Assignment 3 Preparation

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Assignment Brief

Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit. You may choose to explore your identity or masquerade as someone else, or use empty locations or objects to speak of your experiences. However you choose to approach it, use yourself – directly or indirectly – as subject matter.

Keep a diary for a set period of time (at least two weeks). Each day write two or three pages about yourself – what you’ve been doing/thinking. This can be as specific or poetic as you wish. You may wish to pick a theme for the duration. This is an open brief designed to give you freedom to create something personal which suits you best. Use the artists you’ve looked at in Part Three or your own research for inspiration.

Select the most interesting parts of the diary (which could also be the most banal or mundane) and interpret them into a photographic project.

A good way to approach selection could be to ask a friend/fellow student/stranger to read it and send back a highlighted version. You could then base your project on those parts. This would take the pressure off you to find a ‘good story’.

You may choose to select a few days or phrases that spark an idea for you, or you may wish to exaggerate how you were feeling one day into a parody of yourself or the circumstance. You may wish to create a ‘document’ of that time in a re-creation of events – or direct a model to act out some of the content of the diary, making your own ‘film- stills’.

You could present your chosen diary entries as a visual diary or use it as a springboard for further exploration. You may choose to insert the pictures like snapshots into your diary and hand it all in together. You don’t have restrict yourself to the diary itself; you may decide to use it to take you into new territory.

Send your finished piece to your tutor by the method agreed together with an introduction of around 300 words briefly setting out your rationale and how you approached this project. You should also send to your tutor the relevant pages of your learning log or blog url.

Introduction to Assignment

As I noted in my reflections earlier in this part of the course, I have spent a lifetime remaining behind the camera. In a mass of family pictures taken over decades there are few in which I am anything other than virtually present. I am uncomfortable in front of the camera and this made this assignment novel and challenging.

My interest had been piqued though by the very different interpretations of the concept of the self portrait that I discovered in this section of the course. The traditional notions of the self portrait are challenged by the work of Sherman, Goldin, and to me, most notably by Trish Morrisey, Nikki S Lee, Gillian Wearing and Yasumasa Morimur. All of these artists use the self portrait to reveal something more than the the image of an idividual. While considering their work I was reminded of Clarke’s (1992) comment about the self portrait:

‘at virtually every level the portrait photograph is fraught with ambiguity’  pp31

Clarke (1997) goes on to suggest that this ambiguity is in part that it is never clear as to who or what is being photographed. Making reference to Robert Mapplethorpes portrait ‘Apollo’ 1988, Clarke suggests this is an exemplary enigmatic image. Half real half mask the images presents a  contrast indeed conflict between the real and the ideal, the real and the imagined. It trancends the idea of simply capturing a likeness, it captures a much richer set of ideas about who someones is, who they might be and what we might learn about them beyond the merely pictorial. I was captivated by this image and wondered whether Trish Morrisey had seen this work, the idea of the mask, of hiding within plain sight and of revealing more in an image than the sitter really helped me bring together alI I had learned in this part of the course.

The idea that the self portrait reveals something beyond the immediacy of an individual in the frame was where I started to develop the concept that I used for this assignment. The course reading had already helped me see that the self portrait was something that had to possibility of going well beyond the simple idea of the ‘likeness’.

Assignment Planning 

As suggested in the brief I kept a written diary over a three week period. This too was a new activity,  having never kept a journal type diary as far as I can recall. I have a very busy work diary with appointments and activities, that at times I see as tyrannical, and controlling, but the idea of recording events and thoughts from the day was new to me. Perhaps as  child I had recorded some reflective jottings as part of school exercises but I left school a very long time ago!

Taking a leaf, literally from Anna Fox’s ‘Cockroach diary, I used an a A5 spiral bound notebook as the repository of this diary journal. I just wrote what I was thinking about at the end of each day.The three week period covered several days on a holiday, but mostly time during my hectic working life. There wasn’t really a pattern to what I set out to record, I just set aside time at the end of each day to write two pages of jottings about the day, my activities and thoughts. Reading it back it does provide some insight, all be it a disjointed insight into three weeks of my life.

