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IAP A1: battling dread and doubts

From the moment I first looked through the course pdf for Identity & Place at the beginning of November 2018 I was filled with dread about the prospect of having to engage with strangers for the first assignment – a dread so intense that it has even blocked me from starting work on the exercises as I battled with indecision about whether to drop out of the course. On many days I made a firm decision to continue and then an equally firm decision to drop out, seesawing between the two positions repeatedly as I ran through their respective pros and cons.

Hoping that it would make me feel better equipped to face the task, I watched an instructional youtube video on asking strangers to pose for portraits, took a LinkedIn Learning course on the same subject and another on photographing people in natural light – but if anything these made me feel even more apprehensive as I realised how little idea I had about what I was trying to achieve. Finally I reached a point where it became clear that just going out and asking some strangers whether I could take their photo was going to be less of an emotional rollercoaster than continuing to prevaricate, so I did exactly that. In a roughly two-hour walk around Brighton beach and marina I managed to find two suitable targets, both of whom were surprisingly willing to have their photo taken.

Although I felt relieved to have two subjects under my belt, I realised I was no closer to having a sense of what I was trying to achieve. I did, however, come to the conclusion that the photos in which the subject looked directly at the camera had most potential, so made a resolution to make sure I included similarly direct shots in subsequent sessions. It took another half a dozen outings over a couple of weeks before I finally had sufficient images to find a theme, and my doubts about continuing with the course persisted throughout this period. It was only when I started reading Art & Fear (Bayles & Orland, 1993), recommended by a peer to whom I confided my feelings, that I realised that my doubts and feelings of inadequacy didn’t necessarily mean I wasn’t suited to the course – or indeed, to being a photographer/artist.

Now that I have my images and a potential theme for the assignment I am very happy that I didn’t drop out. This probably won’t be the last time I feel such overwhelming doubts, but knowing that I found a way through this time will surely help when similar feelings arise in the future.

References and resources

Bayles, D. and Orland, T. (1993) Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Cruz, Oregon: Image Continuum Press.
Windsor, J. (2018) How to ask strangers for photos. Available at https://youtu.be/BWip3-T3ev4 [accessed 06.03.18]

IAP A1: developing a concept

As I shot the images for A1 I had no real concept in mind. Several ideas for themes were floating around – making all five shots of beachside anglers sitting inside their weather-protective tents, for example, or all of workmen in reflective yellow jackets – but actually getting the shots was another matter. In the end I grabbed the opportunities that arose at times when I had the courage to take advantage of them, and then looked to see what I could make from what I had.

My favourite image was from the one beach angler set I’d managed to shoot. It was done on a very bright sunny day, but his tent turned what was a harsh light into a strong but soft indirect light. I felt, however, that I might have to discard this subject because the blue background of the tent’s interior was so different to all my other (street-based) shots. This started a chain of thought about whether the background was actually relevant to the shot.

Meanwhile, when I looked at the six shots that I’d shortlisted as technically usable I noticed that they seemed to fall quite naturally into three pairs in which the eyes were surprisingly well matched. This observation led me to experiment with swapping the eyes around.

This interested me in terms of the effects it had on the way I was reading (or perhaps I should say constructing, since my impressions are not verifiable) the various subjects, which I was experiencing as a kind of pre-verbal gut feeling. I recalled a Birkbeck College facial recognition experiment I took part in recently, in which the faces became increasingly grainy, blurred and indistinct but I had no difficulty recognising them because I was reading them at this same gut level, looking to recognise not specific facial features but the sense of a person.

I started to look for where I felt this sense of a person was being expressed in my images, and found that it was in exactly the kind of places that I unconsciously focus on when I’m speaking to someone – the eyes, the nostrils, the mouth. What I’m picking up on is not the shape or form of those features, but the energy animating them. The impression I receive is not a personality profile but simply a sense of personhood, which I can easily recognise but would struggle to describe – a feeling very similar to that of searching in your mind for a word that fits exactly what you want to say, knowing for sure that it exists and even having a sense of its shape, but not quite being able to grasp it – and recognising it with 100% certainty when you finally remember it.

It occurred to me that in terms of conveying a sense of who these strangers might be, most of the image area is entirely redundant. I set out to strip each one down to the bare minimum that still retained the same sense of person as the full image. This took me quite some time, as even very small changes in the areas hidden or revealed seemed to make a big difference, and while the important areas were eyes, mouth and sometimes (but not always) nostrils, there was not a precise formula and each one had to be done through a process of intuition, trial and error.

Once I had my bare minimum I needed to find a way of concealing the rest of the images in a way that didn’t introduce new elements into the sense of the person. From a shortlist of eight techniques I selected two that I feel are neutral in this respect. My next step will be to request comments on these images in the critique forum.

IAP A1: request for critique

I would be grateful for any comments on the images below, which are a work in progress in response to Identity & Place assignment 1, which asks us to make five portraits of five different people from our local area who were previously unknown to us. The reasoning behind my presentation of the images is available elsewhere on my blog, but I am showing them here without explanation and am interested in hearing what the presentation/s signify to viewers and whether the two formats differ in this respect.

The responses I received to my request for comments can be read here.

IAP A1: adjusting my approach

I had never previously met any of these people when I photographed them, but their occupations were obvious from our meeting in all but one case. At first I was uncertain how I would or could connect the individual images to make a coherent series. The only thing I was sure about was that I was hoping to capture a direct, neutral gaze to camera, like Thomas Ruff’s 1980s series of head and shoulders portraits (Ruff, 1990), because I felt that this kind of image had more potential for creating a series and was likely to be more revealing of character and identity than one in which the subject was smiling or looking away from the camera. I also felt that framing the images predominantly in the head and shoulder area would again offer more potential for creating a series by reducing the amount of potentially disruptive background clutter, and of course it was much easier to connect with and direct my subjects than if I’d been standing far enough away from them to make full-body portraits.

It was clear from the feedback I received to my first attempt at creating a series from these images that a significant proportion of reviewers felt the images were more about me than the subjects. On reflection I realised that these reviewers were correct, and that I had been trying to communicate something about the way I saw and read these people rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. That had not been my intention, but I could see that cropping the images so drastically did not do what I’d hoped and did not provide the viewer with enough information to make their own assessment of the subjects’ characters.

After thinking about how to adjust my approach, I decided to present the images in a way that would make the subjects’ facial features fully accessible to the viewer and would also explore the impact of captions on viewers’ readings of the portraits. I was interested in the extent to which captions might change the impressions offered by the images, and also wondered whether it would make any difference if the captions were clearly inaccurate or untrue. With these aims in mind I created alternating pairs of captions for my five subjects which made contrasting claims about the subjects’ occupations and also about other more personally-determined signifiers of identity.

The idea of alternating captions had occurred to me after I noticed that the titles of some of August Sander’s portraits seemed to conflict with my impression of the people portrayed in the images, an observation I thought particularly interesting in the current climate of propaganda and disinformation. I also had in mind the shift away from public definitions of identity that has taken place in the period since Sander’s portraits were made, and the fact that a person’s occupation is no longer the useful shorthand for describing, defining and understanding character that it was in Sander’s time. Today we are more likely to describe ourselves and understand others in terms of personal tastes and inclinations.

I also wanted to make the most of the information available to the viewer in the portraits themselves, and to this end I sharpened the images in Photoshop so that pores, spots and thread veins were clearly visible. I felt this gave a sense of intimacy that would assist the viewer’s sense of personal connection. In this respect I was looking for a kinder and less extreme version of the way Bruce Gilden tends to present his subjects (Gilden, 2013), as opposed to the softer, slightly airbrushed look of Ruff’s 1980s portraits. I also desaturated the blue background of the angler’s beach tent to make the image more coherent with the others.

