Category Archives: Research

Offprint London


Last weekend I spent the day in London, including an excellent couple of hours in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall where the first ever ‘Offprint London’ was taking place.  This was a photobook fair with around 150 participant organisations, mainly independent publishers of ‘photobooks’.  I’ve introduced the inverted commas because it was actually a wider range than that word might suggest – books, zines, posters, prints, even vinyls – and wasn’t entirely focused on photo-based work either.  However, coinciding with Photo London at Somerset House, the emphasis was on photobooks, and it was an opportunity for some informal research for the eventual outcome of my Body of Work, particularly the Textbook project. The chief value, for me, was, I think, the casual browsing rather than any specific ideas or information.  This post will just record some general impressions.


There are clearly a lot of independent publishers out there, many of them artists who have, I guess, published their own work and then taken on collaborations with others.  Perhaps the biggest ‘name’ present would be Aperture, and other well-known names would include MACK, Self-Publish-Be-Happy and Morel Books, but the vast majority were small organisations, chiefly and understandably, European.  I would have to say that I didn’t come away with any strong feeling of innovation in the form of publications.  There were a lot of zines – low cost, low ‘aesthetic’ publications, sometimes produced in limited editions – that didn’t greatly impress me.  I can understand this as a simple and inexpensive form to publish creative work, but it doesn’t appeal to me personally (though I have been doing some work on a ‘red-top’ tabloid for my Portraits).  I was interested to see whether there were examples of people doing something different in the actual ‘form’ of the book, but I didn’t come across many – best of all being a book where the pages were screwed directly into a broken piece of a skateboard, with two wheels still attached.  For some reason – not sure why – it did prompt the thought that I could bind a self-printed, one-off version of my Textbook work into the original board cover; definitely worth thinking about, though I wouldn’t then be able to burn it!

On the ‘The Everyday Press’ stall, I got an opportunity to open up some consideration of the copyright issue that will, inevitably, need to form part of my thinking for any publication of the Textbook project.   There were some examples of what one might term ‘re-publications’ – 1976 Argos Catalogue by Sara MacKillop; The FoxThe Everyday Press is artist Arnaud Desjardin and I took the opportunity to sound him out about copyright.  He thinks (and I will need to research this properly, of course) that the Textbook of Photographic Chemistry will still be in copyright. His approach (with The Fox magazine, for example) has been to ask the question but to go ahead and publish if no specific objections occur.  He encouraged that I could publish the project without much issue, if I choose – more of this in Sustaining Your Practice when I get there.

Other than that, there was the chance to pick up and browse some books that I’ve not been able to get my hands on – notably Lucas Blalock’s Mirrors, Windows, Tabletops.  The book was a 1000-off limited edition that is now ‘sold out’, but they had two copies on the Morel Books stall – one for browsing and one still wrapped.  Useful to have a look through the former, but the latter was only available at three times its original price, so I didn’t purchase!

A very useful piece of research which I thoroughly enjoyed and which has certainly triggered a few thoughts for my own work.


Textbook–working on the ‘endgame’

Fire Ex01-1Fire Ex01-2Fire Ex01-3Fire Ex01-4Fire Ex01-5Fire Ex01-6

Ever since I started on the process of ‘deconstructing’ the Textbook, I’ve had the idea that I might, in the end, destroy it by burning.  The project is well-advanced now, and I have been considering if and how I might bring the ‘story’ towards a conclusion.  I did some background research a couple of weeks ago on the use of fire in art – partly to see what contextual work there might be, partly looking for inspiration, and partly to see whether there might be any technical and practical help for the creation of images of burning paper/books.  I asked fellow students in the Flickr group, too – as discussed here: Flickr ‘Fire’ Thread.  My overall conclusion is that there isn’t a lot out there.

Some references from the various sources include – Andy Goldsworthy’s use of fire in Land Art; Richard Gingras’ burning obelisks (; David Nash’s charred sculptures; Juan Miro burning some of his canvasses and then exhibiting the result; various performance artists either ‘eating’ fire or setting themselves alight; and then perhaps the closest of all, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, especially the stills from the film (I wasn’t familiar with the works, so ‘thanks’ to fellow student, Richard, for pointing me in that direction).  See below:


The burning of books is a central theme, of course, and the title refers to the temperature at which book print will turn into flames.  This image, and others like it, comes close to the vision I had for the project.

