• Ruta Saksens


The success of any project depends on the quality of conducted research and the appropriateness of the method/-s applied. This post will focus on the research methods in photography that can be used to underpin one’s practice.

Research methods are nowadays applied across many different social sciences. Relatively recently - in the beginning of the last century – research was seen as more of an activity in which the researcher doesn’t affect neither the process, nor the outcome of the research. Moreover, arts and science were looked at independently and not in relation to each other (Kara 2015, Leavy 2017). However, during the other half of the 20th century the concept of research advanced and started to take another form. According to Helen Kara

researchers began to reach out beyond the bounds of conventional research to the arts, other research methods and technology, to find more useful ways to explore the world around us’ (2015: 34).

Arts and science both explore and illustrate aspects of human life, cultural norms and natural world, having more in common than one might expect. Arts-based research is where both practices come together. As Patricia Leavy points it out, arts-based research ‘exists at the intersection of art and science’ (2017: 3). Eadweard Muybridge’s work on Animal locomotion (1887) is a great example of how photography and science are united. In the 19th century there was a desire for more accuracy in representing battle scenes in paintings that led to the need of analysing motion, and photography was just the right medium to be used in the search of motion clarification (Rosenblum, 2007: 249). Muybridge analysed motion for about twenty years, using photography as the research tool. Other practitioners who worked with motion studies include Thomas Eakins, Etienne Jules Marey and Ottomar Anschütz.

Fig. 1: Anschütz 1884. Series of Storks in Flight [gelatin silver prints]

I find their work inspiring and have tried to achieve a sense of animal movements in my own images.

Fig. 2: Saksens 2021. Great cormorant moving across a pond [digital photomontage]

Another example when art goes hand in hand with science, is the work of John Frederick William Herschel who played a significant role in the discovery of cyanotypes, anthotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes and chrysotypes (Fabbri, 2012: 14).

Fig. 3: Herschel 1839. Anthotype #4 [anthotype]

At the time when photography was colourless, the wish to achieve colour in prints gave space for experimentation with chemicals. The aesthetics of mellow hues in anthotypes and cyanotypes gives them the necessary artistic qualities, and the technique of how they are achieved falls in the field of science. The anthotype printing method is one of the most environmentally friendly printing methods that there is, and for that reason is worth being looked at nowadays when humanity seeks to find environmental sustainability in the world.

There are plenty of research methods that can be used in arts, but the trick is to do the research in the right direction. Grant Scott gives advice for creating a successful personal project in photography by writing the following:

‘Do your research. Find out if other photographers have tackled the subject you are planning to photograph. Look at how they did it, what the outcomes were, and how it was received. Then ensure that you do not repeat the same approach’ (2015: 108).

Firstly, a thorough analytical literature review can be done on the choice of ones subject to better understand what concepts the particular project falls under. This can include bibliography search and theoretical review on the topic itself. One example is Matthew Maran’s work about Hampstead Heath: London’s countryside in which he compliments all photographs with descriptions. Maran not only names species of animals and types of trees that can be seen in his photographs, but also explains different aspects about the objects represented.

Fig. 4: Maran 2016. Page 100 from Matthew Maran, 2016, 'Hampstead Heath, London's Countryside'

Secondly, archival research can be done to better inform and compliment a specific project. For example, in 2004 the Dutch photographer Jantien de Bruin carried out a project ‘Onder het zichtbare scrift’ (from Dutch meaning ‘Under the visible site’) about an old pathway in a Dutch region Twente, and in her photobook there is included an image of a map from 1900 and one from 2000 that comes from archives).

Fig. 5: De Bruin 2004. Page 61 from Jantien de Bruin, 2004, 'Onder het zichtbare schrift'

Thirdly, empirical research can be conducted to investigate the research subject. Action research, participatory research and ethnographic research methods are just a few examples. The participatory research method, for example, has been successfully applied by the photographer Ruth Corney who did a project about Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. In the time period between 1999 and 2020 she took photographs of people, particularly women, who used Kenwood pond for swimming. The outcome of her project was a book, that is not just a book about women swimming, but about the identity of the pond and how the swimmers interact with it.

Fig. 6: Corney c. 2012. No title [photograph]

Lastly, research can be done around the technical aspects of one’s project and the specifics of the chosen photographic approach. For example, the photographer Malin Fabbri has done a thorough investigation into the history and process of making anthotypes. Her practice heavily relies on being informed about how to print anthotypes successfully, what is necessary, what works and what doesn’t work.

