Category Archives: Identity & Place

Course 3 of the OCA BA in Photography

Four Portraits by Thomas Ruff – National Portrait Gallery, London

at the national portrait gallery – october 2017

There is a landing at the back of the National Portrait Gallery, half-way down the flights of stairs where you are confronted by four enormous heads, three facing you and a fourth on the wall to your left.  Tying-in to the big Whitechapel Gallery retrospective of his work, these four photographs are a small subset of Thomas Ruff’s 1980s’ series, Porträts (Portraits).

I looked at the four women’s faces for a while, and watched other people looking at them; then I went home and found the interview with Ruff referenced at the end of this post. All quotes from Ruff come from this interview; all commentary is mine.


In a way I wanted to blot out any traces or information about the person in front of the camera. I also wanted to indicate that the viewer is not face-to-face with a real person, but with a photograph of a person. Quite often people at the exhibitions say, “Oh, that’s Heinz, that’s Peter, that’s Petra,” because they’re looking through the photograph, confusing the medium with reality. By blowing the portraits up to a colossal scale, I forced the viewer to realize that he is not standing in front of Heinz, but in front of a photograph of Heinz.

At first, I thought the lighting glaring off the – presumably not non-reflective – glass in front of the picture was annoying. But then I began to see it as a further distancing strategy: no matter how close you come to them, either through their sheer monumental scale – I reckon each woman would be about thirty feet tall if these were full-length portraits – or just physically as you are drawn closer and closer, you never get quite close enough to resolve who the person pictured is. And further, as you step in,  you are aware not only of the frame that surrounds each print, but also of the white border around each photograph, drawing attention in turn to the ‘frame’ determined by Ruff as he set up his camera. You are definitely looking at pictures, not at people.


I don’t think that my sitters build stone walls, but rather that they say to the viewer, “You can come this close, but no further.” Maybe my portraits are anachronistic because even though they show every detail of the skin, clothes, and hair of the sitter, they still don’t try to show any of his or her feelings.

Based on Ruff’s discussion elsewhere in the interview, I take ‘anachronistic’ here to refer to the early Victorian view that photographs made ‘automatically’ or without the agency of an operator, inscribed indexically by  ‘the pencil of nature’ rather than the bulb-release of the artist.

The pictures seem to exist somehow outside of history, but Ruff is quite clear that their making was heavily influenced by the zeitgeist of the time of their making in the early eighties. He was working in pre-reunification West Germany; Orwell’s 1984 was being examined as if was a prophecy rather than a cautionary tale written nearly forty years earlier and surveillance imagery was everywhere; in the aftermath of the Baader-Meinhof group’s campaign of bombings and kidnappings, people – and particularly young people, like Ruff and his subjects – in the BRD were continually being asked to produce their identity papers.

It may be that because the ideas contained in Bladerunner are once again in the air (the original was released in 1982; it was the first surround sound film I ever saw, in Aberdeen, the day before I saw Elvis Costello on the Imperial Bedroom tour) but they to me, they look like replicants (Philip K Dick’s term for androids) or maybe, since Ruff is German, Kraftwerk’s robots.

Which in turn moved me onto the Krautrock bands’ (and other groups of European musicians’) attempts to make music that was not rooted in American music – the blues in particular –  instead using repetition (think of Jaki Leibzeit’s drumming with Can or pretty much anything by Neu!) and the rejection of overt emotion (Kraftwerk – the difference between ‘fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn’ contrasted with the Beach Boys’ ‘Fun, fun, fun’…) in playing and performance. Is the repetition of the typology in the work of the Bechers happening in the same space as the drumming of Jaki Leibzeit for Can? Is the tension between extreme revelation  of Ruff’s enormous ID pictures somehow linked to Kraftwerk’s cold, yet fascinating and engaging music?

‘Theirs [Arbus and Avedon’s] is a glib, New York version of sentimentality, one that thrills itself with the hysterical belief in antagonism and grit as truth, but that’s sentimentality all the same. Provocative as their pictures may seem to be at first, people love them – perhaps counterintuitively – for that titillating myopia, because they corroborate, rather than challenge, our baser preconceived notions.They never make the more evolved leap to a form that genuinely tries to create a unique means for people to perceive one another.’

As a starting point for further thought, this rejection of American culture seems worth noting. I am of a similar age (or a bit younger) than Ruff, and I remember The Clash being ‘bored with the USA’ and all the other rejections of ‘Rock‘ by the musicians I was picking up on during the late seventies and early eighties. There’s something to explore here, some balancing European photographic tradition to be examined as parallel to the American one developed and sustained by MOMA and Szarkowski…


More immediately though, one of the things that is becoming apparent to me as I work through IaP and receive (somewhat unfavourable) tutor feedback on my assignments is that it is easier to produce art-style pictures of people that you don’t know. Also, as I have already quoted Grayson Perry as saying – if they’re not smiling, it’s probably art (with it’s counterbalancing ‘if they are smiling, it probably isn’t’).

