Monthly Archives: June 2014

Studio Work–Tapes and other work–Update

I wrote about a mini-series of studio images that I called ‘Tapes’ in this blog post – here. Looking back, I feel less enthusiastic about the notion of ‘meaning’ than I did in that post; but I do think that some/all of the images ‘work’ as part of this overall Studio Work Project that I am developing. These three, for example:

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They have some positive aesthetic qualities and are likely to pose questions in the viewer’s mind. I could see them as part of a gallery exhibition or within a sequence of these studio images, in book form. I did some more work with my green & yellow ‘earth tape’. He (what was I saying about meaning!) appeared in another studio ‘still-life’, for example:


Here he’s working with some more ‘trash’ – an old piece of wrapping paper and two ‘cut-offs’ from transparent curtain poles. I suppose that I am exploring a still-life aesthetic here that is frequently used in the world of advertising – careful lighting and composition designed to glorify an expensive perfume brand, some jewellery or a leather handbag. Applying that same approach to various pieces of rubbish that are lying around on my shelves is a way of undermining the notion of brand prestige. In a way that is similar to the creation of identity in my self-portraits, I am creating spectacle from nothing – using simple lighting and the magical powers of photographic image-making.

One of the plastic cut-offs and the wrapping paper came together in this heavily Photoshopped spectacle. And another discarded metal curtain pole, with a very humble bit of plastic packaging met under seductive lighting in this image.

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Another idea in my mind, in this context, is the importance of ‘spaces’. It occurred to me that in setting up some of these studio projects I am, in effect, creating spaces in which some form of photographic action is deemed to take place. The image below came about as a result of that idea – the old cardboard box is the empty space (stage?) into which I place the ‘players’ with a view to making an interesting (if meaningless?) assemblage.


That has set me thinking about the potential to collect ‘spaces’ from the outside world, into which I can place my scenes. I photographed an innocent-looking space outside York Minster, into which some familiar characters emerged, back ‘in the studio’.


And then, a special opportunity arose to capture a famous ‘space’ at the Tate Modern – the Turbine Hall. It was empty, apart from three ‘expectant’ viewers – so I have given them something to look at.


I feel that there is some potential in this idea of collecting ‘spaces’, particularly this empty exhibition space. Thinking, contextually, about the importance of the curatorial influences in art; about some of the contextual essays that I’ve been looking at in Contextual Studies – Solomon-Godeau, Crimp etc; not sure whether this can go further as part of the Studio Projects or whether it is a separate project of its own, or even whether it is worth pursuing at all.

So, the experimentation continues. I must admit to a degree of uncertainty, though. I enjoy the work – both the making and some of the outcomes – but I have a concern about what, if anything, it means to anybody else. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of focus to it – spurts of ideas that produce a few interesting images and then on to something else which may or may not extend from what I had been doing before. Part of me feels that, providing I keep going with it, there will be something worthwhile emerging at the end; but another part feels that I might just be ‘playing at it’ and would do well to change tack to something more straightforward. My next step is to put together an assignment submission, which will include my self-portraits and the ‘best’ of what is emerging from these studio projects. That process will, in itself, help with my thinking – and there will be Clive’s feedback, of course.

Studio Work–‘Textbook Project’–An Update

I have already written about the beginnings of this project here; and about some contextual considerations for it here. However, it has moved forward, with images that have become increasingly layered and complex as I’ve tried to push the ideas further. What I am doing here is to use the book, a 1963 publication entitled “A Textbook of Photographic Chemistry”, which I acquired in a local second had book shop, as a trigger from which to experiment with digital photography and transformation. I have written before that the book reads like a foreign (and perhaps ‘dead’) language to me; so bringing the material into a contemporary digital image-making context is like lifting its signs and signification from its original purpose – appropriating it – to create new significance. Some recent work starts with this diagrammatical representation of the process of solarization in film photography.


It is a term that crops up in digital contexts, of course – but as a standard Photoshop filter that seeks to imitate the analogue effect. It is also associated with Surrealist experimentation with photographic processes, notably by Man Ray. However, nothing of that is of any consequence to the way that I have sought to use it. I decided to explore the potential in the shapes in the graph itself; resulting in the following transformations:

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The colourisation has been done in Photoshop, with the colour choices being entirely ‘instinctive’! I found the resulting form interesting and could see potential to go a step further by creating a repeating pattern. The process took me back to junior school days and printing patterns with cut-out potatoes. Wonder whether people still do it! After a few iterations, this was the outcome. I have to admit that I was delighted with it – reminded me of some sort of fabric print for cushions and curtains in the 1950s/1960s.


