On the Subject of Photography: Practice Based Research

I read about art and other things often, as well as, discuss art making with friends. The reading and discussions are usually what inspires my artwork and it is a major influence in this blog. Reading pushes my thinking and processes in new directions. I enjoy thinking about what I read, in my mind there is always a dialog. I thought I would share that dialog with you here.

Photography Practice as Practice Based Research

Last spring, I became interested in the specificity of place as it relates to living and creating art. This interest stemmed from my work on Rajasthani Impressions. But it also relates to my ongoing project Signifier. After finishing the project Rajasthani Impressions, I began reading Remembering Place: A Phenomenological Study of the Relationship between Memory and Place by Janet Donohoe. As I read this book, I looked up authors and works cited by Donohoe. And down the rabbit hole I went. I had started down a road of understanding phenomenology from a variety of perspectives. One of the books I ended up acquiring was Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt. This book contains many ideas that I think could be considered when someone is simply doing their art practice as well as a specific way to go about thinking about making art.

I was in the process of reading Practice as Research while I was traveling in India this past summer. (I am still reading the book. I skip back and forth between texts as I come across something interesting. Possibly why I stay in a rabbit hole so long.) The overall theme of the book is to look at what we can learn through an art based practice. Estelle Barrett states, “[s]ince creative arts research is often motivated by emotional, personal and subjective concerns, it operates not only on the basis of explicit and exact knowledge, but also on that of tacit knowledge” (1).  This means, artists and viewers often realize that artists produce works that center around their own interests and that the artist not only states things explicitly but also expect the audience to understand certain underlying messages. Barrett goes on to discuss Martin Heidegger’s idea of ” ‘praxical knowledge’ or what he theorized as the material basis of knowledge, provides a philosophical framework for understanding the acquisition of human knowledge as emergent approaches in research.” (2) This basically means that humans acquire much knowledge through the action of doing. Though this seems obvious to me as this is how I teach my photography classes, I had never thought of my practice of creating works as teaching me something. However, I definitely use my art making process to better understand theories and ideas.

While I take Barrett and Heidegger to be  talking about practical knowledge, I have been using this methodology to gain emotional knowledge. If you look back at Rajasthani Impressions, it is obvious I am working through emotions attached to my time in Udaipur, specifically the romantic relationship I had while there. Now that I have come to terms with that relationship, it is strange to look at those images.

Abandoned from Signifier, 2018

Across the River from Signifier, 2018

When I headed to India last summer, I knew I wanted to continue looking at Udiapur as a place of importance in my life and my art. However, I traveled around India for two weeks before heading to Udaipur. During this two weeks I was reading Practice as Research and Remembering Place. I began reading “Chapter 3: History Documents, and Arts Reveals: Creative Writing as Research” by Gaylene Perry. Perry’s chapter is about a novel she wrote for her doctoral thesis entitled Water’s Edge. Though the book is fiction, the setting of the book is on the Isle of Skye, from which her ancestors lived (3). Perry goes on to talk about how exploring her ancestors, she “found a sense of something like healing in the story, in the process of writing (4). The idea of healing through creating stood out to me. I had been on a journey for just over a year of going through the grieving process and wanted more understanding of that. Perry goes on to say, “Yet I am uncomfortable with with this word, healing, as it suggests a mental image of a scar closing over, becoming smooth, while what I learned as I wrote Water’s Edge is that what is commonly called the past, does not have a sealed surface like a healed-over scar, even when work is done to address the events and issues of the past” (5). I agree with her assessment. As for emotions, I do not think the past can completely be sealed off, as it can not be forgotten.

Here, Perry goes on to question whether instead of healing she is reconciling events or emotions. She says, “[i]s reconciling the word for what my character and I are doing? Reaching out to physically touch emotions and troubles, sculpting and moulding them, and yet at the same time to be moulded and sculpted by them?” (6). It is this reconciling, that I have been doing in my most recent project. Upon reaching Udaipur, I decided I was going to visit and photograph those places that were significant in both my pleasure and pain while living in Udaipur. Since coming home I have slowly been creating digital images out of my photographs. While working with each image I think deeply about the events that played out in the location. Some places are mundane and viewers who live in Udaipur and know me would not make a connection as to the importance of the location to me. Other sites are charged with emotions and friend/viewers might instantly understand why I created a work of that space.

Towards the end of the chapter, Perry says, “a type of reconciliation is reconciling the idea that some matters may never be reconcilable” (7). As I sat in Orchha reading this passage, I wondered if my past in Udaipur was reconcilable or if I would have to decided it was a part of my life that would never be reconciled. Only the future would tell.

