I came across the work of Nathan Bett reading the book ‘The Social Photo’ by Nathan Jurgenson. Jurgenson references the series ‘Learning to Disappear‘ which consists of composite street photographs in which the subject is captured grimacing into the camera, the series immediately resonated with me because of the work I made for Assignment 1. The images are shot in New York, somewhere Bett was desperate to visit and make street photographs having been inspired by the likes of Bruce Gilden and Garry Winogrand. The reality of taking images in the city was at odds with the romantic vision Bett had of what the process would be like – rather than capturing moments of poetry amongst the everyday bustle of life on the street, Bett was struck by how he was viewed as a nuisance or with suspicion, he comments:
“What you see in Learning to Disappear are not actual moments but they are a fair reflection of the collected interactions between the public and I. Each photograph is a composite of images made from multiple frames shot from the same spot.
Learning to Disappear is about the dynamic relationship between viewer and subject; specifically, the way in which people react to having their photograph taken, candidly, by a stranger, and without their consent.” (Bett, 2015)
This notion that a stronger truth can be demonstrated in a manipulated or staged image is one I find compelling. It reminds me of the work of Jeff Wall and how he often uses real experience to inform his constructed photographic narratives. The images made by Bett only exist because he has brought them together, and yet, there is a strong relationship to truth and reality – the stares from the people in his images strike a chord as feelings of being looked upon, judged or anxious in public are universal concerns for us all. Jurgenson makes this observation:
“True to the street photographer ethic, his response to these grimaces at being photographed without consent was to Photoshop the faces together to make a new image, a street photograph reduced to pure surveillant anxiety. The violation of privacy is not just something necessary for his art but is the art itself. Resistance to the street-photographer gaze becomes another element for it.” (Jurgenson, 2019: 93-4)
Apart from the strong aesthetic of this series, my attraction is the similarities it has with my assignment 1. Bett has succeeded in making something much more compelling however – the looks from his subjects make immediate impact on the viewer and also unify the set, something I attempted in my own work but have . The series is yet another example of how the direction of a project can develop organically from making the work – the output Bett eventually realised was far from what he initially intended and could only have resulted from the process itself.
The aspect of the feedback that resonated the most, immediately made sense to me, and made me question how I had presented the work was Wendy’s challenge to my description of my choice of location for the source photographs I took as “nondescript”. I deliberately attempted to downplay where I decided to set up my camera but this is disingenuous – as Wendy states “choices are very important.” I can only explain my lack of consideration of what the images meant as being focussed too much on the form of the work, and its technical and visual aspects, rather than the content and context. It would be accurate to say that in the making of the work I tried not to become sidetracked by over analysis. When it was complete however, I should have considered more closely what it means both to me and to someone who is unfamiliar with the area I have photographed. For Wendy, the images are a comment on urban demise and the downturn of the British High Street and I can certainly see how this wider theme is present in analysis of the work. It also strikes me that I have failed to explore fully the ambivalent feelings I have for my home town and the people who live there. This is something that I need to consider further and ultimately rework into a revised written introduction for the assignment.
We did not really talk a lot about the visual content of the work, of which my main concern is how I will present this for assessment. At a recent study day for the OCA North group, I took my prints for the assignment along for critique and was struck by the immediate reaction of OCA tutor Andrew Conroy who said that the pictures would look good displayed as huge prints. He also mentioned that revisiting the selections and scattering them randomly could be an interesting way of arriving at a different composition. There is also a clear division in the two parts of the assignment with the ‘cut and paste’ images making it obvious that they are constructed in a physical way. This difference is something that I enjoy about the two parts, however, I found myself having to explain that the digital collages are constructed – I am not sure if this is significant as I was presenting them without the context of my introduction but it does seem to be important enough to require consideration.
Wendy also pointed me towards two artists she felt would be of interest to me as they have made composites by weaving together photographs: Samin Ahmadzadeh and Dinh Q. Lê. I had not heard of either of these artists and have enjoyed looking at their work – I particularly like the way the physical presentation of their work is such an integral part of how it should be read and how their art making process is driven by a need to understand their personal history and the wider world in general, and yet, defies simple reading and retains ambiguity.
Here are some notes about key aspects of the feedback alog with my thought sabout what to do next:
Introduction – rewrite introduction to incorporate my personal feelings about Stanley and how it could be read by the audience by incorporating wider themes such as urban decay and the current economic situation for small towns like Stanley.
I am going to give myself some time before going back to this as I am currently too close to the work and need some time to consider what this looks like.
Presentation – consider how I will present the work for assessment. Considerations:
Size of prints.
How would the images be displayed in a gallery setting and how do I show this in my presentation?
Should I present the physical composites or rephotograph and print these?
Increase size of images in future posts to make them less dominated by text.
Include more draft images and contact sheets where appropriate.
It was important for me to experiment with this assignment and I feel that I have done that (as evidenced in my previous post detailing the development of this project.) After arriving at a process of working that resulted in a series of images that could be brought together in a composite, it was important to me to recreate this earlier approach before pushing the limits of what could be made from the images as far as I could. Overall I am pleased with the work I have produced here but frustrated at the amount of time I have taken to reach this point.