I have been mulling over how I might achieve it, technically and safely.  Indoors is preferable in order to control light, but clearly has some serious dangers attached; so I’ve been wary of that.  Outdoors is safer but harder to set up from an aesthetic point of view.  Another factor that I’ve been reflecting on is what exactly is going to trigger this fire.  Obviously, it could just be a match or gas-lighter, but it would be preferable for there to be some relation to the whole process.  (I had, for example, wondered whether dissolving in photographic chemicals might be an alternative outcome – except that, for reasons that should have been obvious but wasn’t – photographic chemicals are not strong enough to impact on paper!)

A casual conversation with a friend, over the weekend, may just have set me off on the right course.  He wondered whether I could use the sun!  So I’ve been experimenting with a magnifying glass and some pages from an old paperback book from the sixties and the images at the top of this post are the result.  The sun isn’t really powerful enough yet, I fear; or present for long enough at a time!  Whilst I could easily get the paper to smoulder and smoke, getting it to set on fire (at 451 degrees Fahrenheit!) was difficult.  I’ve succeeded twice today, one of which I photographed above.  These image aren’t going to win any prizes, I realise, but I’ve demonstrated the principle, I think.  It will need a lot more work before A Textbook of Photographic Chemistry goes up in flames, ignited by the power of the sun’s light, but there seems every reason to think that it could be done.  Of course, I also need to make sure the camera is present, too!  It could ultimately be best to shoot an HD video and extract stills; hopefully more will become clear over the next few weeks – so long as the sun shines!!

Thomas Demand–Constructedness, Madeness, Intentionality

Thomas Demand Gate Artslant

Gate, 2004, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)

I can recall when I first encountered the work of Thomas Demand; it was this image, featured at the beginning of the book Image Makers, Image Takers by Anne-Celine Jaeger.  Like, I’m sure, many others who see it for the first time, I thought it was a photograph of an airport security gate.  Then one looks closely and it doesn’t feel right.  We begin to realise that it is something very different – a photograph of a model of an airport security gate, a model constructed life-size, by Thomas Demand, from a still from a CCTV camera.  The image was made not too long after 9/11 and the model was constructed from cardboard and paper – ‘realistic’ and yet not so, missing the little details that would finally convince the eye that it was ‘real’.  That’s what unsettles the viewer; what makes us start to ‘question’.  Demand photographs the model, carefully lighting it to mimic the original photograph; and then he destroys the model.  It is the photographic image that is the work of art, not the model.  (Worth mentioning, though, that Demand started out as a sculptor; and that when he chose to learn Photography, he did so with Bernd and Hilla Becher.  He resists the description ‘photographer’ and, so far as it matters, I suppose one should call him an artist who uses photography, rather than a photographer.)

I have been drawn back to Demand, partly, at the recommendation of Peter H, my Contextual Studies tutor – not that I’d forgotten him but I hadn’t made as strong a connection with my own BoW as I might have done.  The words ‘construction’ or ‘constructedness’ have cropped up more than once in my Level Three studies – the title of the Foam Magazine edition #38 from Spring this year – Under Construction – in which many of the contemporary photographic artists from whom I’ve drawn inspiration and context were featured.  My own reference to some of the Textbook series images as ‘constructs’.  It would, I think, be fair to describe Demand’s images as ‘constructed’.  But what are they?  How do we understand what he’s doing and why?

The process generally seems to start (as well as end) with a photographic image.  Other examples include Saddam Hussein’s kitchen, an office in Hitler’s HQ after the failed attempt on his life in 1944, Engelbert Humperdinck’s display of his best-selling records, the tunnel where Princess Diana was killed, the barn where Jackson Pollock was photographed making one of his paintings, and so on – a decidedly eclectic collection of starting points.  In this interview, Demand explains that if he knew what it was about certain images that strike him, he would stop!  He doesn’t know what it is.  Clearly, there could be a political angle in our interpretation of some of the subject matter above.  In the same interview, he more or less denies it – or at least he says that any such connection is indirect and he would be careful about making too much of it.  I think he is acknowledging that others might understandably read the work that way, but he doesn’t see it as art’s role to give an answer.

