Category Archives: Portraits

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’?

Self Portraits–Planning

Alnwick July 2014

Not the next self-portrait!  A bit of nonsense with one of the water features at Alnwick Gardens last week!

However, I have been doing some thinking and preliminary planning for the next steps in the self-portrait series. (Still calling them that, for the time being, since everyone seems to insist that they are!)  As I’ve suggested before, I envisage ending up with something approaching (or in excess of) 20 to work with; so, with five under the belt, I still have a fair way to go. But, looking back through various lists etc that I have scribbled since starting the project, I can identify as many as 25 possibilities in total; not all will come to fruition, but there’s enough to keep me going & so I have put them all together, including the five completed, into a ‘schedule’ that I can work with & use as a control document over the coming months. It’s here – though not the whole document, just an idea of how it is working:

Microsoft Word - Portraits Planning Schedule

My next overall objective is to submit another assignment in the Autumn – late September, or October – and I would like to have about another seven completed portraits to submit by then.  Up to now, I have been ‘unveiling’ them on Flickr as I’ve gone along, with the five so far; but I think it’s time to be specific, here, about which ones I’m planning to work on next.  So, here, in no particular order, are the five that I would like to complete over the next 2-3 months:

Reggae musician, died of gunshot wounds in Trenchtown, Jamaica, aged 27 – this will use an archive image of me, in Jamaica, in my 20s, and I see it as some form of memorial website page.

Granddad Stan – a ‘Happy 65th Birthday’ vernacular image, maybe featured in a Facebook posting.

Stan the Man – left school at 16 & went to work on the Blackpool Prom amusements; now owns a gaming empire; location for this is obvious; appearance needs a bit more thought.

Missing diplomat, rediscovered – might end up being a mock-up news story combining an archive image just before he ‘disappeared’ in the 70s, with a dubious image of him spotted in a public place (restaurant) recently – location of first will be France, second to be thought about (though I will be in France again late August). Moscow would be ideal – maybe I can ‘create’ a ‘Moscow’!

Cross Dresser – I’m going to need some assistance putting this one together; and to really work, it will ideally be shot in a public place. (No pressure there, then!)

Going to Court – returning to a more serious ‘theme’ that seems to be emerging from ‘my generation’; this individual has been retired from teaching for five years, but his ‘peace’ has been interrupted by two charges of indecent assault on teenage girls, dating back to the 70s.

The Recruiter – Maybe some wishful thinking about this one because it’s a character (and I can see his like every time I go to Leeds, or any other city for that matter – gelled hair, suit, open neck shirt, maybe a loud shirt, the toes of his pointy shoes pointing at at 45 degrees!) – but he’s just sold his recruitment business for £40m.

Right, that’s the plan for the next phase.  Clearly some are quite ‘desk-based’ and others need me to get out and do some location work.  All need research and planning, but I think that it’s achievable over the next 2-3 months.

Double Androgyny

Firstly, a ‘thanks’ to Peter, CS tutor, who pointed me in the direction of the work of Roni Horn.  It wasn’t a name familiar to me but she is a fascinating artist who works in a variety of media, including sculpture, drawing and photography.  There isn’t a convenient link that shows off her work – hardly surprising, given its variety – but, on Peter’s recommendation, I got hold of a copy of the catalogue of “Roni Horn aka Roni Horn” her Tate Modern retrospective of 2009 – link to exhibition site – from the library.  It’s some catalogue!  Two sizeable hardback books, one with images of the works and the second, called ‘Subject Index’, with a series of alphabetically indexed writings that include short quotes from her, short essays on her work by a variety of people, interesting references that she has chosen to share, the occasional poem, more illustrations, and a whiff of tongue-in-cheek humour along the way.  Her work has taken a bit of fathoming, but I understand why Peter suggested I look at it because there is a lot about identity, which links well with my ‘self-portrait’ work.  I’ll come back to that later.

I’m actually going to start with some photographs that appear in both books and were used at the introduction to the exhibition.  They’re not taken by her, however; they are photographs of her, taken at various stages in her life, and presented in pairs in this context.  That idea of pairs, and the consequent questions of comparison/difference, is a theme throughout her work – including the drawing and sculpture.  I can’t find all the portrait pairs on the internet, so I’ve been a little cheeky and photographed the book.  here is one example.