Ruff has already discussed the way that photographing older people  – he uses the examples of Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus – whose story could be said to be written on their face, can lead to a sentimentality of approach separate to the question of whether they are smiling or not (although generally in both Avedon and Arbus, they are not) , before he adds photographing your children into the mix:

All parents want their child’s smile as proof that they’ve done a good job of parenting and that the child is happy. My [Ruff’s] portraits look so Apollonian because the sitters provide a perfect surface onto which the viewer can project anything, bad and good experiences alike. They’re neutral and friendly, like Buddhas. They’re vessels you can fill with all of your wishes and desires.

This is close to Gombritch’s idea (discussed in Bate) of sfumato, or of leaving space for the spectator to project their own self into a picture of a stranger by reducing individual identifying detail in the picture, but it takes it a bit closer to what I was trying to do with some of the photographs in assignment 2. I used pictures of my children, on holiday, and  – in two of them – they were looking happy! 


‘[Ruff’s subjects were] people between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-four, and life hadn’t yet left any signs on their faces. They weren’t babies, but they hadn’t had too many bad experiences, either. They were in that state in which everything is still possible.

I had thought this too, looking at the pictures at the NPG. I had even gone on to think about the difference between the four pictures on display here and the (fascinatingly and variably readable) pre-execution mug-shots taken in Soviet prisons during the great terror that I had sat and watched sliding by as part of the Images of Conviction exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery last year.

What I had not thought about was how this meant that I would be unable to make a similar portrait of my generation, now as today (when we are moving through our fifties) our faces are too battered, too readable for this approach to work. ‘Sentimentality’ would have reentered the picture space. This raised the question in my mind of whether James (who is fifteen) was old enough to be pictured in this way as a blank canvas, devoid of my sentimental projections as his father (Alice, at four-and-a-half, definitely is not).

I set up Ruff’s 1987 standard portrait lighting (you can see the two diffused strobes, placed right and left, slightly above the eyeline, reflected in the pupils of his subjects) and stood James in front of the most neutral of the living room walls. I told him ‘to look into the camera with self-confidence, but likewise, that [he] should be conscious of the fact that [he was] being photographed, that [he] were looking into a camera.

Unlike Ruff, I did not use a view camera (you could make a significantly larger-than-life print of these from the files produced by camera though) but James did a grand job of being my subject I think; I will include the first picture of the three above in the revised set for Assignment 2 I put in for assessment, next year, replacing the one of him buffeted by the wind on the boat as we headed north. I would not use the profile (too obviously a mugshot reference, and so adding prompts for a reading) but may also put in the picture of the back of his head. We’ll see.


I will go to visit the full retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery next week, I think. There will probably be a longer, update piece…

All quotes have been taken from an interview with  Ruff by Gil Blank, originally published in Influence Magazine (Issue 2, 2004) and accessed online at Gil Blank’s artist’s site on 12/10/17

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exercise 3.1 – mirrors and windows

‘MIRRORS AND WINDOWS has been organized around Szarkowski’s thesis that such personal visions take one of two forms. In metaphorical terms, the photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.’

– Press Release by the MOMA, announcing the 1978 exhibition Mirrors and Windows


‘Go through your photographic archive and select around ten pictures. Separate them into two piles: one entitled ‘mirrors’ and the other entitled ‘windows’.

  • What did you put in each pile and why?
  • Did you have any difficulties in categorising them?

It would be interesting to see you place the same image in both camps and review your reasons for doing so.’

– IaP Coursebook (p.60)


fig.1 – glasgow, september 12th 1993

Transparent and self-explanatory, this is as close to being a pure record of an event as any photograph I have ever taken. The only caption that needs to be added involves an anchoring ‘where’ and ‘when’. Even though it is a slide, taken with a non-time-stamping camera, it could probably be timed to within fractions of a second. It is also exactly what I set out to take that day – a picture of a building being blown up. Window.

fig.2 – deir el-bahri, egypt; march 2005

This is a picture taken while I was on holiday in Egypt in spring 2005. I had just walked over the hill from the Valley of the Kings. I was using my first non-toy digital camera (a Fujifilm finepix s304, for anyone who is interested in these things) mainly to take details of the friezes in temples and tombs while I saved ‘proper’ photography for film.

