Category Archives: Reflections and Research

Reflections on Context and Narrative

The Context and Narrative module has been an excellent course and a highly enjoyable period of learning and development. Realising just how critical the elements of context and narrative are allowed my photography to become increasingly more specific and refined as I progressed through the course.

Initially important milestones were assignments 2 and 3 which prompted a deeper level of thinking along with a number of key exhibitions I attended; William Eggleston at NPG, an OCA study day Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s at TPG exhibition and the UAL Graduate exhibition Black Blossoms were all very influential. 

Another turning point was the Performing for the Camera exhibition at Tate Modern; what was significant here was an annoyance at myself for not gaining more from the experience. I rushed the morning as I also had work commitments but from that point onwards I became much more intense in prioritising the course.

From this point onwards my research and photographic work in general found a much clearer direction and I began to feel that I was building on a solid foundation.

I was now adding layers of knowledge, research, experience and my personal perspectives were developing and I really enjoyed this; I seemed to be able to work for longer and the course became a part of my everyday routine.

I worked hard to improve my technical output so that I could articulate ideas and begin to genuinely communicate visually through my photographic practice.

I have enjoyed the beginnings of being able to make visual images that work and make sense.

I think most of all I have enjoyed finding out that I have my own interpretation of reality whilst learning to question the interpretation of others’.    

Another major change has been to participate more actively with other people and groups such as the OCA forum, study days, external galleries and artists. This has helped my confidence and knowledge grow and has also engendered a comfort in seeking out critical feedback that is now an invaluable part of my creative process.

Equally I have also grown in confidence in my ability to make artistic decisions and to be fully committed to my best intuitive instincts.

The highpoint was concluding assignment 5 and then being able to show the work in a members exhibition at the Ort Gallery in Birmingham (see next post). This experience opened up a whole new perspective for my work.

The thought of making photography and art for people to see, think about and consider is genuinely exhilarating.

I also reached out to Susan Gardiner the author of the book “The Wanderer – the story of Frank Soo” (2016) (my original inspiration for assignment 5) who returned with the following message to myself,

“Allan, apologies for not replying before but I’ve only just spotted your message. Thanks for sending it. It’s wonderful that Frank is inspiring other people in this way. You can get in touch with me by email, history and football are my great interests so more than happy to help with your future projects. Regards, Susan”

I want to leave as many doors open as is possible and just keep soaking up new ideas and information to see where this takes me. I have also learned the benefits of true reflection and how thoughts and ideas develop and change over time.

I am again taking lots of images, making pictures and practising my photography and I am really enjoying that and working hard to recognise the balance between reading and practical development.

I now feel much more capable and confident in my photographic practice but I maybe still need to work to really understand how to structure the learning log so that it perhaps becomes more of a journal than a textbook, and properly reflects the broad development which actually takes place.

I am perhaps more than ever motivated and enthusiastic about progressing forward with this OCA photography degree course.

Thank you

Allan O’Neill

PS: I would like to make a personal thank you to my tutor Wendy McMurdo who has been a fantastic mentor throughout and her professionalism and approachability have ensured that I have remained challenged throughout whilst having the confidence to progress and enjoy the course.

Frank Soo by Allan O’Neill showing at the Ort Gallery Member’s Exhibition, Birmingham

ort gallery_-1193-2Caption card for Frank Soo 

During this module I have interacted actively with my peers through the OCA discussion forums and I have begun to see how the photography degree course develops through the various modules and into level 3 which includes the sustaining your practice module.

Through this I have begun to imagine and recognise some of the components that may contribute to being able to eventually practice as an independent artist.

Following my tutor feedback session for assignment 5 I was in an enthusiastic mood and felt that I had finished the course well and I had begun to look around locally for opportunities to show Frank Soo my final submission.

The Ort Gallery is an arts centre in Birmingham which has managed to attract some very interesting artists such as film-maker and artist Kristina Cranfeld and is a gallery I have grown to support. What I also like about the Ort Gallery is it’s accessibility and that it is a location outside of London.

So when the chance arose to submit work for their member’s exhibition I thought that it might present an opportunity to push myself into a whole new experience. I was still surprised but also overjoyed when they informed me that my work had been accepted and I received the appropriate instructions.

