Exercise 1.4 Archival intervention

O’Neill brothers (1977-2017)

“A photograph is only a fragment and with the passage of time it’s moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading (or matching to other photographs).” (Sontag, S. 1977: p71)

I felt that this quotation hints at the interesting yet potentially problematic aspects of intervening with archived or found photographs; either way the thought of finding new information, reflections or perspectives which could possibly alter our reading of the past is highly attractive.

To undertake this exercise I have identified 5 photographs of my brothers and myself from 1977 to 2017.

Some families are organised in their family network and regular reunions, we get together for weddings and funerals. Mum and Dad separated 30 years ago; Frank did n’t like to put himself on show and he did n’t deliver the father’s speech at our sister’s wedding.

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Figure 1: In the backyard of Garden Street (1977) (L-R), Michael 13, Kieran 7, Allan 10)

Kieran and myself were always friendly to each other and probably closest. Michael was the oldest and would be closer to Kieran if anybody at all. Michael and myself were never really close – we were more like when people come together within a group who if outside of the group would never have been friends. As children we were happy, we were brothers and we generally rubbed along pretty well.

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Figure 2: 1988 – Burnley fans outside Wembley stadium (foreground L-R) Michael 24, Allan 21)

Kieran is missing from this photograph as by now he was an apprentice with Burnley FC and was therefore part of the official club party.

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Figure 3: Michael’s wedding reception (1990) (L-R) Kieran 20, Michael 26, Allan 23)

Michael is central to this photograph and of course to the day, I am his best man – he motions for me to speed to the end of the speech after I get into my stride and jokingly embarrass his new mother-in-law. He is a painter and decorator but no longer working for our Dad, I am at University.

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Figure 4: My house in Worcester (1997) (L-R) Michael 33, Allan 30, Dad 63, Kieran 27)

I have now left University, moved away and started a career with an international insurance company. Kieran is visiting England having moved to the USA to take up a soccer scholarship at an American University. Michael is still painting and decorating but has left Burnley and moved down to Birmingham.

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Figure 5: Dad’s funeral (2017) (L-R) Kieran 46, Allan 49, Michael 52)

I brought Dad down to live in Worcestershire so that he could be closer for care and support 6 years ago after his long-term partner died. I organised Dad’s funeral and dealt with his possessions and final arrangements.

Of the three of us Kieran being the youngest probably shaded Dad’s interest due mainly to his ability as a footballer as he went onto become an apprentice with Burnley FC. Carol our older sister was bright and very sociable, she passed the 11+ to get into Grammar school and was always Dad’s favourite, fathers and daughters etc. I was always considered the most like Frank as I seemed to possess his sense of humour – so we always got on well but because I was effectively the middle boy and had an easy going nature I probably received less attention as we grew up but more when I went to University. Michael was often in the spotlight for being considered by Dad as difficult in general. He and Dad never really got on that well, they clashed and the relationship was always a little tense and difficult especially when Michael worked for dad straight from school at 16. Where was Mum? Always in the kitchen, our house was like a cafe and she ran it.

Very much the usual family stuff with 6 people living in a terraced house, we just got on with things and were generally a normal, happy, cheerful and cohesive working class family in the 1970s and 80s.

I initially expected these photographs to be an exploration of the changing relationship and dynamic between Michael and myself. I thought this would be a story of myself and my brother and dealing with long-standing deeper underlying resentments. The relationship between my older brother and myself is actually normally quite good natured if not a little distant – or rather we just don’t really talk – although we are very very different people – I am as open as he is closed.

However after deeper reflections I have come to recognise that there were more significant and wider ranging factors to recognise and that our family was dominated and organised according to a fading working class patriarchal structure and hierarchy.

I have felt for sometime that our (very) well-meaning Dad being as he was as well as being an alcoholic placed restrictions on what the family could ever actually achieve – but I had n’t quite recognised the full impact that this might have had on individual relationships or the family dynamics. Again I think much of this commentary would be very common to most families living within this social and economic environment and generation.

The final photograph (2017) (figure 5) was taken at Dad’s funeral and alongside this passing away of the head of the family I feel that, maybe for myself at least, our family dynamic allows a more modern almost meritocratic mode based on individual relationships, common interests, and mutual benefits.

