Two Stops Down

A journal on photography by Thomas Riggs

Randy Newman on songwriting

In some way, I've written third-person songs for almost my whole writing career. I'm in character with many of them. I don't think it's the best medium for that kind of work necessarily, because people are used to "from-me-to-you", that kind of direct expression. [...] My best songs, I can see characters in it. And, by the diction of the singer, what he says, the words he knows and how he says it, the audience can tell what he's like, and what it's about.


Steven Sasson, inventor of digital photography, interviewed by David Friedman

Things like this remind me that it's no coincidence I took so quickly to photography. It's such a wonderful and elegant fusion of computing and image-making.

The only more permanent form of digital storage I had available to me at the time was digital cassette. It took about 23 seconds to record, and the tape would hold 30 images -- a number I chose, by the way, to be conveniently between 24 and 36.

I didn't want to store just one or two images on there, because then they'd say "well, that's not very useful"; I didn't want to store a hundred or a thousand images in there, because nobody knew how to deal with that concept.

The key, I think, when you put across an idea, is you have to understand the culture you're dealing with, first and foremost... and put everything very much like the culture's used to, and then put only the essential elements of your idea out there, so it doesn't get confused with things that might complicate the concept.

Also check out the rest of David's amazing Inventor Portrait series.

(via David Friedman)

Defining Photography

Work in installation.

The proposal I handed over at the end of term was pretty tame. Taking from Victor Burgin's writings on art history and culture, I decided I would use the project to develop a critical understanding of photography.

When it came to specifics though, I found it almost impossible to articulate what I really wanted to do. I wasn't sure what I wanted. I knew I wanted to take a critical look at photography, but all I had to go on was Tom Hunter's work, and how that might say something about the portrayal of minority groups, through his contrast of mass-media and fine-art photography.

I gave myself the first two weeks of Easter to not work, and to let things percolate a little. Avoiding work was a lot harder than it should be. I ended up thinking more carefully about the work I had done last term, and how I had responded (or not) to the feedback I was given. In particular, I kept thinking of my reaction to one particular approach people kept suggesting again and again: that of closing in, cropping out the extraneous details, the context, and telling through fragments. I hated the idea; it was a cheap visual trick of dramatics, which instantly cut out all the context and totally removed the spatial relationships I was used to in photography.

Yet, in my final work, the images which employed a close crop were the most successful. What I had failed to grasp was, while I could understand the concept and visualise the results, I was quick to form my own opinion based on those visualisations and call it a day. It's scary how common a pattern this is in my thinking, and it's a really destructive way to work.

Then came another realisation: I really didn't get on with the idea of photography studied as a fine art. I had become so repulsed by the endless rows of prints hung on sterile walls that it felt an obligation rather than a decision to show the work in that context. It seemed alien to what I talked about with other students, and with what photography meant to me personally.

I have quite a few photographs of my own on my computer, probably a few thousand (for obvious reasons), though my family has a comparable number on their computer, and countless more in albums. And they feel so strongly of them that they must be kept in duplicate, or triplicate, in case any are lost. In contrast, the number of photographs that my family cherish which aren't theirs (and aren't just illustrations in a newspaper; images that are held in an almost equal status) is probably in the single digits. Think about it: in what other medium is the ratio of produced to consumed images in such orders of magnitude?

I don't think it's due to photography's inherent autonomy, with which it is associated so well. If a man liked paintings, why wouldn't he create his own, to match the number of those he owned? The limit is not in physical ability: painting or drawing can be as autonomous and industrious as the camera, and as many art students know, the real barrier is the mental one. People are so open and accustomed to the idea of taking pictures that there is no such barrier in most people. The impulse to create, therefore, is just the same as that to consume.


As testament to this, try telling one of your friends (hell, even your family) that you are a student of photography. Tell them this, and you will quickly learn that photography is no longer considered a craft in the same way that fine-art painting or horse-shoe making still are; rather, it is something they also know how to do, and can easily make assumptions on the practice thereof.

This puts photography in a very interesting position. Many student and professional photographers feel the urge to distance themselves from the common cultural usage of photography, creating the parallel field of the fine art photograph, often becoming dismissive or even reductive of what the layman calls taking pictures. However, photography as an art form has always sat awkwardly in the traditional telling of art history (continuously trying to rise to the status of painting, which it shunned and rejected; growing jealous of its little sister of cinema), ultimately becoming an alienated character in the story -- when, really, photography was so much more than an art form. It was a cultural shift in every way imaginable, and continues to find new (and often under-appreciated) modes of being in popular culture.

