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IAP A4: background, research and process

Background

Ever 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 many independent 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 seem to exist in an eternal present with no sense of what came before or afterwards, frozen moments in time with no past or future, 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 all about the mutual relationship between words and images, I realised that these pictures and their association in my mind with the words Once Upon a Time, expressing their sense of stories waiting to be revealed, might be a suitable project for the assignment.

In the early evening of Friday 20 March I heard the government instructing all non-essential businesses to close for an unspecified period due to the coronavirus and 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. Some businesses had already closed their doors, but the final six pictures in my series were all taken that evening.

The introduction of lockdown has of course given the 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. I later considered hinting at this by making my title Once Upon a Time (10.01.20–20.03.20) or Once Upon a Time: A Profile of Kemptown before Corona.

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

As mentioned above, I started making this series without a specific intention and only later decided to use it for assignment 4. Between 10 January and 20 March when the 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. After several passes I had whittled the numbers down to my final shortlist of 33, and 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 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 spent the next few days 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 Kemptown and the people who live and work here. I got rid of three, then a day or two later another three, and then I felt it was time to seek some outside feedback. I asked a friend who works as a researcher and curator at a private photo collection to take a look and give me his opinion on whether cutting any more would dilute the overall story and which ones he would choose to lose. His response was that he would cut 1013354 because it didn’t have such a strong sense as the others of a story taking place, and 1013443 and 1013445 because they both included people directly addressing the camera, which broke the feeling of looking in unobserved at others’ lives. (These are images 5, 6 and 7 in the gallery of eliminated images below.) I immediately recognised that he was correct about all three images and felt surprised that I hadn’t seen these points myself. The remaining 24 images are undoubtedly a better set now that these three have been removed.

I also asked my friend what he thought about the relative merits of the three titles I had been considering: Once Upon a Time, or one that intimated the future we can’t see coming in the images: Once Upon a Time (10.01.20–20.03.20) or Once Upon a Time: A Profile of Kemptown before Corona. His response was to suggest the title Once Upon a Time in Kemptown to evoke the film Once Upon a Time in America, which he felt was mirrored in some of the atmospheres, the sense some scenes have of taking place at the margins of society and the law, and specific references like Pizza Face for Scar Face. Again I felt that this was good advice and decided to follow it. Of course, there is now a new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I haven’t seen, know nothing about (except that Brad Pitt is connected) and will be what this title evokes for some, perhaps bringing up a completely different set of associations and references. But titles are potentially as polysemous as images and I’m now fully aware that the viewer is co-creator of the meaning of both, so I’m not too concerned about this potential for confusion.

Shortlisted images eliminated from the final set

IAP A4: reflection before tutor feedback

I am conscious that I have not yet found the optimal camera settings for this kind of image, and consequently there is sometimes more noise in them than I would like and some are less sharp than they would ideally be. About 2.5 weeks into the lockdown on 7 April I noticed that the moon was full and low in a clear sky, and on impulse I grabbed my camera and a telephoto lens and took a few shots. They were ok but not very sharp. Then I remembered that there’s a settings formula called the Looney 11 Rule for photographing the moon, the lunar equivalent of the Sunny 16 Rule. I looked it up and took a few more pics using that formula of f/11 and 1/100 with ISO 100, which resulted in much sharper images. It occurred to me that it might be worth trying that setting for these night-time window scenes, and I’m looking forward to trying that when lockdown is over. It’s a learning process and one I will definitely be continuing.

I’m also aware that the actual portraits in the images are invariably very small as a proportion of the overall image area, and that perhaps they barely qualify as portraits at all. I think it’s probably true to say that they’re more about capturing the spirit of the place and universal human interactions than revealing anything specific about the people in the images.

On the plus side, as an avid people-watcher and observer of body language I have a personal liking for images like these and find them to have a sense of narrative and drama. I am happy with some of the chance captures, such as the sinister and shadowy character to the right of the second image (the farm shop in a wagon), the lattice of lights reflected off a passing car in the third (Pizza Face) image, the fact that the man in the eighth image to the left of the Photobot sign looks like an actor I recognise but can’t identify (is he? isn’t he? I don’t know), the Hopperesque atmosphere of the 12th image (people in a coffee shop), and the many disruptive overlays created by reflections.

I recognise that the number of images in the series is considerably higher than specified for this assignment, but I’m reluctant to drop any more because I feel that each one portrays part of the collective story of this particular area of Brighton.

My intention for presenting the series at assessment is to print the images on glossy paper at A3 size, because making a test print of one of the images at this size showed me that they benefit considerably from being viewed at A3 compared to A4. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, the reflective surface of glossy prints works far better than a matte surface for these particular images.

IAP A4: assignment revised

Intimations of a pandemic

“We’ve other things to think about, what with this fever everybody’s talking of.”

That evening a neighbour started running a high fever accompanied by delirium. One of the pustules was beginning to suppurate, and presently split open like an overripe fruit.

Obviously the abscesses had to be lanced. Two crisscross strokes, and the ganglion disgorged a mixture of blood and pus.

The local press, so lavish of news about the rats, now had nothing to say. For rats died in the street; men in their homes. And newspapers are concerned only with the street.