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I wrote the diary long hand and like many I am sure that most of what I tend to have to write (and I write a lot as part of my work) is done with a computer and not a pen. I noticed some real writing fatigue during the recording  of the pages for this project and I was reminded of times in my youth when I had to write pages as a student. My long hand writing muscles had not quite atrified but they had certainly been dormant for some time.

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I did really enjoy the physical act of writing the diary in long hand and although fatiguing I had forgotten the satfication of writing this way. I have produced long hand planning charts for my OCA studies, but this has been the some total of scribbling for many years.

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At times I think the diary reads as a bit of a stream of consciousness, it flits from one thing to another as ideas and thoughts came into my head. I used no formal structure or plan and I treated the diary task as free thought and free writing. I also recognised that I was too close to it to get any meaningful analysis from the pages and as suggested in the brief I enlisted friends and colleagues to review the diary for me.

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Two of the diary reviewers were professional colleagues and two were photographers friends. I felt this would provide some more objective insight into my jottings. I was a touch concerned about whether they would actually be able to decode my scribblings, given that my cursive hand is at best idiosyncratic and at worst illegible. Although my reviewers were from two different parts of my life, they all had in common the fact they had at sometime been secondary school teachers. I particularly chose them for this reason, the deciding factor being their ability to decipher scribbling, rather than any artistic or psychological criteria.

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Each was given a photocopied complete version of the dairy, all  45 hand written pages to review and comment on. I thought I did need to frame the review process but without fettering each of the reviewers own ability to comment on the diary and its content. I was also mindful they like me were all busy people. So I set three broad questions to each of them in their task.

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The questions, although not intended to limit their comments were:

  1. What does the content of the dairy say about me as an individual

  2. Could you recognise any themes or patterns in the dairy

  3. Any other comments you want to make about the diary

I encouraged them to highlight or scribble in the diary and return their thoughts, reflections and comments by e-mail to me, ideally with a bit of a summary.

Each of my four reviewers had a full photocopy of the diary for about a fortnight. All returned their copies with some annotation and some notes.  Most amazingly they all managed to decode my hasty and scribbly handwriting and all commented on the insight the diary offered into me an as individual. After the review activity I spent about an hour either face to face or on the telephone with each of the reviews talking about their observations. What stood out was that their thoughts on my diary’s content raised more questions than answers. I was  also struck by the range of things they commented on in the diary and some of the insights they made, one common observation however stood out above all others. I will return to this later.

The Diary- Review, Analysis and summary comments

Caroline C., a work colleague with the same professional background as me. She really focused on the work elements of the dairy, commented on the long patterns of work and also how work extends far beyond the 37 hours a week that we are payed for. She also picked up on my role in some of the review work. This was interesting because from my perspective I felt that the smallest bit of the diary was about work. I guess this was the common ground that we have though, so perhaps this was the lens through which she read my comments and reflections. She did comment on photography and the fact that I still used film and managed to carve out some time in a hectic work schedule for  a personal interest. She commented on her lack of ability to find time for personal interests. By far the biggets point she raised though was my commitment to reading. Reading for work, reading for my photography interest and also reading for pleasure, particularly literature. She commented on her lack of time to read and that this was a source of stress for her. In fact I felt there was something cathartic for her in her comments about my diary, she revealed something about herself while commenting about how I used my time. I was left with a sense that it had actually upset her, not because of its comments and content but because it shone a light on her own concerns about how all consuming our job can be and how little time we have if we let the job become all consuming.

