Monday, 23 February 2009

Putting myself in the picture

 Jill and I by Tina Barney
I'm wondering if I should?  Today I spent a fair amount of time looking at work by Tina Barney and reading about it too.  She talks in 'Theater Of Manners' about 'why should the photographer always stand behind the  camera' and although she is referencing close family members I'm also photographing people I know and interact with.  So at the very least its something I may try with each of the sessions coming up.

And I'm adding people into the roster of those I want to shoot.  A friend who is a University Professor and a colleague at another Art School that I'm External Examiner for are joining in the project - this is good, as I feel the need to have a larger pool of images to edit down from for the final submission.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Capturing the prey...

I'm beginning to understand a little more of the psychology around portraiture and the reactions to it.  Bringing my 'prey' to ground seemed to get off to a decent start...but as I get into it some cracks in the facade become evident.  I abandoned a session yesterday, my subject wasn't comfortable with the occasion, they were one of the few that I haven't given my explanatory text too, the setting (away from their office) was desperate and I didn't feel I had control of the situation.  Best not to panic yet I suppose but I'm anxious about getting more material to hand...the next few sessions are a week or so away.  However I am still awaiting my flashgun that I'm realizing is essential to get the lighting right so maybe it's no bad thing.

What is also evident is that it is a serious enterprise for most of the subjects as much as it is for me.  I've always been relaxed about having my picture taken but now I think about it that is mostly in the snapshot setting...I've very rarely had a 'formal' portrait taken, in fact I think only twice, one when I was a local councillor and again when I was Dean of a University department.  My recollection of both experiences is fairly dim now so I don't know exactly how I felt at the time...but maybe I was less comfortable about the experience than I believe now?

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Food & Thought

Another session - and this week Mike Simmons, one of our course team talked about four bodies of work of his own and it was extremely difficult work to discuss.  Mike asked for questions repeatedly, as if trying to coax us into a meaningful debate about the work, but unusually most of us found it hard to articulate ideas when his work is so rooted in personal experiences that are, or at least seemed to me, to be unmediated through a metaphorical or symbolic abstraction.  Of course photography can do this in a way that most other visual artworks cannot do because of its indexical qualities.  And in the context of a lecture where images that we would - in  the normal gallery context - have to imagine functions and meanings are explained to us by the artist himself that is an artificial (and privileged) construct.  Nonetheless it was a tough ask for most of us (I suspect - certainly for me) to frame questions or arguments around works that touch so directly, openly and honestly on the artist's own feelings of grief and loss.  For my own part I have to simply take delivery of such work and find my own private way through such pieces.  But thanks go to Mike for opening up a channel of communication around work that, by its very nature, must be hard for him  to talk as openly about it as he did.

Onto the crit. re. our first fumblings around our chosen project.  Mine - the 'Professional Engagements' piece - seeks to make a series of  meaningful and interesting portraits of a group of 'professionals' that I have met through my recent life activity.  Some (my boss, my GP) I meet regularly and 'know' in some degree - though a by-product of the work, I'm finding out, is that I don't 'know' them very much at all and am finding out through this process.  Others I have met relatively few times (my Heart consultant, my Heart surgeon) and couldn't claim to know at all.  Others still (my Accountant) is a friend that I've known well for many years.

I choose this group for several reasons - firstly I didn't feel ready or prepared to confront complete strangers in terms of portraiture.  This way enables me to have varying levels of 'entree' into making a picture.  Secondly at least initially there will be quite a lot of fiddling about (I'm literally learning on the job as far as technique is concerned) and needed some of my subjects to be prepared to be victims several times over.  Finally - and maybe most importantly - I'm intrigued to see what this seemingly disparate group might possibly share in common or stylistically or whatever simply by being my circle of professional acquaintances.  I'm seeing it as a kind of visual 360 degree appraisal of me as a fellow 'professional' and possibly a portrait of me as a composite of those I interact with.

Here is a second image of one of the subjects ( I already posted some very early shots of my GP) and the first taken with 'pukka' kit.  Of course the formal technical requirements, lighting and focus mainly, are still not sorted but the pose, and what it says about the 'Consultant/Coach' - Pete mainly works with creative people helping analyze their working practice and his environment is starting to get somewhere for me.  I had some idea about the styling and formal character of the pictures before I went in but I'm now realizing for myself (it will be obvious to many experienced photographers) that the interaction in the space, between the subject, yourself and the camera is both fragile and contested.  Our Prof...Paul Hill talked about the act of stalking your prey and I'm beginning to see how that has to happen.  I wasted (thank god for digital!) many shots because I simply didn't 'warm' the subject up before shooting so had some very unnatural and clumsy poses before I got to these here.  A chance conversation with Nick Lockett was very helpful too where he stressed the vital importance of talking the subject through the session.  