The Gallery’s board of Directors were the panel and as part of the acceptance we were advised that they would need details of the actual size of the piece plus our statement and description of the work; and that we should attend a day to be involved in hanging the work and organising the exhibition which was a real learning experience.

ort gallery_-1190-2Organising the exhibition

The first and biggest mistake that I made was to frame the image at the original size that I had submitted to my tutor at 10×8 inches. As soon as I walked into the gallery I realised that I could and should have had a much larger print, possibly an A3 type size. When I was in discussion with the gallery’s founding director Josephine Reichert she also mentioned how much she had enjoyed reading about the project and that she felt that it would work well in a larger format.

This first lesson of focusing on a potential exhibition event and not purely as a student course submission is one that I will take forward and this has helped me to start considering my work from a whole new perspective.

Meeting the other participants was also really interesting as quite a few were Birmingham based practicing artists themselves as well as students and enthusiasts. I received lots of encouragement and useful advice throughout the day and also made several good contacts which hopefully will help as I progress.

ort gallery_-1210-2My model for Frank Soo discussing the experience on opening night

The opening night was a tremendous evening and I was surprised at the number of people that turned up to see the exhibition. Being able to view your own personal work on a gallery wall with the caption plate detailing the project was an experience I had never imagined.

As a student attending exhibitions I have n’t really thought about what the experience is like for the artist but this exercise has opened my eyes massively to the potential that exists and I must admit that I found the whole experience extremely rewarding.

Whilst this is obviously quite a low profile event I do feel that the experience of showing my project was an excellent exercise to conclude this course and provided the chance to meet the ultimate challenge – to put our work out there to be seen and critiqued by people.

I received a brief mention in a review of the exhibition provided by Lisa Williams of ArtsBrum of online Whats on guide to Birmingham.

“But art is something that should be seen, not read about, so i’ll keep it brief and introduce you to just a few pieces that caught my eye.

Have you ever considered how much of history has been airbrushed out of what we know today? Neither had I, until coming across the constructed photography of Allan O’Neill. Next time you’re chatting to a football fan, be sure to ask them if they’ve ever heard of Frank Soo, but first, give yourself some food for thought by going to check out Allan’s piece.” (Williams, L. 2017)


The review can be read in full at:


The gallery have organised a follow up workshop where all artists can discuss their work and we will receive critical feedback from the directors and I look forward to this event.


More information can be found about the Ort Gallery at

Joel Sternfeld Colour Photographs 1977 – 1988 exhibition at Beetles and Huxley, London


Figure 1: Joel Sternfeld, Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979. 

In 1980, as Ronald Reagan was in the process of being elected president, Joel Sternfeld was embarking on one of the many road trips across America he had been making since being awarded a Guggenheim grant in 1978. “The reason I am showing this work now,” he says of his forthcoming exhibition, “is that I remember feeling similar fears back then as I do now. If anything, there is an even stronger sense of apocalypse in the air today.” (O’Hagan, 2017)

Joel Sternfeld was continuing the traditions of Walker Evans and Robert Franks in documenting American life but this time following William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in seeing the country in colour. What resulted from Sternfeld’s road trips was one of the most influential bodies of work American Prospects first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987.

Beetles and Huxley describe how Sternfeld was, “photographing scenes rich with implied narrative, which were also distinct in their colour and composition… delicately balanced by subtle irony and humour.


Figure 2: Joel Sternfeld, McLean, Virgina, December 1978.  

McLean, Virginia, December 1978 shows this perfectly, a fire fighter shopping for a pumpkin at a farm market whilst a house on fire blazes in the background. The scene that Sternfeld had captured was a controlled training exercise, and a fire chief who was able to leave his post when the house was allowed to burn to the ground.” (Beetles and Huxley, 2017).

Along with many others I greatly admire Joel Sternfeld’s work and his ability to capture the beauty of the ordinary and everyday whilst adding that layer of complexity and often an implied narrative, foreseeing what seemed to be happening, behind the facade to America and it’s people.


Figure 3: Wet ‘N’ Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980.

