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Developing an idea for assignment 5

Since completing assignment 3 a few months ago I’ve been playing around with a couple of ideas that might be suitable for assignment 5. Both of them revolve around questions of time, place and identity, but one is essentially an exploration of personal identity while the other focuses more on place, and after a lot of experimentation and deliberation I’ve decided to go ahead with the latter.

This idea stems from exploring the history of the 1850s Brighton flat that’s been my home since the beginning of last year, which I’ve become conscious of through quirks of the building, taking guided architectural tours of the area, lease documents, googling, letters that arrive for people long gone, and the flat’s aura of historical occupation. I searched in vain for a genuine photograph of the original owners, who built the house and owned it for two generations, so decided to use a photograph of another family from around the same period to represent them. I had carried out several experiments with printing on semi-translucent fabric for assignment 3, and felt that this could also offer a way to bring the family’s presence into my flat, if I printed the image at full life size and hung it in the room as part of a scene which also included me. I made an A4 transfer print test on muslin.

I then decided to include inhabitants from a selection of other eras, and found a suitable family portrait from around the 1920s, but the 1960s was more challenging as it became apparent that by then nobody went to studios for family photos, so I used a photo of my own family from that time. I also wanted to include at least one person from the time since the house was divided into 10 flats in the 1980s, and I know that a dancer lived in this flat for a while, so found an image to represent him too.

I overlaid all the images in Photoshop, using various blending settings to allow each image to be seen without blocking the others. I then printed the composite image on muslin to see how it worked on the semi-transparent fabric. I also wanted to get an impression of what the effect would be of having the image as a life-sized backdrop to a scene in which I also appeared, so mocked that up in Photoshop.

I also explored the idea of projecting (rather than printing) the composite image onto a muslin or similar screen and discovered that this technique is in common use as a Halloween trick, but came to the conclusion that it required a much larger space than mine to achieve a life-size effect that I could also interact with, plus it only really works with cut-out figures, not full-width images like my composite.

I decided the next step should probably be to make some more considered images of myself, perhaps posing for my portrait in the same manner as the “ghosts”, to see how they work with the composite image. I also thought about including myself as one of the layers of the printed composite image instead of hanging the print and shooting myself in front of it to create the final work, because it would emphasise my status as just one more of the cycle of inhabitants and avoid the possibility that the final image might just turn out to look like a photo of me sitting in front of a wall hanging. So I added a shot of my front room as a background layer to the composite to see what this would look like. I also experimented with making myself less opaque so that the transient nature of my own inhabitance was emphasised.

My present inclination is to get this version printed at a large scale, as close to life-size as I can have it done at a reasonable price, and make that print the final work rather than re-shoot the print in situ. But first this seems like a very good time to request peer feedback, so I’ve decided to ask for that at the next Sunday forum which takes place in a few days from now.

CAN 5 Making it up

The Looking Glass

A meditation on past and present, the real and the imagined, the physical and the spiritual, this image investigates the tangible and unavoidable sense of history and prior occupation that infuses the Kemptown flat in which I’ve lived for the past two years.

The house I live in was built in the 1850s and is situated in Kemptown, an area of Brighton created by Thomas Kemp to provide seaside homes for wealthy Londoners after the Prince Regent built his own retreat in the town. During the 20th century all but a few of these once-grand houses were divided into flats and bedsits, and most became neglected and run-down. Meanwhile Kemptown acquired a new identity as Brighton’s foremost gay and alternative area.

This image aims to capture the history of the area in general and the spirit of my flat in particular. Its past inhabitants have left their traces in many ways, both visible and invisible, and the image is an attempt to document their once-physical presence. The blending effects I used to overlay the images evoke the analogue methods of portraying ghosts, fairies and ectoplasm used by photographers from Roger Fenton through William Mumler and Sybell Corbett to William Hope and the Crewe Circle (The Guardian, 2010 and 2012; Harding, 2013; National Science and Media Museum, nd; Timberlake, 2015) in Victorian times, when interest in the supernatural was at a peak of popularity – fuelled in part by Mme Blavatsky and her School of Theosophy (Blavatsky.net, nd) – and séances were held in the homes of even the most prominent members of society (Diniejko, nd). Indeed, it is highly likely that such rituals took place in many Kemptown rooms like mine, given that the area’s residents included people like Lewis Carroll (My Brighton and Hove, nd), author of Alice in Wonderland and member of the Society for Psychical Research (LCSNA, nd).

Process

I have been playing around with this project for several months now and have documented its development in a separate post. Since I wrote that post, the project has been discussed at an Open Forum Hangout, where I received some very useful and thought-provoking feedback from the hangout participants, especially @Alan515735 and @Kate513940. Alan identified something that I have been aware of but have repeatedly pushed out of my mind – that there is too much going on in the image, that it is too complex and that there’s no hook to engage the viewer.

