Introduction to Photographers and Research- Shirley Read and Mike Simmons

The Role of Research in Contemporary Photographic Practice


Wittgenstein said ‘A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.’ 

(Read & Simmons, 2017, p. vi)

Wittgenstein’s metaphor makes two profound statements- if it is applied to knowledge and growth.

  • We are all free to gather knowledge or grow.
  • If we draw open the door or pull knowledge to us, we will be set free and grow. If we push knowledge, we will always be captured within our own reality.

It is immediately Peter Kennards follows with the view:

“Research is the pull that allows me to get out of the room and into the street, into what’s actually happening in the world (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. vi).”

“There are as many ways to research as there are artists (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. vi) .”

Research methods in the creative world are as unique as the person doing it. We can learn from other researchers, but in essence, the creative practitioner need to develop and refine our own from past experience, books they read, experiences we had and the context of the research task before them. Refer to Eliasson’s work in my reflection Research is either an unconscious or cognitive process, we all do it.

In the introduction the authors indicated with the limited sample that at least between them “it became clear early on that the ways we understood the term research within the context of photography often overlapped and resonated with recurring themes, shared understandings, experiences and opinions” (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. ix).” Thus, challenging the diversity observed by Peter Kennard. This Directed Reed and Simmon’s research intent “to see to what degree individual practices differ and what parallels could be drawn across those practices.”

Reed and Simons then continue to describe their intended objectives, approach, and the outcomes were shared in this book.

Their findings, strangely presented in the introduction, were:

 “What became clear quite quickly, though not unexpectedly, was that although there were some similarities and common approaches to research, each of our interviewees had, over time, shaped and adapted their experiences and methods to suit their particular needs or circumstances, which they applied across most of their projects  (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. x) .”

The italics I added to highlight the fact that, according to them, each researcher develop their own standard and method; confirming Kennard’s observation. But it adds the premise that there is a common starting point or foundation that all share, backing in a way their own comment.

It may also be observed that their initial research lead them to focus on aspects not initially intended.

“We then recognised that our survey exists to describe possible research routes, to ask questions and open up ideas about research but that it could not in itself come up with a definitive analysis or roadmap which anyone can follow. This is because the options and variables within the research process for photographers are broad and because practice is so particular and dependent on the habits, needs and preferences of the individual as well as the purpose and audience for the work. (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. xi)”

If research makes things relevant, then it is as if they want to make the statement that the paradox in the research itself relates closely to the nature of photography. While we like to describe the research process, the intent to express by individuals doing the research seeks not to be limited by a formal method. This is precisely the paradox in modernity between Empiricism (Natural Laws), Rationalism (Classification, characterisation, ordering i.e an Ontological order for Research) and Romanticism/existentialism (experience and the wish to express that), the modernist trinity from which photography was born, which in my view lies at the heart of modernist photography. Postmodern photography may only seek expression.

“What makes photography relevant lies in its paradoxical nature and the ability to both describe and express (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. xii).” And capturing it using the natural laws of physics.

They then conclude the introduction with an interesting note:

“We see this book as a research project in itself, bringing together examples of photographic practice for you to consider and absorb into your own ideas, processes and projects Read & Simmons, 2017, p. xii).”

My reflection:

One of the primary purposes of the MA course in Photography is to develop my research methodology to elevate my practice which will culminate in a final research project. What I found liberating was that in terms of the research for an artistic/expressive practice such as photography, a considerable amount of myself needs to be embedded into the method. But it also requires a strong foundation in research to leverage from.

That being said puts the responsibility of this education on my shoulders. Firstly I need to see if my foundation is not flawed and secondly, I need to be able to rationalise my individualistic research approach and methods in a way that it is understood by those that will be reviewing and marking my project and endeavouring to develop me. However, the success of my research can only be measured by me, in how it helped me to express my photographic vision and expression.

It will be well worth my while to read the cases contained in the book and mindfully consider absorbing some of the relevant learnings in my own research method.

What I won’t do is to look for the orthodox or best practice way that some of my research in theology (rationalist research) and engineering (empirical research) requires. Merely include methods that make sense within the context of the Photographic Practice.


Reed, S. & Simmons, M., 2017. Photographers and Research: The Role of Research in Contemporary Photography Practice. 1st ed. New York & Oxon: Routledge.

Shirley Read: Finding and knowing

Thinking about Ideas

Reflecting on the Essay By Shirley Read contained in a chapter within Photographers and Research.

Brief abstract:

Read starts her essay with two questions: “How important is it for artists or photographers to find a subject matter that is particular to them?” and “What do we (curators) mean when we talk about the central concerns of a photographer’s work?” She then attempts to answer the question; ” I am is looking for what is at the core of any work. What I am looking for will carry with it the sense that the work is powered by the authentic concerns of the photographer, that it is in some way heartfelt and has the integrity to its approach to the subject.”