I printed it out at about 28cm x 28cm and used it as the basis for another piece of experimentation. I’ve been thinking about the flat surface of photographic prints and whether I could use some of the ‘cutting’ that I’ve applied elsewhere to create a third dimension. So I went to work on the blue shape, transforming its size and dimensions then printing and cutting multiple copies that I could layer onto the surface. The result, applied to one part of the pattern, is visible in this image:


I’ve also re-introduced the original solarization theme by adding a copy of another appropriated image from the book, to which I have applied the standard Photoshop solarization filter. It’s crude and unsophisticated, deliberately printed onto ordinary paper and curled, to retain this contrast between old and new – and, if I admit the truth, to confuse and subvert the whole process of image-making! I find this process of applying layers of manipulation and development interesting and I enjoy the complex and sometimes challenging nature of the outcomes.

Picking up, then, on the idea that this pattern reminded me of a mid-twentieth century interior design fabric, I went on to print the pattern onto a piece of fabric (using some fabric that is specially designed for use with inkjet printers – a process used by quilters to incorporate photographs into quilts). The fabric was a pretty basic piece of cotton and it soon began to fray at the edges, which added a new and unexpected element! The following image combines this fabric version with the original paper print – and the very diagram from which this process started.


The composition is laid on a piece of black velvet so that it seems to float in a kind of surreal manner, but with simple ‘still-life’-like side lighting. But I’ve then taken the fabric print on to another stage of transformation – re-photographing it, extracting it from its background and making it the top layer of a new image in Photoshop, beneath which I’ve layered copies of the original digital pattern and copies of the original graphical shape, which are then ‘revealed’ with some crude use of the Photoshop eraser.


This is certainly a strange image, designed to confuse the eye and confound analysis. The strange process of experimentation that has led to this point is, I feel, in a long line of such experimentation – by Surrealist photographic artists in the first half of the 20th C and by the contemporary photographic artists such as those I have quoted before (and who have been recently featured in the latest edition of Foam magazine – see here).

I find the process fascinating, and I want to continue to push these ideas. I am somewhat unsure as to the reaction from other people. Can viewers see any value or interest? Is anyone, other than me, remotely interested in this form of exploration? I have no idea! I wouldn’t say ‘… and I don’t care …’ because I do, actually, but taking some risks and experimenting with what feels interesting is a crucial part of the creative process, I think. No idea where this is all going, but I just read a reassuring quote in Hotshoe magazine – Roe Etheridge is quoting something that one of his influences, Jim Jarmusch said to him … “It’s hard to get lost when you don’t know where you’re going.”

Self Portrait Project Update

As of today, I have five self-portraits that are at, or close to, what I would regard as a finished form.  That isn’t to say any/all of them couldn’t be improved and maybe even re-shot, but my feeling is that any of them could, with a little ‘tweaking’, be presented as part of a final project. The form of that presentation is some way off, of course, and might be a consideration, but these are mainly large enough files to allow for a sizeable print, were that to be the outcome.  I’m hoping to submit a second assignment in the next couple of weeks, and these images will form part of it; so today’s blog post is a way of bringing them together, with a few thoughts about each and some reflections on where we go from here.


Bailey’s Old Mate

The ‘back story’ to this one is that this version of Stan was a student in London in the late sixties. He was interested in photography and eventually left his course to work as an assistant to David Bailey. He went on to make a living as a photographer, back in the North, though never made it ‘big’. He remained good friends with Bailey and, on a visit to Stan’s home in Yorkshire, Bailey made a series of portraits of Stan, of which this is the chosen one. (They shot two rolls of 35mm film over a couple of afternoons.)  I have found it necessary, for my own purposes, to have some form of ‘back story’ in my mind when creating these images.  The fact that I was working alone, with a D800 on a tripod, remote control for the shutter, and two lights, in my makeshift studio, is neither here nor there.  If the portrait is to work, I have to begin with a context in my own mind. This is a re-shot version, with greater depth of field and a cleaner background. There is a question to be raised about the use of text, to which I’ll return later, but for now I’m supplying image, title, and back-story.  I’m reasonable happy that this is a passable version of a Bailey portrait that he might have made of an old ‘mate’.



Bishop Stanley Dickinson

Partly inspired by the number of ‘Newsbook’ entries that referred to ‘going to church on Sunday’, this is Stan who went into the Church of England and has risen to the rank of ‘Bishop’. He is photographed by portrait photographer Nadav Kander for a magazine article about the Bishop’s strong views on the irresponsibility of the modern media. Although shot in the Kander style (the edge lighting with a low light to the subject’s left, for example, and a gaze off screen), the Bishop seems to have resisted the open-mouthed stare that characterise some such portraits.  There are some comparable examples at these links: Morrissey; Mark Rylance; Barrack Obama.



Dick Stanley – actor

Dick, popular British comedy actor, is photographed for the Radio Times, which is celebrating his 40 years as a ‘star’. He made his name in British-made films, specifically in 1970’s sex-comedies, the first of which was ‘He Was Only a Joiner But …’, re-enacted for this portrait. It was the first of a series (compare ‘Confessions of a …’!). The style of the image appropriates a popular magazine format, with plain background and a hint of (false) shadow at the feet.  Not the easiest of self portraits to make (!), this one seeks to use the very artificial, set-up aesthetic of an obviously studio-based image, obviously manufactured pose, and slightly ‘over-the-top’ expression to portray a character who is not reticent about being photographed, even in a state of undress.  (One of the toughest tasks was learning to appear at least a little relaxed whilst operating the remote shutter release concealed behind the plank! No jokes, please!)