Of course to a degree families exist within their historical context but it now feels more fluid, less structured – as if old rules no longer apply. We may well as a result see less or more of different members of the family but it does n’t seem to matter anymore.

Hopefully I have reflected in an open, transparent and objective manner over this subject – perhaps more so than I have previously done before and my analysis has reached well beyond purely looking for simple clues within the frame of the photograph.

There are examples of punctum especially in the first and last photographs for myself – In the first photograph there is my closeness to Kieran – I love this photograph and it reminds me of a very happy childhood.

In the last photograph I have found myself in a more central position in the image but I have always but not knowingly challenged if not disrupted the notion of family hierarchy so I am adamant that I have not risen within one now.

I see myself as a fair-minded individual who is increasingly challenging in their thinking and I do not religiously nor nostalgically believe or trust in such structures which can often be both claustrophobic and controlling; I do not wish to be above or below anybody else so for me the thought of a hierarchy or traditional order in our family – if it ever actually existed – has died along with Frank.

A really interesting and enjoyable exercise that became very therapeutic! I have seen how Photographs can seem to create a sense of authenticity and of documentary factual evidence which can be made to facilitate or substantiate debate or opinion.

I recognise that this has not necessarily been entirely a nostalgic trip but by bringing these images together for the first time I have really exposed and laid bare some initial reflections about how I feel my family past has been constructed.

Whilst this project would be very early work in progress I am pleased with this starting point but I also realise that this is my story and so I will finish with another interesting quote from Susan Sontag,

“the arbitrariness of photographic evidence indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable. Reality is summed up in an array of casual fragments – an endlessly alluring, poignantly reductive way of dealing with the world.” (Sontag, S. 1977.80)


Sontag, S (1977) On Photography (re-issued 2008) London: Penguin Classics

Study visit: Format 17 Photography Festival, Derby

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Figure 1: Taken from Magic Party Place by CJ Clarke

Format 17 featured UK and International photographers and artists exploring the theme of habitat and Andrew Conroy, OCA tutor led the study session.

As is often the case at festival events there was so much to take in it becomes slightly overwhelming, but equally if not more important is the opportunity we have to interact and discuss ideas face to face with our peer group and Andrew did an excellent job in challenging and cajoling everybody to actively participate and move out of their comfort zones and his enthusiasm made the day worthwhile.

I now try to reflect more after the event and just see what sort of thoughts begin to emerge and take shape. I am beginning to recognise how a cycle of reflection can operate and so (now) I tend not to write the full review on the train home!

Magic Party Place (Dreams of a new town Utopia) is the collaboration between CJ Clarke and Christopher Ian Smith and the installation was presented in two separate parts:

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Figure 2: Still taken from New Town Utopia by C I Smith

New Town Utopia by Christopher Ian Smith is a “story of utopian dreams and concrete realities – a feature documentary about the British New town of Basildon, Essex.”

Described as, “memories, stories and performance of artists, musicians and poets from Basildon.” Ultimately in the parts of the documentary selected for Format 17 there did n’t seem to be any of the rays of positivity from the contemporary existence as indicated by the artist in the documentary trailer for the full documentary – It will be interesting to try to see the full feature documentary when it is officially launched.

The festival installation comprised of stacked video units playing different scenes on a loop from the documentary juxtaposed with a number of blank screens we assumed to be the metaphor for the broken dreams and society description proposed by the artist.

One of the members of our group who lived in or near Basildon felt that “this was n’t the Basildon that he knew” and this sparked a lively debate about the power of the author, objectivity, messaging and ultimately the veracity of the work.

Within the film clips, there was a perpetual cycle of foreboding developing whilst things were occurring – and always a sense that we were being watched, monitored – of surveillance. The randomness of how different screens sprung into action whilst others went dark, blank just added to the disturbing atmosphere of tension.

I really enjoyed the physical aspects of the installation, the visual language which presented a stark if not feral existence at times; black and white film scenes shot from moving cars, late at night under orange street lamps, passing through concrete subways and underpass walkways.