You could call it a window to the extent that it clearly describes something present in front of the camera, but at the same time, it entirely lacks an independent, historical context separate from the fact that while I stood in front of a lot of walls in Egypt – this one is in Hatshepsut’s funerary temple on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor – I chose to draw an abstracting rectangle around this bit of this one. My sensibility trumps that of the long-dead Egyptian who made the relief. So, a mirror.

fig.3 – kibble palace, glasgow 2003

While this is definitely a window (albeit a very dirty one). It was taken just before the Kibble Palace –  a Victorian glasshouse in the Botanic Gardens – was closed for renovation at the end of 2003 and was taken very much as a ‘before’ picture. Three and a bit years later it had been taken to pieces, cleaned up and reassembled again and I took this…

fig.4 – kibble palace, glasgow; august 2006

…which I choose to view as a mirror, as it’s not really about the reality of the reconstructed Kibble Palace so much as it is about abstract qualities of its design – symmetry, geometry, structure – and the blue of the sky. And everything about its composition draws attention to a notional me, head craned back, underneath the central circle, camera pressed to my face.

fig.5 – byres road, glasgow; 2006

This is straightforward street photography, a window recording a scene which took place in front of me. It is about the policeman and the expression on the man in the green fez looking out at me and about the old couple looking in through the back of the back of the bus stop. It is also about Jim Carrey  on the film poster sprinting out into the traffic.

If it had been a different advert there – one which didn’t shout FUN in big red letters, behind the seated man’s Keaton-esque blank expression – I probably wouldn’t have taken the picture. I have no idea what’s going on, but I think it is amusing somehow. Also as time moves on and things change – Antipasti, the restaurant on the corner across the road has had at least two incarnations since then for example – there are things there you never would have noticed when it was taken which are interesting now. It’s a window – I’m outside the event, looking in.

fig.6 – candice at paragominas airport; april 2008

In the same way that fig.5 handily labels itself as a bus stop, this tells you exactly where Candice (a colleague from work) and I were when I took this picture. And again it is somehow comic in effect. However, this picture is much more two-dimensional than fig.5. – indeed there is little or no sense of depth to it whatsoever. It is full of rectangles which are parallel to the plane of the digital camera’s sensor. I have no idea what Candice is looking up at (it’s an airport, so it could be a plane overhead, but I think there is a veranda roof above her; I have no idea where the complex ramp that makes its way up from the kerb in the foreground to where Candice sits leads; but it is a series of zigs and of zags. It is more important that Candice’s top and rucksack fit into the narrow spectrum of reddish browns in the picture and that her trousers are the same shade as the field behind the white letters of the sign than that it is Candice, at Paragominas.

It could be a window, but really it’s also a mirror; I’m taking a picture of an idea that is forming in my head rather than of something that is happening in front of me.

fig.7 – pristina, june 2006

This picture is also quite abstract, and contains a lot of lines and geometrical shapes placed deliberately within the frame, as well as depicting a contrast between old and falling apart and modern and shiny. However, that’s not really why I took it.

Apart from the unfinished Orthodox cathedral – ‘a provocation’, a Kosovan colleague called it – in the centre of town, this was the only physical evidence I ever found that some people in Pristina had spoken Serbo-Croat rather than Albanian. The next time I was in Pristina a couple of years later, the sign had gone just as the restaurant’s owners had before my first visit.

It is about the place; it is about history. It is not judgmental. It is not about what I think of the situation. It is a window.

fig.8 – kyiv, december 2006

And this is a whole set of windows, acting as a single great mirror. At the time, I took this, I had no idea that a man called Lee Friedlander existed, so it isn’t a conscious homage, just an attempt to capture the three – or is it four? – shapka and greatcoat-clad me’s standing outside the museum with my  back to the River Dniepr. Friedlander is characterised in Szarkowski’s book as a creator of windows, but I think this has to be put down as a mirror. It is completely an attempt to place me in a place, taking a picture, rather than to describe the place itself.

(It’s a marvellous museum by the way – really quite un-triumphalist, or at any rate as un-triumphalist as any museum with a 300+ foot tall titanium statue of a fierce woman holding a sword and shield on top of it could be.  If you get the chance, visit!)

fig.9 – chisinau, moldova; may 2009

With this picture – and the one that follows it – the intention is entirely abstract; they are about colour and shapes and how the frame is divided into subsections. I could probably go through my archive and pull out enough pictures that could be titled ‘Eating out, abroad, alone’ to make a reasonably large book I had to look at the metadata I had added to fig.9 before I could work out which country I was in, but having done so, I think I know which cafe I was eating in when I looked up and decided to fill the time by solving the problem of how to picture the awning above me…

fig.10 – moscow; december 2009

…but in this one, I know exactly – down to the seat I was sitting on – where I was (which probably makes it less successful as an abstraction than fig.9) when I took it. That place – a restaurant just off the Arbat where I was probably waiting for a plate of plov spiked with quince and lamb – sparks off a whole stream of associated memories for me to do with people and place and moments in time and tastes, but almost certainly none of them are available for you to decode from the picture itself. However, I am inside the situation that both pictures have grown out of. They are both mirrors.