I just love the cinematic style and presence of his composition, the forensic detail throughout the scene, the saturated colour, the bright skies and the whole familiarity thing yet strange peculiarity of the scenes is just fantastic. Sternfeld called the underlying theme of his work as “The utopian vision of America contrasted with the dystopian one.”

I felt that these prints were works of art that completely encapsulates the twentieth century; through the ubiquity and ambiguity of photography, the distanced familiarity, obsession and spread of American culture, the strange authenticities and ordinariness of the everyday that always seem to hint at a deep lying disappointment over ambitious and failed aspirations.

I have a deep respect for the work of the American colour photographers, Joel Sternfeld and his influences, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston and they offer so many classic lessons to students of photographic art.

Joel Sternfeld I feel took his work to another level by developing those complex ambiguous narratives of America and Americans within what seem to be vast compositions that now seem so familiar in TV, cinema and media. Really brilliant work.


O’Hagan, S. (2017) The drifter: Joel Sternfeld on his sly glimpse of wild America – Seen from the endless highway. In: The Guardian [online] At: (accessed 20 February 2017)

Images – All taken from The Guardian [online] At: (accessed 20 February 2017)

Figure 1: Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1978.

Figure 2: McLean, Virgina, December 1978.

Figure 3: Wet ‘N’ Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980.

Exhibition visit: Wendy McMurdo at Photo50 Gravitas, London Art Fair 2017


Figure 1: From Wendy McMurdo’s Let’s Go to a Place series (2016)

Photo50 Gravitas was the contemporary photography exhibition curated by Christine Monarchi and part of the London Art Fair 2017.

“Gravitas constitutes one of the ancient Roman ‘personal virtues.’ It referred to a depth and seriousness of character, a pre-condition of the youth’s transition to adulthood.” (London Art Fair, 2017). This description was a formal introduction to the exhibition featuring 13 artists producing lens-based work exploring the development from childhood through adolescence and emerging adulthood, tracing the formation and representation of identity and the self, and the influences, pressures and complexities of modern culture.

There was also a great opportunity to listen to four of the participating artists speak about the exhibition and describe their own work during which they also discussed the relationships between the artist and the subject and the processes of interaction, participation and collaboration that form an integral part of their working practices.

I was attracted to the day as it featured my current OCA tutor Wendy McMurdo and as such this presented an interesting opportunity to see a different perspective of her skills, knowledge and experience and how this works and comes together to form an artistic expression and the resultant work.

Wendy McMurdo advised the audience that they should strive to “make work about your life and experience,” and also confirmed that the best work is produced when we consider what motivates us and what draws us to a subject and allows us to find out about ourselves so again it was an interesting dynamic to actually see this in practice.

Wendy’s work has over a number of years explored the influences and impact that the growing ubiquity of computers have had on the development, education and lives of children and within this she discussed an interesting notion of how a child’s life had previously been centred around the family and or school; but since the introduction of the computer, the identity of the child had moved beyond these physical boundaries.

Her current work ‘Let’s Go to a Place’ (2016) is a series of individual portraits of the children that were part of her youngest daughter’s class which was preparing to leave primary school last summer. The project was inspired by the growth of GPS location based Pokemon gaming where a participant reimagines the space around them.

The results are a series of contemporary photographic images in which the faces of the children are sliced into separate pieces and then reformed, replacing the original conventional image of the face.

I remembered a quote from the artist Paul Seawright where he stated that “good art reveals itself slowly,” and this came back to me when I reflected on Wendy’s work; the longer the audience view the images, the more aesthetically pleasing and normal they become whilst communicating an arresting theme of a dual existence that is not obvious but is at the same time beautiful in it’s simplicity.

The images seemed to reference the traditional annual school photo whilst offering a quite beautiful, contemporary and more artistic version; this reference to a traditional cultural convention seems to reflect the change in times and the different influences that impact today’s generation of children.

The discussion which came from the panel about the relationships that develop with their subjects was most interesting and it offered some important and interesting points to consider; in collaborating with subjects, developing and gaining trust and confidence, the importance of genuine interest and empathy in the subject, showing respect and being responsible, being committed and in essence recognising that the camera is not an inanimate tool and as photographers we must be ethical and take responsibility for our actions and consider and recognise the consequences.


