Jim Smith is a student on People and Place, here is an extract from his learning log on exhibitions:

‘Looking in books or online at the work of other photographers, by ourselves and without discussion with others is learning that is initiated in the visual mode rather than audio or kinaesthetic. To make an impact on our cognition that extends beyond simple visual impressions, so we need to engage in evaluation through careful reflection. For example, there is the immediacy of response in thoughts “I like that” or “That’s bad” or “Interesting!”. Unless we unpick that initial response and think about why we have that reaction, then learning is likely to be very limited. So, in other words to begin to optimise learning we evaluate both the picture and the reaction that it produces within us. We ask ourselves why and then perhaps ask ourselves how the photographer achieves that reaction.

It seems to me that looking at an exhibition of photography is fundamentally different in at least two ways.

Firstly, there is a different sense of scale and impact. There is the sheer quantity of work which can be impressive; there is the size of individual pieces which can be substantially bigger than a book or screen; and there is the setting and flow of work through the exhibition, with piece relating to piece and leading the senses through harmony and contrast. The exhibition at its best is an experience to be lived, not just a set of photos.

Secondly, the exhibition is almost always an experience that is shared with others. This may be passive, in the sense of silently sharing the space with others, or it may be more active. In terms of optimising learning, an active engagement with the subject matter is required. A knowledgeable guide to the exhibition is very helpful, providing that they enhance the viewer’s thoughtful evaluation. A friend or two to discuss with, expert or not, is also going to help us to evaluate both the photographs and the varied reactions they produces within us. The friend will have a different view of the same photograph, and a discussion of these differences helps us to tease out the detailed analysis.’

There can be few photographers for whom the difference between viewing images on web and seeing them printed in a gallery is so dramatic as Thomas Struth, whose work to date is surveyed at the latest exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery.

The OCA has organised a study visit for the morning of Saturday 3 September. As previously, the Gallery will provide a tour of the exhibition and this will then be followed by the opportunity to discuss the work with fellow students over a cup of tea or coffee. The visit is free for OCA students and will start at 11am and last for about two hours. The last Whitechapel tour attracted very positive feedback from students. The study visits are intended as informal opportunities to meet other students and learn more about a particular photographer. We know some students find the idea of attending intimidating but there is really no reason not to attend, you are almost certain to enjoy the experience and learn from it.

To book a place please email (Please do not try to book places by commenting below)

In the meantime, there is a very good article on Struth by Geoff Dyer on the Guardian website

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35 comments for “Struth

  1. 8 July 2011 at 11:20 am

    That’s another visit that I’ll look forward to. I’ve been to three so far and there’s always such a good atmosphere; plenty of opportunity to share views and also to spend time alone absorbing everything. I know I tend to do a mixture of both. I can understand that some students might find the idea intimidating at first and must confess that I felt somewhat apprehensive on my first visit but the friendliness and interest of other students and tutors soon made me feel more relaxed.

  2. Jan
    8 July 2011 at 11:28 am

    As someone who has attended a couple of OCA study days I can definately say they are well worth attending. It can be a scary thought, meeting up with others, coming face to face with tutors, wondering if you “know” enough about what you are looking at and if you come out with any ideas of your own will they be laughed at?

    Let me re-assure everyone that the tutors are very approachable, friendly, listen brilliantly and share their own ideas. They have taken on board any ramblings I have come out with and helped me think beyond the obvious. The free lunch/coffees are always an added bonus 😉

    Meeting fellow students has been fantastic, discovering you share the same fears or frustrations, laughing over shared triumphs or mishaps, chatting informally with Jose, Gareth or Clive about Wimbledon, current projects or ways to improve how the OCA can improve our learning experience is fun and informative.

    I suppose I ought to add that examining the exhibition has it’s benefits ;P

    In short, if you have wavered about coming along do so, if you have never thought about coming along, do so. I was amazed to find out we have over 200 photographers based in the SE region but there are empty spaces on most study days organised in this area?

    But don’t leap in until I’ve booked MY place…..

    • CliveW
      8 July 2011 at 11:49 am

      Yes and I was wrong about both my Wimbledon predictions wasn’t I? Hahahaha

      See, we tutors are mortal. ‘ } Hahahaha

      Photographers need support groups, even us jaded old roués, hahahaha, come along and feel the collegiate love, you’ll be glad you did. ‘ }

      Nobody gets put on the spot; you can be a raging bull or a wallflower, it’s all good. ‘ }

      • vicki loader
        8 July 2011 at 11:58 am

        I was a wall-flower, next time I will be a raging bull!

        • Jan
          8 July 2011 at 4:39 pm

          I got the mens spot on, the womens I wasn’t sure either way.