Palace Intrigue from From the Archive: Rajasthani Impressions, 2016-2018

Forbidden Moments from From the Archive: Rajasthani Impressions, 2016-2018

Funnily enough as I flipped back and forth between what I was reading, I was also reading Chapter 3 in Remembering Place. This chapter is titled “Collective Memory, Place and Mourning. At the onset of the chapter, Donohoe states, “Mourning, of course, is also individual, but we demand its public expression and we use the earth as part of the process of mourning by deliberately marking the earth, or by returning to places of the past. In so doing, we express our understanding that places hold the past. We need to explore how places hold the past. We need to explore how places hold the past and what transpires when we mark places of death or mourning as well as what transpires when places are destroyed or when we become separated from them” (8). These ideas are reflected in the work I am currently working on. As I stated above, I revisited locations that held meaning for me. Although I can not permanently mark these places in Udiapur, I can mark them with my digital images. It was important as part of my life journey and artistic journey to revisit these places.

Donohoe goes onto a discussion of mourning. She says, “[m]ourning’s connection to memory is tied to an Other in the hermeneutic (interpretive) gaze of the self and the present” (9). While Donohoe is referring to the mourning of a person, my work and my interest here is the mourning of a relationship. This connects directly to the act of creating art as I am making the art from my memory of the Other but as I make it I am interpreting myself in the present. How the memories affect me and at what point in the grieving process I am located.

Later in the chapter, Donohoe brings full circle the things I was thinking about and connecting with in Perry’s chapter and in Donohoe’s. She states, “[w]e often make pilgrimages to places of our past in memory of the deceased or to get in touch with our heritage by ‘returning’ to places we have never actually been before” (10). Perry travels to the Isle of Skye, which she had never been to before. I traveled back to Udaipur and though I had been to these specific places before, in a way it was all new. The return was marked by being in a different place mentally. The places now have memories attached to them where as they did not in 2015, the first time I encountered each of these locations.

Bawarachi from Chapter 3: A Return to Udaipur, 2018

Headless Buddha Niche from Chapter 3: A Return to Udaipur, 2018

Though Donohoe does not address photography, she does continuously address monuments. “For what the monument speaks of is both the time when it was erected as well as of our own time. It draws forth memory and marks a time and place of both the then and the now” (11). I think of this statement in photographic terms, a photograph is about the time the shutter was released but it is interpreted and considered in the present of which it is viewed. This complicates a photograph because many times, people just think of them as representations of the past. I have complicated my newest digital image project further by creating photographs about a past before the shutter was released. However, as I stood pushing the shutter release button that was a present. Then I manipulate each of the images during another present. In an entirely other present, I view them and release them for the viewing of others. In this way, the photographs are a palimpsest (something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form) of present/pasts. It is this palimpsest of time in which my learning transpires. Each time I interact with an individual image I process the information through my current thoughts and place along the grieving process. I am not sure that I am successfully relaying any of this in my artworks. Furthermore, I am not sure that it is necessary for anyone else to understand them as fully as I do or if they need to mean the same thing to the viewer that they do for me.

The conversation in my head about these two chapters has happened early in my reading and understanding into the philosophy of phenomenology they also play a part in how I have utilized practice based research. I have much to learn and will continue reading. There are many more conversations to be had about the connections to be made between my artworks and phenomenology. However, what is important here is that these two chapters have informed my way of considering my past in a productive way. It was serendipitous that both chapters were chapter 3. Through this connect and out of thanks to these two chapters, the project I have been referencing here without specificity is titled Chapter 3: A Return to Udaipur.


1. Estelle Barrett, Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Inquiry (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2007), loc. 180.

2. Ibid, loc. 229

3. Gaylene Perry, Practice as Research, loc. 897.

4. Ibid, loc. 958.

5. Ibid, loc. 958.

6. Ibid, loc. 958.

7. Ibid, loc. 1096.

8. Janet Donohoe, Remembering Place: A Phenomenological Study of the Relationship between Memory and Place (New York: Lexington Books, 2014), 63.

9. Ibid, 65.

10. Ibid, 70.

11. Ibid, 74.

* indicates required
Photography/History Vocabulary: Elements of Design
Photography/History Vocabulary: Principles of Design
South Asian Photo 101: Lala Deen Dayal

By |2018-12-02T17:35:50-06:00November 27th, 2018|On the Subject of Photography|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

Leave A Comment

sign up for email list to be informed of new class material (posts)

Join 244 other subscribers