Assignment Five

Assignment Five is a ‘self-directed’ project based on the ideas and developments encountered in the previous four segments.  Although a ‘freestyle’ assignment ought to be liberating, opening up a wealth of possibilities I’m afraid that, for me at least, it has the opposite effect.  I have nothing to push against.  It’s entirely up to me to find something which I can personally engage with and take responsibility for, both in the original idea and the execution.

As a result of this unfettered liberty I find myself at something of a loss to decide where to start.  One reassuring aspect is the fact that the assignment is very clearly defined as a ‘work in progress’.  It is not even supposed to be finished! Hurrah!  As an inveterate non- completer/finisher I should be delighted but I am not.  It makes things harder.

This is intended to be an iterative process and I assume the emphasis is on process, with the intention of laying out the development of a project and refining it through revision and adjustment.  Again, it ought to be easy because most of my work has evolved this way, often ending up bearing little resemblance to the original idea.

I also note that the work is ‘not expected to be fully resolved, visually coherent or clearly contextualised’.  Crikey.  I shouldn’t have the least bit trouble with that then.  It’s a gift for us non-C/F’s.   But it feels vaguely like those primary school drama lessons: just be a tree… move like a tree to the music… let the tree in you come out…    Perhaps I was traumatised as a ten-year-old.

One idea I had involved making pictures with an element of intrigue,  just on the literal side of surreal:

That kind of thing (these are mine).  It’s not coherent and there’s no context so it certainly hits the mark. I enjoy doing this kind of thing – maybe that’s enough to make it worthwhile? Georgia O’Keefe certainly thought so:

 I have already settled it for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain, and I am quite free  

Those pictures led to me wondering about the use of gesture in photography which in turn led to this:

Figurative mono a favorite genre. I compare and contrast this, from Christian Coigny.  In my fond imaginings everything is possible, I just need to practice harder.

332_ChristianCOIGNY.jpg

 

But I realised that these examples are not really about ‘self’ or ‘other’.  They are certainly pictures ‘of’ selves and others but I don’t think that’s what’s required.  These pictures do not easily sustain a back-story; they are sufficient unto themselves and as such they might tend to stifle engagement rather than stimulate it. Damn.  Shot myself right in the foot there, I was imagining a cosy month in the studio close to the kettle.

I think journeys produce pictures.  I found Alec Soth’s ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ a compelling work and I imagine it as prime ‘self and other’ material.  The very act of moving, travelling, means that things hove into sight and come to attention in a way that static observation overlooks.  Maybe a discrete journey would be a suitable form.  It needn’t be undertaken all at once.  It need not even be continuous; steps could be retraced as often and in whatever way seemed best.

During my sojourn in Spain I kept bumping into things and people who were connected to the Caminos, the long pilgrimage walks to Santiago de Compostela.  The Peregrinos, the people who undertake the pilgrimage are to be found all over northern Spain especially during the Spring and Autumn (it’s too hot in Summertime).  For some Peregrinos the journey has religious significance but I understand that for the majority the walk is one of self-discovery… there we are, it’s all about the self.  I couldn’t start on something like that now – it’s too longterm, too far away and too expensive.  But the notion of pilgrimage is interesting to me.

Rivers certainly hold a fascination too.  The river Exe is fairly accessible from where I live. It’s a curiously contrary river, rising in the far north of Somerset in the small village of Simonsbath.  It’s a mere 5 miles from the sea at that point, and normal rivers are supposed to have that destination as their primary goal… not the Exe.  Instead of taking the easy route straight into the Bristol Channel likes its sensible big brother the Avon, the Exe chooses to head off cross country, meandering in a generally southerly direction to the English Channel some sixty miles away.  Perhaps the Exe could be my Mississippi.  I could take plenty of inspiration from Soth, not least his reliance on two pairs of glasses on strings around his neck at the same time.  I guess varifocals just don’t work within the confines of the dark cloth.

