Week-1-Contextual Research

Reading: This week I  read an article by Grant Scott: “Why is narrative such a difficult concept for your photographers.”  I don’t think this is limited to young photographers particularly, as I am finding it rather difficult to narrate my series on ‘Fences’

The reasons are many but here are a few. I like to separate film making and photography, as they are two different forms, and if I wanted to tell a story, I would make a movie. However, I am discovering that in order for a series to work, the images have to be edited much the same was as a movie, with a beginning, middle and end, in order for them to see the series as complete and to make some sort of sense.

Grant says: “The creation of narrative is an essential ability, whatever our area of specialization the photographer works within, or across. From fashion to food, from interiors to still life, from sports to portraiture.”

Barth says: “I decided that I liked photography in opposition to the cinema, from which I nonetheless failed to separate it.”

I contemplated this, and decided not to separate narrative film from photography, but integrate them, and use my skills I have acquired in film-making and apply story structure to the series of images, and see if by doing this they would be more understandable.


The webinar with Paul was very interesting to day. I think that a discovery was made: the problem I have to solve is not contextualization, it’s editing and narrating the images and funneling all this information into a cohesive whole, so that the theme of my work, that is the abstract meaning, can be communicated to my viewing audience.

I choose theme over message, because I do not want to be too didactic or pedagogical with the work, I do not want to give a command, rule or axiom to live by, all I want it to connect on a level of empathy so that my viewing audience can relate, or understand the work on that level.

A series of images is almost like a short story, with a beginning, middle and end. an initiating incident, a rising action, a climax and a denouement. And,  a short story, needs to be tightly scripted, to the point, and communicate  the events that take place, as a cohesive whole.

When I started the MA, I was opposed to quite a few things. I was set in my ways, but I knew there had to be a change. Firstly, I never spoke about my images, more than giving them a # or maybe a word or two title. I never believed in appropriation, never used the word create, and avoid story telling.

As the MA progressed I looked into these doldrums and shadows and knew that if I wanted to progress, I needed to look into these areas a little deeper. I was avoiding them for a reason. Over the years I have discovered that I avoided anything I did not like or understand, it was easier just to pass it by. However, all these avoidences were at the door. Mr. Story, Mr. Appropriation, Mr. Creation, Mr. Silence. Not knocking, but constantly present. I have decided to answer the door and invite them all in, so far all have entered except Mr. Story, but he is on the threshold. I’m starting to understand him a little better, and once that happens completely,  I will invite him in.

This is thanks to an article I read titled: “Why is narrative, such a difficult concept for young photographers to master?”  by Scott Grant.  I think it should read “all photographers,” as I am not young, or maybe it was just written for me?  However, Grant said something very interesting which is helping me understand photographic narrative a little better. “….I am not restricting the area of discussion to documentary work (referring to narrative) The creation of narrative is an essential ability, whatever our area of specialization the photographer works within, or across. From fashion to food, from interiors to still life, from sports to portraiture.”   He did not mention ‘Art’ photography which is what I am interested in, but for all intents and purposes he was close enough and  made me realize that narrative is important in all areas, not only documentary.  I put narrative and documentary together, as if all photography became a documentary when narrated.  So I have expanded my horizons to start including narrative into ‘art’ photography and tell the story or narrative in an ‘artsy’ way.   I realized how to put a series of images together that tell a story.  The synopsis of “Fences” is:  Don’t be kept in by in, or out by a fence. Break through the fence!

Encouraging quote:  Fear knocked at the door; courage answered; and nothing was there. – Capt. T.W. Cummings – Pan Am.


Grant, Scott. https://witness.worldpressphoto.org/why-is-narrative-such-a-difficult-concept-for-young-photographers-to-master-ccef10fb1064

Barthes, R 1980, Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.



Museum Contextual Research: I like going to museums and galleries to do some of my research. To look at works of art, photography and sculpture, (mostly modern and contemporary works) attempting to analyse the pieces, and in so doing, look how artists handle their artistic and creative problems, and how their solving problems can help me overcome my own.

Books are good as well, however, I discovered, books are incapable of rendering the images as they actually are. The lack of detail is the main problem. I like form very much, and at times, the form the artist uses is not present in print. Books introduce me to works, then I proceed to go and experience the actual realization.

It gives me great pleasure to view these works from a number of cognitive perspectives: mainly from a sensual point: I look, listen, touch (gets me into a lot of trouble, almost kicked out from Delphi at the Temple of Apollo when touching the columns) and smell. I put my subjective viewpoint, insecurities and problems of my own work aside, at least for the time being, for the sake of becoming informed.

For example, looking at the surfaces artists use on which to paint, or print their photographs. Looking at different mediums like: oil vs acrylic vs watercolor. Photographically, looking at different papers the images are printed on: from matte to glossy, color to black and white and levels of saturation in between.  Also looking at older analogue printing surfaces, especially fiber based black and white papers, ciba-chrome, dye transfers, as well as modern day ink-jet prints. When I look at these works, in their original form, they are much differently rendered than when looking at the printed page.


This Sunday last, I went to LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) to look at the work of Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg: The 1/4 mile, now on exhibit. The old me (pre starting the MA) would have walked out in a split second, once I laid eyes upon someone’s personal trash and garbage hoarded over a lifetime,  strewn out for a 1/4 mile paraded as “ART.”

On the walls and the floors are old clothes,  underwear, tablecloths, newspapers, books, cardboard boxes, barrels, tins and garbage.  Etc., etc., etc. Rauschenberg is critically acclaimed as: “One of the most pioneering artists of the last century.”  I consider him a hoarder,  undiagnosed and untreated for his life.

I have learned over the years to be very careful when not liking something, many times it is reflecting something in oneself that needs to be addressed. Indeed, I was reminded of the fact that I am a hoarder myself, and maybe this what I was not liking?

