Enrollment for Advanced Photography Course

Posted on December 4, 2011


A few days ago I enrolled for the Level 3 Advance course in photography. I have been busy preparing and sending off some initial ideas to my tutor Moira Lovell. Moira was my tutor for the Progressing with Digital level 2 course and I found her input very useful. It will be interesting to see what she thinks of my ideas and whether I am on the right track.

My studies have encompassed a wide range of photographic genres and I have not to-date specialised. Going forward I wish to focus on the genre of portraiture with a particular interest in what I would call Portraits in Series. What I mean by a series is a set of photographs, which are linked through an overarching theme, and a common set of formal parameters. In a series, photographs enjoy equal status and are not organised into a distinct sequence or narrative. Repetition and variations draw attention to the subjects’ commonalities and differences and by so doing raise questions.

There are many photographers who have worked in this genre. August Sander’s ‘People of the 20th Century’ is perhaps the pre-eminent example. Sander’s aim was to produce a photographic record of the German population between the great wars of the 20th century. I have started to ‘read in’ to the subject and, in addition to Sander, I have looked at the work of Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Gillian Wearing, Vanessa Winship, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Nadav Kander, Mark Laita, Philip-Lorca  diCorcia and Rineke Dijkstra. Each of these photographers has his/her own approach to working with portraits in series.

The work of Ruff, Struth and Dijkstra is conceptually based. For example, Struth’s Family Portraits is an exploration of the social dynamics of families. His photo shoots were set up to allow the family group to organise themselves for the portraits thereby revealing inherent social and power relationships. Wearing’s work is also conceptually based comprising of a series of self-portraits, in which she masquerades as her family members. The mask is a metaphorical device through which she examines her family through photography.

Penn, Avedon, Laita and Kander produced typologies in the same vein as Sander. Avedon’s In the American West for example is his take on the ‘types’ of people who make up the American West in the late 20th century – I must say his vision was a pretty jaundiced one.

Winship’s work was part documentary, part historical and part conceptual. Her charming little book Sweet Nothings documents the schoolgirls of Eastern Anatolia, whilst at the same time marks a point in the history of this country when women began to receive education. The individual expressions and body language of the girls also suggest that they are poised at the moment in their life ‘just before’ they begin to become self-conscious.

DiCorcia’s Heads series is yet another approach. This conceptually based series isolates people on the street through candid photographs taken at long range with a telephoto lens. The subjects are lit by a remotely activated strobe. It is an attempt to remove the mask which a subject will adopt when consciously being photographed.

I also feel that the work of photographers such as Nan Goldin should be considered to be within my proposed genre. Goldin’s work clearly has a strong narrative, but portraiture is the key motif and stylistically she has used a consistent reportage style. 

Extent of work to be conducted 

My view of how the course of study would progress is as follows:

Assignment 1: Critical review of the genre: portraits in series

This assignment would involve undertaking a thorough critical review of about 5000 words. The scope of this will cover:

  • Researching and identifying key photographers working in the genre
  • Exploring and documenting the major thematic approaches and defining the scope of the field
  • Researching and documenting the historical context and critical perspectives
  • Selecting three photographers each with a different thematic approach and completing the critical review of each including their history, the nature of their work, what made them influential and how successful have they been
  • Validating the work plan for later assignments and suggesting modifications

The remaining assignments have yet to be fully defined and may be altered following the validation process undertaken in Assignment one. However, I currently envisage preparing four bodies of work of up to 20 photographs based on the following concepts:

  • A typological study entitled I am an Ironman, which will involve a series of portraits of athletes who compete in extreme endurance triathlon (swimming, cycling and running) events. I intend that this work becomes my magnus opus of the Advanced course and that work on it will continue throughout the duration. A draft artist’s statement for this work is set out here.
  • A typological study entitled On their Own… which will be a series of environmental portraits of small retailers and market traders who have something unique, stylish and different to offer on the UK High Street
  • A series of self-portraits  – the exact scope of this has yet to be defined but I envisage it as a work that has a strong conceptual basis.
  • A series of portraits, both candid and posed, in reportage style – the exact scope of this has yet to be defined. However, one possibility is to base it around the residents and carers at the home where my mother lives in Doncaster (I have started to take photographs at functions there and hope to extend the work).

Technical objectives of the course 

My principle technical goal is to learn how to capture portraits that represent the subjects as they appear to others not as they wish to be seen themselves. So far in my work I have had difficulty finding ways to get my subjects to lower their guard. I hope that by focusing on portraiture and studying the work of others I will improve my skils.

With respect to photographic technique the principle learning point will be to work with medium format film on some of the projects. So far in my studies I have worked exclusively with digital. My desire to work in this medium is driven by two factors. First, I intend to produce large high quality prints for the I am an Ironman series. To get the size and quality I am looking for necessitates a move to medium or large format. Using film is much more economic than buying an expensive high end digital back. Secondly, I believe that using a medium format film camera may engage a different and more serious response from my subjects, who like all of us today will have been saturated in digital imagery.

Here also are some of the photographs I passed to Moira.


 Angier, R. (2007) Train your Gaze, Lausanne: Ava

Avedon, R. (1985) In the American West Reprinted 2005, London: Thames & Hudson

Avedon, R. (2008) Richard Avedon’s Portraits of Power, Gottingen: Steidl

Betancourt Nunez, G. (2011) PORTRAITS IN SERIES A CENTURY OF PHOTOGRAPHS, Bielefeld: Kerber

Bright, S. (2005) Art Photography Now Paperback Edition 2006, London: Thames & Hudson

Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus, London: Thames & Hudson

Dijkstra, R. (2004) Portraits, Munich: Schirmer/Mosel

Doblin, A. ((2003) August Sander Face of our Time, Munich: Schirmer/Mosel

Kander, N. (2009) Obama’s People, London: Flowers

Laita, M. (2008) Created Equal, Gottingen: Steidl

Keaney, M. (2010) Irving Penn Portraits, London: National Portrait Gallery

Kruzinski, A, Bezzola, T. and Lingwood, J. (2010) Thomas Struth Photographs 1978-2010, Munich: Schirmer/Mosel

Simpson, B. and Tillman, L. Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Gottingen: Steidl

Winship, V. ((2008) Sweet Nothings, Marseilles: Images En Manoeuvres

Winzen, M. Ed. (2003) Thomas Ruff Photography 1979 to the Present, New York: Distributed Art