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A2 Level Photography Essay

Fear is often struck into the heart of a student when discussing A Level Photography and they hear the word ‘essay’. This is really nothing to be frightened of, it is merely an opportunity for you to explore your ideas in more depth and also a chance to show off. Demonstrate your technical prowess, delve into the depths of conceptual imagery and scour photographic literature for primary sources. In today’s post we’re featuring an essay from a student who went on to achieve one hundred percent in unit 3, a testament to the students endeavor, willingness to explore and patience. Tintypes are incredibly difficult to master from a technical point of view; the overall aesthetic is exceptional, and from examining their application and purpose opened up a whole new avenue for discovery. I hope that this article will be helpful to any student looking for a level essay ideas and inspiration as complete examples are often hard to come by. Information on the personal study can be found on the exam boards website, so if you’re really stuck head there. Here is the a level photography essay example, feedback is most welcome in the comments section, let us know if it has been helpful.

Mirror, Mirror – Investigating The Tintype Portrait

I am examining the work of photographers Ed Drew and Louie Palu, specifically their projects Afghanistan, Combat Zone Tintypes and Kandahar. I will achieve this by studying their photographs and defining similarities and differences in their processes, composition and fundamental statements behind their work. I have chosen these photographers because of their influence over my own work. In mimicking the process of Drew and Palu’s composition – yet in a far less hostile environment – I intend to explore the techniques used which define the pain, exhaustion and sacrifice exhibited by the Marines so well. My practical work is underpinned by the Tintype’s ability to reveal a great deal of depth in a portrait. Ultimately I want to better understand how the Tintype process is able to achieve this and how it aids an accurate representation of the subject.

Ed Drew

Ed Drew is an avid Tintype photographer as well as being an USAF & National Guardsman veteran. Drew’s portraits of military instillations and soldiers serving in across the Middle East is entirely unique due to his use of collodion wet plate photography, creating a symmetry between, and homage to, the use of large format cameras in the American Civil War. His work has a parity with the photography of Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, and Timothy O’Sullivan who photographed battle fields and regiments of soldiers during the American Civil War. Their work ‘…brought the gruesome realities of warfare home to the American public’ (Foner, E. History.com) It could be argued that being inspired by these historically significant images, Drew sought to once again illustrate the human side of modern warfare and bring the realities to the general public.

The use of Tintypes themselves can aid the representation of fragility within the subject matter. Each Tintype requires meticulous preparation and even when fixed remains delicate, any abrasion to the surface of the plate will cause irreparable damage to the image despite being based on a metal plate. It could be argued that this in itself possesses a symmetry with the subject matter, the toll that war takes on the individual is being documented and that each individual soldier is fragile on the surface, despite any exterior displays of force through excessive weaponry or symbolism derived from the use of American flags. The fact that each plate has its own unique flaws caused by inconsistent flow of collodion over the plate also aids this discussion. Each soldier exhibits unique scars, whether physical or mental, caused by being exposed to a war zone. A downside to using Tintypes to document in this way is the time it takes to create a single exposure. A sensitised plate has the equivalent ISO of 1, in a studio environment a one second exposure would require four 800 watt flash heads. Drew’s exposures were taken in daylight, leading us to assume that even under midday sun the subject would have to remain still for at least two to three seconds. Because of this the pose, expression and setting for the image would have had to be considered beforehand and potentially dictated by the photographer to the subject in order to result in a well exposed portrait.

Ed Drew – Image Analysis

Drew’s use of tintypes – a photographic technique common place in conflicts such as the American Civil War – in Afghanistan, creates an eerie feeling of ghost like figures. The standard issue M9 Beretta holstered across his chest is the remnants of its ‘6 shooters’ ancestor; their m4s are the replacements of Winchester rifles and APCS the modern day pack-horses. His photos represent the surreal aspect of using such aged symbolism in such a modern conflict.
The character and tactile nature of the Tintype emphasizes the true grit of the subjects and the environment. Drew uses his colleagues, rather than the destitute landscape of Afghanistan (a relatively alternative concept being that historically photographers had travelled to the front line to take images of the conflict, casualties and the battlefield) as his subject matter. His subjects, despite being alive and unscathed, seem to express the horror, the pain and the anguish of war. Given our knowledge of the necessary exposure times of Tintypes we can assume that the sitter would need to be stationary for at least three seconds in order to achieve correct exposure using daylight. Within the context of my project this leads to the conclusion that the representation of the subjects face would be considered true, as a long exposure would require a still pose in order to avoid motion blur. The construction of the scene detracts from the facial expression and forces the viewer to consider the portrait as a whole. The American flag behind the soldier is a dominant symbol of patriotism, it sits above him in the frame, possibly representing that the country is greater than him and his personal anguish is worthwhile for the benefit of the nation. His uniform also helps to strip his identity. The word uniform itself can be defined as “remaining the same in all cases and at all times” (merriam-webster.com) The purpose of my project is to reveal the subject in greater detail, by placing the subject in a uniform it has in fact removed the subjects identity and therefore must be considered when developing my own work.

