ignored most of the time. From time to time something jumps out from the stream to  command my attention, but mostly I am oblivious to the imagery that surrounds me.  Presumably though, it is continually working on my unconscious in some way…

This exercise – like the similar one from part four of Identity and Place – has forced me to pay attention to images I would normally ignore. What is alarming is that – as someone who is trying to make images of my own – presumably everyone else is doing this filtering as well – how do I get people to pay attention to my pictures?

  • Has it confirmed any preconceptions?

Paying more active attention to the images as they stream past me (or as I move past them) than I normally do, I have better evidence that the majority of them are not targeted at me or, rather, my demographic. Indeed no  group or individual person could possibly find all these public pictures relevant.

I am not the target for the bulk of the advertisements in that cathedral of commerce, Oxford Circus Station (although some of them – the occasional poster for the Photographer’s gallery; the public information posters describing good behaviour on public transport – are aimed at me in a way I seem to be able to subliminally recognise and pay attention to before switching off again) but the people who come here to buy clothes from the Oxford Street shops certainly are.

So, another unsettling thought: as I get older and more settled in my ways with a stable relationship, do I matter less to the society I am part of? Does it need my economic participation any more or are the impecunious young supposed to keep the city vibrant and everything moving?

  • What do most of the images you encountered show?

They show me things that I could have or things that I could experience or places that I could be. They try to make demands on my time and my money. They are selling me something. They distract me from what I am doing and offer me alternatives. They try to make me break my step as I pass. They shout ‘Look at me! No look at me! No me!’ They allow me to make decisions about what I might do, more quickly than if I had to absorb a mass of text…

This relates of course to the images I have not chosen to see, in an environment that I have no real control over. In spaces I can control – my study – or environments that I can influence – the house I share with my partner and child, my workplace – the pictures are doing something else. Or maybe that should be something less because these pictures are functioning a pictures of something rather than as a spur to some sort of action.

Most interesting though are probably those areas that fall somewhere in between being under my control and in the control of others.I choose the shops and cafes I go into; this determines the relevance of the pictures found there to me: a person will be pictured wearing clothes, or a burger or kebab or a salad will look delicious and appetising; In classier eateries of course, I’ll have to read words to know what I could have to eat; pictures are somehow more vulgar still.  My newspaper is chosen by me, to match my worldview – I’m sure that the pictures of Rees-Mogg, or Theresa May or Trump that the Guardian prints are very different from those in Metro or The Evening Standard. Most significantly, when I visit pages online I choose the URL or the search terms, but the adverts that come with my destination (or the search results) are determined by others, through the application of algorithms analysing data which I have generated in the past, without my even thinking about it.

  • Does this tell you anything about the environment you live in?

It tells me that flat surfaces in public spaces (both physical and virtual) particularly those in cities, are endlessly monetised (and  – given the number of fading, painted adverts on gable ends in Walthamstow and elsewhere – have been since at least the nineteenth century). Reading back over this post I see I have used a lot of sense-related language. Just as my environment is seldom silent, I am seldom far away from some visual stimulus. This naturally leads onto communication theory and the idea of signal and noise. I live in a visually noisy place and – as I can pick out announcements on the tube over the noise of the train when I need to – I have learned to identify the images I need (or want) to pay attention to almost without thinking about it.

I am fairly certain that the sheer number of images I am confronted by on a daily basis has increased greatly over the course of my life as the exhortations to continually consume more have increased in pitch. This is is not simply a result of having moved from the country to a city and then on to a bigger city.  However, the density of the images I encounter (and the sheer variety of their targets) is still determined by my living and working in a large and vibrant city; if I was somewhere smaller, somewhere more affected by austerity and recession there would be much less for me to filter; if I was in Orkney, I could probably go for several hours without seeing a completely unsolicited picture of anything.