Meanwhile, government and municipal officials were putting their heads together. So long as each individual doctor had come across only two or three cases, no one had thought of taking action. But it was merely a matter of adding up the figures and, once this had been done, the total was startling.

In a very few days the number of cases had risen by leaps and bounds, and it became evident to all observers of this strange malady that a real epidemic had set in.

“I was in China for a good part of my career, and I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago. Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion. The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that wouldn’t do at all. Come now, you know as well as I do what it is.”

Though blue, the sky had a dull sheen that was softening as the light declined.
“It’s hardly credible. But everything points to its being plague.”
The word “plague” had just been uttered for the first time.

With very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

References and resources

All accompanying captions are edited excerpts from:
Camus, A (1948). The Plague. English translation by Gilbert, S. (Reprint 2010). London: Penguin Essentials.

IAP A4: reflection after tutor feedback

Once again my tutor provided extremely helpful feedback, which encouraged me to make a new edit with a revised emphasis of perspective. My original focus had been on the diverse character of my local area’s businesses and inhabitants, and while I had mentioned the sense that the images have of an unknowable future and had considered including a reference to the subsequent arrival of covid-19 and lockdown in my title, I had ultimately omitted this perspective from the edit I submitted for tutor feedback. The feedback I received from my tutor encouraged me to revisit this aspect, and I revised the overall perspective to focus directly on the approaching virus – which in fact was already present but as yet not fully recognised, acknowledged or understood, all the images having been shot between 10 January and 20 March.

Having adopted this different emphasis, I found 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, since I no longer felt the need to try and cover as many different “types” of business and inhabitant as possible to avoid losing the essential character of the area – which was the difficulty I’d faced in my first edit. This time I was looking for those that spoke most strongly to the new narrative of the impending epidemic.

The new perspective also gave me a starting point for including the brief’s requirement to accompany the images with text. I had previously noted the obvious parallels with the period of emerging recognition of plague in Camus’s novel, and had gone as far as obtaining a copy and looking for appropriate passages of text. But with my previous 28-image edit the task was impossibly unwieldy. Now it fell quite easily into place, and after I’d selected the most relevant snippets of text I immediately found resonances between each of the passages and individual images in my new edit, which can be viewed here.
– The first image, for example, includes a shadowy and foreboding figure in the right foreground, which is almost completely imperceptible on screen and which I only first spotted when I printed the image out. I decided to lighten this area of the image to make the figure more visible on screen and allow it to become a motif or augur for the impending virus. It wasn’t until I did this that I noticed that the words County Hospital were also now visible on the building behind him, which acts as a relay in Barthes’ (1987) terms, reinforcing the reference to fever in the first accompanying text snippet.
– In its new context, the second image’s Pizza Face signage becomes a gruesome reminder that the term is often used to denote someone with spots or pustules, and in the accompanying text snippet the suppurating abscesses of plague are graphically described.
– Image 3, of a barber at work with a client, is a reminder that the Royal College of Surgeons started life in the 16th century as the Worshipful Company of Barber Surgeons, and that barbers were in fact the first surgeons, due merely to their ownership of the sharpest implements available. The accompanying text snippet describes the process of lancing the plague pustules.
– Image 4 counterpoints a woman lit by a homely glow in a domestic-style environment (albeit actually a dual-purpose cafe and antiques shop) with a man in a dark and bleak-looking street, while the text snippet discusses the different way events are reported in the home and the street.
– Image 5 has a sense of assessing, judging, and perhaps arriving at an awkward conclusion, while the text snippet covers the same processes as they take place at municipal and individual levels.
– Now accompanied by a text snippet describing the dawning realisation of epidemic, the hands on the subject’s head in image 6 become suggestive of puzzlement or dismay.
– Image 7 captures people in conversation, reflecting the text snippet which is a dialogue passage illustrating the ways that denial of the epidemic turned into reluctant acknowledgement.
– Image 8 is another barbershop, where the kind of chit-chat in the accompanying text snippet often takes place. The image is also infused with patches of blue, resonating with the reference in the text to the dull-sheened blue sky.
– Image 9 shows Everyman, aka the man in the street, the man on the Clapham omnibus and literally here the man in the pub, going about his business as if the world will always be stable and predictable, while the text snippet describes this specific denial-prone mindset. This image was shot on 20 March, about two hours after the lockdown was announced.

However, 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 decided to try another approach. This time I picked out an element in each image that, while not central to the main narrative of the scene, seemed to me to be important in conveying some of the feeling of hidden histories and futures. Somewhat similar to Barthes’ idea of a punctum, these elements trigger emotional responses in me that are both highly subjective and outweigh their apparent significance to the image. I used these elements as labels for the images, and found that they offered supplementary interpretations of the images without closing down or obscuring the main narrative in the way that the Camus snippets had done.

References and resources

Barthes, R. (1987) Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

IAP A4: final for assessment

Project statement

I was drawn to photographing these scenes for the way they seem to catch their subjects mid-story in a narrative with a hidden history and an unknowable future. Their sense of portent became stronger in retrospect as Covid-19 revealed itself to be the future that lay in wait.

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.