Farmer Stan

This also appropriates another popular magazine-style, using fill-flash to create sharp distinction between foreground and background lighting that produces a slightly surreal, almost studio-like look to the image. It also, frequently results in a slightly startled look in the subject. So here we have Stan apparently caught in the act of going about his business and seeming a little unsure about whether he really wants to have his photograph taken for this magazine – an ordinary guy who has spent the last fifty years working in agriculture has his moment of ‘fame’.  This is the same image that I used as an illustrative example for Assignment One.  I feel that it works well and stands up with the others that have either been re-shot or produced with intent for final submission.  I could, perhaps, re-shoot something similar on location in the village where I grew up, but at this stage, I’m not sure how much it would actually add.



Old Stan

Things weren’t going too badly for Stan until he lost his engineering job in the mid-eighties. But he found it hard to deal with redundancy and, increasingly, sought solace in the bottle. He still has family and friends around who try to keep an eye on him – but he sometimes goes off for days and can regularly be found in a corner of the local church grounds. A second year photography student (Stan’s niece) shot this for her Social Documentary course, using an old 35mm film camera to try and capture something of the feel of Richard Billingham’s ‘Rays a Laugh’ series about his parents.

I actually shot a series of ‘Old Stan’ images with the D80 first, using a 24-85mm zoom lens at 29mm & ISO 400 to match up with the 28mm lens and ASA 400 film that I was planning to use on an old Praktica 35mm film camera that I bought in a charity shop some years ago. Selecting what I judged to be the best version, to achieve a kind of hopeless, semi-engaged but largely out-of-it look, I posted this one in the OCA Flickr group, looking for any reaction. (I wasn’t going to have the film versions for a few days.)


The response was largely positive, but there was a suggestion that the look was a bit ‘clean’ for a homeless guy. I wasn’t actually looking for ‘homeless’, so that didn’t trouble me too much, though there was a suggestion that the presence of cardboard might signify ‘homeless’ – which does make sense and might, ultimately, cause me to re-shoot this one. However, as well as perhaps being a little over-exposed, this is very much a ‘digital slr’ photograph – sharp, low on noise, etc – and whilst the look of the subject matches purpose, there could be a sense in which the aesthetic doesn’t.

When the scanned film versions arrived, I was immediately ‘seduced’ by their grainy, dirty aesthetic – and I also liked the extra touch of aggression and engagement in the one above. Posting that on Flickr, I again got a largely positive response – but engagement with one fellow student led me to question whether those qualities could actually be re-produced in the digital version. That, with some encouragement from John, the colleague concerned, who had had a go at re-processing my original Flickr upload, led me to produce this version.


Correcting the over-exposure, increasing the contrast, and adding grain through a Photoshop filter, begins to get closer to the film aesthetic. This now leads to a question as to whether my preference for the film version stems from a perceived authenticity of ‘process’ – or shall we say a matching of process to subject and context. And there is also, of course, my awareness of the ‘back story’ and my invented context of the student project. There is something to unravel here. I haven’t felt it necessary to match process to appropriated style in the Bailey or Bishop images, for example, so am I just doing so in this case ‘because I can’ i.e. because I can, with little effort, lay my hands on an old 35mm film camera whereas hiring a medium format digital set-up to reproduce the Kander/Bishop image would be a very different situation. I don’t have answer, and it may not be crucial to the project, but it is something to consider as I move forward.

Another factor that will need to be resolved is the relationship between these images and any supporting ‘text’. Is it my intention that the portraits should ‘stand alone’, titled ‘Portrait 1’, ‘Portrait 2’ etc? Or do I title them ‘Bailey’s Old Mate’, ‘Bishop Stanley Dickinson’ etc ? In which case, some, such as ‘Bailey’s Old Mate’, will begin to indicate what is my intention. And, possibly, should I go the whole hog and support each with the ‘back story’ in a short paragraph? Barthes’ ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ essay gives me some theoretical background to the dilemma – but I don’t intend to resolve it just now, merely flag the fact that a decision will be necessary at some stage. It has actually occurred to me that, in some form, this issue might turn out to be an active part of the eventual presentation of the images – something that encourages a viewer to consider the visual/linguistic aspects of identity in popular 21st century culture.

So, I have five portraits to submit as part of my second assignment and I think the project is off to a good start.  I have other ideas in mind already and would hope to have a similar number ready by the time I get to a third assignment – and can incorporate any suggestions emerging from the feedback on this assignment.  I don’t have set ideas about the eventual outcome – in terms of either numbers or form of presentation, but I feel I am likely to be looking in the region of 20+ portraits, if the project is to have credibility.  Might be ambitious, but that’s what I have in mind at this stage.