This increase in the quantity of visual imagery presented to me on a day-to-day basis can probably be directly attributed to the increasing dominance of digital rather than analogue media: newspapers publish more pictures; digital networks allow the transmission of animated advertising on screen; simply printing pictures (and enlarging them hugely or including them in books or using colour) involves non-specialist technology in a way that was not the case not so long ago.  I live in a world that at times seems saturated with imagery.

fig.1 – regent street, 2011

When I first saw Bladerunner in 1982, its huge, moving advertisements and robot-piloted, flying cars seemed impossibly futuristic. Now adverts that flicker away on the edges of your vision are normal, even if cars remain resolutely – and slightly disappointingly – earth-bound…

preliminary exercise

on my everyday exposure to images

We all encounter photographs on a daily basis. For a few decades now, commentators have talked about a ‘flood’ or a constant ‘bombardment’ of images, permeating ever deeper into our lives. Depending of course on where you live, the intensity of this will vary a great deal. To try to get a sense of this, dip your toe into the floodwater and re-photograph every
photographic image that you encounter on a single day.

– DIC Coursebook, p.13

1: Construct a grid or compile a contact sheet of all your images.

Apart from a couple of pickups which were taken the next day – photographs I didn’t have time to take as I hurried to school with my daughter –  these pictures were all taken on Thursday 11th of October 2018. I did not go out of my way to see images, nor did I try to avoid them.

It was a normal day – I got up, spent some time in my attic-study, dropped my daughter off at school and then went on to the station; I parked my bike and bought the paper; I took the tube to work, changing at Oxford Circus and then  – after buying a samosa at a kiosk on my way out of my destination station – walked the last couple of blocks past hoardings hiding construction sites for view; I worked, took a break for lunch, worked some more and then took the tube back to Walthamstow; before I picked up my bike from the shelter at the station, I walked through the mall and down the high street a bit and had a quick pint while I read some of my book; I cycled home and  – after tea – watched some kids’ television with my daughter and then some grownup television with my partner; finally – the only image-free part of my day – I went upstairs to bed.

I used my pocketable camera – the Fujifilm X100-S, which goes pretty much everywhere with me – until the battery ran out of charge (!) then I used my phone. When I got home again, I changed the Fujifilm’s battery for the spare I had forgotten to put in my work-bag and took the last few pictures before going to bed.

NB – I find it easier (I might almost say more ‘more natural’) to make pictures with a camera than with my phone. Possibly this is me resisting the way technologies seem to converge on an ever smaller number of increasingly universal devices.

2: Write a short reflective piece in your learning log. What have you learned from this exercise?
  • Has it alarmed you?

‘Alarmed’ is a bit excessive; unsettled might be better. I’m aware that moving through the city, I am presented with an almost never-ending stream of images which form the visual equivalent of quite-loud, constant background noise.  And, just as I cease to notice the noises around me (and smells for that matter) I am adept at tuning them out, turning them into a background that can be ignored most of the time. From time to time something jumps out from the stream to  command my attention, but mostly I am oblivious to the imagery that surrounds me.  Presumably though, it is continually working on my unconscious in some way…

This exercise – like the similar one from part four of Identity and Place – has forced me to pay attention to images I would normally ignore. What is alarming is that – as someone who is trying to make images of my own – presumably everyone else is doing this filtering as well – how do I get people to pay attention to my pictures?

I suspect very few people will have scrolled down through this post – there are sixty two (62!) lines of photographs – to get to the reflective bit at the bottom. For that reason, I will put the the preceding couple of paragraphs and the remainder of section two (this bit) online as a separate post that people are much more likely to read.



Right! – before I crack on with working on the exercises and assignments, a few words on why me? and why this course? and what do I want to get out of it?

Why am I here?

As well as liking to take photographs  – and thinking that I was at least ok at handling a camera – I started this BA because I had grown tired of taking a stream of pictures that only occasionally seemed to link together into something with a bit more meaning somehow. I wanted to make pictures that expressed something of what I was thinking about, as I stood in front of something that had caught my eye, beyond a simple ‘Simon was here and he saw this.’

