Welcome to Format: Musings on Photography

A double exposure of the theoretical and the practical


And a very warm welcome to Format: Musings on Photography.

Now then, in the Substack guide it suggests:

“Your first post is a good place to introduce yourself. Tell your readers why you started this publication, how you got here, and what you’ll be writing about. Think of it as a mini-manifesto or mission statement.”

Okay, that sounds like sensible advice.

I’m Laurence Cawley. I’m a writer, photographer and television producer for the BBC. I’m also an MA photography student at Falmouth University.

A degree of selfishness lies behind starting Format. Increasingly thinking about photography in both an academic and professional setting has left me increasingly conscious of how little I really know and how unwittingly bound my current practice is.

Sadly, the Socratic paradox (or was it really Plato’s…) that "I know that I know nothing" provides little comfort here. Perhaps writing Format will help.

Each week, I plan to share my own intellectual and practical photographic journey in the hopes that my musings might:

  • Distill and bring to shape my own thinking on various photography issues

  • Be useful to others

  • Encourage discussion both amongst others and between others and myself.

In a great many ways photography is a hugely exciting academic discipline which finds itself deepening at an equally fascinating time, with the general, though oscillatory, shift from the physicality of film to digital, with the mechanical movement from traditional camera forms towards mobile devices and the dispersion of settings, from galleries and phonebooks out to social media.

One of the first things that struck my when beginning my masters degree was the paucity of canonical literature in photographic theory. I studied history and a little social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. I was struck - and continue to be struck - by how often photographic scholars refer back to two loci - Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Susan Sontag’s On Photography. To be sure, both are great and important texts. But their bedrock position within what is becoming an increasingly academic discipline is almost unthinkable within the two disciplines from which the bulk of my own education comes.

The second thing that has struck me - and this is something I find extremely exciting - is how some of the finest thinking on photography comes not from academics, but from working photographers (even if they don’t, in my opinion, always realise the quality of their own thinking).

Bringing some sense of personal (hopefully negotiated and collaborative) resolution of these various strands is the ultimate aim of Format. But as is so often the case with the best journeys, it is the way-finding, obstacles and off-piste wanderings that prove most rewarding. I hope it will be so here.