So, that’s six mirrors and four windows. But they don’t necessarily need to stay that way. For example, I have classed fig.2 (the Egyptian frieze) as a mirror, but if it was used as an illustration in a book about Hatshepsut’s temple (‘Frieze, Deir el Bakir, birds and lotus motif [detail]’, say) rather than as part of my ongoing travelogue it would become a window in a trice. Candice at Paragominas Airport does indeed show Candice at Paragominas airport; the fact I see it about flatness and geometry doesn’t mean anyone else needs to; I’m sure Candice wouldn’t. As I’ve already said, Lee Friedlander is placed amongst the windows by Szarkowski, despite the astonishing level of subjectivity screaming out from every frame. And Bruce Davidson – who I have always thought of as someone working within the tradition of straight reportage has his pictures placed amongst the mirrors.

I think that the pictures used in this post establish the extremes of my own particular Mirror-Window spectrum. At the window end, fig.1 is pretty obviously what it appears to be while at the other, fig.9 is nothing more than a composition in red and white. Most of my pictures fall somewhere in between. There is danger in expecting that my own, internal thoughts about the content and meaning of my pictures will necessarily be readable by others without extensive captioning or other ways of establishing an ‘authorised’ context for them.

 


Before the exercise brief, the coursebook says that ‘we’ll define these terms [Mirrors and Windows] from the point of view of the photographer. That is, if the photographer is an insider, we’ll frame it as a mirror; if they’re outside looking in, we’ll frame it as a window.’ and I’m not sure how well that really works for me. Rather, I suspect that – at the same time I raise a camera to my eye – I am stepping outside of the situation; however I don’t think this renders every picture I take a simple window, showing something that is in front of me and to which I have no connection.

Fortunately, the introduction goes on to say: ‘You may wish to challenge these notions in your responses to exercises and assignments That’s fine, so long as you use effective strategies and critical analysis to back up your point and give reasons for your methods and intentions.’ So, that is what I have tried to do.

The more time I have to make a picture the less likely it is to simply present a straightforward depiction of what my camera is pointed at. I was on my own when I took eight of the ten pictures in this post. In six of those, I was able to determine exactly when I was ready to take the picture; I was able to play about and experiment; in the other two, i had to act before my subject dissolved and the picture was gone forever. It is those two that I have placed most obviously at the window end of the spectrum, but two of the others (fig.1 and fig.3) I would class as windows as well.

The final two pictures (fig.6 and fig.8) were taken when I was with other people, but I have classified both as mirrors. All the tests I have done, suggest that I am really quite introverted; where extroverts charge themselves through being with others, introverts a drained by being in company. I suspect I use the practice of photography as an excuse to withdraw into myself for a bit.

Another factor would be the extent to which I am comfortable in my surroundings. The two pictures from the Kibble Palace are of somewhere i know very well – I have been taking pictures in there since 1983 and know not only what it looks like to the eye, but also what it looks like photographed (to paraphrase Gary Winogrand). It is possible that as a subject for me it has grown stale. Similarly, most of the pictures from work trips were taken during a second or later visit – I had got the initial, purely descriptive pictures and views out of the way and was finding out what I could spot in a situation. And when I took the Pristina picture on my first visit, I was doing something that I was comfortable with – exploring somewhere on my own with a camera. The place may not have been familiar, but my approach to it was.


The photographs used in this post were all taken between 1993 and 2009 with a variety of cameras in a number of locations.  A couple of them can be found on my corner of flickr; but until now, most have never seen the light of day. I think they are representative of the sort of pictures I was taking before I started the OCA photography degree. I had come across Walker Evans by the time I took (made?) the later pictures, but generally they can be considered as naive, vernacular art.

If presented with the same subjects today, I would probably still take most of them, but I would do so from a position of greater knowingness. The context of their making would have changed and they would all take a step or two closer to being mirrors. So perhaps, in this sense you could map them onto ideas of being an insider or an outsider; now I am more inside photography and the context it provides. I am preparing to identify myself as a photographer, instead of someone just taking photographs…

NFTU #8 – A quotation from Lewis Baltz

Anyone can take pictures. What’s difficult is thinking about them, organising them, trying to use them, montage them in some way so that some… some… some meaning can be constructed out of them. That’s really where the work begins.”

