If you're looking to attain good grades in your Art and Design course, one area that you need to demonstrate that you've investigated and learned about is the contextual aspects. This is one of the aspects of your research that you normally have to read more to grasp and make sense of and therefore will gain you additional points as such. More importantly it leads you to looking at wider subjects and therefore accelerates your learning.
Currently for what I teach (Photography) I break it down into 3 sections...
- Operational context.
- Historical context.
- Zeitgeist context.
(1). Operational Context – This is where you identify and explain the working context; is the work you’re looking at art photography/personal work where the photographer/artist has full control over every aspect of the process, chooses the subject and Materials, Techniques and Processes and the work is usually produced over months and years. Or is it Commissioned Photography/Art where the work is done to a brief set by someone else (Client/ad agency) using MTP’s that they stipulate and is produced within a time scale and you’re paid a set wage for producing the work for them. Or is it Amateur work – where it’s done for pleasure and isn’t usually sold to provide a living wage for the artists/photographer?
(2). Historical Context – This is where you read about the photographer – interviews or critical reviews and discover who the photographer is influenced by. Using the images of the artist/photographer that they are influenced by, you have to identify connections and look to see if this is a re-occurring theme within the art/photography world. Is it being used in similar ways historically? Ideally you should make direct connections with other forms of art especially paintings.
For an example in practice see here (Note the inclusion of the older images alongside the main Testino images) http://southendasphoto.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/how-to-put-together-your-research-for.html
See this example below...
The most recent image (A) is a Mario Testino image from Vogue 2011. (B) Is a David Bailey image from the mid 1960's and (C) Is a Jan Van Eyck painting from 1434 "Arnolfini Wedding".
You can see that there is potential to refer to all of the images if you're looking at any of them because of their similarities. The Testino image no doubt refers to Van Eyck as they not only reference the pose, but also the clothing and the whole 'Dutch Old Masters' theme. Whether Bailey referenced Van Eyck is speculation, but as a student, if you're making these speculative comparisons, what it demonstrates is a very broad knowledge of both art and photography showing how one can influence another. Not only that, it also demonstrates you're looking at important historical art and photography as opposed to images and photographers of no consequence whatsoever.
The key point here is that if you were to research any of these artists/photographers you would find endless research material from which you would potentially learn a great deal. By delving a little deeper for instance into David Bailey, you might then start to learn about the things that were happening around him at the time in wider society...
(3). Zeitgeist Context – This is where you examine the photography/photographer and look to evidence that the work has been produced in response to something that is happening now as opposed to events happening at the time when the work was being produced (Historical). You might look specifically at political, social, environmental or cultural events that may have shaping or inspiring the photography in some way.
As an example when writing Donald Trump rescinded on some of the measures that Obama had started to implement with regards to oil exploration in Alaska and Dakota. There were concerns about the rights of Indigenous North American Indians and the fact that a pipeline was due to be built within their homelands. Oil as you’re probably aware is one of Ed Burtynsky’s main themes in his photography, so there’s the potential to look into this further and make connections between Ed Burtynsky’s concerns and work and the events unfolding off the back of Trumps presidency and seeming disregard for the environment.
This may then lead you into delving into what was the trigger for Burtynsky – what inspired him to produce the Oil project? Is Burtynsky still working with the theme Oil, or has someone else taken up the challenge, or is this a theme that you might like to explore more locally?
Conclusion - The conclusion you need to draw from this is the more you know about contemporary and historic photography of consequence e.g. the work that is written about, reviewed, critiqued and analysed by experts, the easier you'll be able to make such contextual connections. This involves reading and studying - primarily books as a starting point finding the names of the relevant photographers and artists. At the start of our courses we advise you to buy a book to help with your studies "Photography the Whole Story". Once you have the names of the photographers and artists that are worthy of your time, you can then add internet research.
Note When you write this material up in your book