IAP A4: summary for assessment

Background

Since I moved to this eastern side of Brighton three years ago I’ve been struck by the way the scenes in the windows of the bars, restaurants and other small businesses seem as night falls to become silent dramas played out on stages formed by capsules of light enclosed by darkness. They appear to exist as frozen moments in time with no sense of what came before or afterwards, and are both literal and metaphorical windows onto other people’s lives.

I first photographed these scenes in 2018 for an exercise and assignment in EYV, and returned to shooting them anew in the second week of January this year for exercise 2.2 in photographing the unaware. After completing that exercise I continued to shoot these scenes whenever I had occasion to walk towards central Brighton at night-time. At that point I had no specific intention in mind and was just taking the photographs for my own enjoyment, but as I read further ahead in the module and saw that assignment 4 was about the relationship between words and images, I realised that these pictures with their sense of stories waiting to be revealed might be a suitable project for the assignment.

In the early evening of Friday 20 March the government instructed all non-essential businesses to close for an unspecified period due to the coronavirus. I realised that night would be my last opportunity to make further such images for potentially some considerable time, so I grabbed my camera and went out to take a final batch.

Research

I have always enjoyed the atmospheric quality of night-time photography such as Brassaï’s Paris at Night series and night-time images of London by photographers as diverse in style as Bill Brandt, Rut Blees Luxemburg and Antony Cairns. All these artists have inspired me to experiment with making images of the city at night.

I was also influenced in my subject matter by the constructed scenes of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, seeing parallels in the window scenes to the work of these photographers in the way they pose questions about the participants that cannot be answered. Similarly I noticed a resemblance in some scenes to paintings by Edward Hopper, which have the same intimation as works by Wall and Crewdson of hidden histories preceding the depicted events.

Process

Between 10 January and 20 March when the Covid-19 lockdown was announced I took 357 images for the series. For the 50 images I took on the final evening I used my Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a 24-70mm lens; for the other 307 I used my Panasonic Lumix GX9 with a micro 4/3 12–32mm lens. With both cameras I worked in manual mode, ignoring the exposure meter and using the image preview to adjust my settings.

I worked through all the images slowly, starring those that particularly stood out as I went. At the end of this process I had 80 starred images and used this batch as my starting point for the main edit. I processed these 80 in Camera Raw, adjusting light levels and straightening horizontals, rejecting any that on closer examination weren’t up to scratch or seemed surplus to requirements.

Presentation

The introduction of lockdown has of course given these images a new perspective. Looking back at them now, the future that lay ahead of these scenes is revealed and they are consequently imbued with significances they did not explicitly have at the time but which were nevertheless implicitly buried in their sense of an unknowable future.

After whittling the images down to a shortlist of 33, I decided it was time to see how these worked as prints. I am very conscious of OCA assessors’ preference for non-glossy prints and understand that this is because the strong overhead fluorescent lights in the assessment room play havoc with reflective surfaces and make glossy prints difficult to read. So my first test prints were on semi-matte paper. I printed a few different images at A4 and one at A3, but was slightly disappointed with all of them. They seemed to lose something in the matteness – they looked flat, two-dimensional, and their vibrancy and sharpness was diminished. I realised that in fact reflectiveness is a key element of the images – the shiny windows and the reflections in them, the overlapping of concrete and reflected objects and signage and the visual confusions created by this mix. So I tried the same test images on glossy paper, and was left in no doubt that this is the correct medium for this series.

I then printed all 33 shortlisted images on glossy A4 paper and started trying to whittle down the numbers without losing the sense of the series offering individual standalone stories while collectively working as a comprehensive survey of the people who live and work in Kemptown. After getting rid of nine I was left with 24, which I submitted to my tutor for his feedback. He encouraged me to make a new edit that focused more strongly on the sense of unknowable outcomes and less on the people-typology aspects.

Discarding my impulse to make the series a comprehensive survey of Kemptown people made the task of editing the 24 images I had submitted for feedback down to the 7 to 10 required in the assignment brief considerably easier. It also gave me an idea for how I might fulfil the assignment’s requirement to accompany the images with text. Camus’s The Plague offered obvious parallels with the arrival of Covid, and I now selected a set of images and snippets of text from the book that seemed to resonate with each other. That edit can be viewed here. But when I stood back and looked at this revised presentation I found that the text completely overwhelmed the images, closing down their scope of interpretation and directing it too crudely in a direction that was not adequately supported by the main narrative thrust of the images. I also realised that in the process of selecting images to match the Camus text I had discarded some of those that most strongly evoked the sense of unseen stories playing out.

I therefore returned to my first shortlist and re-edited it once more, eventually arriving at an edit that I feel succeeds in my original intention of capturing scenes with a sense of unknowable prequels and sequels, and at the same time describes the general ambience of Kemptown and its people.