Fig. 7: Fabbri 2011. Downside up [anthotype]

To inform my current project that is about my local park area and its flora and fauna, I intend to familiarize myself with works done by other photographers on similar topics, as well as to look at what kind of collaboration is present in their work. In the Week 1 Discussion forum on the university’s study platform I was suggested to look at work done by the photographer Stephen Gill. I find the aesthetics of his project ‘Night procession’ particularly appealing, which compliments the subject choice of night time animal life.

Fig. 8: Gill c.2014-2017. The Night Procession series [photographic images]

Charles Pratt, on the other hand, has focused a lot on nature in daytime and how light plays with natural objects.

Fig. 9: Pratt 1968. Maine [analogue photograph]

The beauty of light rays playing with nature is something that I have tried to capture in my photographs as well.

Fig. 10: Saksens 2021. Along the Randweg [digital photographic image]

Furthermore, I also plan to research what kind of photographic methods are used by other practitioners for representing the topic of nature and how I can incorporate alternative methods to compliment the topic, such as anthotypes. I am planning to use hand-made paper as well, and will be looking at how other artists use it in their practice. To gain more understanding about papermaking in the Netherlands, on September 26 I visited a papermaking studio in Rotterdam and discussed the papermaking processes with professionals who make handmade paper on daily basis. It was a wonderful opportunity to visit the place and it gave plenty of inspiration for further work.

Fig. 11: Saksens 2021. Visiting Rotterdam’s papermaking studio Papier Makerij: handmade paper examples [smartphone snapshot]


FABBRI, Malin. 2012. Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants. Stockholm: AlternativePhotography.com.

KARA, Helen. 2015. Creative research methods in the social sciences. A practical guide. Bristol: Policy Press.

LEAVY, Patricia. 2017. Handbook of Arts-Based Research. New York: Guilford Publications. ROSENBLUM, Naomi. 2007. A world history of photography, 4th ed. New York; London: Abbeville Press Publishers.

SCOTT, Grant. 2015. ‘The Power of a Personal Project’ in Professional photography: the new global landscape explained. Burlington, Massachusetts; Oxfordshire, England: Focal Press.


Figure 1: ANSCHÜTZ, Ottomar. 1884. Series of Storks in Flight [gelatin silver prints]. From Naomi Rosenblum. 2007. 'A world history of photography, 4th ed' (p. 257). New York; London: Abbeville Press Publishers.

Figure 2: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. Great cormorant moving across a pond [digital photomontage].

Figure 3: HERSCHEL, John F.W. 1839. Anthotype #4 [anthotype]. From Malin Fabbri. 2012. 'Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants' (p. 16). Stockholm: AlternativePhotography.com.

Figure 4: MARAN, Matthew. 2016. Page 100 from Matthew Maran, 2016. Hampstead Heath, London's Countryside. London: Hemisphere Publishing.

Figure 5: DE BRUIN, Jantien. 2004. Page 61 from Jantien de Bruin, 2004. Onder het zichtbare schrift. Nederland: Van Marle Grafische Bedrijven.

Figure 6: CORNEY, Ruth. c.2012. No title [photograph]. From Ruth Corney. 2020. 'Kenwood Ladies’ Pond: 2000 – 2020' (p. 43). UK: Absolute Print.

Figure 7: FABBRI, Malin. 2011. Downside up [anthotype]. From Malin Fabbri. 2012. 'Anthotypes – Explore the darkroom in your garden and make photographs using plants' (p. 42). Stockholm: AlternativePhotography.com.

Figure 8: GILL, Stephen. c.2014-2017. The Night Procession series [photographic images]. From Stephen Gill [online]. 'Portfolio: Night Procession'. Available at: https://www.stephengill.co.uk/portfolio/portfolio/nggallery/album-1-2/Night-Procession/thumbnails [accessed September 30, 2021].

Figure 9: PRATT, Charles. 1968. Maine [analogue photograph]. From Charles Pratt, 1982. 'Photographs' (p. 53). Aperture Inc.

Figure 10: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. Along the Randweg [digital photographic image].

Figure 11: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. Visiting Rotterdam’s papermaking studio Papier Makerij: handmade paper examples [smartphone snapshot].

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