Figure 2: Abbie Traylor-Smith Chelsea from The Big O series (2014)

Wandering around the exhibition there were other artists that caught my eye and in particular I also liked Abbie Traylor-Smith’s series The Big O about childhood obesity, a figure that has reached 1 in 3 for children and adolescents in Britain today. The work explores this startling statistic and modern phenomenon through an intimate study and representation of some of the young individuals who live through the complex psychological implications of this condition.

The portraits of the subjects were placed alongside extracts of personal diaries, exercise and diet plans, post it notes; creating a stark and often poignant representation of the difficulties and complexities that exist in their minds, offering them their own personal identity and voice which was done in a very empathetic and supportive manner and well away from the social stigmas and narratives that have been created by mainstream media and conventional cultural norms.

A very enjoyable day where I left with much to think about in terms of what it actually means to take somebody’s photograph and how deeply we must consider this act.


Monarchi, C. (2017) Photo50 Gravitas exhibition. London:Business Design Centre.

More information can be seen online at: (accessed 2/2/17)


Figure 1: image taken by Allan O’Neill of a photograph from Wendy McMurdo’s Let’s Go to a Place series (2016)

Figure 2: Abbie Traylor-Smith Chelsea from The Big O series

Assignment 5: Research 3: Visual inspiration; Photography Artist Trish Morrissey and the constructed image


Figure 1: Trish Morrissey. (2016) Fig. 8097GAS (TM) An apparatus for testing the absorption ability of a nappy. 1969 / 2015. Mänttä, Finland taken from Ten People In A Suitcase. 

In order to develop a visual interpretation of my assignment 5 brief I have sought inspiration from an artist that I have taken more from each time that I have considered her work, Trish Morrissey.

I had seen Morrissey’s constructed self-portraiture work previously during this C & N course whilst researching the topic of Masquerades but at that point I had not quite appreciated the significance of the photograph as an image and a constructed reality. However six plus months on and my thinking and appreciation have developed to the point that this concept has been the core foundation of the learning and development gained throughout this year and so it is appropriate that I try to take some of this inspiration into my final assignment.


Figure 2: Trish Morrissey (2016). Fig. 01832KEL (TM) Tapani Kansa sang at Kirstinharju dance pavilion. Departure. 1970 / 2015. Mänttä, Taken from Ten People In A Suitcase.

Trish Morrissey’s latest work Ten People In A Suitcase (2016) is a series of self-portraits made as part of a residency undertaken by the artist where she was called upon to make a response to an archive of 30,000 historical photographs from the 1920s to the 1980s recording the life of a small industrial town of 6,000 people, Mantta in Finland. “These photographs are not re-enactments but rather new photographs that aim to inhabit and re-animate the lives of the original subjects”. (Baylis, G. 2016:31)

This concept of new photographs that can inhabit and re-animate lives which have since passed is central to my thinking for assignment 5 as I attempt to revisit the life of the British born Asian footballer Frank Soo. Morrissey herself says that, “In order to create these new photographs, I had to imagine the events that led up to this moment in the character’s lives, and in doing so, felt closer to the town itself.  The photographs transcend mere re-enactments, they are embodiments of real individuals who are more than just their snap shot.” (Morrissey, T. 2016)

What is most interesting is how the artist recreates a sense of history that seems to take place in the here and now which I think must be and will be very difficult to achieve but if successful creates a very powerful effect.

In her work Morrissey is successful in creating fresh stories and realities and avoids the reduction that so often follows the archiving process, which is described as, “a loss, an abstraction from the original complexity and richness of use, a loss of context.” (Sekula, A.1991)


Figure 3: Trish Morrissey, (2001-2004) July 22nd 1972, taken from Seven Years.

Another series of real interest and relevance is Morrissey’s Seven Years (2001-2004) and the title that refers specifically to the seven years age difference between the artist and her elder sister. In order to re-imagine these images from the 1970s and 1980s the artist uses suitable clothing, props and locations to instill the historical time period in question. Morrissey deconstructs and mimics the family photo album and by doing so allows us to re-appraise our history and the impact that this might have had on our lives.
What is really effective in the execution is how the artist seems to draw out the specific personal and psychological tensions that exist in all family relationships. The resultant images create a series of isolated yet exaggerated moments of facade and with them the un-covering or creation of new perspectives.

