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CAN 3 Putting yourself in the picture

It’s Not You

Tracking my diurnal routines, these images capture the habitual dreaming points that punctuate my day – intermissions of reflection and meditation during an extended period of intense change following the break-up of my 25-year relationship. Each of five formats in which the images have been produced (two of which have been sent for assessment) offers a slightly different experience of the routine, reflecting the capacity of repetition to provide not just calming familiarity but also a calibration tool for the shifts and adjustments that take place over time.

The brief for this assignment asked us to keep a diary for at least two weeks and use the entries as the starting point for an autobiographical photographic project. I initially decided to focus on an issue that was ongoing during the diary period – new fire precaution works in my block which were installed without any account being taken of the building’s architectural features. I made a set of images that I liked, but on reflection realised that there was really nothing autobiographical about them, so moved on to a second idea, a series showing a typical day in my life through my own eyes (which is the series I eventually selected to use for the assignment) and a third one, pictures of the contents of the cupboards in my flat. This third series was inspired by my experience of finding that I could get a sense of a property’s inhabitants from estate agent photos, and by Nigel Shafran’s work documenting the ordinary everyday aspects of his domestic surroundings.

Although the third idea was my personal least favourite of the three series I’d made, I initially felt that it was probably the best fit for the brief, so decided to request critiques on that one from other students, whose responses (along with a link to the images) are available here. The critique process gave me a lot of very valuable insights, including the fact that (at least at screen resolution) a significant proportion of viewers felt the images were not sufficiently engaging and some also felt they were too impersonal and didn’t reveal enough about me. I was not concerned about the latter point, because my intention was to show my present lifestyle as typical and representative of a particular place and time, but after much consideration (and an abortive attempt at a fourth series that went off at too much of a tangent, which I blogged about here) I decided that I would opt for my second series.

These images show my world as I see it with my own eyes as I go through a typical day. The views are intensely familiar to me – I see each of them every single day, and my eyes often settle on them for relatively long periods when I’m relaxing or deep in thought. Despite their lack of specific narrative detail, I feel they convey an accurate impression of the way I live through their portrayal of mood and their subjective viewpoint. After printing out and spending some time with the images, I realised that they are also far more autobiographical than I initially thought, in that they include shapes and colours of the Danish modern design aesthetic that has been a substantial part of my work and life for the past 20 years. They subvert this aesthetic, however, in their inclusion of mundane personal details which introduce a sense of dislocation. Further thought led me to notice that while these images are indeed what I see every day, they are not what my mind is focused on… in fact I look through these scenes, and what is in my mind’s eye is something else entirely – the plans, ideas, musings that make up my inner life. To express this idea visually I started playing around with printing on semi-translucent fabric, and transfer-printed a test image onto muslin. This introduced some unexpected new elements, including the fact that the imperfections that arose gave the print something of the feel of a Renaissance fresco, with the feet in the test image taking on the aspect of religious iconography, while the translucence seemed to emphasise the transience and fragility of the subject.

I realised that I would have great difficulty printing the image series edge to edge using the manual transfer print process, but I wanted to see what that would look like, so I had a print made up by contrado.co.uk. This time I chose to print on organza – a fabric even lighter and more translucent than muslin, and the resulting print was considerably more ephemeral, to the extent that it seemed to invite the background world into the images. The images became extremely elusive, appearing and disappearing as the fabric moved and the light behind each section changed to make more or less of it visible. I began to consider the idea of making something wearable from the fabric – literally wrapping myself up in my personal world. I tried it around my waist as a transparent overskirt and over my shoulders as a cape, and in both circumstances the effect was quite disconcerting in the way a hand, a foot, a toothbrush or a kitchen sink would appear in an unexpected position. I liked the dissonance of this, which matched the conflict I’d seen in the prints between their clean Scandi setting and the incongruous personal details that intruded here and there.

My next plan was to return to the muslin and transfer-print all 12 images onto the fabric, laid out (with a margin between each image) in a grid three wide and four deep because I particularly like the way the colours and motifs are distributed in this arrangement. I wondered whether the fresco feel of my test print would persist when the other images were included. But first I decided that this was a good point to request feedback from my tutor before continuing with any further experiments.