The most engaging element of the portrait is the subjects face. The necessity of a long exposure forces the sitter to remain still, and whilst the scene as a whole is constructed (the deliberately placed elements leading to a sense of performance) his face must remain relaxed and motionless, offering a blank expression which is unable to perform. This in turn in the context of my project would reveal otherwise hidden details in the sitters face and ultimately offer a portrait free of performance and subsequently a truer depiction of the subjects state of mind.

Louis Palu

Palu is a Canadian born documentary photographer and covered the war in Afghanistan extensively from 2006-2010. Unlike Drew, Palu uses digital cameras to capture his portraits, his body of work possesses a similar quality in mood and content, choosing to document the toll that war takes on an individual. His photographs are typically sombre, black and white portraits of young men. The use of digital has enabled him to capture fleeting moments of expression which arguably capture a more realistic depiction of the soldier’s emotions. Like any photographic series, it has to be assumed that this series has been edited and only the most expressive images have been used. The fleeting moments of vacant expression may have been between moments of sincere joy and the photographer has chosen to display a certain photograph in order to aid their own ideals and artistic agenda. The catch-lights in the soldiers eyes would suggest that daylight has been used to light the portraits from one side, the images however are lacking in contrast which could suggest that a reflector was used to fill in shadows on one side of the face, or alternatively a room with a light interior was used which would have reflected ambient light back on to the subject. His images are composed in a fashion which forces the viewer to confront the soldiers expression, a tight crop to the face removes any background distraction, as does a shallow depth of field which places emphasis on the eyes and draws the viewer in to the subject’s expression.

Louis Palu – Image Analysis

Within this image, the bearing of the marines ‘thousand yard stare’ directly down the lens creates unease and intimidation towards the viewer. The line of his jaw forms somewhat of a malevolent smile in the corner of his mouth; this may be false, in order to present a hardened identity upon a young scared one. The rim of his Kevlar helmet shields his eyes, darkening his face. This Marine’s facial expression is confusing: tension in his nostrils and mouth do not coincide with the rest of his expression, implying some sort of resentment to the camera or the audience.
The image portrays the individual’s stoic nature, of which is often associated with marines. The rich texture in the mud caked face, the shallow depth of field and the lack of emotion brings in to question what could cause a young, male marine to become so fragile and exhausted. What is more, there is an inscription at the front of the Marines helmet: Front towards enemy – a reference to the somewhat satirical instructions found upon a deadly claymore anti-personnel explosive device. This only accentuates the obvious differences between Marines and civilians: such crude humour originates in the self-belief of the corps’ that they are lethal, tactless, killing machines. Their ability to joke and embrace such reality is part of their identity, they were made to kill effectively and without mercy. However, this suggests a great deal of why many military personnel return fractured from society and struggle to re-adjust accordingly.

While we are supplied little information about Palu’s subjects, these portraits convey not only their identity formed upon their past encounters, but also offers a glimpse of their potential futures given what they were currently being exposed to. Palu achieves this by tightly cropping each portrait, forcing the viewer to engage with the subject, it draws you in and almost makes you feel their pain. Drew’s work however, is much more subtle, it captures a person however allowing their body language to communicate their state of mind rather than just their facial expression. There is a sense of performance about Drew’s work, the men are posing with large weaponry or in formation. I believe Palu’s work is a truer depiction of the emotional side of war and its effect on people, almost to say that Drew’s work captures an idealised image of a soldier, how they want to be perceived as strong and calm in that situation, whereas Palu’s deals with the harsher reality, that there is a frightened man underneath the uniform.