Although I had been taking pictures digitally since 2002 (with a point-and-shoot and then with a DSLR and, of course, with phones of varying degrees of sophistication)  most of the photographs I had taken in the five years that preceded my signing up for the BA had been taken on film. I’d scanned the negatives before working on them and posting them online (on Flickr mainly) but the way I thought about photography remained firmly located within the area of traditional photography and the Flickr grouns I frequented most reflected this. While I may have played around with filters (in the Instagram and Hipstamatic apps) and with stitching programs (Autostitch)  on my phone, it was never something I regarded as ‘taking proper photographs’ somehow.

I don’t think that more than a decade of making pictures with digital devices had managed to move me beyond thinking of a photograph as a physical thing, printed, framed and stuck on a wall. I had cut little mattes and framed up polaroids, I had pinned up 6×4 prints from Snappy Snaps and had much larger enlargements made and framed, but I hadn’t had more than ten of my digital pictures printed before the birth of my daughter in 2013 forced me to get a lot less precious about the provenance of my photographs.

Why Digital Image and Culture?

Each of the three courses I have taken so far have changed what I think about photographs – my own and other people’s – and also the type of photographs that I take (or perhaps on occasion, make). I quickly moved to taking almost all of the pictures needed for the exercises and assignments with a digital camera and replaced the Olympus XA that lived in my work bag with a Fujifilm X100. I began printing my digital pictures and got a lot better at the workflow from card to database to printer in Lightroom.

But when comes to it, I can’t help thinking that my photographs and the way I have been presenting them is really quite traditional. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, of course, but I increasingly feel the need to push myself forward more and into the twenty-first century.

The photographers (artists?) highlighted in the course materials that I found myself most strongly drawn to – whether they were initially active in the seventies and eighties like Robert Adams or Stephen Shore or were  contemporary practitioners like Elena Brotherus or Trish Morrissey – were working in ways that obviously could be traced back to traditional ideas of what photography was.

Looking ahead to the level two modules, I have always thought that I would take Landscape (which is about to be renamed Landscape, Place and Environment, making it even more appealing) and was unsure which of the other three would go with it. Then, when the old Progressing with Digital Photography was retired in favour of Digital Image and Culture, I had a read of the course sample, looked at the contents of the module and came to the conclusion that this would definitely be the other course I would take at this level; looking at some of the early students’ blogs for the course and the work that they were producing confirmed for me that this would be the way to go.

I had played around with trying to emulate the heavily constructed work of people like Andreas Gursky and Jeff Wall (while really not liking Geoffrey Crewdson’s pictures, for reasons that I still can’t quite put my finger on) and started compositing fictionalised views. I’d liked David Hockney’s ‘joiners’ since I’d first come across them in my early twenties; exhibitions of works by Gerhard Richter, Robert Rauschenberg, Sophie Calle and others had got me thinking about what could be done with pictures derived from photographic originals as had my annual visit to the Deutsche Börse Photographic Prize at the Photographers’ Gallery; my dissatisfaction with the online presentation of my pictures in my blog and the woeful state of so many artists’ sites made me want to play with how my pictures are accessed on the internet.

It would be very easy to make a lot of quite traditional work in a course focussing on landscape and that is not really what I want to do.  The journals and other work generated around the core of Alec Soth’s photographic series intrigues me; I wonder if I could do something similar, recording the making of the work as well as the work itself. Rather than start level two with Landscape, I decided to commence with this module instead and to let it feed into the way I approach the second, more obvious course of work.

What do I want this course to do to my photography?

So, I want to explore other things that can be done with images and other ways of displaying them that do not necessarily draw on traditional galley type exhibition. I want to see what I can do around the traditional pictures that I till expect to go on taking.

I am interested in the possibilities offered by collage (whether or not the process is disguised); I have an archive of family photographs going back to the 19th Century and a big crate of prints and negatives that I really must work out what to do with; I can write web applications that offer the possibility of viewers interacting with my pictures  instead of simply scrolling by them one after the other.

I want this course to blow my practice into pieces and then to help me put it  back together again. Or at any rate that’s what I tell myself I want it to do.

fig.1 – kirkwall 2018 – the banner at the top of this post, as it was before I made it into something more panoramic…