She then proceeds to motivate her answer by sharing her research. These include a practical test to determine in what way unsolicited observers can identify an artist by viewing their photographs and the responses of many successful artists. She determined that “a photographer will have long term preoccupations. These preoccupations may either be in either abstract or material ideas or subject matter, an approach to the world or to the making of the works.”

Read finally concludes that this may initially be developed through taking Input or feedback from others and may also necessitate feeling one’s way through the process of making work.  Not knowing will become a knowing. She reaffirms that she believes “that the recognition of their particular subject matter is crucial to the long-term progression of the work of any artist or photographer. And that this recognition may take time and accumulation of work. …evidence of where they have been and point to the future” (Simmons and Read, 2016 pp 218-222).”


My initial response was sceptical, that as a curator Read wants to categorize and package the creative work of individuals. But reflecting on my body of work I need to admit that there is a line observable and in some cases is not my primary concern in life, but the most dominant. … How I see the world and its people. Mostly imposing my view of myself and the world on them or alternatively how they perceive the world and themselves…

After my initial reading of the essay, I took a break and watched a documentary on Netflix, “Abstract: The Art of Design“ featuring Olafur Eliasson.

At one-point Eliasson describes his creative process which fascinated me. But it is best described in his own words which he repeated in an interview with Rachael Cook for the Guardian. I added photography for contextual alignment.

“You have an idea… an intuition, a feeling, a subconscious thing. It comes in many versions, but when it does it is sometimes better to go back and ask where it came from than to immediately decide where it is about to go. If you know where it came from, you might know why you had it, and once you know why, it’s easier to know-how. The brush or the pencil:” (or Taking a photograph),” they’re just tools. The playing, the fooling around; you need to step out of the macho-driven goal-orientated brutality of today’s success criteria. You need to be confident of the step you are taking, not of where it will take you because the moment you put the pencil to paper” (or make a drawing with light) ” is the moment when you change the world.” (Cooke, 2019)

These ideas can be visual and still require words to form. (intuitive). He realizes that there needs to be a reason for their occurrence and states that as an artist it is his job to find the “why” of the idea and what initiated the idea from information that informed its creation. Once he establishes these answers, he will be able to formulate it into words and hands the words over to the practitioners to develop the “how” and build and model (artefact) that brings the creative idea to life. As Photographers we are both the artist and practitioners. The “why” needs to be answered before the “how”! I believe it is the “why” that is what Read identifies in the work of artists. This seems logical now. The only difference in his approach is that you don’t have to initially verbalise the why but visualise the why. Use your intuition. He added that gets the most creative ideas when he is busy working. (My interpretation from Abstract: The art of Design – Olafur Eliasson, 2019)

While Eliasson’s work seems to have no boundaries and seem creatively free he states: “I don’t think my scope is wide enough. My projects are all connected. There’s a high degree of synchronicity. And I have a lot of confidence in things like abstraction, so it’s not a big step for me to move from one medium to another.”

Read and Eliasson’s comments led me to briefly research how ideas are formed in the brain. The ScienceDaily has an article about a study done at Haifa university on how our brains develop an original and creative idea. In summary, the researchers discovered that “Developing an original and creative idea requires the simultaneous activation of two completely different networks in the brain: the associative — “spontaneous” — network alongside the more normative — “conservative” — network; (ScienceDaily, 2019)

So in a way, our new idea only substantiates when the spontaneous part and conservative part concur. This process is mostly subconscious. Eliasson stated that his creative ideas increase with hard work (Abstract: The art of Design – Olafur Eliasson, 2019), which I take to mean that the “conservative” generated by actual work deliverable or outcomes allows for more “spontaneous” agreements …therefore more creative ideas.

In conclusion: The creative process requires that we look back on a body of work or and we will see how your creative ideas are informed from our previous work. This does not necessarily be a lifetimes body of work. Even an immersive personal project, with creative ideas, can and will develop this. I currently find my current project and the related research both an introspective and retrospective of myself. I did not realize that this is my creative process. All this reflection and reading removed my initial scepticism leading me to the same conclusion that Read came to.

Wow! And I initially thought this essay had little value for me.


Simmons, M. and Read, S. (2016). Photographers and Research. Focal Press.

ScienceDaily. (2019). How does our brain form creative and original ideas?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Oct. 2019].

Abstract: The art of Design – Olafur Eliasson. (2019). Netflix.

Cooke, R. (2019). Olafur Eliasson: ‘I am not special’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 11 Oct. 2019].