This format contrasted with colour scenes which seemed to hark back to a more respectable and respecting way of life as depicted in scenes reminiscent of a supposed post war OXO style Britain – fresh washing hung out on washing lines blowing calmly in the wind, tidy but simple small flower gardens.

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Figure 3: Taken from Magic Party Place by CJ Clarke

The second part of the collaboration Magic Party Place by CJ Clarke was a gallery of documentary style black and white photographic images pinned not framed to the exposed wooden wall.

The visual language employed by Clarke was a clear reference to the social documentary work of the 1960s and 1970s but this time Clarke was depicting the residents of Basildon donning Burberry stalker hats, wearing Adidas track suits, swigging cans of Stella Artois, filming semi-naked girls on their mobile phones whilst old men struggled on the isolated concrete stairways. Wide angled close ups of youths wearing England football shirts, sparking up cigarettes – I found it not so much cliqued as collectively familiar.

The black and white style created the sense of an alternative existence for those people stuck and existing in this brutal and hopeless environment. Kept away from the glare of normal mainstream culture and society as an underclass.

The motion blur, heavy grain, harsh sunshine throwing glaring whiteness onto emotionless hard faces, deep shadows – all just underlined the claims of authenticity and of discovering a real darker side to Britain.

The description of Magic Party Place which “takes you to the heart of Brexit England” was the un-necessary aspect of the work. For me it was opportunistic and just served to distract the viewer from looking more broadly and deeply at the work.

It just did n’t need to jump on that Brexit bandwagon and it would have stood taller and stronger on it’s own. It almost seemed as if the artist didn’t have the belief in his own work which of course is probably not the case but it just made me think.

Nobody can deny that such stories are not a major aspect of the Brexit thing, the hopelessness of provincial small town England, but the link seemed to be as I mentioned, opportunistic and un-necessary.

It created a case that the artist had to answer.

A consequence of this was that people became more fixed on searching for Brexit references which factually speaking can’t be on show – The artist has apparently been working on the project for 10 years – well before any notion of the term Brexit. This strapline I think created a fog within our group’s discussions on the photographs and we sort of ended up talking about too many unrelated issues if not more accurately described – the wrong things.

Still a really interesting collaboration which gave us plenty of food for thought plus clear and practical examples in the use of various classic photographic visual codes and language. A great day, thanks Andrew!


For more information on CJ Clarke maker of Magic Party Place access the artists website at:


For more information on Format 17, access the events website at:


For more information on Christopher Ian Smith access the artists website at:



Figures 1-3: All images of original works taken by Allan O’Neill 2017



Exercise 1.3 Producing a typology as a response to the work of August Sander

Figure 1-6: All images taken by Allan O’Neill (2017)

I have created a typology of portrait images as a response to the work of August Sander whose proposed People of the Twentieth Century set out to classify the inter-war German population according to social and occupational groups each split into additional sub-groups.

The main groupings used by August Sander were the:

Farmer, skilled tradesman, woman, classes and professions, artists, the city, and what Sander termed the last people (homeless, sick, elderly, unemployed, veterans).

My response is to offer an alternative classification of a contemporary woman contrasting with how August Sander had initially chosen to classify women; and in doing so reflecting changes in contemporary social convention from those embedded in early to mid twentieth German and European social culture.

His original classification of Women was split into:

Woman and child

Woman and man


The elegant woman

The woman in intellectual and practical occupation

Out of 14 portraits in the group of elegant woman we only learn the names of 3 participants entered by Sander as:

Architect’s wife (Ada Riphahn) 1931

Architect’s wife (Dora Luttgen) 1926

Painter’s wife (Helena Abelen) 1926

From August Sander’s adopted titles it is clear how women’s identity and social value was formed and viewed as directly connected to the husband’s position in society.

My response is an exploration of a contemporary woman seen as an independent individual creating her own identity and not dependent on or the subject of ownership by a man.

This response is also a recognition that a person’s identity is now often regarded as more multi-faceted and complex than would have historically been assumed and not founded purely on their occupation.