Although I am tempted by a top-heavy project such as the Exe I’m afraid it is just too involved for a single assignment in a single module.  Even allowing for the fact that the assignment does not need to be finished, I think there would be too much travel involved.

But there is an area even closer which has long held a fascination for me, the little seaside harbour at West Bay.  For over twenty years it has been my nearest point of contact with the sea, just five minutes from most of the dwellings I’ve flitted between in Bridport.  It has become obscured by familiarity over the years but maybe that could be part of the work – by photographing ‘deeply’ I might rediscover the place which was one of the main reasons for moving here in the first place.

At this point (early October) I have turned in my essay for part four and have a clear six weeks to work on this assignment five.  I’m going to chart the progress on a single page (this one) in rough date order, because the emphasis of the assignment is on development and revision.  I’ll try to make it easy to navigate; where I have considered other practitioners I’ll drop a link leading to my study of their work.   Like this for Alec Soth  

I pondered on the narrative aspect of photography on that page, but in true contrarian style this post will take exactly that form, consisting of text and pictures, links, references and quotes.  It is to be a continuous story of my efforts for Assignment Five.

Planning and managing expectations

This local exploration has both advantages and disadvantages. Good:

  • It is close by, easy to get to for photographing when the opportunity arises
  • I can get there to take advantage of circumstances like weather, good bad or indifferent
  • Spontaneous activities which might present photographic opportunities can be monitored
  • I am known in several areas so access might be  easier
  • I have a good knowledge of the area so I’m familiar with all the little outlier areas

Not so good:

  • It is close by, easy to get to, so without a need to organise travel so procrastination is a risk
  • I can get there to take advantage of circumstances, but that could easily turn into cliched pictures
  • Spontaneous activities which might present photographic opportunities – could end up with lots of pictures of funfairs
  • I am known in several areas so access might be  easier.  Or more difficult, depending on the relationship
  • I have a good knowledge of the area so I’m familiar with all the little outlier areas, possibly too familiar.

The number of pictures Alec Soth takes varies according to the medium – usually under a dozen large format negatives and upwards of six or seven hundred digital photographs.  My preference would be for something between those two figures.  Whatever I shoot on each foray I’m going to post here, on this page, except for the obvious no-hopers.  They will be low resolution.

9th October 2020

This is a tentative contact sheet style, which may be adjusted as time goes on.  I seem to have taken some pictures in portrait and I told myself I was not going to do that, so in future even if I do err, they won’t appear here.

Everywhere I looked there was stuff I already knew, had seen a thousand (well, hundreds of) times.  I have been taking pictures here for nearly twenty-five years.  I had an office here for five of them and a boat in the harbour for another five, so you could say I’m a regular.  This first purposeful visit is dominated by a feeling that I have to negotiate old memories and experiences.  They are everywhere.  Anywhere I look I can pin an event or a meeting, a conversation, a surprise.  So I lurch around like a bagatelle ball bouncing of things which feel far too familiar to elicit any worthwhile photography.

Which raises another question (clearly this is going to be full of those – I hope there will be some answers too) – if a place is as deeply personal as this, doesn’t that in itself make it highly relevant to the self?  The ‘Bay must surely have become part of my own identity – how do I make pictures which speak to my own life here, pictures which communicate the sense of connectedness I feel for the place?  And will those pictures of necessity speak most clearly to me, yet be muffled to other viewers?

These first pictures are superficial, taking the temperature of the place without illuminating any of the underlying character, but I suspect that’s part of the process.  In order to find out what is important there’s a need to isolate what isn’t.  The pictures have too much information and are too obvious.

