A2 Photography Essay Ideas In Human

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
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Louie Palu
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Louie Palu Photographer
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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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Ah, the A2 Personal study. For all our good intentions – get it done before Christmas; embed it throughout the year; condition students during the AS year (or earlier even) – it usually ends like this: Post-exam time and – despite the light at the top of the tunnel – I’m asking students to dig a bit deeper.

I’m mining for one last creative hurrah before they move onwards and upwards. Hopefully this post might help…

Emma’s Personal Study was presented as a concluding essay to her printed coursework book

What is the Personal Study?
For the official line – and if you like untangling word puzzles – see Page 29+ of the current specification. Teachers introduce this in different ways though, with some placing more emphasis on accompanying practical work than others. Personally, I’m all for art students developing their writing and research skills, so the following notes focus on this – the ‘continuous prose’, to coin a term from the forthcoming changes. For current students, let’s just call it an essay and crack on.
Your essay should:

  • Be a minimum of 1000 words (short and punchy is better than drawn out and draining).
  • Focus on a specific artist / photographer or art movement.
  • Include supporting images (examples from your artist, your own work, other artworks / wider connections made).
  • Be related to your coursework (Unit 3).
  • Be personal, informative and inspiring.
  • Be a labour of love (and a pleasure for others to pick up and look at. And read, obviously).

Your writing should reflect your creative nature: Provide subtle insights into your thinking, provoke interest; tempt curiosity. Use quotes and challenging questions to engage the reader.
Here are some practical suggestions:

Give it a punchy title
A decent title will set out your focus in a concise, ambitious and punchy way. A two-part title or question might help. For example:

  • Liar! Jeff Wall, photography and truth
  • Modernism, Abstraction and the work of Barbara Hepworth
  • Painting portraits: Jonathan Yeo and Me
  • The Human Figure: Sizing up Euan Uglow

Pretentious? Don’t worry about it. Devise a relevant title that inspires you to then fill it’s boots. Exhibition titles are devised with similar intentions. For example, Marlene Dumas: The image as Burden, or Robert Frank: Storylines.

Tonie, who completed her A2 in Year 11, thoughtfully sets her stall out

Write an introduction that leaves the reader wanting more…
Your introduction should explain your interest in the subject and the personal connection that you have to this. Use it to narrow down your focus and make it more specific. For example: “I am choosing to focus on… (Artist / art movement) because…it astounds me how…/ I find it fascinating that…/ I’m curious to know why…/I hope to show / share / highlight / discover…”. Aim to draw the reader in with each step.

Other aspects to consider:

  • What is the relationship that you want to establish with the reader?
    For example, do you have a deep understanding of this subject that you will share? – Is your tone that of an expert sharing insights? Or, alternatively, is the reader on a journey of discovery with you? – Are you using an investigative question at the start that you then set out to answer?
  • Introducing key aims or investigative questions
    For example: “I’m particularly interested in how moving to the coast influenced the work of Barbara Hepworth; living by the sea has had a big impact on my own creative development…” Doing this will also help when it comes to writing a conclusion, planting markers to revisit.

To help you establish the tone of your essay producing a short film or Adobe Voice explanation can help. Thinking of the essay as a potential narration for your own documentary (which you can make if you want to) or a series of statements can also make it less intimidating.

The meat in the sandwich
In this main section you might wish to:

  • Focus on specific artworks  – analyse and unpick these in depth, in relation to your own work and experiences.
  • Reference wider contexts – this might include other works (by your chosen artist, yourself, or relevant others), or other significant moments, events, or  connections – for example, of personal, historical or cultural significance (see below)
  • Include explanatory illustrations – for example, overlaying artworks with explanatory graphics / text to support your insights.
  • Consider where to place most emphasis – for example focusing on TECHNICAL, VISUAL, CONCEPTUAL or CONTEXTUAL analysis. (You might cover all of these but, for example, if your focus for the year has been developing observational and technical skills with painting, conceptual insights might be less relevant).