Roni Horn aka-1

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

The mono portrait of the little blonde girl in her frilly dress and cardigan alongside the blurry image of (probably) a teenager, peering from behind a rock and almost obscured by a mass of red hair; we know it’s the same person but, interestingly, the child holds us with a kind of winning, knowing combination of gaze and wry smile whilst the teenager recedes and hides, shyly, behind her protective rock.  Turn over the page, and we get this pair.

Roni Horn aka-2

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

The order switches round – older then younger.  On the left is a ‘cool’, ‘sharp’, androgynous individual in shades, with close-cropped hair, smooth skin, and turned-up collar, glancing at us, slightly open-mouthed but expressionless, as she/he is photographed in a city street.  Whilst on the right, a younger version of the ‘teenager’ smiles willingly but a little falsely, eyes narrowed and barely visible under a tangle of hair – all soft, uncertain edges and with no clearly discernable profile.  (And, are those dark, troubled patches under the eyes?)  Then, at the back of the book (these images are used as untitled end-marks), is this wistful pairing.

Roni Horn aka-3

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

A slightly older version of the little girl sits, arm tucked over the back of a chair, giving us the quietly confident, knowing stare again, besides an older version of the androgynous she/he.  Without the shades now, the portrait on the right fixes us with that same knowing look, but with a hint of weariness, the head lolling against a wall.  Knowing, as we do, that all these photographs are of the same person, we go searching for signs of similarity, difference, development, change.  Interesting, then, to see what Roni Horn has to say about ‘identity’.  The word gets more than one entry in ‘Subject Index’, and in one of them she says “The mutable version of identity is not an aberration … the fixed version is the aberration”.  Later, she speaks of “… the impossibility of pure identity … you will always be a form of me”.  In an interview (here), she talks about life as a ‘labyrinth’, which may have a way in and a way out but also has lots of routes that don’t lead to either.  She says “… that is your life: you don’t arrive anywhere”.

I suspect that, potentially, much of her work, of whatever form, involves questions about identity – even the sculptures and drawings – and the pairings appear everywhere e.g. ‘Things that happen again’; but another photographic project that is of particular interest to me is ‘Portrait of an Image (with Isabelle Huppert)’.  Horn invited actress Isabelle Huppert (as far as I can tell, they didn’t particularly know each other before) to be photographed  ‘impersonating’ herself in film roles that she had performed over the 30 years of her career.  In the same interview linked above, Horn says there was “something about the absurdity of impersonating yourself, which I think is actually real because self is not a singular thing – it never is” and “… the idea that you could impersonate yourself isn’t an absurdity, but a real active way of being present in the world”.  So, Huppert was being asked to reflect back, in performances for Horn’s camera, to find expressions, attitudes, feelings, gazes that belonged to those roles.

There is an article about Horn’s work on the Tate website, by art critic Elizabeth Lebovici – ‘Faces that speak volumes’ – in which she makes a comparison with another artist who ‘performed’ for the photographic apparatus – and one who defined herself in a ‘third gender’ – Claude Cahun.  By one of those quirky coincidences, two weeks ago and before I had been introduced to Horn’s work, I saw an exhibition of Claude Cahun’s images at Leeds Art Gallery (and had first encountered her in the ‘Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism’ exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery some years ago).

Cahun - Leeds

As Leborici points out, Cahun’s photographs, particularly those of herself in a variety of roles/identities, are actually the outcome of collaborations with her life-long partner, Marcel Moore. She was usually, it seems, the person behind the camera.  These works provoke some questions that are also running through my own mind in relation to my ‘self-portraits’.  (The now frequent use of inverted commas is no coincidence!)  Is her art performance art?  Given that she is in roles other than her own, can they be self-portraits?  (And that question can be extended, particularly, if we acknowledge that she didn’t look through the camera and press the shutter.)  But, given that Cahun was born Lucy Schwabb yet spent most of her life being Claude Cahun, does that alter the notions of performance and self?  What was her own identity?  Which leads us back to Roni Horn’s view that identity is impossible to pin down in any pure sense.

At present, in so far as it matters, I am inclined to think that my own work involves the use of photographic processes, together with my own body and some ‘props’, to create portraits which evoke the sense of ‘real’, recognisable (through all sorts of signification) identities.  These are not portraits of any version of ‘Stan’ that has ever existed, or ever will exist.  They are fictitious ‘real’ identities.  That could lead me to the view that I should refer to them as ‘portraits’.  Of course, it would be possible to take the view that these are portraits of me performing in the roles (back to the Horn/Huppert collaboration) and, since I have organised the whole set-up and, in all cases so far, pressed the shutter, they might be ‘self-portraits’.  However, I tend to feel that the question of ‘intent’ comes into play here.  And I do not intend them to be representations of any identity that is directly connected to a ‘Stan’ that I ‘perform’ or ‘have performed’ or ‘intend to perform’ – other than in this creative process.  Once my ‘authorship’ is complete, some viewers will no doubt read some element of ‘truth’ into the images; that is the nature of photography (and art).  But that is outside my control.  (And – if they don’t read at least some degree of ‘truth’, my process will not have succeeded in its objective!)

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.

Assignment One – Feedback

I received Clive’s feedback on Assignment One yesterday, which is positive and supportive, so now it’s a case of onwards and upwards with the various strands of my Body of Work.  The feedback on my key question of scope is to maintain this breadth, which has the potential to ensure I fulfil requirements, then maybe narrow things later as time/interest develops.

Within the Studio Projects, I’ll continue to look at all the various strands with which I’ve been experimenting.  Clive seems to have picked up on the provocative/subversive aspects, noting that using Photoshop crudely is “… in direct opposition to the accepted polite ‘application’ …”, which can make it “… problematic for people to accept.”  He also points me in the direction of Elad Lassry, who certainly seems to approach photography in a provocative manner e.g. in this interview – The Photographic Problem.  That short piece certainly poses some challenging questions, which are worthy of further thought.

The Self-portraits are also fully supported.  On further reading of the feedback just prior to writing this note, I have picked up a reference to a ‘form of return’ (read, in addition, ‘to the past’) and there is a comparison to autobiography.  I understand where that comes from, but it makes me reflect that, whilst I have in mind to use the old Newsbook as a kind of prompt, I do not see the project as in any way ‘looking back’, and certainly not as autobiographical.  I regard it as a work of fiction that is perhaps closer to Cindy Sherman’s images of ‘Self’ – photographically constructed versions of fictional persona, which just happen to feature my body.  Of course, I also recognise that it is difficult to imagine that there can be no ‘me’ in the Body of Work; just as one could argue that there is Cindy Sherman, the artist, in her work.  But that is, maybe, something of a truism and doesn’t say anything helpful about the work itself.  Food for thought, also.

Studio Self Portraits – Trying out some ‘in the style of’

Thinking about the proposal to produce a series of self-portraits, I have been trying out some ‘in the style’ of ideas.  I was partly prompted by a Sky Arts documentary about the current David Bailey exhibition, ‘Stardust‘, at the National Portrait Gallery.  Listening to Bailey and viewing many of his portraits – from back in the Sixties, right up to date, with some produced specially for the exhibition – I was inspired to try creating a Bailey-style self-portrait.  It could be, for example, that one of the alter-egos has been photographed by him!  I did a little bit of online research, too, to ascertain as far as I could what his typical lighting arrangement might be; and to soak up the grainy, high contrast black & white look.  One of his own, recent self-portraits, featured in this article about the exhibition, provided a useful reference point.

In simple terms, there is a strong, raised light source from front left of camera, with a brightly lit white background to ensure strong contrast.  Whilst that isn’t necessarily the universal pattern for his portraits, it is certainly typical.  So that wasn’t too hard to replicate.  I don’t have a pure white background but I illuminated it with a second light shining from behind be onto the off-white background, to ensure that much of it might blow-out in the portrait.  (It was also creased, so there are a few marks that got through to the final version!  Well spotted by Clive when I shared it on Flickr!)  I worked with quite a shallow depth of field – F5.6 – to try and ensure that the background was out of focus (limited space available to create distance), which did mean that the portrait itself was less sharp at the edges than it might have been.  I imagine Bailey using a fast shutter speed, from his fashion work, and I wanted to get some graininess in the final version, so I went for 1/250th at ISO1600, with a 50mm prime lens.  I used one of Lightroom’s preset Black & White conversions as a starting point, and then tweaked further to get a little extra contrast, as well as cropping square, Bailey-style.  This is what I ended up with.  Bailey would be watching his subject, looking for the pose and expression he wanted.  That is certainly one of the challenges of the self-portrait; and I did take a few, from which this was my preferred selection.

Stan D 1

Feeling reasonably pleased with that first shot, I moved on to try the ‘style of’ another contemporary portrait photographer, Nadav Kander.  He has taken portraits of some highly influential people, of course, and once again I did some internet research first.  There is quite a selection on his website, here  I  articularly noticed one of the Prince of Wales, using backlighting, and decided to have a go at recreating that one.  He frequently has his subjects looking off camera, to the right of frame, often with a staring expression & sometimes open-mouthed.  It’s an
odd, almost mystical look, which I’ve tried to replicate here.

Stan D 2

There is a light low to my left and slightly behind me, creating the edge-lighting highlight; then a second, reflected light to my front right, and much further away, which is filling in to ensure some detail is visible in the front shaded area.  I like that this is such a contrast with the Bailey-like image; a very different mood.  If the Bailey image makes me a rock star, this might work for the bishop, for example!  Imagine me in a dark jacket, purple bishop’s shirt front, vicar’s collar, maybe a cross around my neck – I could see that working!

There are certain generic portrait styles that crop up again and again in magazine articles.  One that is a regular in the Times Magazine – maybe elsewhere, too – it to have the subject standing, facing to the right of camera, at a slight angle, shot full-length against a white background.  The subject might be adopting a quirky attitude or giving the camera a defiant look.  There is a hint of shadow somewhere, to give the image some depth, but it always looks to me as though it has been added later, in a kind of painterly fashion.  So, that’s what I’ve done with this one.  Simple front on lighting, though through a diffusing umbrella, then a hint of shadow added (not all that professionally!) in Photoshop.  The background I used wasn’t that white, but I’ve selected my image and put it on a pure white background before brushing in that hint of shadow.

Stan D 3

Finally, I’ve gone back to a portrait style that I used a few times myself, when completing the People & Place module – a deadpan portrait, in the style of the images of friends and fellow students taken by Thomas Ruff back in the Seventies.  The style and the lighting is OK, but I’m a
hell of a lot older than the subjects in Ruff’s series !!

Stan D 4

They were deliberately expressionless portraits, with very neutral lighting and a very plain background, always shot as head and shoulders and always in a 4:3 ratio.

It’s been an interesting exercise that, if nothing else, has got me into the process of photographing myself.  The project will involve location work, too, of course, but there’s some useful groundwork on studio styles here.

“Autofocus: the self-portrait in contemporary photography” – Susan Bright


Just read this – Susan Bright – “Autofocus: the self portrait in contemporary photography” (Thames & Hudson, London, 2010).  First point to make is that it’s my first ‘borrow’ from the Huddersfield University Library, having joined for £25 pa, as a Public Member.  It’s a good scheme; Huddersfield runs a Photography degree, so reasonably well stocked with relevant books and I can borrow up to five books at a time, for two weeks, with online access to their search facility (from home) and the facility to renew/reserve online, should I wish.

This book is on the extended reading list for Level Three modules, but I specifically looked at it as a possible source of context and ideas for the notion of a major project based along the lines discussed at the end of this earlier post – here.  To some extent, ‘context’ is for Contextual Studies, and the confirmed guidelines are that there must be a clear distinction between the two modules when it comes to Assessment, so any detailed discussion, should it be relevant, will come there.  But I’m sure I can, at least, say that this is a very useful ‘survey’ of the use of the self-portrait by contemporary photographically-based artists, with a little bit of history thrown in for context, and a reasonably broad definition of what constitutes a self-portrait.  She sub-divides the ‘genre’ into five headings – Autobiography; Body; Masquerade; Studio & Album; and Performance – but there is inevitable overlap and flexibility.  It has certainly introduced me to several artists/work that I had not seen before, some using ‘Masquerade’ & ‘Studio & Album’ in interesting ways, such as Aneta Grzeszykowska, Tomoko Sawada‘ and Yasumasa Morimura; as well as some that I already knew of, such as Joan Foncuberta & Gillian Wearing.

Reading this book, and reflecting on my idea for a project stemming from the ‘Newsbook, has fired my imagination in all sorts of directions as to what this project could be.  What if I ‘invent’ a number of alternative, present day persona, directly related to pages from the ‘Newsbook’ and then create a series of contemporary self-portraits of me as those persona?  [Bishop Stanley Dickinson; Stan the farmer worker, who stayed in the village (and who might be deceased!); Stan the radical left-wing activist; Stan the forgotten pop lyricist; and so on!]. What if I then construct, through images or whatever, the back story for those persona?  What if those back stories all take different forms?  A newspaper article about the Bishop; a family album and/or Facebook page about the farm worker; a police file about the activist; a blog about the lost lyricist; and so on …  The possibilities for such a project are considerable, which excites me a lot.

Then back to feet on the ground and what might be achievable!  I think I’m approaching a point where I need to formalise a few ideas ‘on paper’ to share with Clive before moving much further forward.  At the moment, my thinking is best summarised along these lines:

  • I remain committed to the idea that my work will explore the boundaries and potential of digital image-making;
  • Extending the still-life exploration also interests me – with the added possibilities associated with the first bullet point above;
  • There is, I feel sure, good potential in looking at ways of extending the use of found images, collages, studio constructs etc, to respond to ‘events’ – as I began to do in my final Level Two assignment;
  • And now, I can see lots of opportunity to create work that explores photography’s ability to construct narrative and identity – initiated by the Newsbook, but then brought up to date with some form of self-portraiture.

I wonder whether, actually, these points can define my way forward.  I need to share and seek input from my tutor.



‘Thinking With’ – My Photography – Progress Report 3

There may be ways of combining different aspects of my interests with an element of personal project.  My final PwDP assignment used a sort of still life/collage/archive mish-mash to respond to an event – a sporting event, ‘The Ashes’.  I have thought about exploring the potential to use what I might call ‘studio constructs’ to respond to real life events – studio documentary?  Might this be possible/important/relevant, with the supposed demise of traditional photo-journalism?

My final People & Place assignment involved portraits of people holding a possession that they had had since childhood, and this image sort of combines elements of all of that.

About Why 10 - Holding the past

The notion of holding something that we/others held in the past; I find that interesting … a physical connection that can unleash all sorts of emotional responses.  There are different references to ‘holding’ in this very personal image … and I have held all the objects in the image in the last few days, when I put them together.  And the traditional idea of a photograph as something to ‘hold’ – that has particular meaning today.  There isn’t a lot of thought gone into the actual assembly and composition here – but there is a notion with scope for further investigation.

Holding a possession from the past links directly to this final group of images.  Between May 2nd 1955 and March 19th 1956, when I was aged 5-6, I kept (like all fellow pupils in my primary school infant class) a News Book.  It was done every Monday and tended to report what had happened over the weekend (often not much!).  My late mother hung on to it and now I still have it – 35 pages, each with a wax crayon drawing and some words in pencil, recording events in my life over that ten month period, getting on for sixty years ago.


I can’t help but feel some odd sensations, all these years later, holding the book in my hands and thinking about that child who made it – the little me (literally – I have pictures to prove it).




The events aren’t particularly impressive in themselves; and my drawing wasn’t up to much; but I can vaguely remember doing it, and even vaguely recall some of the events.  I’ve actually photographed the whole book and turned it into a 3 minute slideshow, as part of my ‘Thinking With’.  It’s here, on YouTube.

This object – document, perhaps – has opened up other thoughts about personal projects.  The module notes identify a genre referred to as ‘Personal Journeys’ and I do intend, perhaps in the next few weeks, to go back to some of the places featured in the News Book and photograph them as they are now; some I will not have seen for year and years.

But then there is a much bigger idea that is developing in my mind – a challenging, genre-hopping project that might just be the basis for a significant Body of Work.  There are no clues in the pages of the News Book that point to the person I have become.  There’s evidence of a good Christian upbringing – long forgotten, in truth, but hopefully helping to for a ‘decent bloke’ – but not a lot more.  So – what if I were to take some of these pages as starting points for the construction of a series of fictional (largely image-based, of course) narratives of different versions of me – alternative ‘Stan Dickinson’s, that never happened?  … and on that bombshell… as Alan Partridge might say!