So there will be more sessions and more errors along the way but I'm at least learning more about what the potential making of a decent portrait session might feel like.  And an interesting observation about that of course is the relatively low priority of taking the shot, other than the precise moment it happens.

Food...Adele has a feller...Geoff - and he's a cake maker!  And boy...he's a good his Chocolate cake testifies...Cake File - Week 21.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Fear of the Shutter

I've gotten so fearful of pressing the shutter - partly because I'm holding a 'real' camera and partly because anything and everything I might do seems to have been done, bigger, better, more intensely by somebody else.  So today I've stopped reading and thinking about pictures and actually taken some.  I can't get into my chosen project till tomorrow (my first 'booked' session is in the morning ahead of our weekly MA session at DMU) so I started photographing my two younger children - actually young men of 18 and 20 respectively.  I took a lot of pictures, played with the camera settings, realised I need my flash gun (hopefully coming tomorrow!) and generally just shot a lot.  This one is one of the few that I genuinely like - it seems to sum up the vulnerability, vacancy and intensity of the younger one and I kinda like the fuzzy remnant of the other one moving out of shot.  I'm much taken with Alex Soth's work as he seems able to get something of the immediacy of a portrait like this using a large format camera.  I still feel the only way I'll get something worthwhile in portraiture is to keep pushing the number of shots upwards and then heavily editing down.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Portraits and their true value...

Thanks to my colleague Simon I'm making headway with the technical aspects of getting some 'good' portraits.  Whatever I mean by 'good' of course.  More and more looking at other work and reading about its effects, purposes, outcomes etc. is simply confusing me at the moment.  I began by looking at 'classic' 20th century portraits - Karsh, Newman, Horst, Sander and so on.  Mostly, mainly black & white of course.  They obviously have both great technical merit and in some ways create insights of a sort into the subjects.  I was taken with the (no doubt well known to those interested in portraiture) anecdote about Karsh taking Churchill's cigar away from him, getting the grumpy look that kind of sums up the Churchill 'look' in the popular imagination. But does it really tell us anything insightful about the man or simply act as a symbol for a concept that is formed through our casual absorption of media ideas around a 'great life'.

I then moved on to other portrait work eventually - by way of more well know names (Arbus, Bown and many more) - to recent portraitists.  Tina Barney is one, though as many of her pictures are ensembles it is less directly relevant to me.  But one that has really got me thinking hard about the subject is Katy Grennan.  I have in front of me her 2005 aperture book - Model American.  Strangely, and co-incidentally, I chanced to read the back cover quote some time after I'd picked the book up and realised the quotation there came from Richard Misrach...who was one half of the subject for my first semester essay...

I think he sums up what I feel about  " her confrontational images (are) formally smart, astonishingly intimate, and theoretically self-reflexive."  Looking at 'Allen, b. 1951' I almost feel as if it could be me lying there and realise with a shock how vulnerable and open I'd feel if I'd posed in the manner Grennan has placed her subject.  Why these pictures seem to hit the mark where much else I've seen seems remote and rather 'arch' I'm still trying to ascertain.

Thursday, 12 February 2009


It struck me during Helen Sear's excellent talk this week (the work, by the way, is terrific) that most of the photographers we have had speak to us on the course so far are artists who make photographs rather than photographers who are artists.  Maybe that distinction just shows how rusty and archaic my thinking is nowadays but I kinda know what I mean.  And it further amused me that our Prof - Paul Hill - is very much in what I think of as the latter group as far as my thinking goes.  So I'm kinda surprised a little.

Helen's latest work uses the grid in a sophisticated manner to puncture the surfaces of the photographic images she has created, themselves fractured by the context from which they were taken.  This work and the body of work that preceded it (Inside The View - that can be seen on the Klompching Gallery site - where it is currently on show in New York) has quite a few resonances with the exhibition that my friend and colleague John Rimmer curated in 2008 called Digitalis. Its rather amusing that though the five of us in that exhibition showed video, photography, painting and manipulated digital prints we all call ourselves painters - whilst Helen is still calling her most recent works photographs where the digital manipulation goes farther than any of us!  Of course hybridity and bilinguality are sooo fashionable now that it's not surprising.  

Sadly the drift of the conversation after Helen's talk took us away from these issues and into other spheres that more suited most of the audience and the concerns of the course but I'd have loved to have had time to pick up some of the painterly aspects of her work with her!

Monday, 9 February 2009


Having thought hard about the project and read extensively around the topic of portraiture I've actually got around to taking some initial photographs and made contact with all the intended 'victims'.  And guess what its not as easy as one might imagine.  I guess if I ever thought about portraiture before (and pretty much I hadn't) I've always considered it to be a less than fully taxing subject - after all you focus in one the subject, clear the field of obvious confusions and take the shot eh?  I now begin to realize how difficult it is to even get a reasonable image let alone one that has something interesting and thoughtful as regards the sitter.

