Since taking a step back a couple of months ago and revising my approach to be less about highly stylised images of a single subject and more about a series of ‘straight photographs’ of scenes that evoke a particular kind of mood, I have taken the opportunity to widen the scope of my research into other photographers. I like to look at other photographers not so much in terms of direct inspiration but rather as a way of locating an artistic context for the kind of images I envisage.
There’s a practicing photographer I follow on Twitter by the name of Iain Serjeant who has a body of work made over the last few years under the umbrella title of Out of the Ordinary: A Journey Through Everyday Scotland and collected in to three slim photobook volumes.
The basic premise of the series is best summed up in Serjeant’s own introductory words:
Out of the Ordinary developed from wandering, exploring, discovering, and observing – slowing down and spending time in everyday places [… ] through it I have developed a passion for documenting the overlooked, for finding visual interest in seemingly ordinary locations.
Though shot entirely in Scotland as the subtitle of the books makes clear, the images are redolent of Britain in a wider sense, or certainly the less metropolitan parts of it; the scenes here will be recognisable to anyone who has lived in, for example, the post-industrial and rural Midlands / north of England, and much of Wales. (A couple of years ago I did a project based on northern English towns I’d lived in, and many of the scenes I found wouldn’t have been out of place in these books).
Points of interest
There are a number of ways in which this work ‘speaks to me’, from various points of view from subject matter and aesthetics to presentation and text. I’ll try to briefly highlight my main observations.
It’s such a small but incredibly important thing, a title. I’ve noted before how critical I find the choice of title to be, and how I often don’t feel like a project is really ‘working’ until I hit upon a title I’m happy with (and I still haven’t for the current body of work, to be fair).
I really like the dual meaning in the phrase Out of the Ordinary. In everyday speech it is generally held to mean ‘unusual’, yet here it also carries a meaning of extracting something from, or making something of, something that is otherwise “ordinary”. This second meaning brings with it a sense of creativity, the particular eye of the photographer/author who can isolate and hold up for examination something that everyone else might simply walk past.
Interesting photos > interesting things, photographed
I’ve mused previously on my distinction between interesting photographs and photographs that happen to be of interesting subjects. I think Serjeant is a really good example of a photographer that produces the former.
The raw material is, on the face of it, uninspiring and everyday (I’m not being derogatory, this is conceded in his own descriptions); yet he manages to see the beauty, symmetry, patterns, juxtapositions, shapes and colours in ‘ordinary’ scenes through his artistic choices. It’s quite a skill.
Composition, or geometry
In many of the photos I am reminded of something I read years ago, that Henri Cartier-Bresson wasn’t a fan of the word ‘composition’, preferring the more analytical term ‘geometry’. In a lot of the OotO photos the lines and shapes really stand out to the viewer’s eye, giving a sense that Serjeant stood in exactly the right spot to depict the scene in the particular way that makes it look ‘out of the ordinary’.
I’m sure it’s no confidence that the cover images are all particularly good examples of this. This kind of geometric compositional style (often paired with simplified colour palettes) helps to simplify the scenes, often makes them more minimal and therefore slightly ‘uncanny’. I observed similar traits in some of Eggleston’s Democratic Forest work.
Simplified colour palettes
Again like Eggleston and Soth, some of the most effective images here take a really simple two or three colour palette.
As noted above regarding composition, this simplicity adds a slightly dreamlike air to some scenes.
Two points here: first, Serjeant’s work is almost completely free of humans (they appear as small, incidental figures in one or two street scenes), which is something that my work does / will do. I made a conscious decision to exclude people from my scenes as I want them to have a kind of abandoned, empty feel to them, to better evoke sensations of forgetting or forgetfulness. Serjeant gets across a sense of humanity by signs of its interaction with the environment – proof of life even if human life itself is not depicted. This is something I aspire to in my images.
Secondly, beyond the broad scope of ‘everyday scenes’, a subset of the images feel like they could fit in with my own work in progress, carrying as they do a kind of melancholic, abandoned air that makes me think of ‘forgottenness’.
These are the images that may be serving as most direct inspiration, even if subconsciously.
Sequencing and layout
While there isn’t an end-to-end sequence or implied narrative to speak of (or not one that I have discerned anyway), there is something distinctive about the pairing of images on double-page spreads that leapt out at me.
Serjeant juxtaposes images together that have some visual component in common, usually something quite obvious such as colour palette. A few of these are, to be brutal, a little too obvious or laboured for my taste – my preference was for those where the visual connection was a little more subtle, such as an echo of a shape or maybe an implied narrativity (or implied temporal connection) between the two photos. But the overall approach works well, and provides a backbone of rationale for which images ended up where in the book.
I have wrestled with how to incorporate text into my own work (still am) and am strangely drawn to the extremely straightforward approach used here: the text (in this case, always the place and date of the photo) is simply typeset in a minimalist, sans serif font, quite small, at the bottom left or bottom right of each picture. Sometimes the simplest approaches are the best. I’m still thinking about whether to do something like this for my images.
To summarise my findings: I’m pleased and encouraged that someone works in this kind of ‘everyday outdoor photography’ that I seem to have fallen into, which is neither traditional landscape nor street photography but some kind of third thing.
Specific pointers on simplicity – of composition and colour palette – are the aspects of this work that will stay with me and help me with my own work, I think.
Serjeant, I (2019) Out of the Ordinary: A Journey Through Everyday Scotland. Vol. 1. (3rd edition). Highlands: Another Place Press
Serjeant, I (2017) Out of the Ordinary: A Journey Through Everyday Scotland. Vol. 2. Highlands: Another Place Press
Serjeant, I (2019) Out of the Ordinary: A Journey Through Everyday Scotland. Vol. 3. Highlands: Another Place Press