– Lewis Baltz interviewed by Studio Arte for Contacts 2 (viewed on  vimeo, 5/10/17)


Which is pretty much why I signed up for the OCA in the first place, but articulated better than I could have at the time. Or now probably.

Worth keeping in mind.

(Thanks to Andrew Fitzgibbon for linking to the interview on the OCA discussion forum)

 

assignment 2 – reflection

living-room wall, during the editing process for assignment 2 – walthamstow, september 2017

1: Demonstration of technical and visual skills

This assignment exists in two forms: online in the post that precedes this one and physically as five A4 prints + a printed sheet with the artist’s statement from the post. While most people reading this won’t ever see these prints, I consider them to be the primary endpoint of the assignment with the log version acting more as supporting material.

I am happy with the all five of the final pictures (and indeed there are others that I like as well, but that did not make the final cut). The composition works for me and the relationship between my subjects and the camera seems appropriate for the situation. Colour, contrast and overall balance of lighting likewise seems right. The light from James’ laptop and Alice’s iPad in the two interior pictures is possibly a bit too blue, too bright, but will pass (or be fairly easily rebalanced for assessment).

I have got to the point where I am acceptably comfortable working in Lightroom. I use it both as my main editor and, probably more importantly, as an organisational tool. For more complex retouching and for compositing, I use Photoshop (Elements – I’m a tightwad), but haven’t really had to here. The final piece of the workflow jigsaw has been getting the printing module to output files that come back from Loxley successfully translated into C-type prints (ie as old-fashioned photographic prints, rather than inkjet).

The prints that should now be with my tutor (and let’s wait til he comments, before I make any definitive pronouncements on them, myself) seem to have worked well. In the past, colour has generally worked as exected, but I’ve had issues with the way with the overall lightness of my prints – they tend to be much darker than the images appear on screen. This time both the small prints I make with the machines in Boots (see the header for this post) and the final submission prints seem consistent with what I’m seeing on screen. One of the differences between professional, restaurant food and the food you eat at your (or someone else’s) home is supposed to be that if you have the same meal several times at a restaurant, it will be the same each time; a home cook will not maintain that level of consistency…

I have been musing about the way the size of a print (or the size a picture displays on screen) affects the way that it is read) a lot recently, too. The bigger something is printed, the less likely it is to come across as a vernacular snapshot.  Part of the job of moving the assignment pictures away from being viewed as ‘holiday snaps’ has been achieved simply through printing them on a bigger scale than would easily fit into an album; a comment on one of my earlier posts by my fellow-student Holly Woodward commenting that she wondered how they would look as A3 also set me thinking. For the assessment maybe?

As well as making them seem more considered and worthy of serious consideration, size also of course, exposes technical imperfections like noise and poor focus. The prints seem generally fine technically; I’m less sure about them once they have gone through WordPress’ compression and resizing engines. Another reason for preferring the physical version of the assignment.

 

2: Quality of outcome

In the posts leading up to this assignment, I have focused a lot on the creation of images that can be read by people who do not know the circumstances of their making. So, how well have do I think I managed this?

The pictures on the ferry north, are sufficiently ‘boaty’ with the tilted horizon and windblown look of the people  combining to provide a simple and clear portrayal of people in a particular space. Also, everyone looks happy enough (with me, with each other, with the general blusteriness) for a general ‘off on holiday mood’ to be conjured up. However, I realise that my personal reactions to the site-specific backgrounds (the inside of Laura’s and Dave’s kitchen;  the beach at the third barrier, with Fiona and the sand castles) will not come across to others. So, do they succeed in signifying enough to work? The answer (obviously to such a rhetorical question) is that I think they do.

The pictures of James and Alice looking at screens clearly come across as people who are not fully present in the environment where they are pictured. Their relationship is with somewhere far away on the other side of their screen. Certainly there are not in the same space as I am, although I am physically present in both of the pictures: my camera bag is one of the two foreground objects in the picture of Alice; more subtly, my unlit knees are just apparent in the bottom corners of the picture of James. Also, they are still among all the busy-ness of the room around them. They are on holiday from being on holiday but there is a lot that can be read off the walls to give a sense of my relatives who are sharing their house with us.

And finally, as Fiona sits on the beach, she definitely exudes a sense of relaxation and away from it all, from all the child-friendly activity like building sand castles, from other people, from the city. She has managed to achieve solitude, and in a nice looking location.

The statement accompanying the pictures (I hope) expands their possible meaning rather than simply explaining it (in Barthes’ terms the paragraphs should act as ‘relays’ rather than ‘anchors’). I wonder whether it should be split into chunks and interspersed with the pictures, rather than presented in a single – separate – ‘thing’. Before I find out what my tutor thinks, I feel that a useful approach to reworking the assignment might be to play around with the sequencing of text and image, but that may all change!

