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IAP A3: assignment

Project statement

This series is a portrait of Brigitte Mierau, a Hamburg-born stitch artist who has spent two-thirds of her life in the UK and is currently based in Hastings. Prior to training as an artist she had a varied career as a management consultant, a sub-editor, a massage therapist (her clients included Meatloaf, who used to fly her out to wherever he was and included her in his live tour crew) and a hypnotherapist (the most lucrative of all her pursuits). She was in her late 50s when she embarked upon a foundation course in drawing, followed by a degree at Camberwell for which she was awarded first class honours. Her work has been exhibited in a number of group shows including one curated by Grayson Perry, and an artwork charting the Battle of Brexit from June 2016 to December 2017 in 22 A3-sized sections (presently hanging beside the circular mirror in her front room) is in the process of being approved for acquisition by the British Museum.

IAP A3: background, research and process

Background

The brief for this assignment asked us to create a series of images around a group we are a part of (mirror) or one that we join for the purpose of the assignment (window). I have mentioned in previous posts that I live and work alone in Brighton, where I have no history or connections. I don’t belong to any groups here and at present I don’t feel entitled, or indeed willing, to join one simply in order to photograph it. I did, however, have a couple of social events coming up in my calendar – a meal with some old schoolfriends in London and a visit to an artist friend in Hastings – so I decided to use those as potential subjects for the assignment.

The schoolfriends met for a meal at Zedel Brasserie near Piccadilly Circus. I took some photos as the evening progressed, for the most part without asking people to pose, as I felt that this candid approach might offer an insider perspective by conveying a sense of the viewer being physically embedded in, and therefore part of, the group. Disappointingly, however, my camera (a Panasonic Lumix GX9) again performed very badly in the low light, and the images were all extremely noisy. I am gradually coming to understand the limitations of this camera, which I bought last summer as a compact and portable alternative to my Canon EOS 6D Mark II and which performs a lot worse in low light than my previous compact, a Canon G15 with only half the pixels of the Lumix. Nevertheless, the shoot was not a waste of time because the only way of really getting to grips with how a camera actually performs in different situations is to try it out, and I was able to use the images for exercise 3.4 on the gaze.

The other event was a trip to Hastings to see my friend Brigitte, who I have known since the early 80s when we were both part of a large community of friends in London. My visit was intended to be social, and I didn’t want to turn it entirely into a photo shoot so didn’t take a large number of pictures. And as with the schoolfriends meet-up, I decided to take them in the course of our exchanges rather than asking Brigitte to pose, with the hope that something of our mutual familiarity would be captured and give the sense of an insider perspective.

I have mused at length in another post about the concept of inside/outside, and my relationship with Brigitte highlights some further points on the subject. Given that we have known each other for almost 40 years, share many friends in common, have at times lived in the same house, have even worked together briefly and have countless shared experiences, I can unequivocally say that we are mutual insiders. However, over the past couple of decades Brigitte has gradually been losing her hearing and is now profoundly deaf, to the point that her hearing aid is now of negligible assistance and she relies entirely on lipreading. This makes me an outsider in terms of the way she experiences just about everything in daily life. But I don’t for one moment feel that it makes me an outsider in relation to her either generally or as my project subject, nor that it prevents me from having an intuitive understanding of the challenges she faces that I don’t face myself.

Research

In preparation for this assignment I revisited Howarth & McLaren (2016) and made a close study in particular of the photographers whose approach to achieving a sense of insiderness I wished to try and emulate. These included Martine Fougeron, Nadia Sablin, Liz Hingley, Birte Kaufmann, Annalisa Brambilla and Douglas Adesko, all of whom offer the viewer a sense of being present but unnoticed: something akin to an insider or a fly on the wall. All also seem to be passively watching their subjects rather than directing them or asking them to pose or even drawing their attention towards the camera. As mentioned above, I decided to take a similar approach to this assignment in the hope that a sense of intimate presence might emerge.

Process

Back home it took me some time to select my final edit from my shortlist of eight, but I eventually dropped two images (1013413 and 1013426) because they felt out of scale and didn’t seem to sit well with the others. I then spent several days editing Brigitte’s closed eyes in 1013412, transplanting an open pair from another image and adjusting them little by little until they had the correct perspective.

I decided at an early stage that I would eventually print the images onto fabric, both because this seemed an appropriate medium for a portrait of an artist who works in textiles and also because Brigitte was very enthusiastic about a book I made for CAN by transfer printing onto calico. I ordered sample prints from Contrado on three different fabrics that I felt might give the effect I hope to achieve – the impression at first glance that the image might have been stitched rather than printed onto the fabric. The samples came back very quickly, then it took me a day or two of looking at them repeatedly before I settled on my final choice.

