Final Major Project: Future Directions

The end of this module and the MA course has arrived so quickly. With my head still spinning from the whirlwind of activity that preceded and encompassed the exhibition and website launch it is difficult to rationalise what might come next. 

I was surprised to be asked a number of times at the Reaching Out Into The Dark private view“So what’s next Justin?”, and as the reality that I’m soon going to be a former student starts to sink in, I’m obliged to start trying to come up with some answers.

Visitors to the ROITD Private View

Visitors to the ROITD Private View

Here is what I have so far:

Project

The work so far in this project feels very provisional, like only a surface scratched, with the FMP outcomes simply demonstrating the potential audience for the work and also how many more facets of this theme there are to uncover and explore. 

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far but already have a clear idea of the next few steps for the work, visually, which include:

·     The urgent need to include older people in this work. This is especially important as I’m confronted with lonely older people every day in my job, such that it feels almost criminal not to give them a platform in this project and a prominent one at that! There is also the need to represent younger people (adolescents mainly) and finding a way to reach this group and engage them with this work will be a future challenge no doubt.

·     A need to better represent the internal world of solitude and loneliness, both with more images of interior spaces, and by finding an effective way to visually depict the internal emotional landscape. I think my work already does this to some degree (hopefully), it certainly reflects my own internal emotional landscape in a sense, but there are a variety of emotional responses to this subject (not all of them negative of course) that would be really interesting states to explore photographically if this could be done in a manner that wasn’t too obvious and was based on a coherent visual strategy. My initial goal had been to explore solitude, this gradually evolved to me wanting to explore solitude and loneliness as I started to research the theme and understand the topic more. This further developed into a desire to better represent the positive aspects of a solitary life. Latterly though, I’ve thought a lot more about specific scenarios and how they could be explored, such as feeling alone despite being in a relationship, or the feeling of being alone among a large throng on a busy street in rush hour – all these experiences that are broiling away internally but which may never be discernible on the external surface of our persona, yet have a profound impact on the way we experience the world and relate to each other. This is a really interesting area that I am keen to explore further. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the exhibition concluded and it might even be separate project, or sub-project, as the potential ground to cover is vast.

My internal emotional landscape?

My internal emotional landscape?

·      I also want to examine the role that technology plays in our modern solitude. There’s an irony that while we were all sold these devices as ways to better connect with each other, we spend most of our time now experiencing daily life with our heads down fixated on a small screen whenever we are out in the world, such that the happenings of the world around us and the existence of other actual humans is no longer necessarily a vital part of our daily experience in the main. We thus live a voluntary solitude, detached from each other and hypnotised by our personal mini computers. It’s not clear whether these were the intended consequences of these devices but this is the reality we are faced with and it’s interesting to consider what that means for our emotional and mental health and what it means for our wider communities and societies. 

·     Reconsideration of the outputs and how best to use them is another element that can further progress the aims of the project. I’ve learnt a number of useful practical lessons during FMP, particularly from putting together an exhibition. Reflecting on the aspects of the planning that worked well and what things I’d wish to do differently in the event of a future exhibition is important learning to take forward. I’m also more convinced of the need for a book as an eventual output for this work. I arrived at this conclusion after seeing the work take shape during the website build and getting a clearer understanding of how the interaction of text and image might work to successfully communicate to the viewer on a page as well as a screen. Continuing to refine and mature the work over the coming year or two will gradually make a book project seem like a foreseeable future milestone of the project I believe and will offer yet another way to present and experience this work.

Considering one of the aims of this project is to stimulate dialogue and help to facilitate discussion about the experience of loneliness and solitude, I’ve always been keen to find a way to take the work outward in the form of a workshop. This had formed part of an (as it now seems) ambitious FMP project proposal, but it remains an important pillar of what I would consider to be a fully realised project.

Shutter Hub’s   Camera Amnesty   campaign to help homeless photographers

Shutter Hub’s Camera Amnesty campaign to help homeless photographers

To that end, I’ve already made initial contact with Shutter Hub, an organisation that has a lot of experience of delivering talks and workshops, about how we might collaborate to bring this work to a different audience in that format. Shutter Hub have already been working with potential target groups in their own outreach work and so it would be a potentially mutually beneficial collaboration that would align with their existing corporate activities. 

 

Practice 

Moving forward I have to consider how I will balance my photographic practice with imminent changes in my job, working pattern and place of abode. The MA has given me a much better understanding of how to approach trying to communicate through photographs and associated/accompanying media, as well as a grounding in how to carry out research to support one’s visual aims. I’ve also learned practical skills that will benefit my practice and my ability to connect and collaborate with other practitioners. The aspects of my practice that I will be concentrating on in the immediate post-MA future are likely to include:

·     Continued regular contextual research to support the ongoing progress of this project but also to provide the basis for potential future work of a different nature. It’s not always possible to directly quantify how the research done contributes to the final work but it certainly does, and this is one of the aspects that sets my current work apart from what I was producing before starting this course. My work now is supported by extensive research of visual and written media and prolonged reflection, whereas before I was just taking photographs that interested me for no clear reason. That’s not a bad thing in itself of course, but I can say that the work I’m producing now is a more eloquent expression of my ‘voice’ than anything I produced previously. This is only due to the research and consideration which underpins it and thus I look forward to further clarifying my voice with ongoing research and learning.

·     Writing will become an increasingly important element of my practice moving forward. I very much enjoyed writing for this project, in the process reawakening an interest in creative writing that I’d had in my much younger days. While continuing to write more critically during the course as well as book reviews elsewhere, I envisage less constrained writing being a larger proportion of my future output. I’ve found writing to be a good way to synthesise my reflections and the conclusions I’ve made about the work I’m doing, and so the writing serves to further my thoughts and offer another conduit to connect with the emotions that I always want to bring to my work. Thus, in the time that’s freed up after the completion of the MA I intend to take a writing course to help develop my competence in this area and will continue to write at every possible opportunity. 

Excerpt of my review of Robert Hirsch’s book  Seizing The Light  on   Amazon

Excerpt of my review of Robert Hirsch’s book Seizing The Light on Amazon

·     Another aspect of my practice that I will be concentrating more on in the future is networking and self-promotion (horrible as that sounds!). The exhibition cemented the importance of this for me, as the private view was attended by a number of people who became aware of me on social media. Edo Zollo, a photographer I’ve looked up to for years, was kind enough to visit my private view and stated that he’d been following me for years and that I was one of his favourite photographers. This was very surprising and obviously great to hear, but it also highlighted the importance of presenting yourself online. He’d never have heard of me otherwise and it’s currently the best way to connect with your audience, communicate your motivations and describe your practice in ways that people will hopefully identify and engage with. I saw this in action during this FMP and I have to take this aspect of my practice more seriously if I hope to reach a bigger audience, position myself for future professional opportunities and connect with potential collaborators. I’m by no means comfortable with what can at times seem like relentless self-promotion but I have to find a happy medium where I’m regularly nurturing this audience of supporters and steadily adding new followers as well, people who are supporters of my practice in one way or another. There is a lot to learn too about how to promote and market specific events. My exhibition only came together at very short notice, so it wasn’t possible to build a solid buzz about it with a long lead-up. In future, the planning of the exhibition will take better account of what’s needed to promote it effectively to give it the best possible chance of success. These practical lessons are one of the most useful takeaways from the MA course for me. Being an artist is great, the licence to stay in your head where dreams live, the onus to be creative, to challenge conventions and to bravely explore new territories. Yet there is no escaping the practical realities involved in researching, producing and promoting the work. I’ve learnt some of these realities first hand (my credit card can certainly give you some chapters about the harsh realities too!) in these final weeks and have a more pragmatic appreciation of what is required to continue making good work, that people will want to see and possibly support, in the future.

Final Major Project: Critical Basis For Presentation

As I reflect on nearing the end of the FMP, I’m obliged to consider what has and hasn’t worked in the way the work was presented on the website and at exhibition. The two key decisions about the presentation were 

·      grouping the images into triptychs 

·      presenting the images alongside text

I will endeavor to explain these decisions in this post.

Prior to starting this course I’d always thought of making photographs in terms of trying to create the single killer image, something as interesting and as beautiful as possible for its own sake. I’ve written in earlier modules about how repeated exposure to the work of professional practitioners on this course, and the opportunity to hear many of them discuss their work in interviews, gradually forced me to reconsider the importance of creating the single impactful image. It’s certainly easier to appreciate the value of a thoughtfully curated series of images when you feel the impact of the work either in a gallery or in quiet contemplation of a photobook. The potential for communication of a series of images is exponentially increased over what’s possible in a single frame. This understanding of the true importance of stringing images together arrived for me around the same time as I was trying to understand how to create visual narrative, for which analysis of Gregory Crewdson’s work was particularly helpful. 

So, I was struggling with the idea of narrative and how to create this both within an image and within a series of pictures. At this stage I was still shooting empty urban scenes exclusively and was not able to create anything that I felt effectively communicated the project’s themes. Feedback was always along the lines that the pictures were nice enough, but that the underlying message was not discernible.

Big lightbulb moment came at this exhibition

Big lightbulb moment came at this exhibition

Visiting the London Nights exhibition in May was a key moment, as I’d been wondering about how to solve the narrative question for quite a few months without feeling any closer to figuring it out and so was unsure how I’d be able to produce a successful Final Major Project. At London Nights I saw lots of inspiring work, but a series of images presented in triptych really stuck with me – the connections suggested between each photograph were close yet non-specific enough, that the viewer was able to make links of their own without feeling that the photographer was being too didactic. 

Attempted diptych

Attempted diptych

At that stage I’d already experimented with a couple of diptychs, which I’d found unsatisfactory, but the third image seemed to bring balance and a plethora of additional narrative possibilities. The whole narrative thread opened out in front of my eyes and I resolved to try this with my own work. It was a ‘lightbulb moment’ in the journey of this project.  

Attempt to create an image with some internal narrative

Attempt to create an image with some internal narrative

Once the penny had dropped, I tried creating semi-staged images, in a nod towards Crewdson, to see if I could create more visual intrigue in this way. Unsurprisingly, it did not work too well. The triptypchs didn’t work too well either initially and I felt this was mainly because they didn’t have an entry point – a way to invite the viewer into the story. I realised this would be best achieved by portraiture, using people to spark off the narrative, with the other two images inciting further questions. Images by artists such as Tom Hunter came to mind, whose portraits can on one hand seem almost mundane, but on the other hand are deeply suggestive and sometimes carry layers of additional meaning. I thus used work such as this as a role model to work towards. 

Living In Hell  by Tom Hunter, from   his website

Living In Hell by Tom Hunter, from his website

The key then was to make more portraits and as I was also convinced of the importance of including myself explicitly in the work, I accepted that self-portraits would be required too. I felt a responsibility to match the degree of exposure that my collaborators had offered to the project, and that the work would not be complete without an attempt at honest self-examination of my own state in relation to the issues under discussion.

Making more portraits confirmed that introducing people into the work was the key to bringing the triptychs together. The stories that each portrait suggested based on my own personal knowledge of the subject, or on elements that were suggested from the image itself or from discussions during the shoot, guided further shoots to create images that worked with the portraits or that allowed links to be made with other images made during the project. 

I had also explored the use of text earlier in the project and subsequently abandoned the idea as I felt that I’d somehow lost my way in telling the story I wanted to tell. One of our tutors had also commented to the effect that I’d lost my own voice in trying to seek the views of a large number of other people and I’d taken this to heart as it was a very perceptive observation. I continued to collect writing from collaborators though and to interview the people I was shooting. I was also writing poetry inspired by the project theme and in response to some creative writing that one of my collaborators had written. 

Page example from  Hackney By Night  by David George

Page example from Hackney By Night by David George

Once the triptychs started to take shape and I felt more confident that they’d be able to suggest a story, the potential interaction of words with these images was again interesting to me. Works like Hackney By Night by David George and London Ends by Philipp Ebeling, where text either accompanied the images in a standard ‘image facing text’ (Hackney By Night) kind of way, or in a more whimsical thread running through the book (London Ends) also proved that this might be an effective way to present the work. 

Page example from  London Ends  by Philipp Ebeling

Page example from London Ends by Philipp Ebeling

In each of the above two examples, I was particularly interested in the fact that the text did not necessarily appear to relate directly to the image(s) it appeared with in the presentation. This seemed to offer another opportunity to introduce interpretative uncertainty for the viewer, keeping them a little off balance when trying to understand the work and seek for answers within the triptych. I definitely didn’t want to end up with captions, but with text that further opened out the potential interpretations of the pictures, with the aim to offer as broadly applicable a perspective of the issue as possible, such that the viewer is more likely to be able to connect with some aspect of the work. 

The writing in Hackney By Night is a great example of writing that expands the mood of the images without seeking to directly explain them. Again, as I was aiming for an emotionality in the work, I very much wanted to use any device that could increase the emotional temperature of the work and support the mood I was trying to create for the viewer. 

The way the text was finally used to accompany the work differed on the website and the exhibition. On the website, each triptych is accompanied by text and can be considered as a self-contained ‘packet’ of narrative information. At the exhibition, I chose not to accompany each triptych with text directly, preferring rather to position text in the space in a way that gave the text more independent emphasis and allowed the viewer to reflect on the writing and then move towards another grouping of images in a more flexible way. 

Exhibition visitor reading text

Exhibition visitor reading text

It was interesting to see then, that exhibition visitors seemed to respond in equal measure to the text as well as the photographs. There were a number of people who took pictures of the writing and posted to social media for example, demonstrating that they’d received the text on an equal footing to the images rather than as a narrative sidekick. This response again confirmed the benefit of staging an exhibition, as providing an alternative way to present the work and allowing it to be received and interpreted differently.

Exhibition visitor posted text on Instagram following the private view

Exhibition visitor posted text on Instagram following the private view

Another element that I experimented with during the exhibition was of combining triptychs to create larger narratives. These groups of six photographs came about when planning the exhibition layout on my computer and realising that grids of images gave the work a different feel again. Having two portraits in each group suggested potential relationships between people that were not seen in a single triptych. This was quite fun to play with and the typical response from visitors to the exhibition was of trying to make connections when confronted with the six images, which kept them engaged for longer and forced them to reflect more deeply on what they were seeing. These 6-image grids were the most talked about element of the exhibition without doubt, and the aspect that provoked the most questions from visitors. 

6 image grid on show at the FMP exhibition

6 image grid on show at the FMP exhibition

It was really satisfying to get direct feedback on the mode of presentation, when the viewer was finding a single or multiple implied stories, but was not able to satisfactorily resolve them immediately and was thus provoked to ask a question about the work. Having viewers arrive at widely varying interpretations of the same set of images was even better!

Overall then, I believe that the decisions to present the work in triptych and alongside text were both successful at this stage of the project. It is possible that as the work continues and the range of responses to the issue increases, these decisions may no longer serve the best communication of the themes and I would be happy to concede them as they are by no means non-negotiable. As stated previously, I feel that there’s still a long way to go with this project and the work will no doubt change course again before reaching its natural conclusion. As I look ahead, I anticipate the addition of video to the work as well as a wider variety of scenes and portraits but there will almost certainly be other unexpected developments and I look forward to steering a course into the future.

Final Major Project: ROITD Website Outcome

Early on in the planning of the potential outputs for this project I envisaged a website as a significant, and possibly the most important, outcome of the FMP. As the FMP period continued and the chances of staging an exhibition appeared to recede, I further concentrated my focus on producing a website to display the work and which could serve as a hub from which the project would continue to grow and deepen post-MA.

I had purchased a suitable domain some time back in preparation for building the website, but only began outlining how I wanted the site to develop in the last month or so as the project and the planned triptych format started to take shape. 

The aim was to produce a visually interesting and informative website, that would be able to provide a deeper experience than available at the exhibition. In keeping with the breadth of responses to the themes of this project, I was keen to present information in a range of formats – 

·      factual information and links

·      contextual information about the issue of urban solitude/loneliness

·      interview excerpts from those who’d collaborated in the project 

·      creative writing from collaborators and myself

·      songs that respond to the theme

Due to the multi-format nature of this information I was confident that a website would be a perfect platform for presenting the work. The challenge was to do so in a way that was engaging without being overly dry, or that took the emphasis away from the images.

Example of a page from Raphaël Dallaporta’s work  Domestic Slavery    from artist’s website

Example of a page from Raphaël Dallaporta’s work Domestic Slavery from artist’s website

Useful references for this work included Domestic Slavery by Raphaël Dallaporta and Imperial Courts by Dana Lixenberg. These two examples showed that communication of the themes and message of a project could be enhanced and its impact amplified, by accompanying text (Domestic Slavery) and that a multimedia presentation can result in a richness and depth of coverage of a theme that isn’t possible using still images alone (Imperial Courts). 

These projects, particularly Imperial Courts, were exemplars of the sort of treatment I was aiming for with my own website. I have always felt that this project will not have been fully explored without film, more creative and investigative writing and potentially full interview transcripts also being presented alongside the photographs. This deep exploration of a theme really appeals to me, as it allows me to continue my enquiries following completion of the MA and also because the scope of this topic is so broad as to almost demand more than the 6 month treatment available during the FMP.  

As the image-making started to come together, so the potential website layout also became clearer. I was thus able to start building the website at the beginning of November, using placeholder images to give a sense of what the eventual layout would look like and how the text would relate to the pictures in the final presentation. 

I was fortunate to be able to draw on some rich textual material from my contributors and the beginning of the website build coincided with further written submissions. I’d also been working on some writing of my own which continued alongside the website draft. November was thus a busy month of more shooting, website planning and building, writing and exhibition planning and I was pleased with the progress I was able to make in a short time.

Once the date of the exhibition was decided, I aimed to have the website ready to publish on the day prior the exhibition. This was to act as a primer and public introduction to the topic and would also be available to support the physical exhibition (e.g. I was able to refer exhibition visitors to the website for more information and images when meeting them at the gallery).

Text presented alongside images on the project website

Text presented alongside images on the project website

At time of launch, the website consisted of 36 images in 12 triptychs. Each triptych is presented with an accompanying text excerpt. The text being of varying length and type (interview transcript excerpts, creative prose or poetry) and in some instances chosen to seemingly reinforce the putative theme of the triptych and in others to challenge it. 

The website also includes information and statistics about the issues of solitude and loneliness and the emotional and psychological impact it has. In addition, the website includes contact information for agencies that are somehow related to this issue. 

Information about solitude and explaining the project in more detail on project website

Information about solitude and explaining the project in more detail on project website

The reaction from people who’ve visited the website has been very positive. I have received comments on the images, the impact of their presentation alongside text, the usefulness of the information that adds context to the topic and the value of including contacts to helpful organisations. 

I’ve been gratified to hear from a number of people that the work on the website has moved them emotionally, including a couple of visitors who have been moved to tears by the work. This was pleasing to hear from the point of view of confirming the success of a key project aim, that of engaging with the viewer’s emotions and producing work that carried an emotional weight. Again, I feel this was more successfully achieved by combining text and images than would have been achieved simply by images alone.

Links to relevant organisations on project website

Links to relevant organisations on project website

The website has also acted as a starting point for dialogue with people who are themselves interested in investigating this issue and with agencies who are already doing so. I have been able to refer them to the website for a quick appraisal of where I am with the work so far and what my standpoint is, and this has been a great platform from which to discuss potential collaborations or to launch ongoing dialogue about the issues involved. 

Overall then, I would say the website has been the most successful aspect of the project, because of its permanence and the fact it will allow the work to be visible and accessible in a way that suits the viewer. Based on the responses I received during the exhibition, there’s also likely to be a benefit from the ability to engage with the work online anonymously and at one’s own pace, my suspicion being that people are more comfortable engaging with and reflecting on this work when they feel under no pressure to react to it for an external observer or where they are not in danger of having a potentially emotional response noted by someone else.

In the near future I aim to add a short movie to the website, as well as more transcripts from recent interviews that were conducted just prior to the website being published. I will also continue to add images as the project continues in the weeks and months ahead.

Final Major Project: Exhibition Engagement

One of the key aims of this project has been to stimulate dialogue about the issue of solitude and hopefully contribute towards a more open communication about this difficult topic. 

This aim underpinned the decision to hold an exhibition in a gallery, as one of the intended consequences would be to bring people together in the same place for a shared experience and hopefully some discourse about the issues explored in the work. 

During the MA and particularly leading up to the completion of this FMP I have made largely unsuccessful attempts to provoke discussion about the issues on social media. Aside from the occasional comment agreeing that it’s a topic worthy of examination, it has been difficult to get people to participate in any meaningful way or to volunteer to talk about things more deeply in a more private setting. 

I was thus hoping that by bringing the audience into a physical space there may be opportunities to engage with them in a more immediate way than had been possible via social media. 

Another aim of the project had been to produce an online space that would allow the work to be explored in more detail, and that will hopefully continue to evolve into a richer and deeper resource as the project continues after the MA as the scope of the work naturally broadens. I thus created a project website, which launched the day before the opening of the exhibition. In another CRJ post I will outline how this site developed and the response it has had so far.

ROITD Project Website

ROITD Project Website

As the exhibition was only of short duration I felt it was important to try and maximise its impact as much as possible. This would be partly achieved by it being supported and accompanied by the material on the website. The location of studio1.1, in a busy and traditionally creative part of East London also helped in this regard. I had preceded the show with an Instagram poll asking what solitude meant to the viewer and received only a few responses. However, I posed a similar question to exhibition visitors and placed comment cards to allow anonymous responses to this question. 

Comment box placed at the front of the exhibition

Comment box placed at the front of the exhibition

Once the exhibition was finished I was delighted to find that in the two days the show was open there had been a really encouraging response to this very broad question. I received a number of intriguing answers and what was reinforced is that these experiences are not easily generalised, as everyone experiences being alone differently.

If forced to organise these responses, I would say that they fell into two main categories – those who value the opportunity to connect with themselves, and those who are silently battling against unwanted isolation while maintaining an external façade that all is well.

Comment cards collected during the exhibition

Comment cards collected during the exhibition

Another benefit of holding an exhibition was the opportunity to get into conversation with visitors. It was so heartening when a passer by stopped in, spent some time looking at the work and then unprompted volunteered that they felt this was an important topic that needed to be more frequently discussed, and then went on to share personal experiences or reflections on solitude and loneliness. This happened on many occasions over the two days and was the definite highlight of the exhibition for me. 

This validated a number of ideas: that it is an important issue that merits exploration, that more people than is immediately evident are experiencing (suffering?) this in silence and that it would therefore be a desirable objective to try and stimulate a more open and inclusive conversation about it. Having seen the sequelae of loneliness in a medical context for many years, mainly in older people, it was illuminating to have clear evidence that this issue affects younger people of varying demographic profiles also and this was reflected in the conversations I had with visitors over the two days. 

Another element of the work that was validated during the two days was that of the visual approach taken in this project. I’ve written previously about narrative and how I’ve struggled to find a way to tell stories visually. I have spent a lot of time looking at the work of Crewdson, Soth and Hido in particular during the latter part of this MA and this research, as well as having a revelation while attending the London Nights exhibition earlier in the year about how using a series of images together could be an effective way to suggest a story, I had been convinced that this would be the way to create narrative in this work.

As I had continued to reflect on this and also realised the importance of including people in the work, I’d settled on triptychs as the vehicle to tell this particular story, each anchored by a portrait. In the exhibition I also experimented with combining triptychs to create even larger stories. It was really interesting then to see how visitors responded to these series of images. The various interpretations of the image combinations, particularly those that were presented in a group of 6 images, were really interesting – people finding all sorts of different elements, which were on the whole very different from my nominal intention when grouping the images together. This is exactly what I’d been aiming for. It did mean though that a number of visitors were frustrated when, after asking me to tell them whether they had gotten the ‘right answer’ when trying to interpret the images I replied by telling them that there wasn’t a right answer and that the fact they’d arrived at a completely different interpretation to myself, or another viewer, was exactly what I’d intended!

Holding the exhibition therefore served to allow direct engagement with the audience, in a way that had not been previously possible via social media. The accompanying website definitely worked in conjunction with the exhibition to provide different ways to access the work and explore it in depth at a time that suited the viewer. The exhibition also provided direct feedback about the success or otherwise of the work in communicating the themes and achieving the aims of emotionality and open-ended narrative. Judging from the verbal and written feedback received during the show, I am reassured that these objectives were largely met and this is very encouraging when considering how to take this project forward after the finish of the MA course. 

I was asked on a couple of occasions during the exhibition – ‘what’s next?’ – whatever the answer to this question, this exhibition assures me that the work is on the right course.  

Final Major Project: Reaching Out Into The Dark Exhibition, November 2018

The ROITD FMP exhibition took place this week, November 27th and 28th, at studio1.1 gallery on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, London. The decision to actually hold an exhibition was only taken earlier this month, so pulling it together from conception to opening occurred in the space of 19 days.

studio1.1 London gallery

studio1.1 London gallery

The progress of the work during this FMP period has been slow and hindered by outside factors, such that I initially felt that trying to hold an exhibition would prevent me from focusing enough time and energy on actually having enough work to submit by the December deadline. I was also discouraged by preliminary enquiries into potential exhibition spaces. Space hire seemed so prohibitively expensive and difficult to arrange that I figured I should concentrate on putting the work together for online presentation in the form of a project website, which I’d always envisaged as the main repository of the finished work.

I had wanted to present the images in triptychs, aiming to suggest quite open-ended narratives, and had decided that each triptych would be anchored by a portrait. After completing a couple of portrait shoots in the last six weeks or so, I saw this vision finally begin to take shape in a way that made an exhibition now seem possible.

Triptych

Triptych

Additionally I was encouraged by a conversation with tutor Wendy McMurdo, an incredibly accomplished artist in her own right, who seemed to confirm that the work was heading in the right direction and encouraged me to keep pushing forward. She perfectly understood the internal conflict that I was having – ‘that’s the artistic process Justin’ – and this reassured me that I wasn’t going crazy and that I could possibly pull it off after all. 

I also realised that without an exhibition I’d be missing a great opportunity to engage with the audience, to ‘reach out’ as I had always been aiming to do with the work. Reflecting on this aspect of the exhibition is something that I’ll discuss further in another CRJ post.

So, once decided upon, it was key to find a space to show the work. I was really fortunate that studio1.1 were able to accommodate me for two days at the end of November at a discounted rate that was within my budget. I had enough time to pull everything else together and also make more work, which at the time of deciding to have an exhibition was still necessary.

The initial plan was to show 12 to 15 images, but it quickly became clear that to do so would not allow me to articulate the idea well enough and would also not fill the space that the gallery afforded. The final exhibition consisted of 18 images presented with accompanying text panels taken from the project research, as well as some additional contextual information about the issue of urban solitude and loneliness. 

Following on from my recent experience with the Shutter Hub Open, I explored the possibility of using newspaper for the printing and made enquiries with Newspaper Club about the papers and sizes available. The price to print on newspaper was certainly very attractive compared to my usual printer Digitalarte (approximately 10 times cheaper!) but once I was clear about which images I wanted to show and considering the subtlety of tonal variations and deep shadow in many of them, I ended up going for the tried and trusted, and much more expensive fine art method. 

Once the space was secured I started promoting the exhibition via Instagram and Twitter and received a number of tentative responses suggesting that people were interested and planning to attend. The private view was held on the evening of Tuesday 27th and I’m really happy to say that it was well-attended.

Visitors at the Private View on 27th November 2018

Visitors at the Private View on 27th November 2018

The show ran for two days, 11am to 6pm on both days, with the private view from 7 to 9pm on the first day. I would have ideally held the exhibition for longer, but the gallery only had two free days available and it was difficult enough getting time off work for this period as it was. All in all it worked well, allowing those who expressed an interest in attending to do so. I was really gratified that people travelled from outside of London to see the exhibition and the feedback was generally really positive, which validated the expense and effort that had gone into putting the show on. 

Overall, I’m really glad that I made the effort to arrange an exhibition. It was an incredibly valuable learning experience, both in practical and organisational terms, but also in terms of helping to better understand how to present work to attract and engage an audience, what considerations are important when planning what one hopes will be a successful show, as well as helping me to gain a better understanding of how different outputs can connect differently with audiences and thus how to more strategically present one’s work in order for it to have the maximum reach and impact. 

I will write more about my reflections in this regard in a subsequent post. 

Final Major Project: Shutter Hub Open 2018 and thoughts on presentation

I had the pleasure of attending the private view for the Shutter Hub Open at Photomonth East London International Photography Festival at the Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch last week, where one of my FMP images was being shown. 

One of the obstacles encountered to this point has been the difficulty in securing an exhibition space to show the FMP work and settling on the best method of presenting it. I don’t want to create unnecessary barriers between the work and the viewer, as this would be counter to one of the key aims of stimulating conversation and connection in as accessible and inclusive a way as possible. 

One of the benefits of the evening then, was that aside from it being great fun I came away with a new idea for presenting the work in the FMP. The images in this show were printed on newspaper by Newspaper Club and stuck to the wall with tape. When this idea had been proposed to us by Shutter Hub, I was sceptical about how colours and detail would be preserved in these prints. 

Newspaper print images at Shutter Hub Open 2018


Newspaper print images at Shutter Hub Open 2018

Happily though, the final results were great, with plenty of detail and good preservation of dynamic range and a surprisingly good amount of shadow detail in particular (especially relevant to me when thinking about how night images will look once printed). The fact the images were then simply stuck on the wall created a very informal and egalitarian feel to the show. Though the content was incredibly varied, there was a uniformity and unceremonious feel to the presentation that was largely due to this use of newspaper print.

My image on show at the Shutter Hub Open 2018

My image on show at the Shutter Hub Open 2018

This would work perfectly for the way I envisage a possible FMP show of my own work and would be a significantly cheaper option than getting a number of archival prints done with handmade frames. This possibility makes achieving a final show a lot more likely in practical terms and I will be researching this option further in the coming week.

You can find images of the exhibition installation here

Final Major Project: Book Research

Over the last few months I’ve been collecting a pile of books on my desk pertaining to the project, that has been growing at a faster rate than I’ve been able to read them. One of the pleasures of the research for this project has been the way that one thing leads tangentially to another, ever-widening the scope of the research, suggesting new directions and taking in a much broader range of perspectives than I’d envisaged when I originally set out on this work. 

I’ve recently finished reading:

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Originally published in 1965, this book tells the story of William Stoner’s unfulfilled life. Born to humble beginnings in the 1890s on a farm in Missouri, the course of his life is irrevocably changed after he leaves home to go to college, resulting in a silent estrangement from his parents and a lifelong struggle to find his place in the grand scheme of life. The mastery in this story is in its ability to examine the interior world of Stoner, to describe the way in which he never truly feels comfortable in his own skin, how his life ultimately seems to comprise an accumulation of incidental happenings that surround him and confine him and eventually define him. He is trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage, he is unable to truly flourish at work or explore his academic passions, he resigns himself to a distant relationship with his daughter Grace and seems to settle for an existence where happiness is not to be expected, or even really sought for. There’s a strange nobility in Stoner, who meets events with a benign acceptance, never railing against the status quo and seeming to have a capacity to just carry on regardless. 

There is an incredible loneliness here. He is unable to connect with his wife, despite certainly wanting to at first. He is ultimately unable to connect with his daughter. He lives a loveless life, until a brief interlude later in life that is also ultimately doomed. There’s a resonance here about the way our lives can be so apparently full of accomplishments and yet be incredibly unhappy, in a way that’s almost not worth acknowledging, because we still just have to carry on either way. 

The idea of a loneliness that is not immediately apparent to the onlooker is important, both in terms of being an emotion that I’ve personally experienced but also in terms of the fact that it’s easy to envisage this as being a significantly under-recognised aspect of our modern urban lives, surrounded as we are by all the conveniences and community we could supposedly want.

Relating this back to my own work, I am challenged to think about how I represent the inner life better, either of myself or my subjects. In this book, this was of course done with words and this is possibly something that has some relevance to the presentation of this project also. Finding a way though to let the image suggest something of this inner experience will be key and will also hopefully mean that the images are not too obviously suggestive, which would weaken them to my mind. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Cover image by Todd Hido

Cover image by Todd Hido

I came to this book via Todd Hido, who has cited Carver as an influence of his work. This book, published in 1981, is a collection of short stories exploring various aspects of relationships and the motivations and passions that underpin how people are with each other. Carver writes with a sharp sense of observation of the human condition. He expertly illustrates the motivations of his characters without having to state them explicitly, their actions revealing what truly drives them, allowing the reader to know them in a way that their partners often seem not to. 

A common thread here for me is the idea that people often don’t say what they truly think or feel, but these feelings somehow find a way to emerge and affect the external world. We all carry baggage of course, things in our history that affect the way we interact with those around us, often without ever specifically identifying or expressing what those things are. Again there’s an illustration of the importance of the inner life here, the mysterious and often uncharted world that we all carry around with us, which plays such an important role in how we live. 

Increasingly I feel that this internal world which is unique to each individual, by definition imparts a degree of loneliness on all of us, alone as we are in this personal experience that no-one else can ever share no matter how close they are to us. This opens up a whole new avenue of potential research and the question is whether I can hope to represent this properly in the FMP work, or whether this is better explored in my future practice once the FMP is out of the way. 

Of course, there’s a degree to which my work is already reflecting my own inner world and while this had been largely happening outside of my conscious control (certainly until the point at which I started this MA course) I can see how important it is to bring (allow?) more of this world into my work, both for the purpose of self-exploration but also for the purpose of experimentation and to differentiate myself from other practitioners. 

Final Major Project: Nights Out

Last week I attended a talk at the Museum of London, an event accompanying the current London Nights exhibition there. The evening involved a panel of practitioners discussing how the night time feeds into their creativity. 

Obviously, this topic was right up my street and I was glad to be able to attend. The panel consisted of Vanessa Loera, a Central St Martins graduate and cross-genre practitioner, Damien Frost a photographer and Inua Ellams, a writer and founder of The Midnight Run, an arts-filled night time cultural journey. The evening was chaired by Amy Lamé, who is London’s ‘night Czar’ and a significant and renowned figure in her own right.

The panel comprised of Amy Lamé, Vanessa Loera, Damien Frost and Inua Ellams

The panel comprised of Amy Lamé, Vanessa Loera, Damien Frost and Inua Ellams

After an introduction by Lamé, each practitioner delivered a talk about their own practice relating how their work is influenced by the night. It was notable that despite having widely varying approaches to their work, or even how they go about navigating and utilising the opportunities the night time creates, they were each able to articulate specific and tangible benefits that accrued to their work from practicing at night, which they are not able to garner during the day time.

Loera, in particular, made a profound comment about how her practice of wandering the streets alone at night as a young woman was not only a cultural comment about the role and agency that women have traditionally been afforded in art history, but also directly linked to her own sense of self-worth, that to walk alone was an expression of her own personality that allowed her to know herself better, to be more connected to herself. This really resonated with me at the time, and continues to do so, connected as it is to the idea of solitude as a necessary part of self-knowledge and self-development. This is something I feel to be true personally, and as my research continues, seems to be a very important strand to represent in this project. 

The work will benefit from an equality of voices representing both the positive and negative aspects of solitary living. This is certainly an evolution from the original concept which would have been that of quite a bleak tale of isolation and loneliness with little positive to say. 

I’m aiming to produce work that suggests narrative without being explicit either way. I hope there’ll be enough space in the work for the viewer to see a range of possible experiences arising from being alone. The idea is to achieve this using combinations of images that suggest multiple interpretations and allow me to introduce people into the work. We’ll see how this actually works once I have a selection of images that I’m happy enough with to start playing about with some combinations. More to come on this shortly.

Informing Contexts: Final Thoughts & Future Moves

So this is it, the end of Informing Contexts and the beginning of the final stage of this Masters degree. I can’t believe how quickly we’ve arrived here. I’ve learnt loads, with many of the lessons still being absorbed as I try to understand how to relate the learning to my own practice. I approach the Final Major Project (FMP) with some nervousness, mainly just because I’m not sure what the format of the next few months will be, but I’m also excited by the prospect of hopefully being able to put everything together into a cohesive vision of this project.

A frustration of mine has been that the 12-week module rhythm, with the need to prepare for summative assessments at the end of each one, hasn’t always correlated with the speed at which I’m able to absorb and respond to the lessons I’ve been learning along the way. Often I’ve found myself having the biggest revelations and making the largest steps between the modules, as the absence of course demands gives me the time to reflect, let things sink in and embed into my thought process about what I want to do. Due to the demands of my job, I often feel like I’m just hanging on for dear life during the modules trying to keep up, rather than having space and time to truly assimilate the information and allow my practice to develop. This has been a particular problem during this module as I approach the end of my medical training and so have had the most important exams of my career to prepare for, alongside working and doing this MA. Those demands, as well as my struggle to see a way to move forward with the photography (‘the narrative conundrum’ I think I’m now going to call it!) has meant this has been the module I’ve found most difficult so far. 

As previously, I’m confident that the period immediately after assignment submission (which again coincides with another big work thing) will be a productive one, both in terms of the images I’ll be making as well as in terms of putting a clear plan in place to attack the FMP. It arrives too late to be absolutely reflected in the WIP for this module but, as I’ve written elsewhere, I have a much better sense of the images I want to make and how to hopefully create interesting photographs. I will also be bringing people (and possibly also myself) into the work in some way and have only just been able to start experimenting with this. 

Something else that I’m looking forward to exploring further is the internal environment and how this relates to our experiences of solitude. My work has almost exclusively focused on outdoor urban spaces to this point, but reflecting on how people experience solitude and isolation in many hidden or public indoor places (bedrooms, cars, pubs etc.) and inspired by the work of practitioners such as Lynne Cohen and Andrew Emond I am really keen to explore interior spaces and make this an important part of the work moving forward. This actually now feels like a big omission from the project to date, an oversight on my part, and I envisage interiors becoming increasingly integral to telling the story of urban solitude in my FMP.

The work of Andrew Emond, from his    Objects of Consequence    series 

The work of Andrew Emond, from his Objects of Consequence series 

Despite the misgivings I stated above I do feel I’ve made progress during this module. I’ve continued to write, with more book reviews published and in progress.

My most recent book review on   Shutter Hub

My most recent book review on Shutter Hub

I’m aiming to continue developing this area of my practice. I’m still trying to find a short writing course that I think will help me to develop my writing style and that is feasible for me to do over the next few months alongside all my other commitments. The ones I’ve been interested in so far are either too involved (essentially a writing MA) or too inconsequential to be worthwhile. I’m increasingly of the view that text will be a substantial part of the final work, and though this is not likely to be all my own writing, I do feel I’d benefit from having more competence and confidence in this area. Using practitioners such as David Campany and Lewis Bush as inspiration, I hope to make this a solid strand of my practice moving forward. 

I was happy to be selected as a ‘shortlisted artist’ for the Revolv Collective One Year Open Call which will involve some much welcome social media promotion via their channels and may open further opportunities in the future. I have also entered work into the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition 161, with the outcome of shortlisting currently awaited.

I’m looking forward to what I anticipate will be the most intensely rewarding period of the MA to come in the Final Major Project. I feel that my work is on the verge of blossoming into something different and hopefully more compelling. I’m excited about the possibilities ahead and have already begun to consider the future beyond the MA, where I know the work will continue (PhD?). I’m relishing the opportunity to spend more focused time researching, exploring and developing new ideas and creating new connections with the work I have planned (workshops, joint projects with key agencies already involved with issues surrounding loneliness and urban isolation etc.). 

I look forward to discovering where the work will evolve to and how it will broaden out to hopefully include people (of all ages), interiors, exteriors and maybe even some daylight! I am less daunted by the FMP simply because I understand now that my work on this issue will not stop there, and I have a sense of where I will be able to take this work forward in the post-MA world that will soon be a reality.

Let’s get it!

Informing Contexts: Week 10 Reflection

This week’s work was inevitably overshadowed by looming deadlines and other work stresses. The topic however was an interesting one, trying to answer the question of ‘what is art’ and ‘who decides what is good art’? Clearly, they’d decided to leave the easy topics to the end of the module!! 

The work of Rirkrit Tiravanija was introduced, in particular his work ‘Untitled (Free)’, which was originally created in 1992. This work essentially consisted of Tiravanija turning a gallery into a kitchen from which he served free food to visitors. Watching this, my first reactions were ‘Can this be considered art? Why is it art? What’s the idea?’. As I pondered these questions, the video went on to show clips of interviews with patrons who had visited this exhibition and partaken of the food on offer. To my surprise, the reactions from visitors were universally positive, with smiles on faces and people feeling happy and challenged by the new experience they had just had. They had clearly found it memorable. My takeaway from that was that it’s not right to dismiss artistic activity just because one doesn’t understand it, or think it has particular merit. The stance of Marcel Duchamp then, that things were art simply because he declared them to be so, suddenly felt less like a pretentious indulgence and more like the statement of an artist’s manifesto that deserved respect. 

Sam Abell was introduced as the photographer who took the original cowboy photographs that were subsequently ‘appropriated’ by Richard Prince. He discussed his reaction to seeing what amounted to a direct copy of his work being put forward by another practitioner, who attracted both commercial and critical success with an image that Abell had originally created. Most gallingly of all, Prince achieved a level of success that had not been available to Abell in the first place. 

He was amazingly sanguine about it all (much more so than I would have been!), but he raised some really interesting questions about the nature of the art world and how they assign value to certain works over others. He made the point that his original photograph, which had been shot for an advertisement, would never have been welcome in an art context, nor been eligible to be sold at high value, as it was considered ‘only’ an ad image and thus of no real creative or artistic merit. On the other hand, Prince’s facsimile was hailed as a great work of art and sold for millions. Abell calmly questioned the rationale for this. 

To me this example highlights the ridiculous opacity of the ‘art world’ and hints at the idea of a closed and somewhat irrational cabal that holds a disproportionate degree of power over the fortunes of practitioners everywhere. Because the answer to the question ‘who decides what is art, or what is good art’ seems to be a small number of curators/museums/critics whose opinions are not open to challenge or scrutiny and who literally hold the power to bestow success upon someone, or prevent a practitioner from ever rising out of obscurity. This state of affairs is elitist, conspiratorial and self-serving, particularly when you consider the demographics of this group and consider too those who remain perpetually under-represented when these decisions are being made and the prizes handed out. For example, female practitioners and issues relevant to women, people of colour, working class people or their concerns, perspectives from developing nations or cultures with traditions or ideas that do not conform to Western norms, have long been grossly under-represented by the art world.

Lewis Bush recently wrote passionately about the lack of transparency in the circles where these decisions are made, arguing that the opacity surrounding decisions about whose work has merit, who gets to win the prizes and whose careers shall be catapulted forward can hide alarming conflicts of interest that not only threaten the integrity of such awards but also call into question the idea of prize-giving at all in art. 

Lewis Bush's   recent blog   about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

Lewis Bush's recent blog about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

The art establishment is a conservative place stuck in its way of doing things, it is unresponsive to change and operated by people who are predominantly from a very narrow section of society, and yet who somehow retain the responsibility for all of culture and for all aesthetic concerns in our societies. They decide what we should look at and experience and tell us what’s good and what’s not. They get to bestow the title of art on an item and decide if it has value as a commodity, if it can be worth a lot of money or nothing at all. 

Like with most things, the people with power get to decide.

If you’re not in the club, or lack influence, you don’t get a say. You don’t get to decide if something is art or not, you don’t get to decide if something is museum-worthy or not. Your opinion is unimportant, your aesthetic preferences are irrelevant. It’s easy then to see how closely the ‘art world’ mirrors wider society, with inequality of influence, under-representation of minority groups and preservation of power within a small minority of society, to their benefit and the disadvantage of all others.

Art cannot be separated from society. Its influence and importance has long been understood by powerful people, hence the desire to retain control of decisions around what can be valued or acknowledged as art and the prevention, or at least regulation, of true freedom of artistic expression. It’s interesting to note that the degree of regulation of free creative expression rises directly in proportion to the authoritarian nature of the ruling regime. It’s no coincidence that Hitler sought to control the way his subjects viewed art for example, and the Nazi regime systematically stole and destroyed culturally important works. The more recent persecution of Ai Weiwei in China could also be considered in a similar light. We are of course lucky in the UK that things aren’t quite as extreme but that shouldn’t lull us into believing that there isn’t a subconscious agenda at play that might not be working to our advantage as practitioners. Reluctantly, I can’t escape the impression that the British art establishment is a white middle class preserve, and work that originates from a different perspective begins at a disadvantage, though that is not to state that there’s no room for alternative viewpoints.

Reflecting on how this relates to me and my practice, I am ambivalent. I don’t think anything I’ve stated above is outlandish or particularly controversial. I also don’t believe that the prevailing conditions prevent work that doesn’t fit the mould from necessarily being seen or championed by the establishment. In all things, I’m inclined to return to an old maxim, which is that ultimately the primary objective of all practitioners is to make good work and stay as true to oneself as one can while doing so. Any further good that may come as a result is gravy. 

References:

FRIEDMAN, Martin. 2014. ‘“It’s Art If I Say So”: Martin Friedman on Marcel Duchamp’s 1965 Visit to Minneapolis’.Walker Art Center[online]. Available at:  https://walkerart.org/magazine/martin-friedman-duchamp-minneapolis[accessed 22 April 2018].

ROTH, Michael S. 2017. ‘How Nazis destroyed books in a quest to destroy European culture’. The Washington Post [online]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-nazis-destroyed-books-in-a-quest-to-destroy-european-culture/2017/02/24/244aee94-cdf3-11e6-a87f-b917067331bb_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.664bdadf95f2[accessed 23 April 2018].

Informing Contexts: What's the Narrative 2

I have continued to ruminate about the theme of narrative and how this is created photographically throughout this module, as well as trying to find answers in the work of other practitioners. Aside, from the challenges that have presented themselves over the last three months away from the course, this subject has been the most difficult for me to grasp and then relate to my own work. 

I have found myself increasingly uninterested in the work I’ve been making, at least in the way that I’ve previously produced it. I realised that I’d become frustrated with a sense of repetition and of being in a visual rut. Towards the end of the previous module I started to realise that it would not be possible to elevate my work without a closer focus on the intention behind the work and the way this was then translated into the image itself.

I think I have a clearer idea of what visual narrative is now, particularly having reflected on how other practitioners manage to capture your attention and challenge your imagination with their work. 

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the work of Gregory Crewdson recently, the Twilight and Cathedral of the Pines projects in particular. 

The work of Gregory Crewdson, from    Twilight

The work of Gregory Crewdson, from Twilight

Aside from the beauty and elaborate complexity of his images, the thing that strikes me most about his work is the fact that each image provokes a question (often many). What happened here? Where are her clothes? How could that have gotten there? There is always a sense of transience, being invited into the space between events that have just occurred and those that are about to take place.

These questions oblige you to stay with the image, searching for the answer. When, as is almost always the case, the answer isn’t immediately apparent in the photograph you are transported to your imagination or to speculation to look for it. Either way the image has captivated you and taken you beyond the immediate fact of looking at a two-dimensional representation on a screen or in a book. These unanswered questions are everywhere in Crewdson’s work, often provoked by the simplest of small details. When I saw his work at The Photographer’s Gallery last year I was intrigued by how almost all his interior shots included a half empty glass of water somewhere in the frame. It’s a motif that is too consistent to be a coincidence, and it fascinates me even now…

The half empty glass of water on the bedside table...an intriguing element of many of Crewdson's images. This, from    Cathedral of the Pines

The half empty glass of water on the bedside table...an intriguing element of many of Crewdson's images. This, from Cathedral of the Pines

Why are they there? What do they mean? 

The ability to provoke these questions in the viewer is key to creating narrative I think.

The ability to provoke questions is also seen in the work of Lynne Cohen, who achieves this despite almost exclusively shooting empty interior spaces. Her work asks you to consider the actions of people on their environment and surroundings, to consider their activities and behaviours and how they connect to our own, in spaces that we all inhabit. 

The work of   Lynne Cohen

The work of Lynne Cohen

Similarly, the work of Lynn Saville in the US (primarily New York City) and Rut Blees Luxemburg (most notably in London) asks us to consider how we respond to our urban spaces and how these environments reflect our behaviours and our concerns. The fact that they both use the night as a key part of their visual toolbox is of course particularly interesting to me. Again, without including people in much of their work, they invite questions about the world we inhabit and thus require the viewer to engage with their work and with themselves.

Aplomb St Pauls by Rut Blees Luxemburg,

Aplomb St Pauls by Rut Blees Luxemburg,

A further lesson about narrative has occurred to me following a recent visit to the Gursky exhibition currently showing at the Hayward Gallery. I was not very familiar with Andreas Gursky’s work prior to visiting this show, but seeing his work you can’t help but be confronted by his vision and the consistency of that vision throughout his career. His work, to me at least, seems to repeatedly explore the behaviour of humans, their interaction with space, and the way we see. It struck me that he has adhered to a set of technical and conceptual ideas throughout his career, and in doing so the underlying motivation of the work becomes clearer. 

The Gursky exhibition at Hayward Gallery

The Gursky exhibition at Hayward Gallery

By this I mean that one who devotes their career to exploring a particular subject compiles a body of work that in total communicates much more clearly than someone who makes a small project on the same topic. This consistency of thought is one way that narrative is created I think, by the repetitive consideration of an idea from various angles and perspectives, showing it in different forms and contexts…this ultimately builds into an eloquent story. 

Again, relating this back to my own work, I feel that my interest in solitude and urban life is not exhausted by any means. There are so many facets of this issue that remain to be explored and this allows me to envisage how my work will develop beyond the MA. The consistency of vision is not something to be underestimated or devalued, but will hopefully become a key pillar in my work that ultimately results in a more articulate whole, regardless of what other work I also go on to produce. Along with the idea of trying to create questions with my work and leaving enough space for imagination to expand the scope of the image, I think I have enough to be moving forward with.

References:

THIS IS LOCAL LONDON. 2015. ‘London Dust exhibition featuring Rut Blees Luxemburg photos opens at Museum of London’. This is Local London [online]. Available at: http://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/news/12927124.7_arresting_images_showing_London_s_changing_financial_district/[accessed 19 April 2018].

Informing Contexts: Week 8 Reflection

“My life is kind of, at least equally influenced by pictures of things, as it is in things. We know what’s nice because we saw it in a magazine…we make lots of decisions about our life, and what we want, who we are and where we want to go, from pictures”

Thomas Demand, 2013

This has been one of the most difficult CRJ entries to write. Week 8 encouraged us to consider and evaluate the ways in which photographers discuss and defend their own practice. This has always been, and remains, something I find very difficult to do. This inherent incapacity coincided with another testing period at work and along with my ongoing inertia with my project, left me stumped. 

It seems, as we get ever closer to the final project, that we’re required to be more specific and more articulate about our objectives as practitioners...not an unreasonable demand at this stage of a postgraduate photography degree. Yet for possibly the first time, I'm questioning whether I was ever that suited to MA study, having had no formal photography training prior to starting this course. Combining this course with an increasingly demanding job hasn’t gotten any easier, and has left me perpetually frustrated that I haven’t got more physical and mental resources to devote to the course and to reaping the rewards of prolonged, intense concentration and reflection on my work. I find myself thinking that I will not truly have internalised all the lessons on this course till probably two or three years after graduation (I’m hoping to achieve that at least!).

So week 8 was a bit like that!

Asked to consider what ideas, aesthetics, techniques, contexts and theories we are exploring in our practice, I initially just baulked and was completely unable to engage with the question. Only after a couple of weeks of rumination have I been able to come back to this question in even a provisional way. I’m still wrestling with these ideas, still trying to absorb some of the lessons we’ve been introduced to during this module and during this course (which has flown by the way!) and still trying to understand my place in the matrix. I apologise in advance therefore, if this entry feels somewhat nascent and unformed. 

The ideas I am trying to explore in my current work have been consistent in big picture terms but have changed in subtle ways on the micro level as I've moved through this course. 

At the moment, I'm trying to examine:

  • Solitude/loneliness as a pervasive and yet under-discussed state.

  • Loneliness as a negative – isolating, depressing, oppressive, diminishing and destructive, leading to communities lacking cohesion and interpersonal connections.

  • Solitude as a positive – regenerative, contemplative, protective and liberating.

  • My own experiences of solitude and loneliness – how/where/why I’ve felt lonely in the past, what my feelings are about these events now and what I hope for moving forward.

  • Solitude and loneliness as these states might be connected to previous emotional trauma/memories/significant moments in time.

  • Solitude/loneliness as experienced at different ages/stages of life and how one's experience might differ depending on your age/stage of life.

What am I trying to say in my work? Well, I'm trying to say loads of things (successfully or otherwise, who can say!):

  • That there's beauty at night

  • That there's room for reflection, contemplation (and possibly temptation) at night

  • That you might be alone but that you aren't really alone – we're all in the same boat, feeling this way is not unique (or as isolating as it may feel at the time). 

I'm also trying to say that I too feel this way, alone, adrift, cut off at times and that I'm trying to understand myself and my situation...how did I get here? How can I bridge the gap between myself and others? I'm trying to say that we need to look out for each other, and look after one another. We need to look outside of ourselves. I'm trying to say that it's ok to be different and to stand apart from the crowd. 

There's a lot there! These elements come in and out of my thoughts at different times as I try to build this project and conceptualise the work. They have also, to different degrees and possibly in less explicit ways, been present in much of my photography since I first started taking pictures back in 2013. 

Artists and practitioners whose work resonates with me, and feels relevant to this project include:

  • Clint Eastwood
  • Sofia Coppola
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Todd Hido
  • Alec Soth
  • Gregory Crewdson
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Edward Hopper
  • Stephen Shore
  • Rebecca Solnit
  • David George
  • Olivia Laing
  • Mark Rothko
  • Barry Jenkins
  • Sam Mendes
  • Lynne Cohen

For me, these people – filmmakers, directors, photographers, writers, painters – have in common that they produce work that relies heavily on storytelling, narrative, sentimentality, beauty, giving voice to the outsider or disenfranchised and taking an alternative view of things at times. Many of these practitioners have directly referenced solitude as a concern of theirs, or produced work that explores this theme to at least some degree. 

Thinking specifically of the photographers, there's a consistent thread of producing images that challenge the viewer to consider what's happening both inside and beyond the frame – narrative images that demand interpretation or discussion. Most of these practitioners stare directly at bare emotion, have an obvious interest in the human condition, and are not afraid to confront or explore sometimes difficult feelings. Even in the case of practitioners such as Cohen, whose work rarely actually includes humans, there is an inquisitiveness about the impact of humans on the world and the environment and an encouragement to think beyond the boundaries of the image. 

I am predominantly producing images at night at the moment. This aesthetic choice stems from my own comfort with this time of the day and the techniques required to produce interesting images at this time, but it also fits my own conception of solitude, my own feelings around this and my previous experiences. There's also something in there about how I process things visually and the way memories tend to come to me more easily at night, in darkness, than they do during the day. The idea of reaching into the depths of memory or emotion to connect with these feelings certainly works best for me at night. I've written before about how the night stereotypically lends itself to some of these ideas, the ‘dark night of the soul' etc and this also feeds into and informs my practice to some extent. Practitioners in the list above who are also predominantly known for night work (e.g. Luxemburg, Hido, Hopper to a lesser extent) often portray a strand of displacement and disconnection in their work, Hido in particular. 

Increasingly, I’m convinced that I need to introduce people into my world of solitude, whether that's portraiture or as actors in the urban landscape, because the work now seems to be somehow incomplete without finding a way to include the people I’m trying to represent, the people I am trying to 'reach out' to. I plan for people to play a more prominent part in the work in the next phase of the project. 

When considering the context of my work, I'm hoping to argue that the state of solitude is an almost universal one and thus the context is potentially everywhere and everyone. This work should be applicable, and hopefully accessible, to all. I originally conceived of this work as being a useful starting point for a workshop about this issue, hopefully with the aim of providing strategies and resources to help people ‘reach out’ to others and ameliorate this state of loneliness. Moving forward into the final project phase, this has to be a key strand of the work – making it accessible and relatable to people in different strata of society. This aspect of the project is really important to me, but has yet to be fully explored so far. 

Some contexts for this work are easily identified – the book, the exhibition, the short film. These strands interest me in different ways, and feel like essential parts of the final complete whole of my ideal project. Of course, constraints of time/finances/collaborators/my own competence etc. may mean that these avenues are not all available, but they still represent the goal. I would ideally like my work to be available in all of these contexts, but appreciate that that work may necessarily extend beyond the duration of this MA. 

Thinking about the professional placement of this work, I believe this largely depends on how well I'm able to engage potential audiences, where they are, in a way that encourages them to interact with and respond to the work. For example, it's certainly possible to be more strategic about how I share this work via my current social media channels. Finding effective ways to interest my followers could give the project a new lease of life and propel it into a wider consciousness that then opens up the possibility of publication or exhibition. I must engage the audience, I have to generate sufficient interest and feedback from those who do encounter the work, to be able to leverage that for possible professional dissemination of the work. 

Considering critical theory that might underpin this work, I suppose the project relies in some way on the idea of connecting with the viewer through common references and common experiences. We’ve already discussed in this module the idea that a large part of the success of an image relies on its ability to utilise commonly accepted ideas and signs to communicate with the viewer. As the work becomes more personal and more introspective, I have to consider the importance of expressing myself in a way that optimises communication, possibly by using accepted visual references, but that still allows me enough creative leeway to produce work that’s individual and distinctively 'mine'. 

Ultimately, I want viewers to be moved by the work, to feel an emotional connection to the subject and the content of the images. Of course, this relies on me communicating clearly and skilfully. I want the viewer to be able to see something of themselves in the work (another reason why adding people into the mix seems to make sense to me). I want my viewer to be challenged to review their environment, to look around more, to see opportunities for connection where maybe they hadn't done previously. I'd like the viewer to know that I feel the same and that in most ways that matter we're all the same. 

References:

YouTube. “TateShots: Meet the Artist - Thomas Demand”. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpesyyXWMvg[accessed 12 April 2018].

Informing Contexts: Narrative Thinking & Tutorial Takeaways

I’ve obviously been pretty down on the development of my project work during this module, feeling very much like I’d reached a creative dead end. I’ve been working in the background trying to find a key that unlocks things and today, due to a tutorial with Dr Steph Cosgrove, feel like I’ve been able to make some real progress.

I’ve been trying to attack the problem from different angles – reading around the subject trying to understand the issue of solitude more, as well as looking at the work of other practitioners who have a strong grasp of narrative and creating suggestive images.

I recently finished reading the book How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland.

 

Maitland deconstructs the state of solitude, giving it a historical context and arguing that the perception of solitude has changed over time as the winds of prevailing culture have changed. She argues for the numerous beneficial aspects of solitude and draws from her personal experience, having gradually migrated towards an increasingly solitary existence over a number of years and now lives in a very remote part of Scotland.

She asks:

“How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfilment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves? Think about it for a moment. It is truly very odd.”

Her basic premise is that solitude is a state from which many benefits can be derived and as such everyone should try it. She gives suggestions for ways that people can gradually expose themselves to increasing periods of separateness and offers pointers for ways to optimise this time.

Maitland’s book is uplifting for being determinedly, but not unreasonably, positive about the benefits available from seclusion (e.g. increased creativity, increased self-knowledge and self-confidence). She describes her life of great isolation, from which she has derived numerous benefits which seem to have made her a happier, more centred and more productive person. A generally more functional person in fact.

Reflecting on this in terms of my project, I’m even more certain of the importance of reflecting the positive aspects of solitude in the work (as well as the more readily-perceived negatives). I personally find a lot of refreshment in solitude, and suffer if I’m unable to have periods of isolation with relative frequency. It would be dishonest then to fail to reflect this in the work, particularly as I am committed to a more revelatory approach to creating these images. Also, having a broader historical understanding of the way being alone is perceived and how that has changed over time, is useful in reflecting on ways to further explore and represent this state visually.

Taking advantage of a random day off today I finally managed to catch up with Dr Cosgrove for a tutorial. It was an incredibly productive meeting as she was able to very quickly and perceptively open up new avenues of investigation that will no doubt help me to rethink how I present my ideas for this project. Amongst a number of suggestions, the one that immediately struck a chord was the idea of shooting interiors – something I’ve never really done before (at least not since I very first took up photography). Dr Cosgrove referenced the work of practitioners I had been previously aware of such as Rut Blees Luxemburg,

 

Narrow Stage - Rut Blees Luxemburg

Narrow Stage - Rut Blees Luxemburg

as well as pointing me towards the work of photographers I had not come across before, such as Fred Cray and Lynne Cohen

 

The work of Lynne Cohen

The work of Lynne Cohen

These little breadcrumbs have sparked off further ideas that I aim to pursue over the coming weeks. I can also say that my sense of how I can create narrative is starting to settle and solidify in my mind. As is often the case, it took an objective outsider’s perspective to steer me back on course and point the way forward, for which I’m super grateful. Now to make it all count!

 

References:

MAITLAND, Sara. 2014. How to Be Alone. London: Macmillan.

BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2018. ‘London: A visual love song’. British Journal of Photography [online]. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2018/02/rut-blees-luxemburg-modern-project-liebeslied/ [Accessed 23 March 2018].

MIZGALA, Johanna. 2002. ‘Lynne Cohen, No Man’s Land: The Photographs of Lynne Cohen’. CIEL VARIABLE [online]. Available at: http://cielvariable.ca/en/issues/ciel-variable-58-nudes-and-portraits/lynne-cohen-no-mans-land-the-photographs-of-lynne-cohen-johanna-mizgala/ [Accessed 23 March 2018].

 

Informing Contexts: Week 7 Reflection

“To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.”

Ingrid Sischy, 1991

Week 7 asked us to consider how we respond to images and whether photographs can evoke change. Reviewing the work we covered this week, I realise how closely these ideas are linked with my ongoing struggle to understand visual narrative and find a more coherent way to articulate my own themes.

The concept of a ‘visual soundbite’ was proposed, an idea that’s immediately attractive, capturing as it does the challenge of trying to produce a readily digestible, emblematic image that perfectly encapsulates an idea, resonates with an audience and remains memorable. Although in political terms the soundbite is viewed somewhat pejoratively, as a superficial and often essentially meaningless tidbit to feed the news cycle, when applied to photographs this seems to me to be a good way to imagine a photograph that communicates effectively. As Sontag (2002) wrote:

In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it. The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb.”

In many ways, photographs become part of a collective memory, a way to enter into a shared experience of a time or event. In my own experience I think of two images that seem to epitomise this idea. The first is from the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana.

This image instantly comes to mind when I think about that wedding, which took place in 1981. I was 3 years old at the time. I have no personal connection to, or experience of, this event and yet it’s branded into my consciousness. I’ve seen this photograph so many times over the years, in various settings (celebratory plate anyone!), that the memory of this event feels almost real to me…I almost have an ‘I remember where I was when’ story for this moment!

The second image that comes to mind is that of Pippa Middleton entering Westminster Abbey during the wedding of her sister Kate to Prince William. 

This is another image that’s notable for being strongly attached to my memory of an event that I never actually witnessed. I was at work on the day of this wedding and then had to catch a plane straight after work, so hadn’t seen any of the wedding. On my arrival in Australia I was surprised to see the buzz that had arisen surrounding this image – talk of Pippa’s bum was international at this point! Pippa’s profile rose dramatically almost as a direct result of this photograph, or so it seemed, and launched her into a career in public life.

I’m confident that both of these images would be easily recognisable to most people anywhere in the developed world, an exemplar of the power and universality that a single photograph can achieve.

This leads smoothly on to the question of whether photographs can be used to inspire change, if as argued, they are able to communicate so powerfully? A sub-question here might be how photographs manage to capture your attention long enough to challenge you to consider the issues presented and whether this requires ‘shock tactics’ of sorts?

Personally, I struggle to see how a photograph can provoke change, certainly by itself. I can however conceive of images being used in conjunction with text, moving images etc. to stimulate debate and potentially inspire change. I suppose there’s a spectrum of communication, on which you could place all of these modes, with the acceptance that certain modes of communication will be more appropriate at different times depending on the objective and the audience.

The work of Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado was examined in detail this week, both from the point of view that one of his stated objectives was to bring the unfortunate plight of certain disadvantaged communities to the attention of his audience, as well as from the opposing viewpoint that his work is actually too aesthetically beautiful to be truly representative of the lives of the people he is supposedly advocating for, thus losing its power to speak on their behalf.

The quote at the top of this piece is from an article by Ingrid Sischy where she ruthlessly eviscerates Salgado and his work, arguing that it’s always more about him than about his subjects. While her lengthy deconstruction sometimes edges into what feels like a vindictive personal attack, I'm inclined to agree with her main points, namely that aesthetics seem to supersede subject and context and that this ultimately serves to take the focus away from the issues Salgado claims to be concerned with and instead places it on himself, his technique and his ‘artistry’.  

Considering my own work, I have to ask if the way I’m trying to depict and discuss loneliness is commensurate with the subject, or whether in fact I too might fall into the trap of favouring aesthetics over an honest presentation of the issue. If my genuine concern about the importance of the solitude/loneliness/isolation question is buried under a self-aggrandising insensitivity, concerned only with a personal pursuit of beauty at the expense of all else then I will have failed in my objective and the project will not have the power to communicate that I truly hope for. This is something for me to reflect on as I continue searching for a suitable narrative strategy.

References:

SISCHY, Ingrid. 1991. Good Intentions. [pdf] Available at: https://paulturounetblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/good-intentions-by-ingrid-sischy.pdf [Accessed 20 Mar. 2018].

SONTAG, Susan. 2002. ‘Looking at War: Photography’s view of devastation and death’. The New Yorker December 9 [online]. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/looking-at-war [accessed 20 March 2018].