I discounted offering viewers photos like Graham’s (link) or like this below because they don’t express anything of me, and my notions around aspects of impairment or disability; rather they just document vistas realistically in quite a matter of fact way.
I need to find an approach that plays to my photographic strength in that they share something of how I see, interpret and experience the world rather than act purely as a window to it. My first attempt (see here) worked okay visually but I didn’t like the fact that the treatment removed aspects of the landscape when the point I am trying to make is that barriers are created in Man made environments.
I thought I would just explore different approaches and selected three images of my wheelchair’s wheels to experiment on and think about. Clearly form matters as much as subject matter and it’s through adopting particular photographic approaches that I can begin to see my voice in images. But such approaches must both ring true for me and offer the sort of evocation I want.
In this first image I have adopted what could be called a realistic approach. That is I have presented the image without any major thought as to how I frame or present the wheels in relation to other things within the frame or the frame itself, and with the camera acting purely as a window to the vista.
Of course the framing isn’t random or camera settings – but the viewer could easily imagine that they are looking through a window into my cupboard.
In this second version of the photo I have presented the wheel with particular thought as to its relationship both to the frame and the other items within it (as well as lighting and tonal values). Here the image is less one of a window and more like a picture where the graphic qualities within the frame – it’s gestalt – works.
My last example offers viewers no actual wheel. Rather I have represented the wheel as a shadow and manipulated the image to offer it as a colour composition that is obviously not a window to reality. Thus such an approach is much less about documenting reality and much more about capturing and expressing something.
The terms I have used are common but I have used them largely in relation to the useful model proposed by T Wright in The Photography Handbook. The framework is based on the notion that all photographs offer an emphasis to varying degrees of three end points: realism, expressionism and formalism. Of course all photos are expressive, formal and real to some degree. So we are talking about levels of emphasis here not absolutes.
These three approaches all raise questions about intention, purpose, truth and authenticity that I hope to explore over time. Yet the way people respond to particular approaches is not fixed and is least in part, culturally driven and herein lays the problem. Whatever I create will not only be viewed and understood differently by people, but will be subject to changing interpretations over time and by place. For example, monochrome imagery used to be the mark of factual, straight and documentary photographers. Such values were, for example, reinforced by newspapers using monochrome images. In those analogue photographic days, colour was largely to purview of amateurs and tourists. Digital changed all that and now the reverse is true with monochrome imagery largely seen as artistic.
We can also see fashions and preferences driven by people rather than technology. So for example, photographers like Ansel Adams and Paul Strand were seen as moving the medium away from its painterly past by adopted a “straight” approach that works to show the unique power of the camera. (Coleman 1998). But sometimes even the most casual vernacular photography can offer a view the counters prevailing perspectives. For example, the other day I read about Diab Alkarssifi’s lost archive of Lebanese and Arab photographs (see here). This archive is so big it includes all sorts of categories of photos, but the images that really surprised me were the vernacular images of everyday Arab life as they made me realise how my imagination of these places is dominated by conflict news stories.
So this model of realist, formalist, expressionist approaches helps one see how some photographers are seen to embrace particular types of photography and eschew others and how they can often be seen as developing voices that belong to types and classes of the activity that belong to movements or schools. This is more obvious when looking at one photographer’s oeuvre over time. But not all styles are treated equally. Some lend themselves to different purposes, eg realistic photography for documentation such as medical records of injuries, while others may be seen to be of a higher artistic worth.
Reflections regarding these approaches
One of the issues that comes up when considering these different approaches is how far the different artistic emphasis affects the reading of the image. I though about this the other day when I posted a photo here (link) and raised the question about whether images created as spectacles – ie fantastic pictures – undermine their strength as discourses. I think that little exercise above proved that they do. To take the argument to my wheelchair wheels for example, the realistic image of the wheels is not a spectacle and so the image needs to be read to offer any value. This is not so for the other two images as each has a value distinct for any discourse as they work in terms of form and spectacle.
So I might conclude that I can interest more people in my imagery if I produce work with an emphasis on formal and or expressive qualities than I can if I produced purely realistic images, but many people may not read the images, but rather just enjoy them for their graphic and artistic qualities. However if I just produce realistic images only those people used to reading visually may get what I am about.
I’ve not got any answers to this yet – maybe I should just begin to experiment. However given that the feedback to my landscape imagery (under Advanced below) challenges my literal approach I will try to be more expressive.
 T. Wright, The Photography Handbook by, published by Routledge 1999
 A.D. Coleman, Conspicuous By His Absence: Concerning the Mysterious Disappearance of William Mortensen in Depth of Field: Essays on Photography, Mass Media, and Lens Culture, University of New Mexico Press 1998