An example of a student making her own connections between artists, and across time and place

But how do I analyse artwork?
Year 13 asking that? Really? Ah, you’re winding me up. Nice one.

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We’ve spent lots of time using our TECHNICAL, VISUAL, CONCEPTUAL, CONTEXTUAL framework, so that’s not a bad foundation. Below are some ‘levels’ of analysis which might help further:

Level 1 has its place, but only as a foundation. You’ll need to dig deeper…

Still, to demonstrate yourself as an art student who can “express complex ideas with authority“, there’s a need to get beyond the TECHNICAL and VISUAL to address CONTEXT and CONCEPT.

download PDF here

Writing your thoughts
When writing personal opinions there is a danger that these can be too simplistic. Consider the progression in the points below:

  • Your initial reaction– informed by instinct, taste, likes and dislikes, interest in / relevance of subject matter.
    This can offer valuable insights when justified E.g. “I like this because…”. However, just providing an opinion without explanation is a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot.
  • A basic / superficial understanding of wider contexts. This might demonstrate growing understanding but can be even more dangerous: “I’m interested in Cubism because I like how Picasso’s artworks are made up of cube-like shapes”; “I like Pop Art because it uses bright colours and film stars”. Not good; quiet despair.
  • Based on a deeper understanding / complex grasp of wider contexts – demonstrating a confident stance and justified, well-informed opinions: “I’m interested in Cubism, particularly how the depiction of multiple viewpoints – stimulated by Cezanne’s explorations of form – revolutionised…”; “I’m interested in how Pop Art emerged as a response to Abstract Expressionism, it strikes me as a mischievous movement that counter-balanced…”
  • From an alternative perspective – Perhaps more of an expectation at degree level, but are you able to place yourself in sombody else’s shoes? For example, can you argue or justify an alternative viewpoint e.g. from a feminist, modern, or post-modern perspective? “Whilst appreciating Rothko’s intent to provoke with his Seagram Restaurant commission, I can imagine a dining capitalist might have been entirely less sensitive to the sense of claustrophobia he envisaged…” 

Concluding your essay
This is an opportunity to:

  • Summarise your study and show the benefits of doing it.
  • Revisit your introduction – specifically the aims or investigative questions set out at the start. (You do not need to have definitive answers though; reflective, new, unanswered questions can have value too).
  • Summarise key findings that have come from your research and analysis.
  • Offer reflective, personal opinions on your research, and how this has shaped your own practical work.
  • Share thoughts on potential opportunities for future exploration – themes / artists / experiments you might explore if given more time.
  • Include a short reflection on the process of the study itself – the research and thinking skills that you have developed.

No need to cover all of these in your limited word count. Identify the insights that resonate most; don’t let your hard work whimper out in these final stages.

Including a bibliography

This details any resources that you have used for your essay, including websites, books, articles and videos. Try to list these as you go along rather than having to back-track. Set it out like this:

  • Author – put the last name first.
  • Title – this should be underlined and in quotation marks.
  • Publisher - in a book this is usually located on one of the first few pages.
  • Date – the date/year the book/article was published.

For example: Cotton, Charlotte, ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Can I put a bow on it? How best to present your essay
Your personal study can be creatively elaborated on, and some schools go to town on this. Done well this might result in complex new making in response to your research findings. But there is a danger that practical responses at this point can seem ‘bolted on’, plain rushed and superficial. Before we get to any bells and whistles it’s best to complete a straightforward formal essay.
Suggested format:

  • word-processed and double-spaced.
  • All imagery should be clearly referenced within text (e.g. Fig. 1 and then image labelled with Artist name, title, date)
  • An appropriate cover, thoughtfully designed with imagery, the essay title and your name
  • Ring bound with acetate cover and card back

Once this is done, if time allows, it is over to you. Why not produce a short summary film, like Becky’s below?

Helpful? Have I missed a trick? Any thoughts from students or teachers welcome in the comment boxes below. 

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chris francis

Senior Leader Teacher of Art & Photography @DevNicely


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