As much as it may seem otherwise inside of the bubble of "the institution", photography, in all its popular and artistic manifestations, is almost impossible to pin down in such a simple sense of popular and artistic function into which it is often segregated. In such promising times, when risk is low, the tools are there and the possibilities for new work are endless, it seems absurd that photographic study should take place on a foundation of such ignorance as to block out the periphery; to continue to make work on the assumptions that the public uses of photography are completely foreign to our own field, isolating themselves when really, it is the public who are the masters.

Mark Laita

I first found the work of Mark Laita when the series Created Equal (2009) was featured on back in February. A series of diptychs compare and contrast different classes and walks of life, with controversial consequences; the middle-class polygamists compared with a pimp and his women, a Baptist churchgoer shown alongside a white supremacist, a group of clergymen shown beside Klu Klux Klan members, and so on. While the images are beautifully executed on large-format black-and-white film, I find they say more about the photographer's opinions of the subjects than the comparisons themselves.

Polygamists/Pimp, from Created Equal

The series Nature (1994-2000) continues the theme of pairings, this time showing animals (insects, lizards) with the plant life they typically are associated with. In colour this time, the series is again well-executed in a fine-art style. The choice of lighting is almost identical to the Created Equal series, also: a large, soft key light from the side, with the background graduated so that the lit side of the subject is against black, and the shadow side against a lit, mottled studio backdrop.

Tanagers and Honeycreepers, from Amaranthine

Amaranthine (2005-8) is another series of formal photographs, this time on black, of taxidermied birds. Described on Laita's site as "a study of the rare occurrence of beauty and death found in ornithological specimens", he selects specimens with particularly rich hues and colours - or does he? While some images are quite deliberate (as in Songbirds and 38 Buntings, where the specimens are arranged in a colour spectrum), these brilliant colours are present in every detail, accented by the photographer's choice of soft low-key lighting.

Humpback Algerfish, from Sea

The use of low-key lighting to illustrate animal life continues with the series Sea (to be published 2011), though the animals, sea life in this case, are alive. The sea-creatures are suspended mid-curve, the delicate shapes of their bodies frozen. Many of the images, interestingly, show the water-line, showing a distorted and dappled reflection of the fish, somewhat reminding us of both the scale and the process through which the images were made (with the interesting exception of Humpback Algerfish, the lack of a waterline making the creature's jaws seem immense and dangerous).

In review, Laita's work is dramatic, beautifully executed, and really appeals to my own preference of straight, formalist photography.

You can visit Mark Laita's personal and commercial sites at Created Equal is available on Amazon, and Sea is already available for pre-order.

Take better notes (and use them) with the Cornell Method

The Cornell Method of notetaking, devised in the 1950s by a professor at Cornell University, is fundamentally a way of making your notes read-write. By leaving yourself room on the page for later, your notes can become something you can revisit, refine and learn from.

And, best of all, it's simple, gets out of the way and is totally adaptable to how you work.

Revisiting your notes can be a game-changer in itself. It was a relatively modest change to make, but simply opening up my notebook and reading what I had written turned notetaking from being a wrist-exercise into something useful. Incredibly useful, in fact.

Here's the basic idea of the Cornell method of notetaking, as I was taught it: before the lecture/book/interview/etc., add two margins to your page. A margin down the left side is kept for keywords, or cues. A footer along the bottom is used for summaries.

The summary is a pretty easy concept to grasp. It's somewhere to place all of the useful, re-usable parts of what you've written. Think bullet points and shorthand facts.

The keyword or cue column is less easy to pin down. Depending on your field of study, the cue column could hold topic headings, key concepts, chapters, exercise questions, and more. The cue column forms something in between an index and a flash-card, letting you quickly find notes on a particular topic or test your knowledge of the key concepts.

A spread from my notebook.

Here's a spread showing notes from one of Ed's rather dense lectures. Personally, I don't see much use for the cue column in art study: the lectures are fragmentary at best, and much of the reading is more akin to finding needles in a literary haystack than copying out exercises.