What I like about Trish Morrissey’s work within these two photographic series is that by exploring and considering how the historical archive and family photo album both work we are allowed and encouraged to revisit, reimagine and reinterpret our sense of social reality and the subsequent sense of history that follows and reflect upon how and why these concepts were constructed in a particular way in the first place. Again these concepts are central to my own aspirations for assignment 5.

By doing so we can reflect upon the impact on these key constructs in the development of our roles and identities and the subsequent direction of our lives. We can often find new evidence, new ideas and develop fresh perspectives enabling us to transcend the dimensions that organise our social existence.

Alison Green (2006) speaks of Trish Morrissey’s photography work as ”her way into the heart of such issues as family experiences and national identities, pastimes and fashion, Irish middle class values, feminine and masculine roles, and relationships between strangers. Her work does not so much define these subjects but uses photography to probe their boundaries, often left intact in every day life.” (Green, A. 2006)


Trish Morrissey artist’s own website can be accessed online at:

Baylis, G. (2016) ‘Hidden People’ In: Source The Photographic Review issue 87 pp. 30-39.

Alison Green, (2006). Survey of International Contemporary Photography, London: Phaidon Press

Sekula, A. ESSAY: Reading An Archive Photography between labour and capital (1991) – Taken from The Photography Reader Wells, L (2002) London: Routledge

All Images by Trish Morrissey and accessed from the artists own website 19/12/2016) 

Figure 1: Fig. 8097GAS (TM) An apparatus for testing the absorption ability of a nappy. 1969 / 2015. Mänttä, Finland Taken from Ten People In A Suitcase (2016)

Figure 2: Fig. 01832KEL (TM) Tapani Kansa sang at Kirstinharju dance pavilion.

Departure. 1970 / 2015. Mänttä, Taken from Ten People In A Suitcase (2016)

Figure 3: July 22nd 1972 Taken from Seven Years (2001-2004)

Assignment 5: Research 2: Photographers challenging cultural subjugation and the marginalisation of social groups through visual art


Figure 1: Yuet Wah O’Neill by Allan O’Neill

As I have progressed through Context and Narrative I have become increasingly interested in how culture shapes our identities and the roles that we perform in our daily lives.

This process of research and reflection has been inspirational to my conviction to explore why the Asian part of my own identity and heritage has been secondary to the English part and absolutely integral to the conceptual development of my visual response.

What is also very apparent is that Western popular culture has established itself as superior to other cultures and maintains this position through far-reaching structure that contains very few contradictions and which involves all aspects of social and cultural reality. This in-balance of power has created historical structures, divisions and inequalities across racial, gender and socio-economic groups and this realisation has certainly strengthened my personal convictions to begin this very personal exploration.

The following artists and exhibitions have all in some shape or form served as the inspirations for my research whether this be in conceptual or visual terms and consolidate my thinking I will now attempt to distil the relevant issues.

Black Blossoms Exhibition (UAL)


Figure 2: Images taken of finished works by Nicole Muskett

The exhibition highlighted the voices of black women and explored how this group is marginalised and stereotyped by mainstream society.

One of the exhibits did not resonate with myself initially but has increasingly been significant in my subsequent reflections. Illustrator Nicole Muskett decorated a series of skateboards with images of famous black female role models such as Rosa Parks whose courageous dignified defiance in Montgomery, Alabama, USA in 1955 became the catalyst for the American Civil Rights Movement. Other role models adorning these skateboards were Michelle Obama, Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai, Yoyoi Kusama and Dianne Abbott.

By effectively decorating skateboards with the achievements of black women the artist challenges one of the skate culture stereotypes so often associated with young black people and instead presents a group of positive role models which show black women in a different light.

This exhibit highlighted the need for positive role-models in order to achieve a positive acceptance of one’s own self-identity and this will be a core a part of my assignment submission.

I have previously blogged about this exhibition and to see the full post please see here or access online AT:

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusgosa

David Olusgosa, historian, presented TV BBC documentary series Black and British A forgotten history that delved into the experiences and contributions that black people have made in Britain’s history over the past four hundred years.

