Assignment 1: Development

The Brief:

For this assignment we are asked to produce a series of between four and six composite images – either portraits or landscapes based on our immediate surroundings. I was immediately drawn to the idea making work based in my local area as this is something I have explored in the past and is a continuing interest of mine. The notion that we should focus on what we know and what is familiar is one I believe in strongly – an authentic voice is something I value greatly when looking at the work of other artists, and also something that is impossible to fake. I suspect that some sort of exploration of my local area will form part of my level three work and this is something I intended to explore and develop in the meantime with the hope that I will arrive at level three with a strong idea about the direction I want to take.

The second part of the assignment brief is significant, but also quite prescriptive. We are required to produce work in two different ways – firstly, using traditional cut and paste techniques and the secondly, using digital software. Immediately I knew that the first part of this would be the most challenging for me and realised I would need to spend some time considering this and experimenting. Using two completely different techniques also raised concerns about how the assignment could be brought together as a cohesive whole – I did not want to make two separate pieces of work but knew I would need to find a strategy that brought the separate aspects together somehow.

Research and context:

It is a frustration to me that it has taken so long to get to this point in the course. Reflecting on this I considered how much time I put into research as this is where the bulk of my time has gone and whether I should reduce or cut this out completely. I am concerned that this aspect of my study has become my comfort zone and a diversionary tactic from getting on with producing work. This is certainly something that has been a significant issue in the past, and although it is still part of the problem I feel this is something of a chicken and egg dilemma. The research into artists I have conducted during part one is perhaps the most important aspect for me and has led me to feel quite assured reaching this assignment. I have been able to streamline my workflow as I have progressed and am now more disciplined in knowing when to stop, the most important realisation I have reached however, is that this is an essential part of how I make work and something I am now comfortable with rather than worrying about the time spent on this. The difficulty is that it is often not clear what will become useful or will fire the imagination at a later date – the initial reaction to the work of an artist can often be lukewarm only to change over time, allowing reflection is an important part of this I believe.

Two artists proved to be particularly significant for this assignment – Chris Dorley-Brown and Peter Funch. Interestingly, I became aware of both of these through the recommendations of fellow OCA students. Although I arrived at my initial approach through independent experimentation, finding that these two artists had used similar techniques to me was inspirational rather than a negative. Previously I would probably have discarded my ideas – not doing this shows a growing confidence in my work and willingness to see where experimentation takes me.

Experiments and final approach:

See –

One of my aims for this course was to experiment more and also publish this work on my blog. I am pleased to have started this during part one, although I think there is much more I can do in this regard. The approach has also proved to be a success given that my assignment has evolved from an early experiment I conducted without any preconceptions. (See street scene composites.) For the assignment, I decided to recreate this approach by setting my camera to take images at intervals from a set place over a period of one hour. These source images would then form the basis of the project – an important aspect of which was that I would attempt to make the final work from whatever the result. As the images were made without any intervention from me the element of risk was high, it could be argued however, that if I did not manage to find enough of these images that worked I would have abandoned the project and tried something else. The fact that there was so much of interest for me could be interpreted two ways – it either demonstrates how important chance is in this kind of photography or it could indicate that I was so driven to by the technical confines that I placed on myself for the exercise that I saw qualities in the images that I would ordinarily discount.

Digital approach:

This was always going to be the ‘easiest’ part of the assignment for me in the sense that working digitally is my comfort zone. Despite this, the process was quite painstaking. Similarly to the approach I had taken in street scene composites, I began by creating a scene that contained no people. During this part of the process I realised how changeable the lighting conditions were over the hour period I took the images – something that immediately struck me could cause a problem. I made two ’empty’ composites, the first with cloud cover leaving the scene dark and the second under brighter conditions:

Using the cloudy ’empty’ composite as my background I then began to add people into the scene. The difficulty with this was that it was not always apparent which aspects would work together – I began by choosing people that attracted me somehow only to quickly become frustrated when these would overlap and mean that I would have to make a choice. This led me to begin again and work in a more methodical fashion by considering, and making selections from, each image in turn – a particularly long but ultimately necessary process. By the time I had finished I had created a photoshop file with 1182 individual layers – quite daunting! I put these into groups that referred to different areas of the frame before beginning to narrow my selection using colour coding to denote my preferences.

In my initial experiments I produced diptychs showing each scene both empty or as full of people as possible. Looking at the unedited images I had made for this project, I was struck by how the majority of people were either walking toward or away from the camera and arrived at the idea of making two composites showing this to go with the empty image. As I began blending each individual layer to match the background, I was struck by how the changeable lighting conditions made the way people looked in the scene quite different. Although this drew attention to the artificial nature of the composites, I found this to be an unexpected benefit rather than something to be concerned about – somehow by foregrounding artifice the scenes became heightened and uncomfortable to view. Researching artists as part of this section I was surprised that the work I was most attracted to was that which actively drew attention to the physical nature of the pieces, for example Hannah Höch and Daniel Gordon. It seemed somehow appropriate that my pieces intentionally showed this too, albeit in a more subtle form. Here are some examples of the initial experiments I made:

As I reached the end of this part of the process of experimentation for the digital aspect of the assignment, I began to consider the physical techniques I might use to make composites. With this in mind I went back to the original composites and removed the layer masks to draw attention to the process. The effect is interesting, especially given the way the different tones are accentuated, but my feeling was that this would mean too much overlap between the physical and digital parts of the assignment:

Cut and Paste approach:

Working physically is not something I am used to so I knew this would be the most challenging part of the assignment. Despite this, I had enjoyed experimenting with cut and paste techniques through this section – even if the results of this were not fantastic! I was keen to push myself to try and make something quite elaborate for this section – the indication in the course material about rephotographing these works struck a particular resonance with me and I wondered if I could create something that used photographic techniques to make the final piece in the way that an artist like Daniel Gordon does with his work that is made in three dimensions before finally being outputted as a two dimensional photographic image rather than a sculpture. I had previously experimented with ‘slicing’ the images and bringing each of these together in the final composite (see street scene composites – further experiments) and wondered if it would be possible to create something similar but then arrange them in a way that played with perspective. I selected sections of each image and then had prints made, I then cut these out and stuck a piece of card to the bottom before placing each one in a plastic holder so it would stand vertically. I then arranged these and photographed the results:

I could immediately tell that to make this approach work would require much more work – to arrive at the type of image I was imagining would require printing each ‘strip’ at different sizes, and even then there was no guarantee that I would be able to make them work.

My second idea was to cut sections of the scene out and place onto acetate. I would then photograph these in front of each other to try and give the effect of different layers being separated from the background. Again, I was immediately struck with technical issues as the weight of the sections of prints caused the acetate to bend and not stand up straight, however, placing the acetates over the background image did give an interesting 3D effect:

I also tried removing the background image to leave the selected sections ‘floating’:

I was surprised how well the impression that the images have been physically (rather than digitally) manipulated came across in these – although I knew that this idea of working with acetate would not be a direction I wanted to pursue. I went back to the strips I had picked out earlier and arranged them on a flat surface. The overlap of each strip made a clearly defined but subtle transition between each image:

Although I had originally discounted the idea of arranging strips vertically, probably because I was worried the execution was too simple, there seemed to be something here I could pursue. Because I had chosen random strips of irregular size there was an element of repetition in my selection that was interesting but did not feel like it was working successfully. I decided to go back to the original source images and divide the scene into 10 equal ‘strips’ in Photoshop. I then went through each strip in turn and selected the ones where something interesting was happening before copying and pasting these into another file. I realised that these could follow the same ‘rules’ as the digital composites with two images featuring people and the other one being completely empty. I then brought these together as a digital composite:

At this point I showed the work in progress to my peers in one of our regular Digital Image and Culture hangout sessions. I was encouraged by the positive feedback – particularly about the second set of images that I had been worrying so much about. There was a feeling that it was evident that I had spent a great deal of time selecting each aspect of the image, and interestingly, that although it was evident that these people were brought together from different photographs, there was still a sense of them all being in the same place that was effective. One of the issues with this set is that because I had chosen to have most of the strips filled with a single person or couple, the foreground was empty. It was suggested I could crop the images but this did not seem appropriate to me as an important aspect of the series is that I have used the whole scene as it is to create the composites.

Fellow student Nuala Mahon commented that the ‘strips’ technique reminded her of the work of Serge Mendjisky – an artist that I was not aware of but enjoyed reading more about. The sharing of knowledge with fellow students in our hangout sessions is something that is invaluably useful and worthwhile. (See post on Serge Mendjisky here.)

The next, and final, part of the process was for me to order prints to create the final, physical, composite images. As I liked the way the edges showed in the earlier experiments I had made due to the images overlapping, I decided to have strips that were double the width that I required to accentuate this. After bringing the pieces together, all that was left was to rephotograph the results. Something I will have to consider for assessment is how I will present these images – the brief asks that the physical work is rephotographed, however, the tactile nature of the work would be lost by doing this so I wonder if sending the original would be more appropriate?