So, hoarder to hoarder (my weakness in camera equipment) I forced myself to stay and explore.  In these situations now, I make art out of raw emotions, whether it’s positive or negative. So I made a triptych which I titled: “Hoardings, Chemaly + Rauschenberg”  consisting of photographs I made of Rauschenbergs cardboard boxes that were glued to the wall, with one of my abstracts in the middle.

“Hoardings, Chemaly and Rauschenberg” © Pierre Chemaly

While there, I looked at the works of Maholy-Nagy, a polymath who’s work as a photographer, painter, artist is amazing. I like the way he abstracts his paintings and his photography, and use a lot of it in my own practice. It was nice to see he work first hand, his use of perspective is interesting to see. He forced this point of view to it’s maximum.

SFMOMA Contextual Research.

Over the vacation, I went up to San Francisco, and went to SFMOMA. A new building, which itself is a work of art. It was nice to compare LACMA to SFMOMA. LACMA is so old, I feel like I’m visiting back in the 50’s  Not a good space for modern and contemporary art, I am glad they are tearing it down for a rebuild. While there I had the opportunity to look at the works of the French photographer, Brassai.  He is primarily a street photographer, however I went to see how the work was curated and presented. What I like was the fact that his work was grouped in ‘themes,’  instead of showing it as an unrelated series.   Some of the themes were: ‘Paris by Night’ ‘Graffitti’  ‘Body of a Woman’. It was nice so see such a large body of work so well presented and segmented  into these groupings.  This way it was very easy to see the motif’s in each category, Which may have been more difficult to see if one was not familiar with all his work.

Picture/Book Purchases for Contextual Research:

I bought some new books. My new prized possession is a set of ‘Provoke magazine’ books 1, 2, and 3 of Japanese photographers in the 60’s. Pages and pages of images that are grainy, contrasty, interesting bokeh’s, and soft focus  which is highly embraced by me as well as art critics and collectors.  The series is in Japanese, so all I can do is look at the images. This allows me to form my own opinions, instead of being told what to see, or what to look for.

Decided to revisit a book I have titled ‘The Painter and the Photograph’ I have always been interested in painting, especially painters like Kandinsky, Pollack, Malevich, Hofmann and other abstract painters. In the past I always felt a little unsatisfied with photography as a fine-art, and insecure in my own work.

As I progress in the MA, I am feeling a change in myself. My desire to get in physical contact with other people’s art is starting to diminish. I will be looking at other artists work for ways to inform may practice, but I will no longer be needing a “creative” shot in the arm. When I went to FOAM this year, something happened to me in that gallery that night.  My art became my own.

I have read excerpts from: Professional Photography : The New Global Landscape Explained by Scott Grant on Talis. This is one of those books that I would like to own, and own because I connected with it, so ordered it used from Amazon for $28.00. It’s an expensive book new so this was quite the deal.

The reading is easy to understand and enjoyable, and feel that he comes from an honest perspective with his advice, which seems practical enough for me to use in my practice.

At this stage of my practice, I have fine tuned what I like: That is art photography. My caravan is parked here for now.

Contemporary photographers influence on  my practice:

I  look at the work of Japanese photographers. Mainly  Fukase Masahisa. Famous for his series “The Solitude of Ravens” I was familiar with Moriyama Daido, had seen some of his work at the Tate, and just loved the grain, contrast,and bokeh of his work, but never thought of capitalizing off it, till I was introduced to Fukase.

I saw Fukase’s work first hand when I went up to FOAM  after the F2F in Paris last November.  I boarded the high-speed Thalys and made it up to Amsterdam in just over three hours, and headed immediately to the museum.  They had all of Fukase’s photographs, negatives and contact sheets on display. They also had a spread of his camera equipment, which consisted all of a battered old Nikon F3 and a 35mm f/2 Nikkor.  Japanese minimalism at its best.

I had an immediate attachment/love of his images; on many levels. Firstly, I like the graininess of his work, I have always loved grain, but Fukase, is the grain King, he can make it look like golf balls, and it’s okay when he does it. He uses high speed film Kodak T-Max p3200 ASA. I saw the actual negatives and contact sheets there at FOAM. I love grain, dirt, soft focus,  and contrast. Old school photography that will never be achieved in digital as a result of the medium in the camera. Those days are gone for the digital photographer. I have seen a few lame attempts to recreate it in post.  I term digital photography ‘Blow up doll photography’ because it’s not like the real thing, and NEVER will be.

Kodak Tri-X box © Pierre Chemaly

I’m glad about digital, I love it. More film left for me, and the few left who know what it’s really capable of.  Let those other “Chimps” glance at their screen after every shot to see it they “got it”   The medium itself, the film, the chemistry the camera, all of it is alchemy (an anagram of my last name chemaly) I have always been an alchemist, even since a child, I like trying to figure out the answers to the puzzle of life and art, in search of the philosophers stone.

© Pierre Chemaly

In my own work, I boil the negative. I develop at very high temperatures at 80 Degrees F. for about 4 minutes. I use Ilford HP5+ 400 ASA. I rate it at 250 overexpose it a bit, to give good shadow detail. The negative has lovely grain structure to it looking like old Tri-X 5063 of the 70’s.  I really love that stock, but it’s gone for good. I recently bought a 100 ft of Tri-X 5063, Date stamped 1978. I will be trying some experiments with it to see how it looks. I’m sure it will be fogged and flat, however with digital processing which I like by the way  (Lightroom) one can do wonders. The film/digtital mix is a good marriage and I use it a lot.  Will keep posted on the tests.  Here is a few examples of  80degree F development and Ilford HP5+ I think Fukase would be pleased.

© Pierre Chemaly





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