I have started the project - provisionally entitled 'Professional Engagements' - with a few 'test shots' of my GP.  He's an interesting and open character and someone who has pushed the boundaries of his profession.  He does several minor forms of elective surgery on the premises, is head of the practice and has pioneered certain aspects of GP engagements (and featured on Radio 4 for doing so).  He is also interested in photography and very knowledgeable on the subject.  Very much a willing collaborator in my enterprise.  I was very nervous about actually shooting any pictures at all and to be honest a little scared about getting started.  So I feel that even though the initial shots are desperately poor I am at least 'off the mark'.  I have written or spoken to all the other initial subjects and hopefully in the next couple weeks will begin to assemble an early portfolio of images that will form a 'base camp' from which the portfolio might emerge.

What is evident is that operating within the constraints of the portrait narrows your focus on the details and makes you consider aspects of the settings, props, lighting and staging that previously I had never imagined might be anywhere near as important as I now realize they are.  Another aspect is the way in which I engage with the subject, how much intervention I make, to what extent the sitter relates to me, and so forth.  I have written a side of A4 that frames the project and gives each sitter some ideas around my engagement with the exercise that I might post later.  For now its just one image from session one, subject one...the show how far there is to go with this adventure.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Getting Kitted Out

I'm not really very interested in the technical side of photography...rather like my painting activity I'm keen to find a way that works for me and then master that and then stick to it.  However as I started to think seriously about my portraiture project it dawned on me that my little  Lumix isn't suitable for the staged photographs I want to take and as I'm fully signed up to digital now (I've never been too hot in the darkroom, and I'm not about to start trying to master chemical  printing at this point in time) I did need to get a decent dslr.  I've plumped, after messing around a bit, for a Canon 5D as it seems a good all round solution, at least for now.  Looking at a lot of the larger format stuff there does seem to be a 'style' to it that I think I'd find in the first instance it hard to escape from.  Looking at stuff I really like that's been done recently I'm amazed at how Alex Soth manages to get an informal, close to snapshot, look to his portraits given that he uses a large format camera.  I feel that I want to try to bring off something similar with the work I make - hovering between the formalised, full frontal, studied images that characterise, say, the portraits of Thomas Struth and a more documentary style of 'traditional' 35mm - and to get anywhere near that, I think the camera I have will suffice.  The cost factor came into the decision too - the 5D rather than the Mark II enables me to get a fair amount of peripheral kit within budget.  I've also invested in a decent A3 printer to at least have some good working prints to show as we get more into the course.  I've gone for the Canon Pixma Pro9000 and am hoping this will make the 'hook up' to the 5D reasonably simple.  I want to stick to my Hahnemuhle paper for the prints - though I'm buying a sample pack from them and from Canon themselves to see what the options are.  So enough technical stuff already - now I want to start planning initial activity - and more importantly get on with it.

Full Value!

Another session and a pretty good one at that. Our guest speaker was Tom Hunter, so now we are getting some pretty big hitters in terms of current practice and Tom was sound good value.  The set piece talk wasn't ideal - my guess is that it had originally been pitched at a middle class audience in London - and Tom came across initially as a bit of a sloganiser, an angry and rather two dimensional character.  It was a lot more thoughtful and interesting when the Q  & A started and I don't think I was the only one of us to warm to him and his work when he opended up a little.  His reputation rests on the fabulous image derived from his rereading of the Vermeer.  There's no doubting that it is both his blessing (opening up his career as an artist) and curse (escaping it's pervasive influence).  The quality and thoughtfulness of the images and their beauty is undoubted - whether they really do the didactic political and moral job that Tom ascribes to them is far more dubious to my mind.  In the end though it may be that none of this matters if the images have real potency they'll last the course and maybe that's as much as any of us can hope for.  Tom's advice to us was strong and simple, stay committed to the vision, no excuses.  He gave generously of his time and talent - Nuff Said.   Oh, except that his interpretation of Vermeer's impulses and motives struck me as a little fanciful!

We followed up this up by a discussion of several colleagues initial thinking and outcomes of their investigations in to the practical module.  This was, I felt, the first time a real dialogue started up and well done to those fellow students who were willing to share their early findings.  I'm going to find this hard as I tend to be quite a private person in the studio before I release work out into the world!  I was mercifully spared the embrassment of my paucity of action by the running out of time on the  day...phew.

I loved D's initial thinking, it seemed genuinely original and his text was a joy, the images too quite refreshing.  J is attempting something very tough and brave that will be a real challenge - I hope she can pull it off.  I put us all to shame with a fair bit of research and thinking presented through a 'proper' journal and S had made a very strong image to kickstart his project - I was scared witless as it dawned on me that I had better start taking some images!

Cake File: I think Daisy had brought in some 'millionaire's shortbread' and cookies - bless her if she had as she had already done a baking stint and so was simply trying to keep the tradition afloat.  I think this coming week I'd better start baking as well as photographing.  You have been warned.