 

3: Demonstration of creativity

As I worked through the edit for this I was quite surprised at how much overlap there was with parts of the course introduction. There is a distinct (and unplanned) connection back to both my Square Mile Exercise and to the work that is beginning to done with examining/interrogating my (family’s) photographic archive.

I suppose this is inevitable when I have made a lot of use of my family to make pictures in circumstances – on holiday – where people traditionally make the bulk of their pictures and at a location where I have a load of history to work with (Orkney). As such this assignment can be viewed as a snapshot of a larger body of work made within a much greater time frame.

I can see glimmerings of a lot of things that might move all this further on, both here and in later courses. This, I suspect is part of the cumulative ‘developing a voice’ aspect of the courses. Stuff to put away for a bit to let it develop further in the dark recesses of my head.

 

4: Context:

Through this section of the course, I have experimented with the way I have presented my pictures in the posts on my blog. For TAoP and C&N, I mainly used WordPress’ gallery and slideshow options with the pictures shown medium size (about 300px on the longest edge, or about half the normal WP column width) and centred, which is fine but a bit limiting. Here I used both smaller and larger sides and tried to integrate them into the writing more. I have also begun to play with the HTML markup for the blog a bit rather than just accepting what the WYSIWYG editor gives me.

I have barely scratched the surface of this aspect of presenting my work and my studies, and will probably not take it significantly further during this module. When I move onto level two at the end of IaP, I’ll start a new blog. This would be the time to investigate moving to a premium (and so not free) version of WordPress, which hopefully will allow more tinkering with layout and appearance.

Most people (though not of course the OCA’s assessors) only see my work online; many professional photographers’ sites (including some of the people we are pointed to by the courses) have terrible, clunky websites; it would be good to develop something that can act as a proper installation or even just an adequate representation of work completed.

I think the exercises for this part of the course as presented here on my log still work well though. I am less sure that working on them at the same time as I was taking the pictures that make up the assignment was necessarily the best way to go about this, though. However, while a more sequential – research to exercise to assignment – approach might have been better, the time-bound nature of doing much of the work over the course of a holiday when I had ready access to people who could act of subjects ruled this out.

I have used this method once before – for part three of TAoP where I created a great mass of colour-related pictures and only later sorted out ‘the good ones’ for the assignment and used the others to illustrate the exercise posts. The effect then was to slow my progress down and to allow me to continually look for something ‘better’. Here I was not able to go on adding more and more pictures to the pot and so, I think, that as a working method it worked better here.

Part three will, I hope, be treated to a more linear approach…

 

assignment 2 – vice versa


Definition:

vice versa

/vʌɪs ˈvəːsə,vʌɪsə ˈvəːsə/

adverb

with the main items in the preceding statement the other way round.

street pictures in the studio and vice versa

synonyms

conversely, inversely, the other way round, contrariwise, oppositely, in reverse, reciprocally

unposed pictures in controllable conditions and vice versa

– entry adapted from an online dictionary


Pictures

fig.1 – alice and fiona outdoors; aware

fig.2 – james outdoors; aware

fig.3 – james indoors; unaware

fig.4 – alice indoors; unaware

fig.5 – fiona alone, unaware, but posed


Statement

Every year, towards the end of July, I head north with my family to Orkney, where I was born and grew up. We stay for two weeks or so with my sister and brother-in-law in their house in Kirkwall. I am returning to somewhere; my partner and children are going somewhere strange, somewhere that they do not really know.

When we visit Fiona’s family I am viewed through the prism of Fiona’s relationship with me; in Orkney she becomes more of an adjunct to me and less a fully-dimensioned person. There are fewer people who share histories with her here. There are fewer prospects that live on in her mind when she is no longer among them, in the islands.

Our relationships to one another shift somehow when we are in Orkney. Mine, probably most dramatically. I am no longer simply Fiona’s partner or James and Alice’s father or that bloke at work; I step back into being a younger brother again, an uncle (because my niece lives in Orkney too), Frances and Graham’s son, or a person who went to school with someone.

When people hear that I grew up in Orkney, they often say that it must have been amazing; they ask me what it was like. I tell them that it was just like growing up; I say that growing up in a city must have been amazing. In truth, by the time I was fourteen (James’ age now) I already longed to get away.

I have never lived in my sister’s house: she bought it after our parents had died and after I had gone south to university. It is not my home – indeed, my home is now in London –  and sometimes, when we are all packed into it, it can seem quite crowded. It is difficult to find a space for yourself, somewhere where you can be on your own.

