Monthly Archives: October 2014

Portraits–Contextual Research & Reflection

As part of my Contextual Studies (though ‘Struggles’ might be a better title!) I have been in e-mail exchange with my tutors for both modules over the last few weeks.  I don’t propose to get into the detail here, but the essence of it is a continuing difficulty that I seem to have in clearly articulating the link between the Body of Work that I’m producing and the relevant and appropriate ‘Context’.  I don’t have a problem with the work I’m producing; I don’t have a problem with the background ‘theory’ that I’m studying; I don’t have a problem with finding photographic, and other, artistic comparisons; but wrapping all of that together into a structured form for all aspects of my Body of Work is proving tough (for me, anyway!).  One agreed action is that, as part of my next BoW Assignment, I will produce a ‘draft’ Artist Statement/Proposal that might, for the time being, focus on the Portraits. (I have pretty much concluded in my own mind that these are Portraits that happen to feature me, rather than portraits of me.)

Looking for a way to get into that statement, I was reflecting on the Portraits’ relevance to, or relationship with, the billions of photographic images that are being used to represent ‘identity’ across the internet.  The line I was taking was … ‘Google my name and some of these versions of my identity come up … so why do we attach any credence to the images that come up against any other name Googled …?’  Needs expanding, but it is a possible line, at least.  To back that up with a bit of further research, I ‘created’ eight ‘random’ names (by writing various first names and surnames down on pieces of paper and combining them at random).  It certainly wasn’t scientific, but I thought I would then enter each of those names into Google Images and see what came up.  I simply copied the photos of each of the first three or four under each name, into a document, as follows:

Images - others-1

Images - others-2

Images - others-3

These names were, I stress, created randomly.  I had guessed, and this confirms, that one can quickly generate a range of posed portraits, publicity shots, selfies created on the phone, scanned images from the archive, snapshots, news photos etc (as in my own Portraits).  I haven’t included any supporting text here, but the range of backgrounds is enormous, for such a small sample – business, academic, sport, broadcasting, ‘celebrity’, glamour model (try picking that one out!) and (amazingly) serial killer!  And, naturally, many are simple social media images with little or no supporting information.  Strangely, I also sense some degree of ‘pattern’, if that’s the right word, under each name!  If you want to be famous, don’t use the name Fiona Kerry, for example – though Chris Lewis might be a promising choice!

Does it help me to contextualise my own Portraits?  It is certainly part of my purpose to explore the manner in which the photographic portrait image is used to present identity in the 21st century.  Studying the psychoanalytical angle on identity – Lacan, particularly – tells us that the whole formation of our ego/identity is based on the image, and a misread image, at that.  This little piece of work demonstrates something of the way in which we present ourselves, visually, to the ‘rest of the world’ (as loosely defined by the internet!).  And, superficially at least, the perceived indexical photograph is at the heart of matters.  Yet Photography is going through an uncertain, self-conscious process of navel-gazing – certainly in some quarters – and is perhaps even less ‘reliable’ than it ever was as a basis for representation (of ‘reality’, ‘truth’ etc).  My own Portraits hope to demonstrate how easy it is to represent ‘identity’ through digital photographic processes, yet how unreliable they are at representing something to which we can lend any credence at all.

At another level, many, if not all, of these images, circling the hyper-real world of the internet, are never meant to be anything more than superficial representations anyway.  The selfies on social media get changed regularly; the publicity shots of any celebrity are myriad, so take your choice of identity.  At which point, these images and the billions of others in the ‘soup’ from whence they came, might become representative of the fruitless search for the lost ‘something’ to which we are all, again according to psychoanalytics, condemned.  I have already documented that one original drive for these self-portraits (deliberately dropped that word back in) came from a personal observation that nothing had ever happened to me, none of the (supposed) trauma that artists often point to as the source of their inspiration for a particular piece of work, or indeed their whole body of work.  And another was the ‘disconnect’ between the stories in my old Newsbook and the person I seem to be now.

I have, though, resisted – and continue to resist – the idea that these Portraits are about ‘me’ (beyond the simple notion that there is something of all of us in all of our creative work).  They could also, though, be read – rather like the collection above – as a random cross-section of characters from ‘today’.  Whilst they are masquerade/fiction, they could, because they retain a loose link to ‘reality’, be interpreted as a commentary on where the ‘baby-boomers’ are today.  Coming almost full-circle, I have always intended that the images themselves would be just ‘seductive’ enough to tempt the viewer to see some element of ‘reality’ in there, be it about ‘me’, themselves, their generation, or friends and family.  And we return to the seductive yet unreliable photographic image.

I don’t know whether this is getting me closer to resolving matters. It’s proving to be a tough journey – perhaps no tougher than I expected but certainly tougher in a different way.

One for Harry

I have nine (self) portraits now and, with the exception of ‘Old Stan’, the drunk, (maybe even that one, too, to an extent) there has been an element of fun about most of them.  They have certainly provided some amusement to most people who have seen them.  It has never been my intention to avoid that, but it has always been my intention that there would be a serious element, too.  I could envisage that, in whatever form they are eventually presented, there would be some images that would puncture the fun, reflecting life, I guess.  ‘Old Stan’ would be one of those; and my next planned portrait could be even more powerful, if I get it right.

I am, though, aware that I can begin to step into sensitive areas.  I have already shelved one planned image because it was going to cause concern to some family members – that of the retired teacher accused of indecent assault.  Even the fiction was potentially uncomfortable to some family members; and I understand & respect that.  I am planning that my next image will be of a stroke victim – ‘Granddad Stan’, a birthday snap, photographed by his young grandson.  More than 150,000 strokes happen every year in the UK – mostly to over 65s (my next birthday).  When I was 60 I was (like many) identified as having high cholesterol and have been taking ‘statins’ since then.  That significantly reduces my stroke risk – but it might have happened and does happen to those of my age.  It happened (admittedly at a slightly older age) to my Uncle Harry.

Harry & Ed 1985

This is Harry, with our son, photographed in the summer of 1985.  In the photograph, he is about 71 and a more cheerful, gregarious, talkative, active septuagenarian would have been hard to find.  Interested in pretty much anything, always teasing, he loved to stay up-to-date, liked to get out and about, and was very involved with, and supportive to me when I was a child.  Not long after this photograph, whilst on his way to or from (I can’t recall which) Blackpool, by bus, on his own and surrounded by strangers, he had a huge stroke.  He lived until around 1994, when he died, aged 80 – but he never went home again, to the cottage where he’d lived all his life (apart from serving in the Merchant Navy); he only ever walked, with assistance, around the care home; and, most devastating, he never spoke or smiled again.

I have told Harry’s story to emphasise that I will be producing this next image with serious intent.  ‘Granddad Stan’ will have suffered a stroke within the last twelve months.  It will have damaged the left side of his brain, meaning that his right side has been paralysed, his speech has gone, and there is a lack of expression in his face.  There is every prospect, with therapy, that he may eventually recover some or all of his faculties, but in the short term, he often feels hopeless and depressed – even on his birthday, with his grandson visiting.  It requires a ‘performance’ from me, as have all the others; I have done my research, but I don’t yet know when I’m going to shoot it.  This is by way of a statement of (serious) intent, lest anyone get the impression that I am being light-hearted about it.

Blackpool Stan–the story

Blackpool Stan

Blackpool Stan

Here is the latest in the (self) portrait series (still haven’t fully resolved that!) – Blackpool Stan – and this post records the way that the image has developed to its ‘final’ form.  All of the portraits have gone through varying degrees of planning & preparation and, thinking ahead to assessment, it is probably useful and sensible to record that development process in at least some cases.

The origins of this image go all the way back to October 24th 1955 – or the weekend before that, to be precise.  As recorded in his Newsbook (see below), little Stanley, aged 5, was taken on a day trip to Blackpool, riding in a Rolls Royce.  Not quite so grand is it may sound, I should stress; we didn’t have a car at all!  A neighbour and relative ran a wedding car business and had a vintage Roller in which we occasionally got taken out on trips.  This is the picture I drew and slightly messy note that I wrote about it the following Monday.

Newsbook - Rolls Royce

As recorded some time back – here – the old Newsbook supplied part of the initial inspiration for this series of portraits, and this particular entry always seemed to have potential for a response.  I imagined a version of me who had been drawn to the bright lights and fun of Blackpool (I grew up 12 miles up the coast); who had left school at 16 and gone to work in the amusement arcades, become a bit of a ‘Stan the Man’, and eventually built up his own ‘empire’ of leisure venues (!).  The original thought was that I would photograph him with his own Rolls Royce; thus completing the link with the Newsbook.

Back in July, I did some online research as to just what a ‘Blackpool entrepreneur’ might look like.  I knew about the Oystons, estate agents, owners of Blackpool Football Club, and with a slightly ‘dodgy’ record; and my research turned up photos of them, but it also unearthed some other interesting characters.  Here, without going into full details, are some of the images I found.

Geoffrey Thompson owner pleasure beach died 67 in 2004 Stephen Thorpe Blackpool businessman entrepreneur award

Owen Oyston Karl Oyston

Basil Newby MBE opened blackpools first gay club 1979

A jovial, slightly roguish, slightly ‘dodgy’ bunch – all showmen, one suspects, and, in the case of the last one, awarded an MBE for services to charity.  That (together with the difficulties of procuring an actual Rolls Royce for the photo-shoot) led me to slightly revise the back-story on Blackpool Stan.  He had always craved his ‘Roller’ but, when he could afford one, decided to give the money to charity instead.  I could then use a token model vehicle in the image.  I sourced a die-cast model of a Rolls Royce via e-Bay – more difficult and more expensive than when little Stanley used to collect Corgi toys, I might say – and some other props such as a ‘loud’ pair of reflective sunglasses with orange frames (the colour is significant, as those with football knowledge will realise – see tie in photo above, for example), a pair of ‘pretend-pierced’ earrings from Claire’s Accessories (one of which would be worn, significantly, in the left ear), and a colourful woven wristband from Top Shop (hinting at a touch of the ‘hippy’).  (At Claire’s, I also purchased a blonde (temporary) hair colour, but changed my mind about using it.)

The ‘look’ seemed to work but, before going to Blackpool to do the shot, I wanted to have a good idea of how I would frame and set up the composition, as well as researching potential locations via Google Street View.  The broad idea was to have the model car in the foreground and, if possible, Blackpool Tower in the background, but I decided to trial a ‘set-up’ at home first – in the ‘studio’.  Some experimentation with camera angles etc led to this image.

Blackpool Stan Planning

I needed to get all the ‘props’ in the frame, leaving space for the Tower, and to be able to operate the shutter release discretely.  The car is on a piece of card, on the end of a carrying case for my studio lights, which was useful because I could take the case ‘on location’, and I am kneeling behind it.  The ‘thumbs-up’ seemed in character and gave me an excuse to bring the wristbands into shot.  Any camera reflection in the sunglasses is hidden in the dark shadows.The Street View research for a location wasn’t too successful.  I knew that there would be somewhere on the Promenade that would work but didn’t want to spend ages trundling my ‘kit’ up and down to find it.  I did, though, manage to find some images taken from the North Pier, which had the Tower in the background at what looked as though it would be the right angle.  I was, though, a little concerned about the direction of the sun, should it shine (for once!) in Blackpool when I was there.

It did!  And I was right!  When I arrived mid-morning, it was directly behind the Tower for a shot in the direction I needed.  I had a Plan B in mind, which involved a cup of coffee to kill some time and experimentation with a shot from the other direction, with the Tower reflected in the lens of the glasses instead.  A lot of trial and error with head and camera angles produced this version.

Blackpool Stan - Version

In bright sunlight, the possibilities for reviewing what I’d got via the camera screen were limited.  I probably exposed around 20 images to get the set-up right and another 10 or so to cover different options.  By then the sun had moved around a little and the possibility of shooting my original composition had returned.  (I might add that the whole process was accompanied by a soundtrack of Sixties music over the North Pier’s PA system, as though they knew it was the music of Blackpool Stan’s youth, and subjected to occasional interruptions by inquisitive tourists.)

Switching the set-up around, I then exposed another 20-30 images to get the framing right, to eliminate reflection of the sun onto the lens, and to minimise the reflection of the camera in the lens of the glasses (though that was always going to happen, to a degree).  The whole process on the pier took around one and a half hours and I had about sixty images from which to make final selections.

Back home, a review in Lightroom soon edited the numbers down to a handful where the expression, composition, hair (it was inevitably breezy), reflections etc were acceptable – and I did, at one stage, fear that I might need a return visit to get it right.  The final image, presented at the beginning of this post, has also had a fair bit of work in Photoshop.  There have been separate ‘Curves’ adjustments to various parts of the image to get the balance of the exposures, contrast etc to a more acceptable level; and the ‘Clone’ tool has been used to completely remove the reflections of the camera in each of the lenses of the sunglasses.  One ‘happy accident’ is the juxtaposition of the curve of my thumb with its own reflection and then the curve of my hair as it blew in the breeze.  The potential ‘symbolism’ of the Tower and the raised thumb, with the earring I was aware of before the shoot.

So – a lot of work and planning to produce what is intended to look like a fairly casual shot taken by a local photographer for use in the local newspaper!  Could it ‘work’ as a representation of a ‘real’ Blackpool entrepreneur, alongside the examples I had researched?  I think probably ’yes’, it could.  Does it demonstrate the power of the photographic image to create an illusion of identity and/or the illusory nature of what we think of as ‘identity’?  Could it ‘seduce’ the casual viewer to believe in ‘Blackpool Stan’?  Is it a hyper-real simulation?  Am I, also, just a collection of signifiers, like this image of ‘Blackpool Stan’?