Making the final composites has meant that I have needed to refine my use of Photoshop, being able to balance experimentation alongside having a strong idea about how the original piece would look has been a major learning for me. This brief for this assignment could easily mean that two completely separate sets of images would be produced. I have attempted to link both approaches together which is successful to a point, particularly the similar use of the way people are placed either walking towards or away from the camera. Without the brief however, it is unlikely that the two sets would be shown together which makes me question how well they do actually work together. Compositionally, there is a distance present in each of the images that resulted from where I positioned the camera and the fact that I tried not to draw attention to the fact photographs were being taken. Looking back on the work of Peter Funch and Chris Dorley-Brown I note that where they began to take the images was a major consideration for them, particularly Dorley-Brown who in some ways is interested primarily in the urban landscape and architecture rather than the people. The positioning of my camera was based more on necessity than anything else – I wonder if I repeated the exercise again if I would choose the same place?
Quality of Outcome:
At a point when I am so immersed in this project it is difficult to give an objective analysis of the quality of the outcome, however, I am happy with the level of experimentation I have made which I think is real progress for me. I have tried to unify the assignment through the subject matter and to make a feature of the brief to produce two approaches – one physical, the other digital. An unexpected difference between the work I have made here and my earlier digital experiments is how changeable the lighting conditions were on the day I made these images. Initially I tried to blend the tones of each aspect of the images with the background before embracing the uncanny effect which creates an unsettling feeling. I am not sure how well this works and whether it is too disconcerting for the overall effect, or even if my analysis forms a kind of justification that is unwarranted, but the effect has grown on me. Conversely, this aspect of the source images really helps contrast the different ‘strips’ in the physical montage part of the assignment.
Following advice from the tutor on my previous course, I have tried to write the introduction to the assignment as if it was an an artists statement/text accompanying an exhibition of the images rather than as a student. To communicate the essence of a project in a concise way that both explains and unlocks the work while being concise and establishing context is a particular skill and something that is important to practice as I move towards level 3. For this particular assignment I have struggled to hit the right tone and although the introduction details how the work was made there is not enough about why I chose this approach. At this point I need some time away from considering the work to be able to rethink how I can rework this – I am hoping my feedback will help me gain some clarity.
Demonstration of Creativity:
The digital part of the work is definitely my comfort zone although I have been able to refine my workflow and refresh aspects of my Photoshop knowledge. From the beginning I knew that the physical part of the assignment would be the part that challenged me the most and I am glad that I have tried different approaches before arriving at my preferred method. I also think my decision to keep this part relatively simple was sound and has resulted in a more effective final set. Also, although the source photographs were taken over the short period of one hour, many hours have gone into selecting images, experimenting with different layouts and considering each in turn. This emphasises to me the importance of the editing process and it has benefited me having to spend so much time with the set as a whole as it has concentrated my attention on which images should be selected. I have often been faced with the problem that a particular aspect deserves selection only to find that it does not fit into the overall composition – the ability to leave these behind is a real development for me.
Although I approached this assignment without any conscious thought about other artists who have produced this kind of work, I found my research into the practices of Chris Dorley-Brown and Peter Funch provided inspiration rather than self doubt – previously I would have been demotivated by such a discovery, but here, I was able to use this research to spur on my own work.
When I have considered the length of time that it has taken me to complete this first part of the course, I have considered the amount of research I have conducted and whether I should pare this down. I can categorically say that this research has been essential – even though I have not explored each artist in a practical way I have taken something from each and I am sure I will return to many of these artists in the future for inspiration. The difficulty is that it is impossible to tell which aspects of research will return to inform the kernel of an idea. This is an aspect of my study that I now understand is fundamental to my development and something I intend to continue to pursue through the course.
Although I have alluded to ideas around realism, documentary value and the indexical nature of photography in my introduction to the assignment, there is a lack of theoretical underpinning in the work. I wonder how much of an issue this is in this instance – at this point it would be disingenuous to attempt to retrospectively validate the work by adding theory, in many ways the point is that it is an experimental exercise. I do wonder however if I should have considered this more closely as I developed the assignment. Perhaps Baudrillard (particularly Simulacra and Simulation) would be appropriate here?
On a sunny day in August 2019 I chose a nondescript area of the front street of my local town, Stanley, Co. Durham, and set my camera to photograph the same scene at regular intervals for one hour. Over this time I did not intervene with the picture making process – each of the 640 photographs made rely completely on randomness and chance. From these raw materials, two sets of triptychs are presented – the first uses digital techniques to place figures into the imaginary landscape and the second uses traditional cut and paste techniques bringing ten individual ‘slices’ of images together.
The idea for the series initiated from thoughts about how street photography, and the notion of the decisive moment, could be subverted and challenged. The final images are both accurate and truthful records of reality at a particular moment and works of wholly constructed fiction. While the digital compositions are less evidently constructed, they also have an uneasy sense of hyperreality while the cut and paste images seem more realistic despite foregrounding the way they are brought together physically. Together, the two sets allow consideration and contemplation of photographs relationship to memory, reality and imagination.
The complex relationship between photography and indexical truth is demonstrated in ‘One Hour Photo’ – the final composites could not exist without my intervention and yet they are completely made from the raw images collected over that one hour. Multiple combinations are possible, and yet, the six composites are my final – albeit completely subjective – interpretations. My judgements were driven by instinct and it is unlikely someone else would make the same choices meaning multiple narratives are possible from the same source material.
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.
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.
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?