What I really got out of the Cornell method was the summary, a dedicated space where I could process and extract all the good stuff from my notes. Usually these are ideas and people I need to follow up on.


The ninja move

Psst. Here's the super ninja move. You know what's going to make your notes useful? Making them yours. Getting rid of the cue column was just the first step in making my notebook something other than somewhere to waste ink. I came up with my own visual cues to let my (future) self know about:

  • things I need to look into (circled with an arrow, as if to say "Go! Research!");
  • important ideas that are buried inside of dense writing (highlighter!);
  • non-sequitur thoughts that need to go somewhere else (in a self-contained box).

Also a great idea? Come up with your own shorthand system for copying out long quotes or wordy book titles. (You've got no idea how much time it saves writing photo. instead of photograph, and photog. instead of photographer.)

Speaking of quotes: For long quotes from slides, I write the first few words and the author, and circle-arrow it. Meaning? "Google this later". So useful.


When you think about it, lectures are a huge, one-sided demand on your attention. Two or three hours spent looking at someone's slides, and what do you end up with? "Some awesome, useful notes", I hear you cry! You wish, right? Well, keep at it. And don't use this kind of read-write notetaking on lectures alone; there's all sorts of places where revising can really make your time spent working more valuable.

A great example is books. I'm not talking about pulling long quotes and keeping a bibliography on Tolkien, but giving yourself somewhere to make notes on what you're reading every few chapters can be really useful in the long run.

From my own experience, the most useful and most under-valued kind of notes are notes on your own work. These notes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: project proposals, grades, proof-readings, even conversation. These things may seem ephemeral, but you can get so much out of them just by processing and summarising.

Michal Suilma - The Other Side (2011)

Michal Wojcik - The Other Side (2011)

Another interesting body of work seen at college:

The concept was originally initiated through an observation I have once made: a piece of glass has a power of creating quite a social distance, no matter if we’re a feet or merely an inch away from another person. It is sometimes difficult to escape an impression while walking down the street that this big front window of a bar or a barber shop is in fact a window looking into a far away space. It feels distinct that whatever happens, no harm can come to any of the sides; we can see each other, but we cannot hear or touch each other, we both become and stay merely curious observers.

As the project continued, I realised that my interests wasn’t with everyone simply sitting on the other side of a window, much rather with certain individuals and moments. Looking back at my work at some point, I realised that I’m subconsciously looking for people just by themselves, somehow standing out and detached from reality. And so, although the idea of a window and a great distance of ‘the other side’ remained, my project has shifted into portraiture of individuals who for a moment or two found a stillness in time and became completely detached from their surroundings.

Michal Sulima is a Warsaw born, London-based photographer and filmmaker. You can find his portfolio at


The Illuminated Man (1968)

A haunting photograph from the brilliant Duane Michals (from the year of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to put it in some historical context).

Is it just me, or does he look just a little like the Facebook logo?

DaeWoong Kim - A melancholic yearning for home (2011)

DaeWoong Kim - A melancholic yearning for home

One benefit of being in a university’s photography department is seeing all the great work that gets put up for display. This series by DaeWoong Kim caught my eye, not just for its dramatic lighting but for the way it talks about long-distance relationships.

You can find DaeWoong Kim on Facebook.

My portraiture will critically explore the impact of computer technologies on social interaction for Korean students in London. A focal point of my project is an exploration of my own emotions as a Korean student in London. I will use my subject as a mirror of myself to portray the shared emotion we have as foreigners at a distance from home. I cannot see these emotions in myself, so I want to show them as they are in others.

The rationale for focussing on the computer is that nowadays computer technologies have shrunk time and space and are the catalyst for a revolution in society. We are more connected than ever before, but also perhaps simultaneously more disconnected from other people than ever. We use these technologies in our own private space where we can feel isolated and lonely, but the computer can reflect our emotion, whether positive or negative. My images will capture these moments of isolation.

DaeWoong Kim - A melancholic yearning for home DaeWoong Kim - A melancholic yearning for home DaeWoong Kim - A melancholic yearning for home DaeWoong Kim - A melancholic yearning for home

The Two Worlds

Henri-Cartier Bresson, Images à la Sauvette (1952):

I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us.

A balance must be established between these two worlds – the one inside us, and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.