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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.

IAP A2: background, research and process

Background

Of the three sisters in my family, middle sister Jane has always been the queen of glamour, so it was no great surprise when she decided in 2007 to have breast implants. I was more surprised to learn at the beginning of 2019 that she was going to have them removed, because until then I didn’t know that one of her implants had ruptured during a routine mammogram. Neither had I heard of breast implant illness (BII), nor did I know that Jane’s and other Allergan-brand implants had by then been heavily implicated in 457 global cases of breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL) and nine patient deaths – figures that soared in the following months to reach 573 cases and 33 deaths by July 2019, when the FDA requested Allergan to recall a number of its breast implant products after establishing that 481 of the cases and 12 of the 13 deaths with identifiable implant brands involved Allergan products.

Neither was I aware how complex and painful it is to have breast implants removed, or how long the recovery period is, both physically and psychologically. I knew nothing of the capsules of fibrous scar tissue that form around the implants or the way that these can adhere to the ribcage, making their removal along with the implants sometimes difficult or even impossible. All these things I learned only after Jane’s explant, when she asked me to accompany her while she had additional minor reconstructive surgery, in the immediate aftermath of which she would be unable to carry anything and might need some degree of personal care. I willingly agreed, and in June 2019 we travelled together to Birmingham for what turned out to be the first of two reconstructive procedures, with the second taking place last week.

Research

After Jane asked me to accompany her for her reconstructive surgery I joined a Facebook BII group she recommended, which opened my eyes for the first time to all the abovementioned implant-related issues. In terms of photographers, I had the work of several artists in mind as I approached this assignment, most notably Philip Toledo’s Days with My Father, Matt Finn’s Mother, Elina Brotherus’s Annonciation and other projects, and Nigel Shafran’s Dad’s Office along with his other portrayals of the domestic environment. The main thing I took from all these photographers was that I aimed to make images capturing something of the impression and feeling of being alongside Jane as she went through her surgical procedure rather than attempting to document any of the specific clinical details.

Process

On our first trip to the clinic in Birmingham last June I took a few pictures with no particular intention in mind. This time I took far more photos with the aim of using them for this assignment. In the event I did incorporate one image from the June 2019 pics into the January 2020 set – this is the first image in the set, showing Jane de-stressing on the floor before we set off from her home near Bristol to catch the train.

Revisiting Jo Spence’s work just before I set off to meet up with Jane this time had prompted me to make a mental note to include images with the sense of an action taking place rather than just static poses. Together with my experiments with continuous shooting during the exercises for A2 which demonstrated the value of having several similar shots to choose from, this led me to decide that I would shoot all the images for the project using continuous shooting. Since there would likely be movement in the images, I also again decided to use shutter speed priority mode in order to minimise movement blur.

IAP A2: reflection before tutor feedback

I had no opportunity to review the images I shot for this project before I returned home, so was disappointed to find that my decision to use continuous shooting and a fast shutter speed had caused many of the images to lack the sharpness of focus I would have liked them to have. This was especially the case for the pictures of Jane herself, and in some cases the problem was exacerbated by the presence of visible noise, which was a consequence of shooting in some poorly lit locations with only available light and attempting to compensate for this by setting the ISO at a level that in retrospect I can see was higher than advisable. Since there is no possibility of reshooting I will have to go with what I have, but I’ve learned a valuable lesson for the future, being that it really is a better idea to optimise the settings for each image individually rather than going for the scattergun approach I took here.

I’m a little unsure whether the series is too literal in its narrative content, perhaps more like an illustrated story than it should be, and I will be interested to hear what my tutor has to say about this.

On the plus side there are things I was only half aware of at the time I shot the images that have turned out better than I expected. The fortuitous scattering of petals in the first image which emphasise the impending vulnerability also suggested by her prone posture. The way the clinic and its clinical waste shed can be seen to represent the two faces of the cosmetic surgery industry – the glossy brochure on the one hand and reality on the other. And the way that Jane and the painting behind her in the final image evoke Munch’s The Scream, yet the preceding image of evening light on the curtain anchors it into calmness and reflects the fact that this traumatic process is drawing to a close. And I feel the colour palette of warm dark earth tones and greens that runs through the images works to pull them together as a set.

I have a few ideas mulling around for presenting the images for assessment. I’ve tried out various print settings and have found a combination that seems to work well, at least for the test images I’ve printed so far. One idea I’m considering is trying to find a way to incorporate some of the materials I came across while researching the project – FDA press releases, breast implant brochures etc – into my presentation. Perhaps a book might be a good solution. I don’t feel I need to make a decision about this immediately, though. Past experience has taught me that I will very likely change all my presentations when the time comes to finalise my work for assessment anyway.

IAP A2: tutor-recommended research

In his feedback my tutor pointed me to a video of Larry Sultan discussing his project Pictures from Home (1983–92), in which Sultan spoke about an issue that I have also encountered in this project with my sister – the feeling that I am in some way betraying a trust as I present her experience in my own images and words, which I know are not the ones she would use herself. This issue is compounded for me by the fact that I have been attempting to offer a candid and non-glamourised account of a subject that has its very origin in Jane’s ongoing long-term project of creating the most glamorous possible version of herself.

In fact, her attitude towards breast implants has changed in the past couple of years, but the glamour dilemma touches other aspects of her personal history and preferences, too. She has for decades worked as an artist’s model, so presenting herself in a glamorous way is second nature to her. She has a highly developed understanding of how to arrange her body and facial expressions to best advantage, and it is as difficult for her not to do this as it would be for me to do it. Although we specifically discussed the fact that I would be looking to make more candid images than the ones that she is used to modelling for, and she fully understood the reasons underlying this, I know for sure (and can sympathise with the fact that) she prefers to be seen at “her best” – and in this sense the images I have made for the series do not “do her justice” and feel – as Larry Sultan expressed it – like something of a betrayal.

My tutor also referred me to Chris Verene’s work, which I hadn’t encountered before but which impressed me hugely for its directness and sense of presence. This is exactly the kind of relationship with my subjects I would like to be able to achieve. Verene’s subjects appear completely natural, even when they are presenting themselves directly to the camera, and we can sense – and vicariously experience – the intimacy between them and Verene. The photographs often have wonky horizontals and chaotic environments that make them look at first glance like snapshots, but their rich, depth-promoting light and almost tangible textures mean we are immediately transported into the scenes and they feel like real life. The candid and unforced sense of these images is exactly what I would have liked to capture in my photos of Jane, and this is part of the reason I mostly shot without asking her to pose – which she often did anyway when she became aware that I was shooting. This approach was not very successful for the reasons I have outlined in other reflection on this series, and I sense that Verene takes a different approach, perhaps biding his time patiently until all sense of the camera’s presence has disappeared, rather than following people around snatching at shots on the move as I did.

Verene’s work put me in mind of Alessandra Sanguinetti’s photos documenting a five-year period in the life of two young cousins, and also Sally Mann’s images of her own children.

The third artist my tutor referred me to was Tina Barney, whose work I have seen before and who is also very successful at creating images that give the viewer a sense that we are seeing real life in progress, that we are part of the scene and experiencing it directly through our own eyes.

References and resources

Galerie (2017) Tina Barney’s Strikingly Intimate Photographs of American Life. Available at https://www.galeriemagazine.com/tina-barneys-strikingly-intimate-photographs-american-life/ [accessed 20.02.20]
Mann, S. (nd) Sally Mann. Available at https://www.sallymann.com/new-gallery-1 [accessed 20.02.20]
Sanguinetti, A. (2000) The Adventures of Giulle and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams. Available at https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/alessandra-sanguinetti-the-adventures-of-guille-and-belinda-and-the-enigmatic-meaning-of-their-dreams/ [accessed 20.02.20]
SFMOMO (nd) Larry Sultan discovers his family through photography. Available at https://www.sfmoma.org/watch/larry-sultan-discovers-his-family-through-photography [accessed 20.02.20]
Verene, C. (nd) Family. Available at http://chrisverene.com/work/family/ [accessed 20.02.20]

IAP A2: reflection after tutor feedback

My tutor suggested that I go back to the original images to create a new edit that gets closer to investigating the emotions and feelings around my sister and her post-breast explant surgery story rather than documenting the literal journey to the clinic. I found this a really helpful suggestion, because I had sensed that I’d focused too closely on documenting the journey itself, but hadn’t been able to pinpoint what the alternative element was.

I now realise also that I had been trying to edit the series to fit the brief as closely as possible instead of building the narrative supplied by the images on its own terms. So I literally went back to all 800 or so original images and created a new edit from scratch. This is the edit that now appears in the A2 assignment post. I am much happier with this one – I feel that it hangs together better both visually and as a narrative series, and also offers more insight into Jane’s experience.

Nine of the 12 images from the first edit made it through to the second edit, but these three didn’t make the cut this time:

And three new images joined the edit. I didn’t consciously aim to keep the same number of images – it might have been that the new edit contained only five or six images in total, but once I’d gone through the process of creating a new shortlist (numbering around 30) and whittling them down to remove those that were superfluous or didn’t fit so well with the overall look and feel, 12 images remained. These are the newcomers:

The first new image is a direct switch of Jane on the train to Birmingham in January 2020 for a similar image from the earlier surgery trip in June 2019. This particular switch was suggested by my tutor, and I now recognise that the June 2019 image is a much better choice. My tutor also astutely recognised that “working on personal projects can be difficult, particularly looking in on family” and that “maybe you are having an issue with portraying your sister […] where she is off-guard, vulnerable, emotional.” This was an extremely helpful insight, as was the Larry Sultan video he referred me to, which I have reviewed in a previous post. I had indeed rejected the older image precisely because I knew that Jane wouldn’t like it, even though she has at no stage asked me not to include “unflattering” portraits of her. But this image hints at an important part of her experience in this story – her fears about the outcome of the surgery and the competence of the surgeon, which meant that she barely slept the night before we travelled to Birmingham and woke up with a migraine. It also illustrates, as my tutor put it, her vulnerability – she is asleep and oblivious as the world rushes by.

The other changes both relate to my now feeling less concerned with the requirements of the brief and more interested in the internal narrative of the series. In creating my original edit I was thinking of the images of Jane as being those that would fulfil the assignment brief (five portraits using studio and location) and the others as being a kind of extra that didn’t really count as part of the brief. Both of the remaining now-dropped images were portraits of Jane that were essentially there to make up the numbers. And now that my tutor has encouraged me to think of the non-portrait images as being an equally important part of the series I have added two more of these, and feel that they both add something to the viewer’s understanding of Jane’s experience. I hadn’t registered previously that the news or weather reporter on the clinic’s TV screen is wearing an expression of horror and has her hands cupped close to her breasts in an out-of-control environment, and noticing this was part of the reason I included it this time. The fourth new image finds Jane’s surgery-related paraphernalia – the painkillers, antibiotics and dressings – making an incongruous companion to her stylish ankle boots.

These changes have also reduced the overall problems with noise and insufficiently sharp focus, as these issues occurred mostly with the portrait images. In fact my tutor had highlighted another two images of Jane as possible candidates for a new edit, but both of these had unfeasibly large amounts of noise, which of course wasn’t visible on the contact sheets.

After creating the new edit I also gathered together some of the most relevant research materials I had found while investigating the background issue of breast implants and breast implant-related disease. I have still not made a decision about whether to include these, or perhaps selected brief passages from them, in my final presentation for assessment, but having whittled them down to about a dozen documents and made tiffs of them, I now have them to hand in case I do want to include them when the time comes.

The full original edit I presented to my tutor for his feedback can be viewed below.

A2 original edit before tutor feedback

IAP A2: developing a presentation for assessment

For the past few days I have been working on the idea of presenting the project for assessment in book form, and have created three alternative drafts. One version has minimal accompanying text, the second has a strand of text running through the book, and the third has the accompanying text at the end of the book. If I do decide to go for the book format I would get the final version printed by Blurb, but I will wait until they have one of their regular 40% discount offers and use the interim period to get some distance from the drafts so that I can come back to them with a more objective viewpoint.

A pdf of the version with minimal accompanying text can be viewed here. A pdf of the version with a strand of text running through the book can be viewed here. A pdf of the version with the text at the end of the book can be viewed here.

Update 26 February

Dipping into the three versions repeatedly has made it clear to me that the version with the strand of text running through the book doesn’t work. While my original intention with this version was to allow the two narrative threads provided by text and images respectively to run parallel to each other, I have found that it’s impossible to read the text without feeling that the facing-page image is an illustration of or response to that text, which is not the case, and the reading of the images is distorted as a result. So my choice is now between the version with minimal text and the one with the text placed at the end of the book, where it can provide a contextual background to the images. I am currently undecided which option to go for. One strand of thought is that the text is surplus to requirements and the version with minimal text says that all needs to be said. And the other is that the text places the story told in the images into a broader context. I will request my peers’ views about which version works best in the Critiques forum.

Update 28 February

The unanimous view from the forum was that the version with minimal text was preferred. One commenter gave a very clear explanation of his impression of the differences between the two versions and what they were aiming to achieve, which helped enormously to clarify my thinking. And another commenter suggested condensing the minimal text still further and placing it all at the front of the book, and also varying the flow of images through the book. I have taken up both these very helpful suggestions and feel the outcome is a considerable improvement. The new (and possibly final) draft can be viewed here. The forum comments can be read here.

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.

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 A5: background, research and process

Background

The announcement on Friday 20 March of lockdown measures to be implemented as of Monday 23 March brought a sudden and most remarkable change to every aspect of daily life. It’s already difficult now to appreciate quite how dramatic the change was, and how scrupulously everyone, almost without exception, followed the guidelines in the weeks that followed. Public spaces were deserted, traffic was virtually non-existent and the overwhelming majority of people seemed to be sticking to the guidelines of emerging from their homes only for “essential” reasons and the permitted hour of daily exercise.

Here in Brighton, police patrolled the beaches, moving anyone on who dared to sit or lie down. I was nervous about taking my camera out on my daily walks in case I was challenged about the “non-essential” nature of my activity, so I often used my phone camera instead. I was acutely aware that these were extraordinary times, and aimed to record images falling into two broad categories: those that captured sights that were specific to the experience of lockdown (signs of the time), and those that reflected the sense of isolation that lockdown brought to many, myself included, and/or were symbolic of the mood of foreboding that permeated the fabric of life at the time.

Research

For this project I didn’t do any specific research because I wanted the series to be an attempt to tap as directly as possible into my own responses to this once-in-a-lifetime situation and didn’t want those responses to be mediated by a conscious or unconscious emulation of other people’s work. I wanted it to be a visceral response to the experience of lockdown, and focused on looking around me for signs and symbols that tapped into what I was experiencing at a gut level.

Process

I began the project on 30 March and shot more than 750 images for it over the next month and a half, during which time there was a slow rise in the amount of activity in public spaces and a gradual increase in the amount of traffic on the roads, but both remained well below normal levels for the time of year. Each day I went through all the images I’d shot that day, shortlisting and processing those that I deemed to be suitable candidates for potential inclusion in the final edit. I felt that it was important to do this as I went along, so that the selected images would be a running commentary of my impressions and experiences at the time, and not a retrospective view compiled later.

From these shortlisted images I also made an ever-changing “final edit”, and as this progressed it became clear to me that I was more interested in the images that spoke to my subjective experience of lockdown than those that captured the signs of the time, which by then were becoming ubiquitous and increasingly less interesting as a result. Almost certainly there will come a time when they’ll seem more interesting again, when the coronavirus experience is a distant memory (if indeed that ever transpires), but for now I have mothballed nearly all of that category.

On Thursday 7 May, with a sunny bank holiday weekend ahead, Boris Johnson intimated that lockdown restrictions would be made less onerous as of the following week. This led to an immediate return to normal levels of activity in public spaces and on the roads, at least here in Brighton. Apart from the residual signage and a few people wearing masks, there was no real indication that lockdown had ever taken place. I continued to make photos for this series over the next week, but on 14 May I decided that the lockdown experience I was aiming to record had unequivocally ended, and my final image was taken that day.

IAP A5: reflection before tutor feedback

This project began as an attempt to record the look and feel of the lockdown period, and gradually became more of a personal expression of the isolation and dislocation that I experienced during those first 7 weeks when the world seemed to stop in its tracks. Does it succeed in communicating something of those feelings, the strangeness of that time? I find it hard to know. Things that seemed strange at first feel normal now. Perhaps I’ll only be able to tell much later when I look back on the images from a distance.

I shot a huge quantity of images for this project – more than 750 – and did not have a prior feel for the kind of images I was looking for. Basically I used my camera and phone to examine and explore the new situation I found myself in, and this resulted in a wide range of different image styles and subjects. As I explained in an earlier post, I processed each day’s images as I went along, and shifted the ones that resonated most into a running but ever-changing shortlist.

At first there was an emphasis on the visible outward signs of pandemic – the empty public spaces, the behavioural prompts that suddenly appeared everywhere, queues at supermarkets, police patrolling the beaches – but these quickly became very familiar and lost their potency as signifiers of strangeness. Nevertheless I felt I wanted to retain one or two of these kinds of image to anchor the series in the pandemic event.

The final edit starts with a graffiti work that appeared within days of lockdown and was almost immediately painted over by another artist. The buildings in the left background are part of the Royal Sussex County Hospital, currently undergoing extensive redevelopment. For me this image captures the dissonance between the surreal, almost game-like experience of the early days of lockdown and the grim reality that was already coming into play.

The second image mirrors the graffiti hoarding and is the one “sign of the time” that I decided to retain. Images 3 and 4 show the oddly empty public spaces along the seafront area, the heavy clouds and bird respectively bringing a sense of foreboding into these usually bustling locations.

Images 5 and 6 are intended to convey the sense of confinement that soon became the dominant mood of the early lockdown weeks, while 7 and 8 illustrate the way we learned to become more self-sufficient – in these cases careful meal-planning and building up a stock of meals in the freezer in case of incapacity, and the use of lolly sticks to make a splint for a broken toe.

Images 9 and 10 return to the theme of confinement and isolation, expressed in the physical barriers (window/fire escape) to the outside world. The window/barrier metaphor is repeated in image 11, while its mirror image 12 suggests a lifting of the gloom as it becomes clear that the most intense period of lockdown is giving way to a less onerous version. The final pair of images are perhaps overly metaphorical, showing my foot stepping out and an empty Corona bottle in a waste bin.

I’ve enjoyed becoming more familiar with my Panasonic Lumix GX-9 during this period. Although I’ve had it for a year, it’s taken me a while to feel completely comfortable with it as all my previous cameras have been Canons, but I now feel I know my way around it and can get it to do what I want it to do. The images I took for this project on my phone were of course much smaller and less technically intentional, which is probably why I’ve only included two phone images in the final edit.

I feel that this series demands a minimalistic no-frills presentation to reflect the sparseness that has been seen across visual media during this time as we’ve become accustomed to seeing everything from meetings to yoga classes to news broadcasts and tv programmes via Zoom from makeshift studios. I would therefore intend to present it for assessment as straightforward A3 prints, in pairs/diptychs as above. Given that assessment is now entirely digital in format, I’m unsure as yet whether this will entail making the prints and presenting photos of the prints, or simply presenting them directly as digital “prints”, or some other solution (a virtual gallery, perhaps). I will leave that decision until after I’ve received tutor feedback.

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 A5: reflection after tutor feedback

Once again my tutor’s feedback was immensely helpful, and gave me the sense of direction I had struggled so hard to find in this project. My self-appointed aim throughout the work had been to capture what the experience of the covid-19 lockdown period looked and felt like, and I now see that this was impossibly broad in scope and I needed to define my intentions far more tightly. As my tutor pointed out, my final edit included two distinct narrative strands – one located in the public space and the other in the personal – and there was no sense of connection or consistency between the two. He recommended that I focus solely on the personal, selecting images that show my personal experience of lockdown and/or externalise the way I experienced it internally.

With this new, more specific brief in hand I went back to the full set of 750 original images and re-edited from scratch, a task that was infinitely easier now that my intended output was clearly defined. The outcome is clearly a significant improvement on my original submission and says much more about the practical and emotional experience of lockdown than the original edit.

My original self-appointed aim of trying to find a way to describe and communicate the strange world of lockdown was also seriously flawed in other respects. In the first place, what seemed at first to be extremely odd quickly became the new normal as images of scenes that would hitherto have been extraordinary became ubiquitous in every channel of communication.

I had also hoped to use lockdown as a route to explore my own innate creative potential, and described in my earlier posts on this assignment how that aim led me to avoid actively looking at how others were portraying the experience and consequently meant that I claimed not to have done any research. In fact the only way it would have been possible to avoid seeing other people’s responses to lockdown would have been to avoid all forms of media; and like many people I actually did the opposite and exposed myself to a continuous stream of interpretations and expressions of the experience emanating from news and social media as well as specific photography-related sources. These included Annie Liebovitz’s Still Life, Alice Zoo’s Spring, Viktoria Sorochinski’s lockdown self-portraits, George Selley’s lockdown landscapes, Dougie Wallace’s images of supermarket shoppers, Michelle Sank’s portraits of people taking their lockdown exercise, and Nadav Kander’s response to isolation.

Ultimately, however, I was unable to see the wood for the trees until my tutor guided me towards making the assignment a personal expression of my own internal experience of lockdown rather than trying to describe the world at large. This is a valuable lesson which not only finally made it possible for me to make sense of the work I did for this assignment but I feel will also serve me well for approaching future projects.

IAP A2: summary for assessment

Background

Of the three sisters in my family, middle sister Jane has always been the queen of glamour, so it was no great surprise when she decided in 2007 to have breast implants. I was more surprised to learn at the beginning of 2019 that she was going to have them removed, because until then I was unaware that one of her implants had ruptured during a routine mammogram. Neither had I heard of breast implant illness (BII), nor did I know that Jane’s and other Allergan-brand implants had by then been heavily implicated in 457 global cases of breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL) and nine patient deaths – figures that soared in the following months to reach 573 cases and 33 deaths by July 2019, when the FDA requested Allergan to recall a number of its breast implant products after establishing that 481 of the cases and 12 of the 13 deaths with identifiable implant brands involved Allergan products.

Neither was I aware how complex and painful it is to have breast implants removed, or how long the recovery period is, both physically and psychologically. All these things I learned only after Jane’s explant, when she asked me to accompany her while she had additional minor reconstructive surgery, in the immediate aftermath of which she would be unable to carry anything and might need some degree of personal care. In June 2019 we travelled together to Birmingham for what turned out to be the first of two reconstructive procedures, with the second taking place in January 2020.

Research

After Jane asked me to accompany her for her reconstructive surgery I joined a Facebook BII group she recommended, which opened my eyes for the first time to all the abovementioned implant-related issues. In terms of photographers, I had the work of several artists in mind as I approached this assignment, most notably Philip Toledo’s Days with My Father, Matt Finn’s Mother, Elina Brotherus’s Annonciation and other projects, and Nigel Shafran’s Dad’s Office along with his other portrayals of the domestic environment. The main thing I took from all these photographers was that I aimed to make images capturing something of the impression and feeling of being alongside Jane as she went through her surgical procedure rather than attempting to document any of the specific clinical details.

Process

On our first trip to the clinic in Birmingham in June 2019 I took a few pictures with no particular intention in mind. The second time I took far more photos with the aim of using them for this assignment. Revisiting Jo Spence’s work in January 2020 just before I set off to meet up with Jane prompted me to make a mental note to include images with the sense of an action taking place rather than just static poses. Together with my experiments with continuous shooting during the exercises for A2 which demonstrated the value of having several similar shots to choose from, this led me to decide that I would shoot all the images for the project using continuous shooting. Since there would likely be movement in the images, I also again decided to use shutter speed priority mode in order to minimise movement blur.

I had no opportunity to review the images I shot for this project before I returned home, so was disappointed to find that despite the fast shutter speeds my decision to use continuous shooting had caused many of the images to lack the sharpness of focus I would have liked them to have. This was especially the case for the pictures of Jane herself, and in some cases the problem was exacerbated by the presence of visible noise, which was a consequence of shooting in some poorly lit locations with only available light and attempting to compensate for this by setting the ISO at a level that in retrospect I can see was higher than advisable. There was no possibility of reshooting, but I learned a valuable lesson for the future, being that it really is a better idea to optimise the settings for each image individually rather than going for the scattergun approach I took here.

On the plus side there were things I was only half aware of at the time I shot the images that turned out better than I expected. The fortuitous scattering of petals in the first image which emphasise the impending vulnerability also suggested by her prone posture. The way the clinic and its clinical waste shed can be seen to represent the two faces of the cosmetic surgery industry – the glossy brochure on the one hand and the mundane reality on the other. And the way that Jane and the painting behind her in the final image evoke Munch’s The Scream, yet the preceding image of evening light on the curtain anchors it into calmness and reflects the fact that this traumatic process is drawing to a close. And I feel the colour palette of warm dark earth tones and greens that runs through the images works to pull them together as a set.

In his feedback my tutor pointed me to a video of Larry Sultan discussing his project Pictures from Home (1983–92), in which Sultan spoke about an issue that I have also encountered in this project with my sister – the feeling that I am in some way betraying a trust as I present her experience in my own images and words, which I know are not the ones she would use herself. This issue is compounded for me by the fact that I have been attempting to offer a candid and non-glamorised account of a subject that has its very origin in Jane’s ongoing long-term project of creating the most glamorous possible version of herself.

In fact, her attitude towards breast implants has changed in the past couple of years, but the glamour dilemma touches other aspects of her personal history and preferences, too. She has for decades worked as an artist’s model, so presenting herself in a glamorous way is second nature to her. She has a highly developed understanding of how to arrange her body and facial expressions to best advantage, and it is as difficult for her not to do this as it would be for me to do it. Although we specifically discussed the fact that I would be looking to make more candid images than the ones that she is used to modelling for, and she fully understood the reasons underlying this, I know for sure (and can sympathise with the fact that) she prefers to be seen at “her best” – and in this sense the images I have made for the series do not “do her justice” and feel – as Larry Sultan expressed it – like something of a betrayal.

My tutor suggested that I go back to the original images to create a new edit that came closer to investigating the emotions and feelings around my sister and her post-breast explant surgery story rather than documenting the literal journey to the clinic. I found this a really helpful suggestion, because I had sensed that I’d focused too closely on documenting the journey itself, but hadn’t been able to pinpoint what the alternative element was. I also now realised that I had been trying to edit the series to fit the brief as closely as possible instead of building the narrative supplied by the images on its own terms.

I now created a new edit from scratch. Nine of the 12 images from the first edit made it through to the second edit, and three new images joined the edit. The first new image is a direct switch of Jane on the train to Birmingham in January 2020 for a similar image from the earlier surgery trip in June 2019.  I had initially rejected the older image because I felt Jane wouldn’t like it, but it hints at an important part of her experience in this story – her fears about the outcome of the surgery and the competence of the surgeon, which meant that she barely slept the night before we travelled to Birmingham and woke up with a migraine. It also illustrates, as my tutor put it, her vulnerability – she is asleep and oblivious as the world rushes by.

The other changes both relate to my now feeling less concerned with the requirements of the brief and more interested in the internal narrative of the series. The reporter on the clinic’s TV screen wears an expression of horror and has her hands cupped close to her breasts in an out-of-control environment. The final new image finds Jane’s surgery-related paraphernalia – the painkillers, antibiotics and dressings – making an incongruous companion to her stylish ankle boots. These changes also reduced the overall problems with noise and insufficiently sharp focus, as these issues occurred mostly with the portrait images.

Presentation

The first option I explored for presenting the images at assessment was to just send them as prints. I tried out various print settings and found a combination that seemed to work well. Another idea I considered was to incorporate some of the materials I came across while researching the project – FDA press releases, breast implant brochures etc – into my presentation, and for this a book seemed to be an appropriate solution. I created three alternative book drafts – one with minimal accompanying text, which can be viewed here; a second with a strand of text from my research resources running through the book, which can be viewed here; and a third with the text at the end of the book, which can be viewed here.

I soon realised that the version with the strand of text running through the book made it impossible to read the text without feeling that the facing-page image was an illustration of or response to that text, which was not the case and therefore distorted the reading of the images. I was now unsure whether the version with minimal text said that all needed to be said, or whether the text placed the narrative of the images into a broader context, and decided to request my peers’ views via the Critiques forum. The unanimous view from the forum was that the version with minimal text was preferred. One commenter suggested condensing the minimal text still further and placing it all at the front of the book, and also varying the flow of images through the book, and I took both these suggestions on board. The forum comments can be read here.

After making further minor adjustments I had the book printed by Blurb, with the intention of submitting it for assessment. Covid-19 has, however, ruled this out, so instead I have made a short video that shows the physical book and am submitting this alongside the final print pdf and the individual images in a gallery format.

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.

IAP A5: summary for assessment

Background

The announcement on Friday 20 March of lockdown measures to be implemented as of Monday 23 March brought a sudden and most remarkable change to every aspect of daily life. It’s already difficult now to appreciate quite how dramatic the change was, and how scrupulously everyone, almost without exception, followed the guidelines in the weeks that followed. Public spaces were deserted, traffic was virtually non-existent and the overwhelming majority of people seemed to be sticking to the guidelines of emerging from their homes only for “essential” reasons and the permitted hour of daily exercise.

Here in Brighton, police patrolled the beaches, moving anyone on who dared to sit or lie down. I was nervous about taking my camera out on my daily walks in case I was challenged about the “non-essential” nature of my activity, so I often used my phone camera instead. I was acutely aware that these were extraordinary times, and aimed to record images falling into two broad categories: those that captured sights that were specific to the experience of lockdown (signs of the time), and those that reflected the sense of isolation that lockdown brought to many, myself included, and/or were symbolic of the mood of foreboding that permeated the fabric of life at the time.

Research

I wanted the series to tap as directly as possible into my own responses to this once-in-a-lifetime situation and didn’t want those responses to be mediated by conscious or unconscious emulation of other people’s work. But the only way it would have been possible to avoid seeing other people’s responses would have been to avoid all forms of media, and like many people I actually did the opposite and exposed myself to a continuous stream of interpretations and expressions of the experience emanating from news and social media as well as specific photography-related sources. These included Annie Liebovitz’s Still Life, Alice Zoo’s Spring, Viktoria Sorochinski’s lockdown self-portraits, George Selley’s lockdown landscapes, Dougie Wallace’s images of supermarket shoppers, Michelle Sank’s portraits of people taking their lockdown exercise, and Nadav Kander’s response to isolation.

Process

I began the project on 30 March and shot more than 750 images over the next month and a half, during which time there was a slow rise in the amount of activity in public spaces and a gradual increase in the amount of traffic on the roads, but both remained well below normal levels for the time of year. Each day I went through all the images I’d shot that day, shortlisting and processing those I deemed to be suitable candidates for potential inclusion in the final edit. I felt it was important to do this as I went along, so that the selected images would be a running commentary of my impressions and experiences at the time, and not a retrospective view compiled later.

On Thursday 7 May, with a sunny bank holiday weekend ahead, Boris Johnson intimated that lockdown restrictions would be made less onerous as of the following week. This led to an immediate return to normal levels of activity in public spaces and on the roads, at least here in Brighton. Apart from the residual signage and a few people wearing masks, there was no real indication that lockdown had ever taken place. I continued to make photos for this series over the next week, but on 14 May I decided that the lockdown experience I was aiming to record was over, and my final image was taken that day.

As the project had progressed it had gradually become clear to me that I was more interested in the images that spoke to my subjective experience of lockdown than those that captured the signs of the time in the public arena, which were becoming increasingly ubiquitous and consequently less interesting. Despite this, the 14 images I submitted to my tutor for feedback were divided 50:50 between personal and public depictions. He highlighted the fact that my final edit included two distinct narrative strands – one located in the public space and the other in the personal – and that there was no sense of connection or consistency between the two. He recommended that I focus solely on the personal, concentrating on images that show my personal experience of lockdown and/or externalise the way I experienced it internally.

This gave me the clear sense of direction I had struggled so hard to find, and I now re-edited from scratch, a task that was infinitely easier now that my intended output was precisely defined. The outcome is clearly a significant improvement on my original submission and says much more about the practical and emotional experience of lockdown than the original edit.

Presentation

I feel that this series demands a minimalistic no-frills presentation to reflect the sparseness that has been seen across visual media during this time as we’ve become accustomed to seeing everything from meetings to yoga classes to news broadcasts and tv programmes via Zoom from makeshift studios. It therefore seems appropriate to present the series as digital images, and in a studio setting I would make these as large as possible, perhaps even life-size.