10th October 2020

This is a quite heavily culled set.  I went a bit wild, hoping that sheer numbers would produce some worthwhile pictures; not so.  I just ended up with lots of rubbish, which I immediately deleted.  Some people hold on to photographs for ever, reasoning that there’s no need to delete because storage is effectively unlimited.  I can understand that, but I feel burdened by a mass of work which is very unlikely to be used, even if I don’t see it.  Rineke Dijkstra is a ‘storer’

I might leave them for two weeks because you need distance to see properly. It happens to me that I take a picture and I think it doesn’t work at all and then I look at it three years later and I think it’s a great picture. It’s probably linked to having something in mind and being disappointed that your expectations weren’t met, then realising later that it was a lucky moment.

In this crop of pictures there is a sense of ‘otherness’ about the place; people are beginning to make an appearance too. At some point I want to integrate some ‘street portraits’, street because there’s little opportunity for anything else.  But I’m hoping that the work will include some considered pictures – people in this setting are generally more relaxed, have more time to oblige that an office worker rushing out to lunch (remember those?).

 

11th October 2020

This was mainly about the light, which I missed even though I was ‘on location’ in under ten minutes.  At this time of year the sun sets over the sea and can create some moody looks, but I was too late.  Nothing to see here, move on…

Or is there?  I perused the ‘reflexive’ photography of John Maclean and discussed some of the aspects which relate to this assignment.

 

17th October 2020

One or two of the pictures from this visit might be worth keeping – the reflections and the kayakers.  The guard fencing and the security tower is quite a striking picture which could work with the caravan site photographs (when they are made) – the pairing of the two would suggest a ‘camp’ vibe with restrictions, rules and penalties.  It would be a fib though – the cameras and railings are security for the boat park, where a number of outboard engines have been thieved in the past putting the council under pressure to secure the yard.

The light is rather nice in the river pictures and carries a certain calm, quiet look.  I have nowhere near enough photographs to start assembling any kind of edit yet.

 

20th October 2020

I had a William Eggleston moment, adapted for modern times with a plastic toy rather than his metal trike.  Returning to the memorial flowers was worthwhile but the abandoned toy is too much of a cliche.  The railway looks too much like a railway to be included.

 

22nd October 2020

Here something begins to happen I think.  The guys on the rocks are appealing and the ice-cream device might be worth bearing in mind.  But the rock chaps have a certain something – the way they are arranged, the direction of gaze, the light and the unusual setting, the hi-vis jacket.  It asks questions because it doesn’t immediately explain itself.  The way that I have reduced the size of these thumbnails to save server space, along with WordPress image crunching, has made them soft.  They are not soft, or at least the useable ones aren’t

Identifying a recurring element within an environment, then documenting the instances thereof is a valid approach in contemporary photography.  Luca Ellena provides a succinct example and I could readily collect many instances of, say, ice-cream consumption along will all the ice-cream related paraphernalia and the wider implications of ice-cream in the coastal holiday environment.

30th October 2020

It is half term and many families are trying to make the best of a week at the seaside.  The weather is not cooperating, sending one deep depression after another across the south-west of England.  There are things to do in the rain and wind but the choice is limited and most families choose either eating or crabbing or both.  West Bay crabs are among the best fed, sturdiest crustaceans on the south coast; they lurk among the pilings below the harbour wall until a tempting chunk of smoked bacon (for it is always smoked bacon, deemed the best bait by the corner shop) is lowered carefully down to them in a fluorescent net.  There is generally a small child on the other end and shortly the two come face to face, the one squealing, the other contentedly munching.  The temporary confinement in a homely bucket is a small price to pay for the determined decapod.  They bide their time, drawing a variety of admiring comments from passers- by before being returned, their bacon hunger sated, to the muddy water.  Whereupon the cycle begins once again.  Some of the crabs are on first name terms with their captors.

Along with signs telling visitors where the can and cannot park, the chipped potato is the most ubiquitous feature of the Bay.  No fewer than fifteen premises are engaged in production on an industrial scale.  The air is suffused with the cloying by-products of deep fat frying as they strive to meet the demand.  I can hear echos of George Orwell ( I wrote about him here) as he struggled to contain his revulsion at the people of the grim North.  I don’t feel like Orwell in the least but the observations are valid.  Chips are everywhere; polystyrene containers likewise.  The gulls, having learned at the pincers of the crabs, scavenge both the discards and the meals-in-progress.  Feeding them is strongly discouraged but Martin Parr probably set this shot up (in 1996) before they became such a nuisance:

That’s right – Martin Parr has already been here and beaten me to it, by about twenty-five years.