The programmes chronicled the history of the relationship between black people and Britain including the Black Georgians, Slave Trade, the abolition movement and race relations.

The format of the programmes was to identify and celebrate the strength of character, contributions and achievements of black Britons. In the following short clip photographer Neil Kenlock describes how he photographed black people’s lives in London during the 1960s and 1970s.

In the clip Kenlock says, “I was trying to capture strength and proudness and that I decided that I would never click the camera unless I see strength in that person’s eyes and body. And if you look at my images you almost know it’s one of mine because the subject is always very sure of themselves.” (Neil Kenlock, photographer.)

This passage became especially significant in my subsequent thinking when formulating my final visual work.

Decolonial Desire exhibition by Vasco Araujo at the Autograph Gallery, London


Figure 3: Image taken from Decolonial Desire exhibition by Vasco Araujo (2016)

The Decolonial Desire exhibition explored Portugal’s colonial past in Africa and used archived photographs to demonstrate how social realities and histories can be visually constructed and whose purposes are served.
Exhibition curator, Mark Sealy describes the artist, “Arajo is part of a generation of contemporary artists who question and critically investigate colonial histories. His work throws an uncomfortable light on the unrelenting violence, that was an inherent part of Europe’s colonial order.” (Sealy, M. 2016)


Figure 4: Image of Capita taken from Decolonial Desire exhibition by Vasco Araujo (2016)

The artist subverts colonial racial stereotypes through a series of re-enacted satirical masquerades.

I specifically took forward two key points from the exhibition; firstly that I felt a strong conviction to explore the marginalised or silenced aspects of my own Asian heritage and secondly I began to consider that some sort of role re-animation or masquerade could form an appropriate visual response to my intentions.

I have previously written a post that summarises my experiences at the exhibition that can be read in full at

The Fae Richards Photo Archive


Figure 5: Taken from The Faye Richards Photo Archive

Artist Zoe Leonard and film-maker Cheryl Dunye collaborated to create these photographs which provide a narrative chronicling the life of the fictional character Fae Richards, an African-American actress born in the early 20th century through to her old age and involvement in the civil rights movement. Dunye attributes her photographic falsification of a life history to the lack of information recorded in real life.

“The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.” (Cheryl Dunye)

Through the use of photographic and archival conventions Leonard and Dunye successfully borrow from the lives of historical figures to create a believable narrative that explores questions about what is actually left out of history and it’s records.

This work inspired my thinking in terms of challenging the conventional belief that historical archives and documents form an objective, universal and unequivocal record of social and cultural history. It also formed in part the catalyst to consider some sort of constructed and additional version of history as part of my visual response.

Feminist Avant Garde exhibition at TPG


Figure 6: An image of Mary Beth Edelson’s The Last Supper

On visiting the Feminist Avant Garde exhibition at TPG (see here) I saw Mary Beth Edelson’s Some living American Women Artists / Last Supper (1972) which made a clear statement challenging the white male dominated history of art by superimposing the faces of female artists over the male participants in Leonardo De Vinci’s original depiction of the Last Supper.

The idea of the picture was to provide appropriate recognition for a group of significant and important female feminist artists as well as making a vociferous call against how women had been treated by not only the male dominated art historian but also the religious order.

Whilst this particular exhibition provided the catalyst and major inspiration to confront how white male led conventional cultural norms marginalise and silences other social groups it was this particular exhibit which acted as the catalyst to recognise the general lack of recognition and role models from marginalised social groups.

This process of research and reflection has been inspirational to my conviction to explore these ideas and integral to the conceptual development of my visual response.


Black Blossoms Exhibition UAL can be accessed online AT:

What if I don’t move to the end of the bus? The story of Rosa Parks summarised on the Henry Ford organisation website and can be accessed AT:

 Nicole Muskett’s own website can be accessed at: 

Black and British: A Forgotten History David Olusgosa documentary

Neil Kenlock speaks,

Vasco Araujo Decolonial Desire exhibition (2016) curated by Mark Sealy, held at Autograph ABP Gallery, London.

Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunne The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1996) (accessed 5/12/16) AT:


Figure 1: Yuet Wah O’Neill by Allan O’Neill
Figure 2: Nicole Muskett Rosa Parks skateboard image taken artists own website and can be accessed AT: (accessed 13/1/17)

Figure 3: Image taken from Decolonial Desire exhibition by Vasco Araujo (2016)

Figure 4: Image of Capita taken from Decolonial Desire exhibition by Vasco Araujo (2016)

Figure 5: Taken from The Faye Richards Photo Archive

Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunne The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1996) (accessed 5/12/16) AT:

Figure 6: Image of Mary Beth Edelson’s The Last Supper

Image taken from

Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX: photo-book and exhibition held at the Webber Gallery, London


Figure 1: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

I first came across this work through reading Sean O’Hagen’s Guardian article California Dreamin’ in the 21st Century and as a student who appreciates the work of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston I was immediately interested in this contemporary view of the modern America landscape.

Sean O’Hagen sums up the work well when he says, “Halpern has created a California of the mind, a place both real and metaphorical”. Halpern himself says, “My work begins with the notion of documentary but I want it to be more than that…..It is grounded in reality, but it occupies an inbetween space between documentary and a certain sense of mystery. I want to leave room in the pictures for the viewer’s thoughts and projections.” Halpern spent five years on the project travelling from the east of Los Angeles westward until reaching the Pacific Ocean although half of the estimated 1,000 rolls of film were shot in the last year once the artist had obtained a Guggenheim grant allowing him to reside in California.


Figure 2: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

The images are striking, colourful, a mixture of a mystical past and a dystopian future that happens to be set in the present. The entire book makes a huge visual impact through the originality of the images and striking vibrant colours, contrasts and compositions and not a petrol station in sight! O’Hagen described the work as both real and metaphorical which I certainly agree with but how the artist seems to achieve both simultaneously is the real art.

Halpern’s first title of the work was ‘Babylon and Kingdom’ and this working label perhaps gives up the artist’s personal motives that become more obscured by the final title ZZYZX. This name pronounced Zye-Zix is the name which Curtis Howe Springer the mineral water entrepreneur gave to a small Californian settlement formerly known as Soda Springs in 1944. Springer in his eccentricity renamed the settlement after what he claimed to be the last word in the English dictionary. “The word has a dystopian, futuristic aspect, says Halpern, “even though it came out of a utopian dream Springer had whilst squatting the land for three years….that notion of manifest destiny is still there still in California, but also the sense that it’s the end of the dream.”


Figure 3: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX 

The work isn’t so much as documentary as it is hinting at a fiction but as the artist himself says, “I’m not saying it is fiction, but it has that element of being more beautiful, more ugly, more complicated and contradictory. Like L.A itself in fact.” How he combines such ugliness with such dramatic beauty is an interesting lesson in visual imagery and communication.

Costa Brava -6


Figure 4: by Allan O’Neill (2016)

I have previously been drawn to these types of photographic images where bright blue skies collide with the chaos of a constructed culture and society and it is certainly an aesthetic idea that I have previously taken inspiration from in my own work (see here) and as seen above. Also as I have progressed through this course I have begun to recognise the need and importance of balance a visual approach as oppose to endless reading and research resulting in a text led strategy and this work is a very good example to follow.


Figure 5: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

The above image appears so original to the type of image that I have often seen in this sort of work other than the sense that it’s the sort of image that might be a still from a David Lynch movie.


Figure 6: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

Martha W Egg

Figure 7: (Untitled) William Eggleston (circa 1975)

The first image (figure 6) has a similarity to a famous image by William Eggleston (figure 7) right down to the shallow depth of field which draws the attention to the face of the female(s) lying down. The image is almost a modern adaptation of William Eggleston’s original work.


Figure 8: Gregory Halpern taken from ZZYZX

There are lots of images depicting people living destitute existences but these images don’t necessarily conjure up any real sense of a social protest or even exploitation of the subjects; the work appears so other worldly and cinematic you get the sense that the people are almost acting out their parts in a film.

Excellent work and for myself a lesson that photography often works best when it looks good.


Gregory Halpern: ZZYZX appeared online Port Magazine AT:

Hagen, S. California Dreamin’ in the 21st Century, The Guardian (15/10/16) can be viewed online AT: