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!)
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.
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.