A friend and colleague is a member of the small independent Horizon Theatre Company. There’s only a few people involved and they tend to mix their roles around. My friend John was acting in the last play I saw but directed the current performance. I asked sometime ago if I could take some photographs and was given the opportunity to photograph them setting up of the Wolsey Studio Theatre in Ipswich the day before their opening night. This felt quite a privilege and for not only would it suit this FiP exercise but the play was having it’s UK premier! It’s called M.A.M.I.L (middle-aged man in lycra) and is a one-man play with a cycling theme to it.
In terms of the questioning this exercise requires, this session offered more opportunities than a basic rehearsal. Witnessing the setting up of the stage and a rehearsal I was able to question and investigate the following:
What is the director’s role?
What is the role of the stage management and how do they set up the stage, its lighting, sound and props?
Moreover, for the actor I was curious about the relationship with the director and his involvement in setting up of the stage.
The exercise implies we should spend several days or weeks with our chosen subject. I didn’t have that luxury. I’d been given the chance to take my photographs on this one, rather important, day for the company, and so I made the most of it. I took several hundred shots and tackled the technical difficulties of working in small often dimly lit studio theatre. As the exercise requires, I have attached a contact sheet of the some of the images I took on the day.
After a short explanation of what constitutes ‘objective photography’ we are asked to produce 4 images as though they were visual evidence. The session was to be of me reading the student notes and as the notes suggested the 4 photos should reflect (1) me (2) reading (3) the notes in (4) this location.
The images have to lack a sense of aesthetic. In a sense they are to look artless, as though the camera was pointed at the evidence and the shutter pressed with little or no concern beyond the technicalities to record a correctly exposed and focused still image.
The set I have produced do exactly that and they look objective, responding directly to the brief in the student notes. But when I consider the lengths to which I went I to produce these images I am left questioning the notion of objectivity or at least casting doubt on my claim towards it.
For example: I chose a location that appears rather utilitarian and functional, it’s blandness reinforcing the lack of aesthetic. Being indoors I needed some artificial light and so chose a direct undiffused flash to give a bright overall light common to all the images. A 35mm lens was chosen, as the room was fairly small and a narrow f-stop was used in order to capture a broad depth of field. The camera was mounted on a tripod and the same distance (and camera height) from the subject area was maintained for 3 of the 4 images. This too was a conscious decision as I felt it would reinforce the sense of objectivity. In the vertical image of me I stand upright making no attempt to ‘pose’.
Objectivity in this way, the sense that we are recording evidence, implies no great thought was applied to the photographic process but as I’ve just demonstrated this need not be the case. Perhaps what I’ve created are some ambiguous images that while falling within a definition of objective are the result of a creative process.
Before attempting to create a formal portrait this exercise asked us to consider the work of Thomas Struth and Rineke Djkstra. Struth’s family portraits look quite objective to the point where they appear almost artless – perhaps they look like a family snap from a photo album. But of course this overlooks how he made the image. The stillness and relaxed concentration the sitters exhibit is due the lengthy exposure his shots required. Their objectivity being underlined by the lack of ‘creative’ postproduction, while the distance he sets his camera away from the group stops any psychological insight into the condition of his subjects – this conventionally, being one of the objectives of conventional portraiture.
Thomas Struth: Kyoko and Tomoharu Murakami, Tokyo 1991
A similar objective stance is found in Rineke Djkstra’s work. Her photo series of mothers with their newly born babies is amazingly striking. Here we enter an intimate realm that few people get to observe. The straightforward approach to her subject matter removes any of the romantic ‘babble’ amount motherhood and presents it as it really is.
Rineke Djkstra: Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29 1994
With this in mind it was interesting to read that women generally liked the work for it’s depiction of the reality of early parenthood while many men didn’t like to see women presented this way.
In other series Djkstra has made portraits of children and adolescents. She prefers them to adults as they present themselves as they are and not as they want others to see them. I guess, as we get older we start to react to the presence of a camera (I for example, always pull my stomach in!) and try to control the image we present. In photographing young people she is able to capture the guileless innocence of youth but often tinged with the self-consciousness of the teenager.
For my formal portrait exercise I chose my partner, who has appeared elsewhere in this blog. The student notes suggests using the location of ‘the significant place’ in Ex 3.9 and incorporating the ‘significant object’ from Ex 3.7. So, we returned to Shingle Street and took binoculars with us – which is what we’d do anyway!