Based upon my image analysis I will attempt to establish a strong visual connection between my work and that of Louie Palu’s. Through thorough research and critical analysis I believe that Palu’s work captures more of a subjects personality and lived experience. I want to light my portraits in a similar fashion, choosing a minimal approach in order to create contrast and make the imperfections of the subjects face apparent.
Both artists use a shallow depth of field to focus on individual details, such as dirt across the individual’s cheeks, wrinkles across their forehead or the stare of their eyes. Taking inspiration from this, I could attempt to capture an individual’s most prominent feature: for example, the ageing in an adult in the form of wrinkles or the freckles on a teenager’s cheeks. Another option would be to photograph odd and uncommon characteristics, whether it be bizarre frizzy hair or the detail in a male’s facial hair, controlling the depth of field with such precision will enable me to capture the uniqueness of each individual sitter and this will be exaggerated by the texture of which the tintype process gives.
Unlike Palu however I will endeavour to use Tintypes as my main photographic medium. I will implement his methods of composition and lighting, coupling them with Drews use of Tintypes. Whilst I have concluded that Drews series has a staged quality and a sense of performance in overall composition, I believe that forcing the sitter to fix a pose for a long duration inevitably reveals a more detailed depiction of the face, and ultimately, a more insightful portrait.


Matthew Brady – American Civil War
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Ed Drew Photography
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Ed Drew – Koch Gallery
accessed on 11/12/15

Louie Palu
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Louie Palu Photographer
accessed on 11/12/15

Louie Palu – Pulitzer Centre
accessed on 11/12/15

accessed on 11/12/15

Historic Photographs by Alexander Gardner
accessed on 11/12/15

George-N-Barnard – American Photographer
accessed on 11/12/15

Timothy H O’Sullivan – Getty Museum
accessed on 11/12/15

Merriam Webster – Uniform
accessed on 11/12/15

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This is the first in a series of articles aimed at helping A Level Art students with their Personal Study (a project which is required as part of CIE A2 Art & Design). This article outlines twelve guidelines for selecting a good topic. The recommendations are based on my own experience with the teaching of this component, discussions with examiners during CIE training days and the feedback given within Examiner Reports.


1. The topic must relate to Art or Design

This sounds obvious and something that should not need saying, but, absurdly, it does. For some, inexplicable reason, students continue to submit projects that are completely unrelated to Art or Design. This is a quote from a recent CIE Examiner Report:

There were numerous inappropriate submissions which were not concerned with any aspect of Art and Design. These included such topics as ‘Giving up smoking’, ‘The biology of the senses’, ‘Growing tea on a plantation’, as well as aspects of tourism, green issues and political themes. 


2. The topic should be something that you are genuinely interested in

The ultimate purpose of your Personal Study is to teach you something: to help you develop as an artist and to strengthen your understanding of art-related issues. The most successful Personal Studies communicate ‘a strong sense of involvement through personal enthusiasm and a commitment to sustain the investigation’.

Simply speaking, when you are passionate about a topic, you are more likely to do well.


3. The focus of your Personal Study should be process and materials (the way an artist or group of artists use/s media) or subject or theme (the way an artist approaches a topic, usually with reference to composition and technique)

In other words, your Personal Study should involve the analysis of specific pieces of art; it should NOT be the life story of an artist or the documentation of a broad period of Art history (unless this somehow includes sufficient focus upon specific artworks).


4. A topic should provide you sufficient material to write about, while not being so vast that your project becomes all-encompassing, disjointed or surface-deep

In order to produce a high quality Personal Study, you need to have a clear, well-articulated focus. This gives you something to organise your project around and encourages you to write with coherence and structure (a lack direction is a common weakness in low achieving Personal Studies). Completing an entire project around the analysis of one or two artwork, for example, is limiting, while attempting to analyse Abstract Art in all of its entirety (without any connection to a specific artist) sets up an enormous, daunting task which cannot be given justice in the time given.


5. The study should be about someone else’s art (not your own)

This is an area where CIE Art & Design students are often confused. There is an incorrect belief that students are expected to submit a body of original creative work as part of the Personal Study, similar to that produced for the Coursework project (some students even go so far as submitting only original practical work or additional Coursework pieces for this component – often with no annotation or explanation – which does not satisfy the requirements of the Personal Study at all). While the Personal Study certainly can – and in the majority of cases should – include beautiful practical work completed by the student, the Personal Study is about analysing, studying and learning from other artists: it is NOT about producing original artwork on your own topic (more information about the images used in a Personal Study will be given in a subsequent article). This quote from CIE helps to clarify this:

The main aim of the Personal Study is to encourage candidates to focus on selected examples of existing works of art or design from established contemporary or historical practitioners, seen at first hand, by making critical judgements and personal evaluations.

Note that this article has been written for CIE A2 Art Personal Studies: Personal Studies required for other examination boards differ in some respects.


6. A link to your Coursework can be advantageous

Although it is not necessary for CIE Art & Design students to select a Personal Study topic which relates to their A2 Coursework project, the examiners comment that ‘good practice might suggest that a link between the two is advisable’. This is because a selecting a related topic allows you to acquire knowledge, skills and understanding that may help you to complete your Coursework to a higher standard. (Remember that if you refer to your Coursework project within your Personal Study you should include photos to help explain what you are saying. Each component is assessed individually and examiners do not have access to your Coursework project while they are assessing your Personal Study).