Research

I enjoyed exploring the work of the photographers covered in the module section leading up to this assignment, especially Elina Brotherus, but didn’t feel I was especially influenced by any of them in the way I shot this project, although in retrospect I can see that the intimate ordinariness of Nigel Shafran’s Washing up and Dad’s office may well have helped inform my approach. In the back of my mind I knew that there was another photographer whose influence I could feel but it took me a long time to work out that it was Uta Barth, who my EYV tutor had brought to my attention when I was doing the Languages of Light assignment in that module.

Reflection before tutor feedback

I have found both this assignment and the previous one extremely challenging. They have taken me a long way out of my comfort zone, both in exploring my personal life as a subject and in engaging with other students via the critiquing forum. But I’m aware that my discomfort and lack of confidence in these areas are the price I have to pay in order to experience change and expansion in my understanding of how to approach and appreciate photography. My appreciation of photography is definitely changing, but my ability to express myself, both verbally and through my work, has some catching-up to do, and being aware of this is another source of discomfort. I have also realised that I need to do a great deal more in terms of documenting the development of my thoughts and experiments. It was only after I had already spent several weeks playing with the various print experiments described above that it occurred to me that I need to describe the whole process and not just the end result, so this is what I have now done here.

Update before tutor feedback

While awaiting feedback from my tutor, I asked the fortnightly Sunday hangout group for critical input on this assignment. I received an encouragingly positive response to the  organza print, with several people commenting that it brings something additional into the images, summoning up ideas of religious iconography in general and the Turin Shroud in particular. One participant noted the repetition of line motifs as a theme through the image set, something that I hadn’t personally noticed before but now see clearly. The general opinion was that any further intervention with the fabric panel, such as my idea about making something wearable out of it, was unnecessary and was likely to bring a new set of messages and ideas into play which would undermine the effect it had as a simple panel. I thought about this after the hangout and came to the conclusion that it was a correct analysis and that my impulse to do something else with the fabric was symptomatic of my present lack of judgement about when something is enough and when it needs further development. It also reflects the fact that now I belatedly understand the importance the assessment process places on presentation (which obviously mirrors its crucial importance in the outside world) I am slightly over-compensating for my prior lack of attention to this aspect. But I’m confident that time, experience and critical input from the forums and tutors will lead me to find a suitable point of balance in this.

Reflection after tutor feedback

The feedback from my tutor prompted me to continue my experiments with transfer-printing on muslin, and this led me to a cascade of insights that showed me how intensely autobiographical and specific to this period of my life these images actually are. As a result of this new understanding I have decided to entitle the series It’s Not You, and have written a detailed account of the new insights I gained from the muslin print in a separate post which can be read here.

References and resources

Barth, U. (2018) Uta Barth. Available at http://utabarth.net [accessed 27 June 2018]
Brotherus, E. (2018) Elina Brotherus. Available at http://www.elinabrotherus.com [accessed 27 June 2018]
Shafran, N. (1999) Dad’s office. Available at http://nigelshafran.com/category/dads-office-1997-1999 [accessed 27 June 2018]
Shafran, N. (2000) Washing up 2000. Available at http://nigelshafran.com/category/washing-up-2000-2000 [accessed 27 June 2018]

Further reflection on assignment 3

My tutor provides feedback on assignments in a multi-stage format which I find extremely helpful. First he makes a pdf of my assignment post and marks up my text and/or images with specific comments. Next he creates a framework formative feedback form and sends both these documents to me. We then arrange a date to discuss it all online, which might be a week later or more. This interval gives me time to go through his comments and make changes that now seem appropriate, and means that the subsequent online session is far more productive and useful than it would otherwise be.

In my assignment 3 I had considered transfer-printing my images by hand onto muslin, and my tutor’s marked-up pdf suggested that I give it a go. I immediately realised that it would indeed be a good thing to do, even though I’d already gone down a different fabric-printing route which had produced an outcome that had received a positive response during peer critique. So I spent the next two days doing this, and found the exercise to be unexpectedly revealing as it led me down a train of thought that allowed me to see the images I’d made for the assignment in a very different light.