It’s hard work being on holiday. It’s tiring. Whether you’re four or fifty. Wherever it is that you have gone to get away from it all. And if you are a parent, with a young child, it is hard to find some time when you are ‘off’, recharging your batteries in preparation for your return to the normal and your everyday life. Beaches can help.

I get away from it all by taking photographs, I suppose. By withdrawing  physically and squinting through a viewfinder, I can step outside. I am on holiday.

assignment 2 – the edit

I had cut down the number of pictures I took during my holiday in Orkney from around four hundred to a more manageable thirty six.

I now needed to think  – again – about the assignment brief:

  • There need to be five photographs in the final submission
  • It needs to build on the exercises (and so should include elements of ‘aware’ and ‘unaware’)
  • It is called ‘Vice Versa’
  • There needs to be an interchange between elements of ‘street’ and ‘studio’

To go through them one by one:

Five photographs is an awkward number which removes the simple option of using contrasting pairs of shots to build up an easy narrative. It also means you can’t feature too many different people.

So, I need to determine who is going to remain ‘in’. There are six people in the pictures that made the short list (Fiona, James, Alice, my sister and my brother-in-law,  and Fiona’s sister, who was up from Newcastle for part of the time). Six is a lot, and it could all become a bit confusing. I toyed with the idea of doing it all with pairs, with one person linking into the next picture with a new subject-partner who would then carry on to the following picture (a bit like Schnitzler’s play ‘la Ronde‘, but without the criticism of sexual mores), but rejected it as too complex and also because I didn’t have enough pictures featuring pairs of people.

So despite really liking the picture of Alice with her uncle (3rd from the left in the top row of the contact sheet) I’ll limit myself to pictures of Alice, Fiona and James. Down to 26…

Then – as well as moving between the ‘unaware’ and the ‘aware’ – the exercises had involved a lot of placing someone within a readable space (or in front of a readable back ground). I rejected any pictures that could have been taken anywhere or which don’t have enough background detail to locate the pictures somewhere isolated. The close ups of Fiona on the boat and of James on the train to Aberdeen went. Down to 20.

Vice versa. I need to have something that can be introduced with a reversible opposition like ‘Orcadians in London and vice versa’ (Londoners in Orkney). From the coursework I began working towards ‘Documentary-style pictures in controllable conditions and studio-type pictures in the wild’  or maybe ‘Captured indoors and staged outside.’ This would also give me the rhetorical contrast between street and studio.

The process moved from one of exclusion to a more postitive one of definite inclusion.

There weren’t that many interior shots in the remaining twenty and of them two had stood out from the moment they were taken: individual pictures of Alice and James, lost in the worlds transmitted to them by wireless devices.

While firmly located within the particularity of my sister’s kitchen, neither of them are totally ‘there’ which is interesting too.

So, to balance these, I needed two staged exteriors. Again, two pictures had been present in my thinking about this exercise from the moment I took them (in two sessions on the boat north from Aberdeen as the day faded).

These two were also just about the best results from my experiments with fill flash in fading light outdoors.Timing of taking the photograph against the rise and fall of the boat is also critical in finalising the framing here – another dialogue between ‘staged’ and ‘captured’. And somewhere far behind us on the boat, on a beach on the other side of the North Sea, Rineke Dijkstra can maybe just be glimpsed, setting up her view camera and lights, waiting…

 

This leaves one picture to choose, from the remaining sixteen. A lot of the pictures seem to fall naturally into threes like these of Alice:

…or these, of Fiona:

…and any one of the three of Alice could easily be used as a stand alone and would fit in with the ‘constructed-outdoors’ half of the assignment, but really, I think they work better together (ideally not displayed level, as they are here, but rather with the horizon lined up, giving a descending line from left to right). And also, in terms of balance for the set, James and Alice both appear in two of the pictures already settled upon; Fiona is only in one. So really the final picture needs to be of her.

The first of the stone skimming pictures could do the job, but it is much more ‘observed’ rather than constructed. And if it could match the other two exterior pictures by being in a portrait ratio, that would be good too. So, I will go for this one, which stretches the idea of ‘a portrait’ about as far as it will go in terms of the relative size of the subject to the location.

Fiona’s pose is easily readable as ‘relaxed’ and ‘away from the everyday’; the location also suggest isolation and holidays; there is a degree of stillness and peace. Fiona has – consciously or unconsciously, I don’t know – adopted a pose; the sandcastles in the foreground are as constructed as any studio set. Their arrangement in the foreground draws the eye upwards, where is is stopped from simply passing over the figure by the line of the dunes and the sky.