I have given this and all the other suggestions put forward in the hangout a great deal of thought in the past two days, and after wondering whether I should rethink the project entirely I decided to press on with it, for the following reasons. As a further expression of the ephemeral nature of the image’s subject and my continuing interest in exploring fabric as a print medium, I plan to print the image onto a semi-translucent fabric, probably 115gsm polyester mesh, at life-size or as near life-size as is feasible taking logistical and cost considerations into account. My hope is that this large scale might bring the sense of historical presence that infuses this building and Kemptown as a whole to the image, and I think it’s possible that the over-complex, over-busy effect might work better in such a large fabric print I. I am also hoping that some of the serendipitous interplays of the various overlaid images may come to the fore and provide interest that doesn’t present itself at screen size.

Reflection before tutor feedback

This has been a very enjoyable project, something I’ve played around with over a longish period. I am aware that it doesn’t “say” a lot and is not the most engaging of images, but I feel a certain connection to it and feel I would like to pursue it to the stage of large-format printing on fabric even if it ends up as a disappointment. The cutout of myself was originally intended only for use as a placeholder for a more considered image, perhaps one in which I would face the camera and thus take my place amongst the other residents. But I find that there are things I like about this throwaway image – the three-dimensionality of my slippers’ placement on the carpet which seems to suggest that I’m standing at the entrance to a time portal, the fact that I seem to be confronting or addressing or photographing the previous residents, and the way my “athleisure” clothing makes me as much an archetype of the present as the others are of their own eras.

Before I commit myself to getting the large-format print made up I will now submit the project to my tutor for his feedback.

Update 24 November 2018

While awaiting tutor feedback I looked back on the work I’d done through the module and found myself drawn to the image I made for Exercise 3.2.2. I thought about what the 11-year-old me represented in that picture and the me of today might want to tell each other, and began to experiment with this idea. I found that adding just a few elements to the image significantly shifted its narrative to include personal insights that I would struggle to articulate verbally, as well as raising questions about the flow of time and space.

Feeling that it might be a better response for assignment 5 than my original submission, I informally asked a few people what they thought, and most favoured the new image. I have therefore decided to ask my tutor for his view when he comes to review the assignment. I have also tabled it for discussion at the 2 December forum-wide hangout, where I intend to ask: Which of the two is a better response to A5? Does the fact that the new image is based on one I made for an earlier exercise rule it out for this use? Do the two images have enough in common that I could use them both? I feel they both raise questions about personal identity so have a degree of shared subject matter, but is this reflected visually? Does adding a personally resonant motif (scissors) to the original image (see original and modified original images side by side immediately below this text) connect it more strongly to the new image? Is a pair of images both too many and too few to submit for the assignment?

Update 3 December 2018

Yesterday’s hangout was extremely helpful and clarified a lot of the above questions. Opinion was unanimous on two points – that it was fine to adapt an image created for a module for use as an assignment submission, and that I should only submit one of the two images, as there was really nothing to connect them together. Thereafter views diverged, with a majority preferring the new (“clean”) image to varying degrees and two preferring the original (“cluttered”) one. Reasons given in support of the clean image included that it is more open-ended and offers more scope for interpretation, that it looks outward/forward rather than inward/backward, and that it has a surreal and uncanny feel. Those not in favour of the clean image cited its simplicity and lack of any sense of movement, and its resemblance to an advertisement mock-up. Reasons given for preferring the cluttered image included its greater complexity and scope for investigation and discovery, and the sense given by the feet on the carpet of entering a time portal. The new version of the cluttered image (with scissors) was preferred over the old version of that image.

I now await my tutor’s feedback before making a final decision.

Update 9 December 2018

My tutor’s initial (pre-tutorial) feedback included the comment that he didn’t really agree with the hangout’s verdict that the two images had nothing in common, so I got out the A3 prints I’d made of the two images and placed them side by side to see how they looked as a pair of prints. I immediately realised that they had different aspect ratios, so I made an amended version of the “cluttered” image with a greater width, which brings more of my room into view, including a copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which happens to have a front cover image by an unknown photographer from the 1850s, the same date that this house was built. It also brings in more of my empty shelving and a circular sticker, both of which increase the sense of connection between this and the “clean” image. When I look at the them together now, I find that these visual connections make the shared element of an exploration of personal identity stronger than it was without the change in aspect ratio. I will continue to look at them until my tutorial and see whether this grows or recedes.

Update 15 December: reflection after tutor feedback

In the online tutorial session we discussed the pros and cons of including both images in my submission. One key point that arose was the possibility that two such different images could set up a conflict when displayed closely together. We also discussed the more derivative nature of the “clean” image, including the fact that I had consciously bowed my head in the window shot in reference to Crewdson and his frequent use of this device to suggest shame, regret, shock and other post-traumatic responses. Between receiving my tutor’s initial feedback and the tutorial, I had spent time considering which of the two images I would be most reluctant to lose, and concluded that the “cluttered” image was closer to my heart. For all these reasons I decided to drop the new “clean” image and keep the “cluttered” one.