References and resources

Gilden, B. (2013) A Complete Examination of Middlesex. London: Archive of Modern Conflict.
Ruff. T. (1990) Portretten Huizen Sterren/des Portraits des Maison des Etoiles/Porträts Hauser Sterne. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum.

IAP A1: assignment

Project statement

This series investigates the way we read identity and character in portraits and captions, and explores whether captions influence us even when we know them to be inaccurate or untrue.

How much of what we assume about someone from a photograph is based on a reading of physical characteristics like facial expression? Do accompanying snippets of information about public and personal profiles mediate our estimation of what kind of a person they might be? Do some categories of information have more influence on our interpretation than others? And do we still adjust our interpretation of a person’s identity and character when we read a caption we know to be inaccurate? To explore these questions I composed a series of five portraits with rotating captions that provide contrasting alternatives for each subject’s occupation, political orientation and taste in music. By intention or chance a few of the captions may be accurate, but most are fabricated.

IAP A1: contact sheets

For this assignment I worked with a Canon EOS 6D Mark II. For the first two subjects I used a prime 50mm lens and for the remainder a 24-70mm lens. I worked in aperture priority mode at f/3.5 for the first subject, f/1.8 for the second subject and f/4.0 for all subsequent subjects. My selected images are outlined in orange.

IAP A1: reflection before tutor feedback

Does the work fulfil the assessment criteria?

I feel the work demonstrates my growing technical and visual competence in both image capture and post-capture editing. I was pleased that I was able to capture images with a sharp focus on my subjects’ facial features in what were very challenging circumstances. I am by nature an introvert, so approaching these subjects at all, let alone as someone capable of taking a decent picture of them, was extremely testing. Then to concentrate on putting my subject at ease while encouraging them to connect with the camera, answering their questions about the purpose and use of the images, and simultaneously paying attention to what I was doing with the camera presented further challenges. The number of subjects I actually shot was fewer than I would have liked and limited the scope of the resulting series, but it took me more than half a dozen (often fruitless) outings to get them, so I’m just glad I managed to do what I did.

In terms of quality of outcome and demonstration of creativity, I am still working on various ideas for presenting the work at assessment but am fairly happy with the work itself and its presentation on my blog. I didn’t want to present the series of five portraits without some kind of conceptual framework, and I struggled to find one that seemed meaningful. In the end, however, I found a concept that interests me and seems relevant both to a viewer’s experience of encountering the images and the wider social context of our world and the changes that are taking place in it.

Providing a context for my work has always been something of a challenge for me, not least because the main reason I joined the OCA course was to explore my creativity, and for me the process of documenting my reading, research and thinking runs in direct opposition to this. I do, however, understand the value and importance of this aspect of the course and feel I am slowly improving in my approach.

IAP A1: reflection after tutor feedback

I found the feedback I received from my tutor very encouraging, and particularly appreciated what he said about the experiments I undertook and abandoned at an early stage of the project. His comments made me realise that I was too easily discouraged by the feedback I received at critique and could have continued playing around to see whether the experiments led anywhere. I recognise that I have a tendency to over-respond to criticism and lose confidence in the work, and that this is something that I need to address.

I was already familiar with but very much enjoyed revisiting the work of the three photographers he recommended (John Stezaker, Hayahisa Tomiyasu and Jo Spence) and was surprised that I hadn’t consciously recalled Tomiyasu’s ping pong table series while I was shooting from my own window for one of the exercises at such a similar height and angle. Reviewing some of Jo Spence’s work was also useful as preparation and pointers for the coming week, when I shall be chaperoning my sister as she undergoes surgery, an experience I am hoping to use as the subject matter of my assignment 2. Looking at Spence’s images has prompted me to think of attempting to include some informal shots with a sense of dynamic movement.

Meanwhile I have made prints of my five assignment 1 portraits and have decided on a way of presenting them for assessment which involves mounting the images into a photo album with multiple layers of captioning for each image, but haven’t yet started producing it. When I do I’ll add some photos of the album here.