I now had a large number of head and shoulders self-portraits, showing me in different outfits, with different pairs of glasses and with various configurations of facial hair. I narrowed them down to thirty or so quite quickly and then set about turning them into standard strips.
I had framed the basic pictures slightly more loosely than I envisaged the final head and shoulders shots being, to compensate for slight changes in stance. Now I tried to straighten and crop my selected pictures down to something as close to standard as I could.
Having worked out where to split the strips – just above the eyebrows; above the curve of my nostrils and between my chin and my adam’s apple – I made a simple overlay that would allow me to get the eyes and mouth in the right place vertically and to use my nose as a centre point. I went through everything and manufactured a much more uniform series of pictures in PSE. I pored over the resuting set and worked out which eyes, which mouth, which beard and which moustache looked like it would work best and then – after making a four-strip overlay – started cutting some of the pictures up to quickly make a first dummy of the finished thing.
I composited the strips, 3 at-a-time onto a black background and then took the saved files to Boots on a memory stick used the machines there to make little 6×4 prints. Lke these:
The most startlng thing about them was how instantly recogniseable they were as faces and how startlingly individual the eyes are. Bate (p79-81) talks about the idea of “recognition”, both of the basic “face-iness” of faces and of individual faces that are known to the viewer. I am able to recognise these three pictures as me quite easily, but then I look at me every day (although I am reversed in a mirror when I do so – one surprise about these portraits was the way that the bit of beard that I had noticed appeared to be consistently longer, sticking out on the left side of my chin was actually on the right). More startling was that, when I was making the composites, the AI of Photoshop Elements kept getting prompts that led it to open its “Who’s This?” dialogue. Whether it could be taught to recognise these incomplete chop-ups as me would make an interesting follow up.
But anyway, I took the small prints away and chopped them up. Then, on my way home from work, I nipped into The Chequers (a nice pub in Walthamstow) and had a quick play (see header to this post) to see if my idea held water. It did!
Quickly, a word about titles. Again, from the diary, it’s easy to see that I spent a goodly chunk of the start of the year listening again to various albums by (David) Bowie. While I listened most to the bit of the deluxe edition of Station to Station that featured him live at the Nassau Colliseum in 1976, I’ve long had a soft spot for the “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, Heroes and Lodger which were produced by Brian Eno. Brian Eno also (as any fule kno) did a lot of work with Talking Heads around the same time. I’ve always liked Talking Heads in general and, like most people my age I can easily conjure up an image of David Byrne slapping his forehead and declaiming “Same as it ever was! Same as it ever was!” from the video to Once in a Lifetime, but the bit of Byrne’s lyrics that kept popping up in my head earlier this year was from a song called Life During Wartime, off the earlier album Fear of Music. It has a good driving riff and one of the verses seemed relevant:
We dress like students, we dress like housewives,
or in a suit and a tie
I changed my hairstyle, so many times now,
I don’t know what I look like!
So, the piece of work I was working on became Life During Wartime. Or in file-name terms, LDWT; for almost as long as I’ve like Talking Heads, I’ve been a fan of the films of the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) and picked up the habit of acronymisation from Powell’s autobiography, A Life in Movies where the films A Matter of Life and Death and I Know Where I’m Going become AMOLAD and IKWIG, respectively. And, looking forward to Part Four, Powell was also of course an influence on Martin Scorcese with his use of colour being one of the things that fed into the scene from Goodfellas examined in the opening exercise there.
I carried on playing with the strips, and made some more. I discovered that the strips containing cameras, which I had made as possible eye alternatives, worked pretty much anywhere on the pictures. This made them potentially useable as some sort of “wild card” final stage in the picture making process I was coming up with.
I showed the prototype strips to a few of my friends and was relieved when – not only did they “get it” – they all used the word “fun” to describe the experience of making pictures of what could be my face using them. I started thinking about ways to expand the number of people helping me make the finished pictures for the assignment.
The obvious way to do this was to throw it open to the internet, or at any rate a carefully selected section of it. During the video tutorial we had for Assignment 2, Gary and I had briefly discussed my cut-up picture strips; in passing Gary had mentioned the old surrealist game “Exquisite Corpse”:
“also known as exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis) or rotating corpse, is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule (e.g. “The adjective noun adverb verb the adjective noun“, as in “The green duck sweetly sang the dreadful dirge”) or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed.”
It was the casual input I needed. I’d already rejected sending out physical decks of cards to people who were interested, but had worked out that I should be able to set up an online share, where people could download them. They could then either print from the files or cut them up in a picture editor, but I needed a set of rules to allow the strips to be compiled in the same way by each person. They also would need to be able to get the finished picture back to me.
Which brings us back to the number sequences that occur throughout my work in this part of the course – the sequences that punctuate the diary sequences, counting to a hundred in fives and so on and on. I do sudokus. I also do kakuros. Once – in an effort to stop me doing sudoko and so return me to the much more satisfying cryptic crossword in the Guardian – I wrote a fairly complex program to solve sudoko using .php. And kids’ games, too: many of them are structured around numbers. Numbers generated with dice…
A normal die has six sides. While I had set out to create four variants of each strip of picture, I had actually made quite a few more (the different expressions – smiling or flat – created different effects for example; I’d tried on more hats than was strictly necessary) and so it wasbe fairly straightforward to create packs of six for the four strata of my portraits. I set to the task and came up with these:
It might have been more logical to start at the top and work down or start at the bottom (or rather neck) and work up, but I didn’t. So it goes. Finally, by way of a coda, I chose four camera/eyes:
And then I set about formulating my rules.
The basic face would be created by rolling a dice four times:
- Roll # 1 would determine the mouth and chin
- Roll # 2 the shoulders and clothes
- Roll # 3 the eyes and nose
- Roll # 4 the top of my head
Then the dice would be rolled again. If this produced either a five or a six, that would stop the process and the face would be complete; if it produced a one a two a three or a four, that would mean a camera should be included in the portrait).
To decide where the camera should go (which should happen two thirds of the time) the die would be rolled one last time and the resulting number used to determine where the hands and camera would go:
- 1 – over the eyes and nose
- 2 – Overlapping the junction between the eye and chin strips
- 3 – Over the chin
- 4 – Overlapping the junction between the chin and shoulder strips
- 5 – Over the neck and shoulders
- 6 – Just appearing in the bottom of the image
And you would have a picture that would resemble a plausible me.
I did the sums: the first four rolls had 1,296 possible outcomes (six to the power of four). Then, rolling a five or six would do nothing, but rolling “a camera” would give another four possibilities to each of the first set of outcomes (so 5,184 more combinations); each of these would then have a further six possibilities due to the placement of the camera and hands, so that was a further possible 31,104 outcomes (5,184 times six) to add on to the original lot giving a nicely round total of 32,400 possible self-portraits. And – because none of the source pictures had provided all four strips – however like me they looked, none of them would be an actual picture of me.
(I think the maths above is correct, but wouldn’t bet the house on it)
I then turned the rules into a flow chart, designed to guide people through the process of generating all the numbers to create a picture. Then I thought that it might be an idea to give people the option to make an actual picture they could look at, so I made two more flow charts, one giving a digital workflow to make a picture, the other letting you work with prints of the pictures to make a physical image that could be scanned and sent back to me rather than just a set of numbers. In the two flows where someone made a whole picture, I let them use their discretion as to whether they included a camera or not.
I uploaded the instructions and the pictures to the OCA G: Drive and composed a brief invite. And then, the following post appeared in the OCA Level 1 Photography group, early in July.
Hi folks. If you’ve a couple of minutes could you help me make an Exquisite Corpse or two and so form my finished pictures for C&N Assignment 3, please?
All you need to do is get a normal six-sided dice and throw it once, then write down the number you got as a comment to this post. For every five (or six) numbers posted, I’ll generate a picture…
But (and isn’t there always a but?) f you’ve got a bit more time, follow this link and then carry out one of the three sets of instructions you’ll find there.
All will be explained in the fullness of time!
I got a couple of people responding with all six numbers (thanks Blas; thanks Holly and Dawn; thanks Emrys) but the post barely went infectious, let alone viral and no one seemed to be posting replies containing a single number. I thought I’d give it a try and quite quickly realised that In the twenty first century, physical dice would appear to be few and far between.
I went off and found an online random-number-between-one-and-six generating service and – realising that part of the beauty of Exquisite Corpse is that it is sequential and no one quite knows what the preceding and following moves are as they make theirs – posted another thing on Facebook asking people to make a single roll of the virtual dice and then post the number they got as a reply.
And then, a few days later this thread appeared in the discussions of the Flickr OCA Group:
Corpsing Exquisitely: Hi folks. If you’ve a couple of minutes could you help me make an Exquisite Corpse or two to form my finished pictures for C&N Assignment 3 (the putting yourself in the picture one) please?
All you need to do is roll a virtual six-sided die and write down the number you get as a reply to this thread. Every time I’ve got five (or six) numbers, I’ll generate a picture.
If you want more of an idea of what I’m doing and have an OCA google account, you can go here where there are instructions for 3 more labour-intensive ways of doing things…
Thanks in advance! Simon
I also sent emails to some of my friends, at work, in the UK and overseas, soliciting series’ of numbers.
And the results started to positively trickle in…
- David Bate – Photography: The Key Concepts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009)
- Michael Powell – A Life in Movies (Heinemann, 1986)
- Lyrics from Life During Wartime by David Byrne / Chris Frantz / Jerry Harrison / Martina Weymouth (Bleu Disque Music Co Inc. / Index Music Inc. (ASCAP))
- Exquisite Corpse – Wikipedia Definition (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exquisite_corpse)