In developing this response I also reference work from the Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s exhibition at TPG, 2016 which included many artists exploring the female roles and stereotypes which had been applied to women with specific reference to Martha Wilson’s Portrait of Mothers depicting six categories of womanhood which Wilson herself describes,

“These are the models society holds out to me: Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, Professional, Earth Mother, Lesbian. At one time or another, I have tried them all on for size, and none has fit. All that’s left to do is be an artist and point the finger at my own predicament. The artist operates out of the vacuum left when all other values are rejected.”  Martha Wilson, August 1974

Martha Wilson effectively rejects these stereotypical roles imposed upon women by western society and cultural norms.

At the time attending this exhibition was significant in awakening my active view and in broadening and deepening my understanding on the history and construction of a social world and with it the potential voice of the photographic medium.

In these portraits a contemporary woman is seen as the worker, the mother figure, undertaking activities around home maintenance, gardening and relaxation; in reality these roles often merge and overlap one another.

A contemporary woman now isn’t constrained by children or traditional family relationships and need not be dependent on a man for identity, income or social standing.

My response is that women within an equal society can now be independent of historical and stereotypical roles created for them by cultural history and society.

An enjoyable exercise prompting a more reflective thinking around typologies and good practice for assignment 1.


August Sander Foundation founded by Julian Sander found [online] At:

http://augustsander.org/md20jh/ (accessed 12 May 2017)

Learning log for Allan O’Neill OCA Context and Narrative 2016-17 [online] At:

https://allanoneillcontextnarrative.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/study-visit-to-the-feminist-avante-garde-of-the-1970s-exhibition/ (accessed 12 May 2017)


Figures 1-6 All images taken by Allan O’Neill (2017)

Exercise 1.2 Background as context

Our task was to photograph a person against a background that tells us something about that individual. Following on from researching August Sander’s work and with assignment 1 in mind I can see the importance in developing the necessary skills and confidence to successfully photograph different people under different circumstances.

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John works on the counter in a local sandwich shop and as I know him reasonably well I felt quite comfortable in asking for a quick photo. I tried to include the counter and coffee board to add the sander-like context which I think was fairly successful and I think the image is fine as a first attempt.

I think the main subject is a little hemmed in between the heavy figuring foreground objects and the background context which surrounds him. Although an interpretation could be made of this – this was n’t the intention.

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In the original image due to reasons which I would mainly describe as rushing I did n’t get a clean composition and I had to crop out the rather ugly till computer.

I am now seeing clearly how the background works to impact the overall interpretation of the image – and if well chosen will support the main subject in creating the desired context and narrative of the image.

I now need to practice more and become more skilled and experienced in my decision-making.

Research: August Sander (1876-1964)

Blacksmiths 1926, printed 1990 by August Sander 1876-1964

Figure 1: Blacksmiths (1926) August Sander

In preparing for exercise 1.2 I have considered the work of the late German artist August Sanders and his portraits of the German people from the early twentieth century.

He briefly studied painting after originally working in the mines and serving in the military and was running his own commercial studio in Cologne when he began making portraits of the farmers of the Weimar Republic.

This project gave him the inspiration to begin his grand plan of a countrywide social classification study to be entitled People of the twentieth century and would comprise of 45 social / occupational / professional categories – such as artists, businessmen, craftsmen, farmers, office workers, etc.

His work was destroyed by the Nazi Government as the, “images show how, in reality, many German people did not have the ‘Aryan’ facial features and physiques promoted by the Nazis as the infallible marks of the German race. Moreover, his series ended with unemployed and disabled people – the very types the Nazis first targeted for removal to ‘purify’ the Aryan race. After World War II, Sanders added photographs of political prisoners and persecuted Jews to his work.” (Warner Marien, 2014:262).

August Sanders’ work was lost for a period of time before returning to prominence after L Fritz Gruber showed his work at Photokina in 1951 and his work would become one of the most recognised examples of the New Objectivity approach.

Farm Girl c.1910, printed 1990 by August Sander 1876-1964

Figure 2: Farm Girl (1910) by August Sander

Sander was extremely rigid in his working style – taking full or half-length sharply focussed portraits against specific and therefore contextual backgrounds blurred by a shallow depth of field. Ordinarily his subjects would be centre looking straight at the camera. Their occupation and social status were often clearly indicated by their attire and props – for instance their working tools and their location.

Much is written about how the images were successful in removing any distraction that might arise from the specific personality of Sanders’ subjects and this was achieved really by the relentless standardisation of Sanders’ working processes.