And so, back to the question of what he is actually doing and what its significance might be.  Here I head back to another book that I originally read some time ago – Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried.  Here, Fried devotes most of one chapter to Demand, and a comparison with two others from the ‘Becher school’ – Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer.  He relates Demand’s images to the concepts of ‘theatricality’ and ‘antitheatricality’ – originally associated with Diderot but used by Fried, earlier, in his essay Art and Objecthood, published back in 1967, in which he defined Minimalist art as ‘theatrical’.  I certainly don’t have the time and space here to get into the detail but, as I understand it, Diderot argued that Painters should seek to create work in which the ‘beholder’ does not get any sense that what he/she sees has been staged for them.  Otherwise the work is merely ‘theatrical’.  Fried’s 1967 essay laid this description on Minimalist Art.  However, what interests me here is that he also uses the concept – and its opposite ‘antitheatricality’ to analyse Demand.

Fried argues that Demand’s images demonstrate “sheer artistic intention”, leaving the viewer no space other than to register their “madeness” (not a typo, by the way; though there could be some who would say madness!).  The ‘photograph’, having frequently been defined as ‘weak on intention’ is exploited by Demand to ‘represent’ or ‘allegorise’ intendedness.  This is complex; the reference to photography’s weakness on intention can be linked with Barthes’ ‘punctum’.  Barthes seems to identify the punctum as something that is outside the photographer’s intention – Fried (in another essay, 2005 – Barthes’s Punctum) uses the example of the dusty road in a Kertész photo of a violinist that is featured in Camera Lucida.  The photographer cannot avoid including it (possibly debateable today, but that’s of no consequence here) yet it is the feature that evokes Barthes’ travels in Hungary and Rumania – the punctum.  Fried also mentions Lee Friedlander’s declaration that photography is a “generous medium”, for all the things that it includes in an image that he did not choose to put there.  So, returning to Demand, Fried is arguing that he exploits this weakness in the sense that he is making photographic images that are “sheer artistic intention” – and it is this intendedness/intentionality that makes them matter as art.  He uses two more Demand images to further develop the argument.

Thomas Demand Poll MCA Chicago

Poll, 2001, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)

In Poll, Demand is working from a photograph of the process of determining voter intentions in the US Presidential Election – the famous ‘hanging chads’.  But, in Demand’s version, the ballot papers are pristine, devoid of detail like everything else; so being “the bearers of no intention other than the artist’s own”.

Thomas Demand Sink liveauctioneers

Sink, 1997, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)

Fried looks at the circumstances surrounding the making of Sink.  Demand thought of making a model of his own sink but realised that he could not avoid arranging items in it knowingly.  So he telephoned a friend and asked if they would take a photograph of their sink. Circumventing his own sink, Fried says, put the emphasis squarely on conscious process.

So now I am prompted to consider if/how this is relevant to my own Body of Work.  The ‘constructs’ from the Textbook project seem like the obvious place to start.  I have referred to them as being devoid of meaning but seductive (a word Demand uses about models in another interview), tempting a viewer to look for meaning.  I suppose the same could be said of Thomas Demand – the only reading, in the end, might be that someone has made a model and photographed it.  We search for signs of ‘reality’ but all traces have been removed, leaving an image about itself.  Interestingly, Demand also, apparently, leaves small traces of his construction work, which can be found in the detail of the image.  So, the only ‘reward’ for looking in detail is confirmation of his intent.  Perhaps the tentative links back to the old textbook are my equivalent of Demand’s ‘link’ to an original image.  But the link is broken – my appropriation of the ‘outmoded’ signifiers – so what is left signifies nothing other than that I made it.

I suppose that, if the Portraits look like a performance for the viewer, then they will be ‘theatrical’.  And, when viewed by people who know me, they could be entertaining.  And, when I combine them with text that tells the back story in a light-hearted manner, the result could be entertainment, too.  But I have been striving to make them capable of ‘working’ as ‘straight’ photographs – that would be read as signifying a ‘real’ identity if seen in isolation.  However, viewed ‘straight’, as a series, by someone who doesn’t know me or anything about me, their individual (indexical?) links with reality are devalued.  At that stage, I guess, they demonstrate nothing other than that they have been made.

And then I reflect that it is not up to me to find answers to such questions!  Context – be it theoretical or in the works of other artists – may inform and even inspire the work I produce.  It is useful, essential perhaps, to be able to talk about one’s work in a context and to see what kind of questions it might raise.  But it is not up to the Body of Work to supply answers.  My Portraits (Self-portraits?  Or whatever they are?) express something about my response to some aspects of life, my life, the world I encounter.  If they are any good, others will look at them and see something that is of interest to them, relevant to them in some way.  If they were really good, someone might choose to analyse them and write about them.  In a fantasy world where they came into the consciousness of Michael Fried (!), he might choose to consider whether they are ‘theatrical’ or ‘antitheatrical’!  And no doubt that question might hover around in the back of my own mind … maybe even influence, to a slight extent, the way my mind is working when I set up the next one and stand in front of the camera.  But, in the end, the work will be the work … no answers, but hopefully a few interesting questions.

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’?

“Strawberry Fields …


… where nothing is real.”

Well, very little, anyway!  This is a section of the wall of my study, bedecked with some inspirational images by a host of brilliant, mostly young, artists working with photography, photographs, collage, still-life, digital processing, and a few other things that I don’t even understand!  They’re mainly based in North America, but there are a few European artists in there, too, and they explore the boundaries of what a digital photographic image might be – in 2014 & beyond.  It’s a selection – there are several more who might have been in there.  I’ve spent a fair bit of my time this week building up some inspirational sources – quite a few of whom I already knew from previous research but some of whom are new to me.  This was the best way I could think of to keep their work in my mind as I look to move on with my own studio projects.

For example, there is:

  • Dutch artist couple Scheltens-Abbenes who produce commissioned still-life constructs for some high-end commercial brands but who also explore personal projects using ‘cut-outs’ to create immaculately presented images that attract and confuse at the same time.  I’d love to see some of their work in large prints!  I like the way that they are prepared to leave clues about the nature of their constructs and the way they sometimes use ordinary materials – like a cardboard box.
  • New York-based artist Artie Vierkant, who certainly began studying Photography but whose work has truly moved towards the proverbial ‘cutting edge’.  His images start as digital files, which are then printed onto an aluminium composite material – dibond – which can be cut and formed to develop sculptural qualities.  Documented as photographic images ‘in situ’ on the ‘gallery wall’, that documentation becomes a separate work in its own right, changing and evolving as it is distributed  via the internet.  He is one of a group exploring what he calls ‘post internet’ art and issues such as ‘ubiquitous authorship’, ‘the collapse of physical space in networked culture’, and the ‘infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials’.  I don’t claim to understand all of it, but I admire and respect the way in which it operates in the ‘now’.
  • Daniel Gordon’s work has featured in Hotshoe and BJP of late.  He appropriates found images – usually from the internet – then cuts and forms them, in a deliberately raw manner, to create brightly coloured still-life and portrait images, which he then photographs to produce the final work. Some are delightfully simple and some are fascinatingly complex, but they all raise questions.  How does this ‘junk’ (his word!) turn into something so beautiful (my word!) and interesting?  My answer – that’s the fascination of the artistic process!
  • And many others such as Jordan Tate; Jessica Eaton; Fleur Van Dodewaard; and Delphine Burtin – to name but a few.

As planned in my last post, this was about returning to research on other artists operating in the fields of studio experimentation, still-life, digital manipulation etc – as a source of inspiration and ideas to progress my own work.  There is plenty to go at!  It is reassuring to find so many artists doing so much that is interesting – though a little daunting at the same time.  Not for the first time, I reflect that so many young photographers/artists are drawn to their studio to experiment with ideas that are essentially focused on the medium itself, and its processes.  It isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, but it must reflect a degree of unrest, uncertainty, change and challenge – which is a positive phenomenon.  There is a strong sense of ‘play’, but relatively little evidence of any attempts to create work that is designed to change anything or move anyone.  That makes me reflect on my own  images the ‘respond to events’.  I can’t quite decide whether it encourages me to explore them with greater enthusiasm or drop the idea altogether!  It certainly suggests that there are not large numbers of people out there doing something similar – or I haven’t found any, at least.

Genres – Tableaux – Gregory Crewdson


The module notes ask me to do some research on Gregory Crewdson’s work and reflect on how it relates to ‘… film and/or art’.  The research has taken me into five or six photography books from my shelves; two NY Times articles from the internet; a written interview from Aperture website; three video interviews from YouTube and Vimeo; plus online viewing of several images from ‘Twilight’, ‘Between the Roses’, ‘Sanctuary’ and some earlier works.  So, where has that led me regarding the ‘film and/or art’ relationship?

There are unmistakable areas in which one can make direct references between Crewdson’s images and film.

  • Production process is the most obvious.  He employs a significant team of staff to produce the works, including Art Director, Casting Director, Location Manager, even camera operator, whilst taking an overall directorial role himself (that does not involve actually handling the camera).  It might, therefore, be argued that producing a Crewdson photographic image is more akin to making a movie than taking a photograph.  And that might be extended into post-production, with many ‘takes’ being combined, through digital processing, into a final version of the image.
  • Comparisons are also made in the narrative context; a suggestion that his work resembles science fiction or horror movies; that he almost seems to collapse the entire story of the movie into a single image.
  • Which leads to, or is maybe directly related to, the resemblance to film stills.  I have recently looked at film stills in the context of John Stezaker’s work – here – and it becomes clear that this type of image is not quite what it ‘says on the tin’.  Far from being ‘still’ frames from the film, they are carefully staged and posed images, shot with a still camera on the film set, intended to ‘inform’ the viewer of a sense of the film, its narrative, and its genre.  As such, Stezaker suggests they have something in common with paintings.  Crewdson’s images have all those characteristics – posed, still, somewhat ‘unnatural’ – and so do indeed resemble ‘stills’ (though that might also relate them to paintings – see below).
  • Whilst my research hasn’t turned up any information about Crewdson’s funding of his work, the level of planning/production, the large crew, etc all suggest a significant budget, which must be pre-funded in some way – backers, pre-purchase of the limited edition prints, or whatever.  This commercial aspect will, one might assume, have something in common with the process of movie-making.

Turning to the relationship between Crewdson’s work and ‘art’, it is tempting to get into the debate over ‘what is art?’ and to question why ‘film’ is being differentiated from ‘art’.  Since that isn’t, I’m sure, the point of this piece of research, I’ll work on the basis that ‘art’, in this case, is probably referring to the commonly-used, narrower definition of painting, drawing and the ‘traditional’ visual arts.

  • Several of my references have made a comparison between Crewdson’s work and that of painter Edward Hopper; and Crewdson himself acknowledges the influence.  One can make direct, ‘physical’ comparisons – looking through windows; ambiguous scenes in suburban USA; the ‘gaze’ of the figures, often staring off-frame, we know not whence – but perhaps the sense that the images are exploring some psychological state of mind is an even stronger axis of similarity.  That state is usually more dramatic in Crewdson’s case – relating, no doubt, to the oft-quoted, and acknowledged, influence of his father’s psychoanalyst profession, with consulting room in the basement of the family home.
  • In the context of the identified genre of ‘tableaux’, these are carefully constructed and composed images, with high levels of attention to detail (books on tables, pictures on walls, reflections in mirrors), often details that have significance in suggesting narrative – all factors that resemble the construct of traditional paintings.  I am reminded of reading Michael Fried’s ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ (Yale, 2008), in which there is a detailed examination of Jeff Wall’s constructed photographic images and their relationship with classical painting.
  • Even the production process mentioned above, whilst most closely resembling film production in the literal sense, could also have much in common with the ‘studio-produced’ work of a Leonardo da Vinci or Anish Kapoor – to name two disparate artists who were/are certainly not ‘hands-on’ but ‘team-based’ in their output.
  • And Crewdson’s work is certainly targeted at the ‘art’ market.  The investment of time and money in creating images which, printed very large in editions of six, sell for tens of thousands of dollars.  He makes his work as ‘art’ in that sense.

In summary, whilst Crewdson’s images reference ‘film’ in a number of ways, they are apparently created for what one might term ‘wall-based’ display, with some very significant and serious aesthetic intent and an intensity of development process, placing them firmly in the ‘art’ world.  They resemble film stills; they resemble paintings; they are photographic images; but, in the end, they are principally his creations, his expressions, his chosen unique contributions.  They are complex, ambiguous, and thought-provoking; but at the same time, perhaps, they are highly-produced and highly expensive artefacts.  Does artifice overtake meaning?  Or does Crewdson simply push the boundaries of what level of production values might meaningfully be brought to bear in the creation of photographic art?  Those questions might also seem to hover somewhere in and around the distinction between modernism and post-modernism in photography.