I fully understood what Djkstra was getting at when she made the comparison between adults and young people. My partner poses for me, even unconsciously I think, her behaviour and demeanour subtly changing in the presence of the camera. I took dozens of shots in this session and tried to catch her ‘off guard’. A few of photos do achieve this and she is seems as herself, more relaxed and less self conscious. The technique I adopted was to be conversational. Although I was giving some directions of where to stand, which way to look etc., we also had an on-going conversation about a pair of Kestrels that were hunting over a nearby stubble field. Of the many shots I took I narrowed my selection to 4 but really couldn’t decide which one to chose. Several days have passed since the shoot and each day I looked back the 4. Having lived with the selection I can now make a decision. Some might suggest it’s not exactly ‘formal’ as per the brief but them walking along a flood wall in coastal Suffolk while out birding isn’t a formal occasion. However what image does convey is the spirit of Jude on that day and in this ‘significant place’.
I had a vague memory of seeing Crewdson on TV some years ago directing one his photos with a crew and lighting set up akin to a cinema production. At the time it didn’t really fall within the framework of what I would have called ‘photography’ and I felt somewhat indifferent towards it. Fast forward a few years and now I have a more open mind to such things. When I started this FiP course I still held this fairly narrow view but understood that my mind was in for a good stretching and that previously held positions might soon feel untenable.
The Cathedral of the Pines exhibition occupies three floors of the Photographers’ Gallery. His photos are very large and are not crowed next to each other on the walls, each has space to ‘breath’. Emerging from the lift on the fifth floor the first thing that struck me was the image quality. They are painterly, in the sense that composition and lighting has been meticulously worked out: a studio sensibility brought into the outdoors as well as domestic interiors. It’s also reasonable to assume Crewdson is using high quality camera.
The image quality is outstanding with lighting Rembrandt would have been proud of! (Gregory Crewdson: Woman at a Sink)
But enough of the ‘techie’ stuff, what of the images? Well to call them ‘staged’ feels like an understatement! Just with his attention to technical details he is again meticulous with the use of props and actors. Known for his cinematic approach calling the people who appear in his images ‘models’ doesn’t feel right. My knowledge of cinema is relatively thin bit it’s clear that he is influenced by it or perhaps, my appropriate for the current age, quality TV. The images in Cathedral of the Pines look like they could be stills from an HBO drama set in some small rural town in the USA where everyone knows everyone and they’ve all got ‘dirt’ on each other. There is also a further influence at work: men and half naked women sitting around flooded, disused and rusted quarry workings are suggestive of European landscape painting. Needless to say none of the images are not happy ones.
In the video Crewdson had made to accompany the exhibition we learn that experiences from his youth have informed the series and he tells us they raise questions rather than give answers. I discovered the video on Youtube after seeing the exhibition and felt pleased about this comment. That’s because as I went around the exhibition I found myself ‘people watching’. Looking into each image I tried to piece together what was going on in the lives of those depicted. The staging and the facial expressions all leaded me to conclude these folk were leading a miserable existence. With some imagination it wasn’t too much of a leap to conceive that loveless relationships, domestic abuse, even child abuse, and misogyny were taking place. In some images I was left wondering if the victims of these were planning to take things into their own hands to resolve their torments: the young women in the barn has to hand a fiendishly sharp looking saw, lengths of chain while some of the floorboards have been taken up. Throughout the images all the vehicles are old and people watch VHS tapes, which makes me think the series may have a sense of place and time about them. The same landscape painting can be found on the walls of at least two different dwellings. Moreover dead birds, chains, windfall apples, open doors when it snowy and icy outside all point to a thorough use of symbolism across the series.
But did I like it? Although the series is rather perturbing with its ever-present misery and depression I have become rather intrigued by it. It certainly raises lots of questions, even those beyond the obvious – for example, I’m OK with all the nakedness but why do these folk chose to go outside on cold winter’s day in bare feet? Writing this a few days after my visit to the gallery I’m still puzzling over it and feel more and drawn to the series – I’d certainly go and see it again if I got the chance. Staged photography was certainly not my ‘thing’ a few months ago but looking at the work of Crewdson and, earlier in FiP, Tom Hunter I am developing a greater understanding of it. I don’t know if it will ever become part of my own photographic vocabulary but with greater exposure to staged photography has come a greater acceptance and a deepening respect for it .
It’s difficult to come up with one reason on why I like Shingle Street. But if I had to, I’d say it’s concerned with memory. The place has its own innate beauty being at the convergence of sea, river and farmland – all held together below one of those large East Anglian skies. But for me there is more than the beauty. There are birds of course, and I’ve seen some good rarities here and when I reflect upon that fact, I’m reminded that I’ve found some of my best rarities here – and I’m no prolific rare bird finder! But even this seems less relevant when I consider its place within my psyche. I first came here in 2003 and only because I was curious about its name. Since them I’ve moved into Suffolk and now live a short drive away from the place.
I’ve had my ups and downs over the years, with occasional brushes with stress and depression. I’m a firm believer in the recuperative qualities of nature and Shingle Street has played its part in that healing over the years. But why have I chosen this image? (You may recall a version of it from Exercise 2.6). Shingle Street has more conventionally beautiful and picturesque scenes than this one. And when I took this image the light was warm and low and I guess I was there during that ‘Golden Hour’ that landscape photographers refer to. However, this broken and twisted concrete road (a relic from World War 2 coastal defenses I’m sure) is symbolic of that healing journey I’ve undergone in the past. Stretching the metaphor a bit further (and perhaps a bit thinly too) it is also a refuge and an aid: when trudging across the soft shingle beach the road offers a firmer and easier footing to walk along. So of all the photographic potential that Shingle Street offers I chosen this simple concrete roadway.
To give an idea of the broader landscape potential of Shingle Street I included a contact sheet with some of the other images I took at the time.
In my moments of relaxed unfocused pondering I sometime thought, how would I photograph Brexit? Then some other musing would squeeze it way through the relaxed synapses and the Brexit thing would slip away.
Well yesterday, while on an unrelated photographic mission, an idea came to me. I was at the RSPB reserve at Minsmere, famous amongst other things for the BBC’s Springwatch programmes as well as my Assignment 1! Like other low-lying locations on the coast it has remnants of World War 2 defenses. In the sand dunes there are what I’ve always know as ‘tank traps’; lines of large concrete cubes only a few feet apart. Constructed in 1940 along with gun emplacements and miles and miles of barbed wire these acted to deter German forces from invading these vulnerable parts of the country’s coastline.
This is work in progress but I started photographing individual ‘tank traps’, consciously avoiding the long shot depicting lines of them. As a line they have a uniformity but individually they bare the effects of 77 years of exposure to the elements and the encroachment of nature.
I’m consciously stepping aside from any debate over Brexit, goodness knows how much shouting I’ve done at the TV and radio over the 12+ months. Here at least I’m keeping my views (or at least I think I am) out of it. Instead I want these images to be ambiguous, perhaps a reflection of the situation the UK finds itself once stripped of the political hype and hyperbole. If that is at all possible..?
I’d be interested in your views on this project. Constructive feedback is always welcomed…
I subscribe to BJP and each month as read through the articles and look at the photos something will always make me stop and think. This month (BJP no. 7862 August 2017) so far (I haven’t read it all yet!) it’s a short interview with Donald Weber. In a few short answers I became intrigued about this guy. He was saying stuff that caught my attention but curiously none of his work was included in the interview. Does that matter? If it turned out that I was turned off by his work how then would I relate to his words?
Amongst the comments he made that appealed to me were:
Trust yourself. Allow yourself to open up and view the world as you see it. Experiment, don’t get caught up in photographic decorum
Let your curiosity get the better of you
Photographic practice is more about collaboration with others than the singularity of the ‘heroic artist’
Photography is a completely subjective experience.
Even though I’m still learning and by that I’m willing to try new approaches and techniques, I’m still developing my own vision. It is something I feel strongly about and so Weber’s comments have strong resonance for me.
I then went on to look at his work. Interested in Russian and Ukrainian life since he was a boy he has visited many times as a photographer. His series on Ukrainian police interrogation was just jaw-dropping. These images (at least the ones I’ve seen) were not voyeuristic, nor patronizing or sensationalistic, but demonstrated great empathy towards those being interrogated. It was also interesting to read his thoughts on the police, recognising that they were only doing what they were trained to do, so criticism is directed to the State and the power within bureaucracy.
An interview with Weber where he talks about his early influences to be come a photographer