Richard W., also a work colleague made a few comments about our work and my references to it, but made lots of comments about my photographic work, both for the OCA and my own project work. He was very interested that I was still using film and that I developed and scanned my own negatives. His feedback was fuelled with more questions than observation, but of course these questions said something in themselves. To me that highlighted the important role that photography plays in my life, a thread that runs through it offering moments of sanity in what is at times an unreasonable work expectations. That said, most of his comments were about my reading, the material I read, particularly the prose and poetry and also my perceived capacity to make time to read in a very busy professional life.  In reality I feel guilty that I do not read enough although I got a sense from his comments that he was keen to read more but had resigned himself to the fact that this might not happen. I have subsequently loaned him my copy of Asimovs, Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep. A book he commented on , saying he had read it in his youth and would like to read it again

Margaret S., a photographer friend and acquantance who has nothing to do with my work commented on the range of activity that I do in my work and also commented about my semi structured days. She commented on my pattern of work, reflections, cycling and then reading. She was very interested in my film developing and scanning and the labs that used when not processing images myself. She did make some reference to my work and asked me lots of questions about the work I do particularly the references to reviews, which she knew were about schools. What was fascinating again about this reviewers comments and questions was that she raised more questions than  offered comments. I suppose I provided a written snapshot into three weeks of my life and it raised more questions than provided details. I really liked this idea of the dairy as a catalyst for wider thinking. Margaret was also very interest in my OCA photography studies and I have since given her access to this blog and also my EYV Blog. Again the thing that struck her in my scribblings was the reading that I did and that reading tranceded all of my activities. I read for work, for pleasure and to learn, she felt this was something she would like to do more of and she asked me to share the titles of books about photographic practice that I found useful. I have subseqauntly bought her a copy of Bergers Ways of Seeing, giving her the copy over the christmas holidays, sadly only days before the news of John Berger’s death

Jeanette C. Also a photographer friend and retired teacher. She focused immediately  on what I was reading, she commented on the range of books I made reference to and her views on several of those books, particualrly Street Photography Now which she was also reading. She commented that retirement had brought her the time to read the things she felt she had not been able to read when working and like the others commented on my time commitment to read in a busy working week. She was also interested not in my film photography work but on my choice not to use digital cameras. We had quite a chat about this but that sits outside the remit for this task and assignment. We also talked about education and she was interested , although with a sense of concern, about my school review work, she knew about my work as an Inspector (not directly referenced in the dairy) and she shared her feeling and indeed anger about Ofsted and her perception of its impact on teachers. In many respects Jeanette’s engagement led to responses that were wider in scope than the other reviewerss, All helpful though.

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Common themes identified in the diary

There is clearly some subjectivity when looking at someone elses diary but in collating the general comments the list below is a summary of the collective observations that my reviewers made. I have edited this does to some extent and the criteria I used was to only list things that appeared in all four reviewers commentary.

These were:

  • Very variable handwriting, at times really legible at other times quite hard to decipher
  • You seem to spend at least some of everyday reading
  • You read a lot. You make and allocate  time to read for pleasure as well as for work and for study.
  • I need to make more time to read like you do
  • You spend more time on  an exercise bike than a real bike.
  • Do you really watch TV on your exercise bike?
  • This OCA course is clearly something you are investing time in.
  • How do you create time for all the things you do!
  • Your reading habits tell me things I didn’t know about you.

The Semi Absented Self Portrait-Hiding in plain site

Armed with the comments from my diary reviewers  and reflecting on the course materials, I began to develop my assignment response. I had been struck particularly in the course reading by the work of Gillian Wearing and Trish Morrissey. In different ways, they both use a wide definition of the concept of the self portrait to explore different aspects of identity. They appear to exploit the ambiguity that Clarke (1992) refers to that i mentioned at the artist of this blog entry. Both artists have work that looks at family identity, or indeed multiple identities.’ Mimicry’ is a feature too of their exploratory approach. Morrissey takes this approach further and her: Ten People in a Suitcase is a mix of performance and investigation.

While reading Baylis’s (2016) review of this work it was her comment:

Morrissey works to embody the lives of the subjects she has chosen and to speak of what those connections mean to her.

Considering this work coincided with article I found in the Guardian while researching something for a presentation at work. An article by  Knox (2012) entitled: What does your bookshelf say about you? In the article Knox encourages us to take a picture of our bookshelves to share  this image with others as it can say so much about who we are, but more importantly why we are the person we are. He further suggests:

“Sharing your shelf is sharing yourself – showcasing the building blocks that have crafted your knowledge, personality, and identity. “

I thought of photographing a bookshelf or collection of books  still life and exploring this idea as an absented portrait, but I then came up with the idea of being the bookshelf, in a semi absented portrait traditional style portrait. It was this idea upon which I developed the work for this assignment.

