Writing a review of a book which features one’s work may seem a rather cheeky and unintelligent attempt at self-promotion. But Maria Short’s new book Context and Narrative, recently published by AVA Books, is the kind of learning resource that many OCA students will want to have on their bookshelves. In any case my participation is modest enough compared to that of other contributors and I don’t receive any royalties from the sale of the book.
I like this book for many reasons. In terms of its layout and design this is a book that boasts a consistent visual style where different design solutions are artfully combined. Framed images, full-bleed photographs, white backgrounds, black backgrounds, this book demonstrates how to combine images and text in a visually engaging and reader-friendly way.
The deceptively concise style that this book shares with other titles in the Basics series is an excellent example of how to write analytically, which we positively know is one of the greatest challenges for students at OCA’s level 2 and 3. Each chapter has clear and well-defined topics and includes case studies which support the author’s opinions. At the end of each chapter there is a brief summary and some suggested exercises to consolidate what the reader learned.
However, it is the the subject matter that the books deals with that I find particularly appealing. It is refreshing to read a book which is concerned with key tenets of photography such as context and narrative, which, regardless of the technology that we use, are crucial for photographs to act as more than just records or evidence. In the first chapter Maria Short takes the opportunity to discuss the function of the photograph. She comments on the value of photographs as documents regardless of whether the realities that they portray are ‘real’ or constructed, which acknowledges current contemporary practices. An example of the later is Charley Murrell’s Constructed Childhoods , an original take on the ‘real or fake’ theme our students are familiar with, but redolent with social commentary. Murrell’s photographs, the result of an idea brilliantly conceptualised and executed, show us that Photoshop can also be legitimately used in the field of social documentary.
The next two sections, ‘Audience and Intention’ and ‘Narrative’ are the key chapters of the book. The author identifies that elusive skill she calls ‘gut instinct’ which every photographer needs to develop. Short acknowledges that “…one of the greatest challenges facing a student photographer is to translate ideas into images…”, which is the main hurdle between the student’s intention and the realisation of their work as a communication device, and offers valuable advice to that effect. The author also recognises that photography is a dialectic process which incorporates significant input from the viewer. The photographic image is inherently ambiguous, as Short demonstrates by referring to the project The Bedrooms, by Emma O’Brien, a photographer with a marked conceptual approach. The notion of ‘narrative’ is also explored; the author emphasises that narrative in photographs doesn’t necessarily work like narrative in text. Narrative in images doesn’t have to be linear or be restricted to a fixed sequence of images. On the contrary, it can be be multidirectional and also be embedded in a single image, which expands creative and communication possibilities. The Devil’s Garden project by Eleanor Kelly has a strong and fluid narrative which works in a multitude of directions.
The final two chapters turn up the critical discussion several notches and revolve around the use of symbols and text in photographic images. Short argues that visual metaphors tend to be present in narrative-rich portfolios, and that how symbols are read depends on the sociocultural context that both the photographer and viewer belong to.
But the most interesting aspect of this book is that the images that Maria Short selected to support her arguments were not primarily taken by iconic and well-known photographers but by a collective of new photographers who have a fresh look at the world. In doing so they have the potential to inspire established and aspiring photographers. And that’s the main reason why you should buy this book, particularly if you are doing People & Place, Social Documentary, or are in the transition between levels 1 and 2. It won’t make me rich but it will make me feel good to know that some of you think of photography as a vehicle for communication.