However at the same time I feel that actual people are still very much the focus albeit seen through the filters and structure of a modern society, which was the overarching organisation that Sander had set out to classify.

When viewing his images I feel as if I can sense the individuals placed into their allotted compartment to live out their lives within the borders and restrictions dictated by the categorisation of their designated social status and contained within external standardised personas.

If anything his work has prompted a further reflection on how rigid the social structures of society actually are and how identity is formed and maintained.

Interesting work!


 Angier, R. (2015). Train Your Gaze (2nd Edition). London: Bloomsbury.

Kozloff, M (2007) The Theatre of the Face – Portrait Photography since 1900 London: Phaidon Press.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed.) London: Laurence King.


Figure 1. Sander, A. Blacksmiths (1926) [photograph] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/august-sander-5319 (Accessed on 10 May 2017)

Figure 2. Sander, A. Farm Girl (1910) [photograph] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/august-sander-5319 (Accessed on 10 May 2017)






Exercise 1:1 – Kiss of Peace by Julia Margaret Cameron

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Figure 1: Kiss of Peace (1867) by Julia Margaret Cameron

This first exercise is an exploration into the history of portraiture and we are asked to select one image in particular and write a short reflective account. I have chosen The Kiss of Peace (1867) by Julia Margaret Cameron.

The Kiss of Peace shows a woman and a girl positioned intimately seemingly as mother and daughter. The daughter gently bows her forehead lightly touching the woman’s lips whilst gazing diagonally downwards towards her mother’s chest prompting the viewer to interpret the child’s emotional state as in need of her mother’s support and protection.

The mother physically supports the child apparently holding her on her lap whilst she tenderly rests her lips on the girls forehead gesturing that she is there to offer a mother’s protection whilst her pensive gaze is modestly directed away from both the viewer and child as if she was cautious of another person or perhaps circumstances which causes her concern but may be beyond her control.

This portrait of the two is close-up and as such there are no signs of location, similarly their ancient attire offers no real clues as to which period in time the subjects belong to.

The artist leads us directly to their expression, position and gaze naturally focussing and attracting our curiosity and subsequently forcing us to develop our own interpretation.

If we look closely the women does not actually kiss the girl nor does she completely succumb to her role as protector which adds an additional layer of complexity. Perhaps the artist is reflecting, possibly in an ironic manner upon the woman’s role in Victorian England.

Julia Margaret Cameron did n’t take up photography until later life once her children were of an age where she would have had more time to pursue her own interests and she was one of the very early Victorian photographers who saw the new invention as a medium to explore and create art.

Much of her portraiture work were of women and children as well as the literary and liberal types in her high cultural circle such as Thomas Carlyle and Alfred Tennyson who was poet laureate for much of Victorian’s reign.

I think why I liked Kiss of Peace as well as other works of Julia Margaret Cameron is because of her desire to develop photography as an art form despite the criticism which was levelled at her work at it’s time of making.

She would often make images that were blurred, not perfectly focussed, and included technical imperfections which seem to demonstrate her desire and curiosity to go beyond a surface understanding and meaning in her subject.

This was a contradiction to those in photography at the time who saw the medium primarily as a process of representation and in many ways reflected the two polar opposite views of pure representation versus metaphor and meaning which still colour many contemporary debates about the photographic medium today.

I also felt an inspiration by her outsider status as a woman striving to make her mark against the men on the inside of the Victorian establishment and perhaps creating art which explored the values of Victorian society.


Angier, R. (2015). Train Your Gaze (2nd Edition). London: Bloomsbury.

Higgins, C. (2015) ‘Julia Margaret Cameron: Soft focus photographer with an iron will’. The Guardian 2015. Accessed [online] at:

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/22/julia-margaret-cameron-victorian-portrait-photographer-exhibitions (accessed 8/5/17)

Olsen, V (2003) Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography. London: Aurum.


Figure 1: Cameron, J.M (1867) Kiss of Peace accessed [online] at:http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bulletinfront/0054307.0017.101/–mountain-and-the-mole-hill-julia-margaret-camerons?g=bulletin;rgn=main;view=fulltext;xc=1 (accessed 8/5/17)