So, five portraits: two are very much posed, two taken unawares and the final one falls somewhere in between. If I was constructing an album, instead of submitting an assignment, I would include more pictures, grouped and arranged carefully in relation to one another over a series of pages. I may well do that – and include pictures from previous years – but for now I will settle on this five. I will make a final pass of the pictures in Lightroom and photoshop, adjusting the crop and the exposure etc. I will write a brief introduction (500 words) and post the pictures here. I will have the pictures printed (slightly smaller than A4, with a border for handling) and send them to my tutor. I will write down my reflections on the assignment.

To go back again one last time to Walker Evans, many are called…

assignment 2 – making the photographs

The objective of this assignment is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the themes covered in Part Two with regard to the use of both studio and location for the creation of portraits.

This assignment is about taking what has worked from the above exercises and then trying to develop this further in terms of interchanging the use of portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio). You need to develop a series of five final images to present to the viewer as a themed body of work. Pay close attention to the look and feel of each image and think how they will work together as a series. The theme is up to you to choose; you could take a series of images of a single subject or a series of subjects in a themed environment. There is no right answer, so experiment.

 – IaP Coursebook (p.55)

For a themed environment, I had worked out that I was going to take the photographs for this assignment while I was on holiday in Orkney at the beginning of August. At the time we – my partner, our daughter and me- set out from London on our way north (my son from an earlier relationship would meet us in Edinburgh) I had only completed the unaware exercise for Project 1. So, the pictures I would take on holiday would need to complete the exercise material as well as provide a basis for this assignment.

As well as the ‘themes’ I identified around lighting, rendering the natural unnatural (and vice versa), seeding pictures with signifiers to allow them to be read, defeating the pose and around the balance between location and person pictured (described more fully in the previous post) I had a rough idea that I could take pictures of people using wireless devices to connect back to their normal, ‘citified’ lives, surrounded by glorious countryside, their faces lit – like the girl in the Kyiv metro (fig.3 in my Project 1 post) – by the light of their screens.

In the end, no one was really trying to use a device outside for anything more involved than sending a quick text, and I wasn’t going to set it up, however pictorial the result. But where people did switch off and log on was back at the house in the evening.


I started off though, taking ‘unaware’ type pictures on the journey. Perhaps this would provide a strand for the assignment. If I could draw on some of the categories of subject used by Kuzma (‘pointers’ et al) so much the better.

 


Also on the journey north, I began to experiment with trying to catch people at the time of day when my camera’s flash would begin to make a difference to the way the pictures looked. The result was one of fill (and helped eradicate the cast from the yellow helicopter target on the deck, when the subject was close enough), rather than fully blown lighting in the style of Dicorcia or Macleod, but the effect was pleasing nonetheless.

Also the sheer blusteriness on the boat distracted my subjects, making them less conscious of taking part in a photograph. To an extent, the surroundings helped me in my attempts to take pictures of people posing, but not posing…


One of the things looked at in Bate (p.79) is the way cinema alternates between close-up (concentrating on the face) and wide shot (locating the character within space). In the two exercises dealing with subjects and backgrounds (and also the introductory exercise to the section, which I also shot while in Orkney) I had been conscious of pulling back from the person pictured in order to get in enough of their surroundings for them to be readable (at least in general terms). I started to play with close and far, thinking in terms of possible sequences of photographs for some of the assignment.

And I also began to think in terms of using a form of  ‘field – reverse’ juxtaposition  (the editing cinematic mechanism of cutting from a picture of someone looking to a second picture of what they are ‘looking at’) to make links between things which are not necessarily proximate.

(The picture of me was taken by my daughter; not bad for a four year-old!)

This would potentially allow big close ups with not enough background information to place them in space to be used, coupled with their reverse, possibly as a series of diptychs. However, this probably fits better, later in the course, so I did not develop it further here.


The clothespeople are wearing (or not wearing) and the way the weather conditions either amplify or contrast with them also can help create an idea of what type of experience the subjects of the photographs are having. Blue skies and contrasty light can work with tee-shirts and swimming costumes to give one sort of holiday experience; layers, huddled postures under grey skies with little or no contrast gives another. Conditions change quickly in Orkney.

Blue water can look inviting or it can be read as cold and icy. The effect can be comic or affecting. Props can enhance the effect.


Over the two weeks we were away from home, I amassed a large number of pictures. Some of them have been fed into the exercises, but by the time I was back in London I had a good number of pictures from which to choose the final five. The next post will look at the process of editing them down from a short list of around twenty to the final submission.


Full digital contact sheets of the 2017 holiday pictures considered now follow:

Outings #1 – James and me alone (source for the same-person-different-background exercise)

Outings #2 – everyone out in the West Mainland

same-background-different-subject pictures and others

journeying north + early holiday

evenings in at my sister’s house (unaware)