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’.
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.
So I gave Mikey a print of the photo I’d just taken of him and he went home and ‘affected’ it. The result below is my chosen image from the second photo shoot. I could have chosen a more objective image, a passport like photo with him presenting the affected image of his face to the camera, but I wanted to explore this with more depth.
Mikey took a scalpel to the print I gave him, cutting out sections he then swapped them about and replaced them upside down. The result is a disfigurement of his own face and I was really curious as to why anyone would do that. My untested hypothesis is that it would be quite a male thing to do and that I shouldn’t imagine too many women would do something similar. The underlying premise being that many women seek to enhance their looks by ‘affecting’ their faces with make-up. For men the face isn’t always about attraction. But that would be another body of work more akin to an end of degree show!
So, what interpretation can I draw from the final image. The affected photo had been rendered into a mask but it is a mask that is saying ‘keep away’. Classical conventions of art say beauty and truth are synonymous with each other and with so with beauty come purity. Mikey has created a mask of ugliness in a conventional sense. Ugliness, disfigurement and the like are not to be trusted, symptomatic of evil perhaps, and so we should keep away.
But while Mikey has made himself just such a mask the final image has caught him off guard allowing us a slight glimpse behind the mask. Turned away with his head looking downwards we see something of the real personal behind the mask. This is not someone we should be wary of, he’s not actively seeking to drive us away. We are now left with ambiguity and unanswered questions over the role of mask. Why does Mikey want to scare us away when there is nothing to be frightened of?
Edit: Following advice given by my tutor I now include the original photo of Mikey.
My most Significant Object? It was a difficult one to consider, not because I’ve got loads of stuff to choose from but rather I don’t really treasure things. That said I don’t part with stuff either so perhaps I’m a bit of a paradox. After mulling this over for a while I came up an old pair of binoculars. They are rather special. Not only were they great quality ‘bins’ in their day but also they were my first pair of quality ‘bins’. As a young keen birder I soldiered on for years with poor quality optics but around 1990 I got the money together for a pair of karl Zeiss 7 x 42s. And they were gorgeous – they are gorgeous – amazing performance in low light and a close focus that made them great for watching butterflies and dragonflies too. But optics improved and I wanted to keep up with the developments, however, I did have a strong sentimental attachment to these bins are so they been stored away for years. So here is my ‘Significant Object’
The exercise also ask us to look at the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and the folded up and posted images of Moyra Davey. I particularly like the work of the Bechers and I feel drawn to it for two reasons. Firstly, their subject matter appeals because I like these old industrial buildings. Architecture like this was part of the townscape in which I grew up and though I cannot say I’ve worked in such places I am fascinated by industrial buildings whose form is dictated by its function. This seems to occur less in modern industrial settings. I was interested to discover they undertook a lot of research and recording of data about the buildings they photographed and considered their work as a recording of a rapidly disappearing landscape. The grouping of similar building types together in grid has a resonance for me it that they are akin to the pictures in birdwatchers’ field guides. Here pictures of similar bird species are group together allowing the viewer to note the similarities and difference between closely related species. Similarly, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work draws attention to the similarities and differences between each structure (Hacking, 2012: 402 – 403)
Though I could find references to Moyra Davey’s work on the Internet it was difficult to get a close up view. This image from the Tate’s website being about the only one I could find.
Most of the others show her work displayed on gallery walls taken with fairly long shots and so it’s be difficult to develop a firm response to her work. Folding the printed image up and posting it to the gallery is an interesting idea (note the stamps, labels and sticky tape on the Tate photograph) but I feel it would be best viewed on a gallery wall. The subject matter of photographs, however, I do find interesting. Making images of daily routines and banal scenes that most of us will ignore as we go through life I find compelling and I can understand how beauty can be realised when they cease to be overlooked.