I had originally made the image’s aspect ratio as deep as possible in relation to the width due to the fact that in my original plan to print on fabric at a very large size, width was the constraining factor in terms of what print options were available, and the narrower I could make the width, the taller and closer to life-size the figures would appear. In the intervening period, however, I had realised that there was no longer sufficient time to have such a print made in time for submission for the March 2019 assessment date for which I had registered, so I was free to choose which of the two aspect ratios I preferred in A3 print form. After comparing them over a period of time I came to the conclusion that the wider version has a greater sense of space and three-dimensionality as well as emphasising my exploration of personal identity more strongly than the deeper one, so decided to submit that version.

I was uncertain whether or not to retain the scissors I had introduced to create a greater connection with the “clean” image, so I printed versions with and without, and lived with them side by side for a couple of days. My instinct was that I’d end up preferring the without-scissors version, but I actually found that they resonated in a way that felt appropriate and I felt their absence in the version without them. I therefore decided to retain them.

I have not abandoned the fabric print idea altogether, and may well return to it in future, alongside further consideration of the potential for projecting the image onto fabric. Although I concluded quite early in the project’s development that I did not have the space in my own flat to project the figures at life size due to the need to place the projector outside the margins of the image plane to make it invisible, it might well be feasible to create a gallery installation in which the viewer would face a life-sized projection, either on a single screen or on multiple layered screens, each screen containing a single layer of the image.

References and resources

Blavatsky.net (nd) Available at http://www.blavatsky.net [accessed 6.11.18]
Diniejko, A. (nd) Victorian Spiritualism. Available at http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/religion/spirit.html [accessed 6.11.18]
LCSNA (nd) Lewis Carroll and religion. Available at
http://www.lewiscarroll.org/carroll/religion [accessed 6.11.18]
My Brighton and Hove (nd) Kemptown famous residents. Available at http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/page_id__5909.aspx [accessed 6.11.18]
The Guardian (2010) Halloween hauntings: William Hope’s spirit photographs. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2010/oct/29/haunted-photographs-william-hope-halloween [accessed 6.11.18]
The Guardian (2012) Ghosts, giants and fairies: classic faked photographs – in pictures. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/aug/29/classic-faked-photographs-in-pictures [accessed 6.11.18]
Harding, C (2013) G is for… ghosts: the birth and rise of spirit photography. Available at https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/photography-a-z-ghosts-spirit-photography [accessed 6.11.18]
National Science and Media Museum (nd) The spirit photographs of William Hope. Available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmediamuseum/sets/72157606849278823 [accessed 6.11.18]
Timberlake, H (2015) The intriguing history of ghost photography. Available at http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150629-the-intriguing-history-of-ghost-photography [accessed 6.11.18]

CAN 5 self-assessment

Creating this composite image required me to considerably improve the pre-existing skills I had in cutting out and blending layers in Photoshop, so I took my laptop along to invigilation sessions and practiced during any quiet periods that arose throughout the month I was working as a volunteer at Brighton Biennial. I knew that working at the highest possible resolution would produce the best end-result, so size was the most important filter I used when searching for images to represent residents from different periods in history. Large image sizes were also vital in view of the intention I had to print the composite onto fabric at or near life size.

The composite image uses three found, one personal family archive and three specially shot images, and it took quite some time to adjust the size and position of each one such that the people were sufficiently matched in scale and the overlays fell so as to create interesting serendipitous effects like the matriarch with a floor-length skirt simultaneously appearing to be hitching it over her knees. I used different overlays and opacity settings for every layer, experimenting with these settings and with layer ordering until I achieved the effect I was looking for.

During the project’s development I investigated the possibility of projecting the image at life size onto a fabric screen as an alternative to print, and learned that projecting onto polyester mesh fabrics can be very effective in creating ghostly images. Although I didn’t end up going down this route, it is something I may well pick up again in the future, as is the large-scale print idea, which I dropped at a late stage due to time and financial constraints. I was also doubtful whether the 300 x 232 cm I was considering would be suitable for viewing in the assessment room. Again, however, looking into large-scale fabric printing was a learning curve that I believe will come in useful in the future. The presentation option I finally chose was to print the image on my newly acquired A3 Canon Pro 100-S inkjet printer, a process which entailed further large learning curves in screen calibration and printer settings.

From a creative point of view, I am fairly happy with the image and feel it expresses what I sought to capture, although I am aware that not everyone finds it engaging. I feel it also captures elements of my own exploration of personal identity in what has been an extended period of adaptation to enormous life changes for me. As with Assignment 3, this is not something I sought to include but something I noticed subsquently, and again I worked intuitively, building the image step by step rather than starting with a master plan, so this is one of the most important lessons of C&N for me – to work from my heart and not my head.

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