          I may have to check on your mortality depending on my results when they arrive 😉

          You could always be a raging flower Vicki just to be different 🙂

        • vicki loader
          9 July 2011 at 9:33 am

          Raging flower it is then!

  3. vicki loader
    8 July 2011 at 11:42 am

    Is there any space left on this one for me?? I attended my first one last week at the V&A; and so regret not having attended any before. Will admit to being a little intimidated as I approached the group outside the V&A; but my fears were quickly allayed by Gareth, Clive and Jose who immediately made me feel welcome.

    The exhibit was really good; and I had no problems asking for advice from tutors on how to interpret some of the installations. It was also great to meet other students; and I have already found a fellow study mate who lives really quite close to me — it was her first OCA outing too!

    I would really recommend it to any others contemplating attending. You benefit all round; and there is no downside. I will be a regular from now on!

  4. 8 July 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Can you count me in please … as usual!!

  5. 8 July 2011 at 2:12 pm

    I’ve been to a few visits now, and like others was apprehensive at first. But once you’re there everything moves along easily. One of the things I have noticed is that the visits offer scope for a variety of approaches, so no-one need feel left out or put on the spot. When in the galleries I mostly like to look quietly at pictures and take time to think my impressions through: others go round in groups looking and discussing as they go, or listen to a discussion and then go off to look – it’s all pretty flowing and informal. At lunch there is lots of lively chat (sometimes even about the work we’ve seen). I’ve found it a very friendly and supportive experience.

    I always come away brimming with ideas and thoughts. It’s great to be able to ask other students and tutors about things you are struggling with. It’s even better just to get to know people and share experiences.

    As Jim has said, seeing the works in real and at full scale is a hugely different experience from looking in books. They come alive in quite a different way, and I find my understanding of them often changes significantly. I’d certainly encourage anyone who can make it to come along. I hope to get a place on 3 September and to see old friends and new there.

  6. 8 July 2011 at 7:01 pm

    I am green with envy. I know these visits are for specific courses, but are there any anyone can join? even a humble illustrator? after all, we are all looking at images whatever the medium, and a positive and critical would bebefit everyone.Here’s hoping.

    • 10 July 2011 at 12:25 am

      Yes Dorothy, even humble illustrators like yourself are welcome!
      One only needs a receptivity to the work one sees!

  7. 8 July 2011 at 7:35 pm

    TVM for the heads-up. I also have requested a place al;so

    Hi Dorothy506086 ….. would that be ‘Bristol Dorothy”? Chat about this at the Bristol RWA meet tomorrow 🙂

    Dave B.

    • Jan
      8 July 2011 at 8:11 pm

      be great to see another new face 🙂

      • 8 July 2011 at 8:35 pm

        TVM Jan, hope I get a place. However I’m not such a ‘new face’ having been to a couple of OCA Events/Meets in the past and I agree with everything you say in your first post above …… will look forward to it 🙂

        Dave B.

        • Jan
          9 July 2011 at 9:06 am

          will be a new face for me is more what I meant:o)

        • Dave B
          15 July 2011 at 10:04 am

          …… and you to me Jan. Look farward to it 🙂

  8. 8 July 2011 at 7:48 pm


    why not email the college and ask if you can some along?

    • 8 July 2011 at 9:16 pm

      Study visits are open to all OCA students regardless of their current course – sorry if this wasn’t clear

  9. 9 July 2011 at 7:45 am

    Oh to live near London !
    …… love from Cumbria

    • Jane
      11 July 2011 at 4:57 pm

      …….BW from rainy Scotland!

  10. 12 July 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Thanks,I willtry. as long as i dont take a place from a photography student that would not be fair. Dorothy

  11. Cedric Sherwood
    14 July 2011 at 9:24 am

    I have been to two photography exhibition visits – the one at Derby and the one at Bradford – organised by the OCA. I have been to many others in East Anglia where I live (often seems to be an outpost as far as the OCA is concerned in arranging visits.) I enjoyed both but would have liked a bit more time for discussion with my fellow students. As i believe that all experiences in life have positive lessons to be learnt I came away with something although I often find that this only becomes apparent much later.

    The question I would like to ask – Is visiting photographic exhibitions and or reading books (I have quite an extensive library) a useful way of learning how to take photographs? If you are keen to take great pictures of mountains do you look at the work of Ansel Adams and others or do you go out and take the photographs and critically examining and assessing them with the help of others aiming to develop your own style through constant practice.

    I know the short answer is to do both but is there not a danger that studying existing works means you are only a mimic and merely offering the world a ‘poor’ imitation of the original.

    • Jan
      14 July 2011 at 3:59 pm

      It depends on how you approach it I guess. It may just give you the confidence to persue and idea, or realise a technique that could be applied or adapted to suit your own style. Or have teh other effect or saying ewwwwwwwww I don’t like that!

    • vicki loader
      14 July 2011 at 5:11 pm


      Sorry, but I am going to have to disagree with you there – the comment about going to exhibitions and becoming a poor mimic. You spoke about critically assessing your own work as a way of developing style; and you are so correct there. But surely also critically assessing the work of others will also help develop your understanding of how and what the artist is saying; and you take that understanding to your own work.

      I went to the Figures and Fictions exhibition with the OCA; and there has not been a day since that I have not either thought about it, or researched a particular artist and their body of work. I have no intention of mimicking any of those artists; but I learned so much about what I like, didn’t like; how certain colour treatments, shooting angles, compositions affected my interpretation and reaction to the art I was seeing.

      I think that only by studying others can we learn to do what we want to do, but certainly not to do what they do.

      Sorry – rant over,


    • CliveW
      15 July 2011 at 10:12 am

      While of course it is very important to have knowledge of the culture and history of the medium it’s also important to remember that you are engaged in making a contribution to it.

      What concerns me is the effects of those two aspects getting out of balance such that the critical knowledge inhibits the creative endeavour during an important phase of the development of a personal voice; where deepening critical knowledge can feel like progression while the imagery being produced can remain in stasis or even regress as a result of constantly measuring it critically against the most successful work of others and having your head full of other people’s ideas.

      I was recently watching a TV programme about song writing and a very successful writer made the comment that his critical faculties had become very finely tuned to the extent that it would take him months to write a single song but his teenage children, uninhibited by that critical baggage, could knock off two songs a day with the vivacity that he once had.

      Students need to have their ‘teenage years’, keeping their own creativity and development as the imperative. Certainly take what you can use from the culture of photography in developing your own practice, as Jan and Vicki have said, but don’t confuse cultural understanding with personal development in the medium.

      You need to discover what your own work is to be and make that, not someone else’s. ‘ }

  12. Dave B
    15 July 2011 at 10:15 am

    ** Start Time? **

    I have a place (Whoohoo!!)

    I realize that details for the day will be issued nearer the time, which is fine. However it would be a good idea if a start time could be set fairly soon as it gives those of us who are travelling a distance some chance to book a train/buss. For me (Bristol), the earlier I book the cheaper it is but I need to know what time train/buss to go for.

    Dave B.

    • 15 July 2011 at 10:19 am

      It’s 11am Dave

  13. Peter Haveland
    15 July 2011 at 11:52 am

    Two points in Clive’s post seem particularly important to me and I think that there is probably a string link between them. The first is his reminder that students are engaged in making a contribution to their medium not merely spectating on it and the second concerns the idea of ‘teenage years’ inhibition. One of the great thing about adolescent contributions is their relative naïvety and another is their seeming belief that only the current is relevant. One of the problems I have come across with mature students, both in college and the OCA is a tendency to put more importance on the historic than the current, particularly when it comes to the culture of their medium. The OCA photography visits are predominantly to exhibitions of more or less contemporary work, whereas, left to their own devices it would seem that many if not most mature students would choose to visit more historic exhibitions or look at the books of work from the past, even in this thread Cedric mentions Adams rather than a contemporary photographer. This is entirely understandable of course and the difficulty I have as a tutor is to find a way to wean mature students off the work of past generations and onto an understanding of the contemporary aesthetic so that their contributions are that much more relevant and encourage them to do their own thing without them falling into the teenage fault of ignoring critical input.
    On the more basic point of exhibitions and books, I would have a tendency to say that you can’t see too many exhibitions or read too many books but part of that comes from living and working in a pert of the world as some distance from a concentration of galleries and seeing what effect that has on both students and working artists, we have to take every opportunity that we can get; if I were in London, Bristol, Manchester or nearer to any other city I would probably be much more measured on this! However I suspect that many OCA students live at some distance from galleries showing contemporary work so I would suggest that they make a point of getting to as many exhibitions of such work as they can rather than using that time to visit the historical museums and the same with books and web galleries. Balance is, as Clive says, the important thing…oh yes…and remember that when thinking about both your work and the work of others ‘why’ is so much more important then ‘how’.

    • vicki loader
      15 July 2011 at 12:00 pm

      @both Clive and Peter

      Thanks so much for your responses. Both very useful and enlightening. May have helped me decide what other modules to do on this course as well!

    • Paul Stephenson
      31 August 2011 at 9:48 pm

      Peter, we seem to have a few generalisations here in respect of mature students and their ability to appreciate contemporary art/photography/music. You talk about problems with mature students, problems? Many, if not most would visit historical over contemporary exhibitions, would we? Well not in my experience, mature people I know, artists, photographers, friends have a wide palette, seek out the new specifically, look to the fringes as well as appreciating the historical background and the journey art has taken from past to present. Many of us “mature” students still have the ability to grasp the new with aplomb, question the mundane and look to the future. Yes let’s have a bit of balance here.

  14. 25 August 2011 at 4:07 pm

    In the process of cancelling my place owing to unforseen circumstances … so if you want a place, there may still be one!

  15. Jim DNS
    31 August 2011 at 11:30 am

    See you all on Saturday!

  16. Jim DNS
    4 September 2011 at 10:05 pm

    Struth Exhibition 03/09/11 Whitechapel Gallery
    I found this an interesting and in some ways an exciting exhibition, and in drawing my thoughts together I wish to reflect on the reasons for my responses, and to identify what I’ve learned from the experience.
    To begin with, I’ll look at my field notes as these represent my thoughts at the time, and add to them any memories that persist since the event yesterday. I’m not going to describe the exhibits in detail – just sufficiently to identify key points and learning.
    Firstly there was a section about ‘audience’ in which Struth photographs people viewing works of iconic significance, such as art, great buildings or scenery. The ‘audience’ section was placed first in the exhibition, and of course also is a reminder of ourselves looking at the materials. I am not clear on the motivation for this choice of subject, but clearly it was of interest to him to the extent that he wanted to conceal cameras alongside pictures in a gallery to photograph people viewing the works on display. This was not a desire that was realised in practice. It also does not appeal to me as a theme, perhaps because the study of audience reaction was part of my professional life for many years, and it is time to move on.
    The next point I noted was that the pictures were produced at on a large scale, several of them extending to about 3 metres. Most were mounted directly onto Perspex, and the colours were often quite luminous. The sheer scale of the pictures was effective in itself, but was also often used to show the small scale of individual people in relation to the larger environment in which they were situated (e.g. Milan Cathedral; El Capitan). There seemed to be a theme in much of the work about the insignificance of ‘man’ – although clearly that was not the case in the studies of families which were grouped together later in the exhibition.
    Next I noted a section where Struth was interested in various aspects of technology. I particularly liked a photograph showing the underside of a space shuttle whilst work was being carried out beneath it using a visually dense jungle of tools and supports (but no people in shot). It reminded me very much of the opening sequence in a sci-fi film (I forget which) where a space ship flies across the top of the screen for several minutes, moving away from the viewer and showing more and more of its huge size. In the film there was nothing but space under the ship. In the Struth photo, by contrast, there was nothing but supports, wires and tools – showing how dependent the shuttle was upon ground support, and how far we had to go to achieve anything remotely like the science fiction of the film.
    Other technology photos (e.g. the Grazing Incidence Spectrometer; and the Stellerator Windelstein; Times Square) used a similar approach, showing a jungle made of wire branches and leaves made from circuitry components. It all looks visually bright and somehow random, belying the fact that the machinery actually worked and had a purpose – the ghost in the machine. I was reminded of making an amplifier from a kit, in about 1970. When the box of materials was opened it looked like a shovelful of resistors, a handful of transistors, a sprinkling of wires and a baking tin with holes in it. I was tempted to mix them all together and bake in an oven for 90 minutes at Gas Mark 8. I asked myself, does this mass of stuff actually fulfil a purpose? This is a sense of wonder that has persisted in me ever since I saw the insides of a television at the age of six, and found there was nobody in there!
    The set of ‘jungle paradise’ photos that followed seemed to me to parallel those of the technology, and left me wondering what, if anything, was the hidden purpose of all these branches and leaves? Also the idea of calling these photographs ‘paradise’ when there was not a single human being in them was quite challenging. Is paradise going to occur when we have all gone, and the Garden of Eden returns?
    The simply title “Semi-Submersible rig” was a photograph of a very large, very red drilling rig moored at a dockside. There were pictorial lead-in lines created by the mooring ropes. The massive scale of the rig would not have been apparent, save for the appearance of a figure in the foreground apparently mending his bicycle. This was one of the few colour pictures where the frame was not completely full. Yet is was partitioned into large zones which were clearly defined and each contained the usual Struth mass of miniature details.
    There were other parts of the exhibition which had less impact for me, and these were the families section and the centrally symmetrical street scenes. I did like the idea though of the families posing themselves for the photographer, who apparently only required them to look into the camera’s lens. This seemed very effective, and a technique worth trying.
    So what have I learned?
    • That images such as these can provoke some serious thought, way beyond the initial response of ‘I like or don’t like that’.
    • You don’t always need a focal point and something to lead the eye through the picture.
    • Artistic pictures can be technically excellent as well!
    • That I want to continue with tight framing of pictures, and filling the frame completely can be very effective.
    • You need very large prints to achieve some of the effects seen here, particularly the frequent comparison of the very large with the very small.
    • Visiting an exhibition can be fun and enlightening.

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