The first thing I noticed about this new print was the fact that the materiality of the images was strongly emphasised due to the grain of the muslin fabric, and that this seemed particularly prominent where there was fabric texture present in the image itself. I also noted that the muslin’s association with its mundane uses like straining and bandaging brought an everydayness into the images and made this presentation of them very different to that of the organza print, which has a more dreamlike and exotic presence in which the banal details act as disruptive elements.

These observations led me to realise that the shifting emphasis of the different formats I’d produced (individual prints on photo paper and the two fabric collations) was in itself intensely autobiographical. Simultaneously I saw with the force of a revelation just how much of my personal story the images actually reveal – something that I really hadn’t understood until that moment. I saw that they speak directly about a sense of solitude and the routines that have been a key element in the long period of adjustment I’ve been going through since my 25-year relationship ended unexpectedly last year – routines that create calming familiarity and track incremental change in the small shifts that occur in their repetitions.

It is the second part of this equation that I recognised in the multiple formats, and I began to consider creating a book and a video to provide further shifting perspectives on the work. My ultimate idea was to combine all five formats into a single installation, with the video displayed at around 3 x 2 metres, the organza hung in an open space where its ephemerality can be appreciated and where passing bodies cause it to flutter, the photo prints and muslin hung on adjacent walls with the prints matching the 3 x 4 layout of the images on muslin, and copies of the book available for viewing at a table. I discussed all these observations and ideas with my tutor in our subsequent online tutorial, and while he strongly emphasised the positive role of experimentation and encouraged me to continue exploring the idea that combining multiple formats can offer a sense of change through repetition, he also cautioned me not to overload the assessors with too much material when the time comes for assessment

Since then I have created the book and the video is a continuing work in progress. I plan to make a final decision about which of the five formats to submit shortly before the time comes to send the materials off. While the muslin print experiment is perhaps the least likely of the formats I will choose, it has played a vital role in the development of this project by changing my understanding of the work. In so doing, it also showed me that images can pick up far more of the photographer’s interests and preoccupations than they might consciously intend. I had actually considered using the story of my relationship breakdown for this autobiographical assignment, but had discarded the idea at an early stage when I found that the images I was making were essentially clichéd, although I did reclaim two of them for this later attempt in which my original intention was simply to document my daily life as seen through my own eyes. There are important lessons for me in this experience, one being that it’s better to approach a subject via mood and intuition than by trying to create visuals in my mind’s eye and then photograph them, and another being the value of experimentation even when it seems unlikely to add much to the outcome of a work.

CAN 3 self-assessment

The most important thing I learned from this assignment is that shooting intuitively without a specific plan or visualisation in mind is (for me at least) a much better way of approaching a subject than trying to create it intellectually or too consciously. Having made two different sets that consciously responded to the requirement for a biographical theme and found them lacking in interest, I shot this third set simply by selecting views that my eyes fix on for extended periods during a typical day, and only much later came to realise that they are in fact quite intensely autobiographical, not just in their portrayal of my daily life but in their emotional resonance. The lack of personal or interpersonal references, the sense of life reduced to essential routine… this is indeed the reality of my existence as I continue to build a new lifestyle and sense of identity after my 25-year relationship ended last year.

My edit of the set was done in a similarly intuitive way; while there is some sense of progression through the day, and colour, texture and form all come into play, the main criterion I used to sequence the images was that they felt as if they were in the correct order, and didn’t feel so right if they were ordered differently. Consequently this is the first project I’ve done on the course that really feels like a personal expression. I am not quite certain how I did it and don’t know whether I could repeat the same approach (catch-22: thinking about not thinking), but I am happy with how it turned out.

As  I explored the use of different media to print the images I discovered that each brought out a different – often unexpected – aspect of them, and that this array of slightly different viewpoints/interpretations collectively emphasises both the repetitive routines of daily living that are the subject of the images and the ability of such routines to act as calibration devices for measuring incremental change. I am, however, aware that submitting multiple formats may not be appreciated by assessors so have not submitted them all. Nevertheless my future vision would be to present the five variants (photobook, photo prints, prints on muslin, amalgamated print on organza, and video) in a gallery installation.

My self-assessment ratings for this assignment are as follows: