11.309J | Fall 2012 | Graduate

Sensing Place: Photography as Inquiry


All assignments are due at the time indicated. It is very important to keep up with the assignments, for they build on one another and form a basis for class discussion. 

Examples of student work are available through the class website from Fall 2012.

Site Investigation and Selection in the Boston Region (By End of Week 2)

You must choose a site that will be the subject of three photographic assignments and a final essay of images and words. Your site can be anywhere within the Boston region. It should be a place you can visit regularly throughout the semester, a place that intrigues you. It can be your studio site or a place you are studying for another course. Limit the size of the site; for example, all of Roxbury is too big. Thinking about the rationale for bounding the site may be key to deciphering its identity or at least those attributes that you want to focus on.

Please describe where it is and why it is interesting, why you are drawn to it. What questions does the place raise, what aspects of it do you hope to explore photographically?

Journal (By Start of Each Week)

Students keep a journal throughout the semester, submitted in weekly installments. The journal is a place to record observations of individual sites, light and other landscape phenomena, and reflections on readings and class discussions. It also serves as a source of ideas and written material for the final essay of words and images.

From time to time during the semester, we will discuss the role of journals, writing as a form of inquiry and means of investigating landscape, the interplay between journal writing and photographing, and related issues.

Light and Site

For the first few weeks of the semester, observation of light is the major subject for the journal: Start after the first class. Make entries on light at least 6 times a day, every day: on awakening in the morning; on going to school or work; at midday; in the afternoon; at sunset; after sunset. Note the time. Describe where you are, your surroundings. Describe the light, its intensity, clarity, color, and any other qualities you notice. Describe how light interacts with, reveals, or conceals materials, surfaces, forms. Note the quality of shadows. Notice the sky. Describe your observations as precisely as possible. Search for words that convey what you see. (Poetry is a good source for expanding your descriptive vocabulary).

Photo Shooting Assignments

Students will develop and maintain their own Flickr sites for their shooting assignments. For each of the three shooting assignments, post your images by the start of the week each assignment is due. After assigning geotags and keywords to the photographs, select 5 photographs for presentation and discussion in class. Before each in-class review, review all sets of selected photographs from the other students, and post a comment and / or constructive critique on one photograph from each set.

For Landscape Poetics, also add captions to the photographs.

Light and Site (Review During Class of Week 3)

Photograph your site with respect to qualities of light, especially aspects of light that are particular to your site, as well as to time of day, weather, and season. Take photographs at different times of day on different days.

Significant Detail (Review During Class of Week 6)

Telling details signify: black streaks streaming down a rocky, desert outcrop trace ephemeral waterfalls from rare rains, point to a refuge; a stone at the gateway to a forest sanctuary, polished by thousands of touches, reveals reverence. Great artists use detail tellingly. Hans Holbein’s sketch of a marksman shows mainly his face, the one eye closed, the other sighting down the crossbow. The squinting, sighting eye is the darkest, most detailed part of the drawing; the rest is drawn lightly, roughly, as if out of focus. Good photographers are close observers; they choose what to frame, how, and what to place in sharpest focus in order to highlight significant detail. Dorothea Lange kept journals where she jotted the telling details she recorded in photographs: a country churchyard’s acre, its bare soil swept with dogwood brooms, the parishioner’s hand-made gloves (refer to Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field). Details reveal important truths, an idea as relevant to the scientific study of landscape, to architecture and poetry, as it is to photography. Physical diagnosis, in medicine, in landscape, is the art of culling the significant from a welter of irrelevant detail.

Photograph significant details of your site, details that are clues to your site’s particular character and that embody or refer to larger stories.

Landscape Poetics (Review During Class of Week 8)

Landscape is meaningful and expressive; it can be poetic, rhetorical, polemical, as well as pragmatic. Landscape meaning is complex, layered, ambiguous, never simple or linear. A river flows, provides, creates, destroys, and is simultaneously a path and a boundary, and even a gateway. Fire consumes, transforms, and renews. A circle is hierarchical-it has a center-yet non-hierarchical, as all points along the circumference are equidistant from the center. Multiple meanings are the source of metaphor and other tropes, as well. Metaphor and irony juxtapose meanings: harmonious, contrasting, or conflicting. Figures of speech are rarely isolated in landscape; combined, overlapped, and juxtaposed, they introduce correspondences, prompt reflection, and invite investment of meaning.

Revisit and reflect on your site in light of the readings for the class sessions on “Landscape Poetics.” Photograph your site from the perspective of rhetorical expression, both your own and the implied and implicit expression of those who live in or use the site. Review the slides you have already taken in light of this topic. This is the last assignment before the final project, the essay of images and words you will create to express the particular qualities of your site, to interpret its character, to tell its story or stories. Begin to identify the stories you want to tell and use this assignment to advance your thinking.

Web Essay: Your Site in Images and Words

Create an essay of images and words that expresses your site’s particular character as revealed this semester through your site visits, photographs, and writing (journals). The narrative may be linear or nonlinear, simple or complex. The essay must include words, though it is up to you how much text to include and how.

Storyboard Draft (By Week 10 for Individual Meetings)

To prepare for the meeting, make small prints of all the photos you have taken of your site this semester (3 inches in the longest dimension); use the Contact Sheet function of Photoshop. Cut apart all the photos and use them to create a storyboard for your Web essay of images and words. The storyboard should be a rough draft of your essay. Bring both the storyboard and ALL your images (cut apart into individual images) to the meeting. We will review the storyboard, then look at all the images and discuss what we find there before returning to the storyboard.

Website Draft (By Week 12 for Individual Meetings)

To prepare for the meeting, complete a draft of the online version of your Web essay of images and words. The purpose of the meeting is to fine tune the essay.

Final Photo Essay (By Start of Week 13)

During Weeks 13 and 14, class sessions will be dedicated to the presentation and discussions of the Web essays.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2012
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Videos
Written Assignments with Examples