The next part of the exercise was to photograph objects similar to my ‘significant object’ belonging to others. With birdwatching friends this was quite easy. How I was to go about photographing them however was quite taxing. Though I’ve had binoculars for 40 years I confess that they a very boring subject to photograph. My first consideration was to photograph the person wearing them (all birders wear them around their necks) but this felt like the person would become the subject. Then I thought about getting closer and shooting the ‘bins’ minus the birder’s head. This seemed a good solution but them some of my friends are women and essentially, because of the way binoculars hang, I’d be photographing their bust!
After researching the Bechers an idea came to me. Given the right camera angle and lighting I could try to make the binoculars look like industrial silos. As I don’t have a macro lens I chose to get in close with a 24mm wide angle. The camera would be lower than the binoculars and so angled upwards and a wide f-stop was chosen to render the background out of focus. Each binocular was photographed in the same setting in the more or less the same light, again a nod the Becher’s own approach. For the sequence of three I cropped the top of the each image and used photoshop to make them monochrome but then applied a ‘green’ filter to lighten the background foliage. So here they are, binoculars under the influence of Bernd and Hill Becher…
Bernd & Hilla Becher
Hacking, Juliet Photography: the whole story (2012) Thames & Hudson
I thought long and hard about this one before picking up a camera. I ‘dig’ the different genres and could relate to mixing them about a little but then stumbled over the ‘dual’ types: a portrait in a portrait, a landscape in a landscape. I am aware of how some photographers have used printed photographs in their work and so I began to consider if I should do something similar. What I lacked of course was a subject.
I cannot recall the exact moment it came to me but the catalyst was viewing some photos on disc my Dad had burnt for me a few years ago. He’d bought a cheap slide scanner and began to scan some of the hundreds (thousands!) of 35mm slides he’d gathered over the years. They were from holidays in Cumbria where as family we’d stay in youth hostels and climb the fells. My Dad is now into his eighties and while fit and active he no longer takes to the hills. That said he is still a fell-walker. While he might now follow the blogs of others who do it, the spirit of being a fell-walker is still at the heart of his own identity. His recollection of days in the hills is quite remarkable. In the early years I used to be accompany my parents and while I have a vague notion that I’d stood on such-and-such a summit my Dad talks about the route taken what the weather was like! So, the ‘subject’ for this exercise was to be my Dad but my Dad the fell-walker.
I planned to use the scanned images in two ways. In the ‘still life’ we see the contents of a fell-walker’s rucksack spread out across a table. Amongst them are some printed photos from the scanned slides (some of these date back to mid 70’s). The ‘story or event’ image is a set of photos showing my Dad packing the rucksack with these items, including the photos. Here the images serve as a thinly veiled metaphor for his memories.
The portrait image uses a scanned slide in a different format. Here I took to Photoshop and removed the background of a staged contemporary photo of my Dad and placed him in the photo of him climbing Striding Edge, Blencathra in the mid 80’s. I had planned to use this approach for the ‘landscape’ photo. When shooting the ‘still life’ my Dad produced a battered and well-thumbed copy of a Wainright guidebook. Skimming through it I noticed how he’d written the dates when he’d climbed the various peaks. Wainright started each new mountain with a title page filled with one of his classic ink drawings. This had to be my ‘landscape’ and what could be more appropriate then ‘Coniston Old Man’? So, I borrowed the book and scanned the title page.
Subject and Landscape
Subject and Still Life
Subject and Event
Subject and Landscape
I’ve really enjoyed this exercise. Not only has it given me the opportunity to express something about my Dad but it tested some of my own skills. I’d never used Photoshop in this way before. Although I was keen to learn new skills I am very cautious about how they might be applied. I took a conscious decision not to try and ‘blend’ my 2017 Dad into these photos from decades ago. I wanted to use the exercise to say something about identity, age and memory so my 2017 Dad had to stand proud from his younger self in the ‘portrait’ image. To emphasise this distinction all of the contemporary shots were taken with a fill-flash.