In his pictures of West Bay he is already using the 50:50 fill flash technique, whereby the artificial light does as least as much work as the daylight and often more.  The shot is undoubtedly a setup – the gulls are devious but they haven’t yet worked out how to fly around with a trayful of chips.  Parr’s flash technique has become a key feature of his style; it might be reduced to gimmickry in anybody else’s hands but Parr pretty much owns the British at the Seaside franchise, so it’s his to exploit.  Having mentioned exploitation I recognise that opinion varies on the exploitative nature of his work – are they ‘snigger snaps’, fashioned to render the subjects at a serious style disadvantage?  Or maybe a objective comment on the manifestation of leisure in the United Kingdom?  Like I say, opinion varies.

One photographer who has embraced the ‘ignominy image’ wholeheartedly is Peter Dench.  His specialism is depicting the British in advanced states of intoxication, on holiday, at sports events, weddings and pretty much anywhere alcohol is likely to be consumed to excess.  It is a rich vein.  We Brits are enthusiastic and exuberant drunks and we don’t care who photographs us in our cups.  That’s the impression I get from the subjects of Dench’s books such as The British Abroad, Sun Sea and Covid and Alcohol and England (wittily abbreviated to A&E). How we laughed.  There seems to be no end to appetite for pictures of the inebriate, which makes any discussion of the ethical implications two-sided.

Dench sells books because people will buy them.  He’s fulfilling a demand and earning a living, so one might say nobody is getting hurt.  The camera manufacturer (ex-manufacturer now I think) Olympus saw fit to engage him as one of their photographer ambassadors, although I am at a loss to discover what aspect of diplomacy is served by photographing the barely conscious.

This is a representative sample of his work:

 

 

There is no disputing the facts of these pictures – the subjects were drunk.  All of these photographs say the same thing, over and over.  There doesn’t appear to be any deeper message or revelation.  The ethical overview (mine) is that these photographs are exploitative, not least because many of the subjects would have been unable to consent, even passively, to the picture being taken.

Anyway, back in West Bay, here are some rather damp holidaymakers:

 

3rd November 2020

There’s a question of when to make a first-pass edit of the pictures so far.  The ones that survived to this page are only here because they are not obviously fatally flawed – blurred usually, badly exposed or depicting one or other of my feet.

The task of making ‘selects’ can be burdensome when there are a lot of pictures to choose from but helpfully Kodak have developed a program – an ‘app’ as it is called – which will do all the tedious spadework for you.  It is called Kodak Professional Select and it uses artificial intelligence and automated selection to cull the no-hopers from any group of photographs, based on algrithmic critera including:

• Technical Attributes: color, focus, brightness, exposure, contrast,
sharpness
• Aesthetic Qualities: eyes open, smiles, faces centered

I think it’s probably for wedding and event photographers but it is interesting that they include those features as ‘aesthetic qualities’.  I was going to run a set from this assignment through the system but it wouldn’t really reveal anything worthwhile so I think I’ll leave it at that.

Following a useful (final) tutorial I have decided to abandon the West Bay series in favour of a more controlled series which ideally I would do as a studio project.  Unfortunately the generosity which conferred on me the use of a studio space is no longer, and I will have to make-do at home.

It was explained to me during the tutorial that the course itself id simply a framework, a ‘ trellis’ to allow students to grow their own ideas and develop work in a supportive learning environment.  My preoccupation with following instructions has been hampering my natural inclinations and I was urged to ‘find my bliss’, a reference to writing by Joseph Campbell which broadly encouraged artists and others to produce work which was meaningful and valuable to them.