7. Choose a topic that allows you to view artwork first-hand

This is not a guideline: it is imperative. In my experience, the best CIE A2 Art Personal Studies are produced when students not only view artwork in the flesh (in a gallery or museum exhibition, for example), but are able to meet and interview the artist or designer and see their methods of working. This gives opportunity for the work to be understood in great detail (seeing true colours, textural surface qualities and the real scale of the piece) and encourages truly personal responses. It also means that students can take beautiful photographs of the artist or designer working in their studio and see all of the processes and various stages of completion. Examiners frequently report that lower grade Personal Studies ignore this requirement and depend more heavily on secondary sources: lifeless reproductions from books and the internet.


8. Contrasting and comparing the work of artists can be helpful

Studying the work of a mainstream or critically acclaimed artist alongside a local artist can be beneficial, especially if the local artist is less established. This gives you the best of both worlds (the enthusiasm and first-hand contact from a local artist, plus the insight that comes from studying historical, contemporary and/or international artists who work in another cultural context). You may, for example, choose to focus upon two artists who paint the same subject in a different way, or to discuss the influence of a famous artist upon a local painter. It should be noted that the examiners understand that many students will not be able to see all of the artworks they study in the flesh, so supporting first-hand study with those viewed in reproduction is absolutely acceptable.


9. Select a topic that is supported by quality reference material

While the Personal Study is centred around your own personal responses, drawing on the opinions of educated critics can provide insight and a depth of understanding: grounding, validating and/or challenging your own views. Before finalising upon a Personal Study topic for A2 Art, check to see if there are existing articles, books or online reviews about the artists in question. This also helps to verify that the artist you have selected has some standing in the art community and is thus likely to be an appropriate and valuable person to study. It should be noted, of course, that in many cases, the more well-known an artist is, the less time they have to accommodate visits from eager high school students; sometimes relatively unknown artists can be very skilled and have much to teach a high school Art student.


10. Word your title so that it captures the essence of your Personal Study and indicates a well-chosen focus

For example: ‘The Portraiture of [artist name]: An Appreciation of Light and Colour’ is more appropriate than ‘Portraiture in Art’. ‘The use of Symbolism in Traditional and Contemporary Weaving’ (an example given in the CIE 9704 Art & Design syllabus) is more appropriate than ‘The Art of Weaving’. ‘Landscapes of the Idurah Valley’ (another example given in the syllabus) is more appropriate than ‘Landscape Paintings’. ‘An Investigation into Gender Roles in Contemporary Art’ is better than ‘Contemporary Art’. In the former examples, the title helps to clarify the focus of the study; the latter suggest an enormously broad study that would be difficult to complete well. Similarly, it is also beneficial to avoid overly simplistic titles that convey little information, such as ‘[artist name] Personal Study’ or ‘Fish’. Ideally, the examiner a clear idea about what your study is about (and be impressed) from the first moment they encounter your project.


11. Select your Personal Study topic near the start of the A2 Art Course

The Personal Study is a large and comprehensive project. It is impossible to complete in its entirety (and achieve a good grade) at the last minute. It can be good practise to start thinking about your topic selection at the conclusion of the AS Course. High achieving students often use the winter or summer break, seeking out artists who are available for interview locally. This leaves them in a strong position to start the A2 year (it can be wise to touch base with teachers prior to making contact with an artist, however, to avoid wasting anyone’s time). Regardless of whether the vacation period is utilised, it is essential that the Personal Study receives regular attention (ideally within scheduled class time as well as in homework sessions) so that students can plan, research and complete the project in a systematic, organised way.


12. Submit an Outline Proposal Form to CIE before you begin

While this is not a requirement, all students should be encouraged to do this. Any concern about the suitability of a topic can be overcome by making use of the Outline Proposal Forms (OPF). This is a free way of gaining invaluable feedback from the official CIE Senior Moderator before you begin. Blank forms are available on the password protected Teachers’ Support Site and can be submitted electronically to CIE for approval. It is important to note that the brief feedback given should be read with great care and always adhered to. This form should then be retained and submitted along with the finished Personal Study.


An example of the CIE Examiner Reports quoted in this article can be found on the publicly accessible Art & Design section of the CIE website. Further reports are available from the password protected Teachers’ Support Site.

The next article in this series discusses how to write a Personal Study. A subsequent post will focus on the images. You may also be interested in reading our overview of the CIE A2 Art Personal Study.

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