I was first drawn to the middle option above, the 228 gsm natural linen, mainly because the colours were significantly better on this one. I immediately discounted the 260 gsm Gaia Eco recycled fabric (bottom) as I liked neither the texture nor the colours. But the more I looked at the third option (top), the 480 gsm Sailor’s canvas, the more I felt it was the best choice, despite its darkness and the magenta shift in the colours. It really does look almost like a tapestry, and the fabric is so strong and heavy I think it might work really well in book form. I have now experimented with cutting one edge of the fabric with crimping shears, and it seems to hold its shape very well, so I could use crimping to finish the edges, much like the rag books of my childhood.

Having made my choice of print medium I have adjusted my tiff files to compensate for the darkness of the sample print. But I won’t proceed with ordering any further prints until I have submitted the work I’ve done on the project so far to my tutor for his feedback.

References and resources

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2016) Family Photography Now. New York: Thames & Hudson.

IAP A3: reflection before tutor feedback

I am aware that this submission is not exactly what the assignment brief asked for, in that it specifically asked for a study of a group and my response is limited to a single person. Nevertheless, it is my understanding that the key intention of the brief was to examine ways of visually communicating a sense of insiderness, and I feel that it has been possible to explore this with a single subject by focusing on the relationship between the subject and myself.

I could certainly have benefitted from having shot more photos for the project, not least because I might have saved myself a lot of time replacing Brigitte’s closed eyes in the final image with an open pair from another photo – although in the event that was an enjoyable exercise and one that allowed me to practice some of the skills I learned during the four months I was privileged to have access to LinkedInLearning during a pilot study run last year by OCA. In retrospect I would also have included some posed shots as well as the candid ones I restricted myself to on the day. But despite the limited quantity of images I took, I feel I have ended up with sufficient to offer a fair representation and impression of Brigitte’s lifestyle and work.

A couple of things I am particularly happy with… I did not consciously capture Brigitte alongside her print of Vivienne Westwood in the third image in the series, and am pleased at the fortuitous placement and the parallels between the two in terms of colouring and facial expression. I also like the inevitable Van Eyck Arnolfini reference raised by the convex mirror in image four.

I am looking forward to doing further work on ideas for presenting the project at assessment. As discussed in an earlier post, I decided at an early stage that the final prints would be on fabric, and I am currently leaning strongly towards a rag book format, but am keeping my mind open to other options and inspiration.

IAP A3: reflection after tutor feedback

My tutor’s feedback on this project was absolutely spot on in its identification of the reasons why my submission does not achieve my intention of creating a sense of insiderness in relation to my subject. Simply put, I did not engage with Brigitte sufficiently and did not take enough photographs of her to provide a basis for my profile of her, and, in my tutor’s words, the “lack of images to edit from [couldn’t] meet [my] aim of a producing an ‘intimate presence’.” My tutor is also correct in his identification of the underlying reasons behind my insufficient input: “I think the issue has been one of confidence, a reluctance to take the reigns, rather than showing direction you have become too passive.” He adds: “My guess is that Brigitte’s deafness probably also contributed to your reluctance to take the type of images you wished to produce.”

I am grateful for this insightful feedback, and I fully accept and acknowledge its accuracy. I also appreciate the fact that it points precisely to what I need to change if I want to have a better outcome from future projects. I also found the resources my tutor recommended for me helpful. While I have seen Julian Germain’s For Every Minute […] before, revisiting it in this context showed me how I could have made more of the unique character of Brigitte’s home and the objects she populates it with. Martin Usborne’s I’ve Lived in East London […] was new to me and I absolutely loved it and have ordered a second-hand copy of the book so that I can study it in closer detail. I am of course familiar with a lot of Nan Goldin’s work but hadn’t seen her images of friends’ children before, and it was interesting to hear her talk about what the images mean to her. All three resources emphasised my tutor’s point that creating a profile of a person that reveals character takes time and patience, neither of which I invested into this assignment.

I can of course point to the reasons why I didn’t invest the time the project needed. This was a prearranged social visit to Brigitte, the first for more than a year, which I didn’t want to hijack for my own purposes, not least because I didn’t want her to think I’d only suggested it so that I could photograph her (which I hadn’t). We had a lot of catching up to do, and Brigitte’s deafness requires direct face to face visual contact so that she can lip-read. And she had a new, very timid old rescue dog which needed a lot of reassurance not to be terrified by my presence. But yes, these are all excuses, and I could have made the photo shoot a higher priority, for example by asking Brigitte in advance if we could make it so, setting aside part of my visit to the shoot and creating a plan for what I wanted to shoot rather than passively snapping. I know Brigitte would have been fine with that, so I only have myself to blame for not doing it with greater commitment.

Obviously a reshoot is out of the question due to the current ongoing coronavirus lockdown, so I now intend to proceed with my idea of creating a rag book from the images I have.