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This idea gained some momentum as I re read the diary myself, through the lens of the comments of Caroline, Richard, Margaret and Jeanette. The time I invest in reading also really stood out now to me, it was not something I had thought about before to the same extent. If a portrait is about capturing something of the sense of an individual, revealing a wider perceptive or even truth, then this seemed a way to develop the assignment.

As with other assignments I brainstormed out some of these ideas, but to be frank, I already had a strong idea in my head by this stage of what my assignment images might look like.

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I have already commented upon my concern about being in a photograph and my preference to be behind the camera. The  approach I took offers a sort of camouflage, a hiding in plain site, but affording something about me in the camouflage I deployed. Although an article about women in protest work, I took the idea of camouflage from Zohar (2011) excellent article on: The Elu[va]sive Portrait.

Making the work

This assignment presented some new challenges, not least that I would not be behind the camera. Initially I enlisted a family member to help out but this proved problematic. My family member assistant  non-photographer struggled and was unable to get the focus correct in the shallow depth of field that I needed in the images to achieve the look I envisaged. Also, there were availability issues as I made the images over a couple weeks in a variety of different locations. Timing was a challenge too during the month of December when days are short and available light can be limited. We tried for several days but in the end frustration on both parts meant I had to rethink the approach.  As I mentioned above, I had a vision in my head of what my images might look like. Being creative and using a bit of a Heath Robinson approach, I used the camera on a tripod and set up a second tripod as a stand for the book that would be in the image and the area of key focus.

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This created a precise zone to focus on the achieve the sharp but shallow depth of field images I was pre visualising. I used the camera in manual focus mode and set the scene up. Then using a cable release and self timer I set about making the images. Some were made at home, others were made in two different city locations that I happened to be in during December. I did illicit some strange looks and comments from passers by but this is becoming a feature of my OCA assignment activity!

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I made a number of images many of which I discarded in the first instance. I retried and refined my approach and started to get images of an acceptable quality in terms of technical execution and the visual effect I was trying to achieve. I really enjoyed the technical and creative challenge of this assignment and by the final set of images I had added elements into the images that reveal something more about me and who I am. This was a genuine exploration of self  through a semi absented self portrait using a type of mask but a mask that contained information that had the potential to be revealing but also ambiguous and secretive. Even what I am wearing  in the images has some coded information. 

From a technical point of view all the images were made using a crop sensor camera (1.5x crop factor) and using a single prime focus 60mm lens (equating to 90mm on a full frame camera). The images were recorded as RAW files, processed in Lightroom then converted to Jpegs,  with a dimension of 1500 pixels on the long side. As per the OCA requirements they are in Adobe (RGB) colour space. A second set was made ready for sending to a commercial printers as TIFF Files in sRGB colour space and the file size specified by the commercial printer. Given the brief of a portrait image I chose the 60/90mm focal length because it was reasonably fast at f2.4 and it would allow the subject to be isolated from the background in a shallow but sharp depth of field. I did initially experiment with a 14mm (21mm full frame equivalent) lens at very close proximity (300mm) to the subject, this created an interesting effect but I found too much distraction in the wider background and quickly settled on a classic portrait focal length lens and portrait format image orientation.

References

Baylis, G. (2016) Hidden People, Ten People in a Suitcase, Source- The Photographic Review,  Autumn 2016, Issue 87

Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, OUP,  Oxford

Clarke, G. (1992) The Portrait in Photography – Critical Views, Reaction Press, Seatle

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames and Hudson, London

Knox, P (2012) What does your bookshelf say about you? Guardian , found at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/sep/07/bookshelf-say-about-you (Accessed December 2012)

Zohar, A. (2011) The Elu[va]sive Portrait: Mimicry, Masquerade and Camouflage-Conceptual and Theoretical Notes, an Introduction, Trans Asia Photography Review, found at: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0002.102?view=text;rgn=main (Accessed December 2016)

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