Assignment 5 Preparation – Making it up

Making it up

Construct a stand-alone image of your choice. Alternatively, you may choose to make a series, elaborating on the same theme.

As the culminating assignment for the course you may wish to draw upon skills learned from Parts One to Four – using various forms of narrative, using yourself as subject matter, telling stories and reading images. The only stipulation is that you produce work that has been controlled and directed by you for a specific purpose. Remember to create a story with a specific context like the artists you’ve looked at in Part Five. This means you need to have an artistic intention, so a good place to start would be to write down some ideas. This could then form the basis for a 300-word introduction to the piece. You may find it helpful to draw storyboards to help you visualise your ideas.

The aim of this assignment is to use props, costume, models, location, lighting, etc. to contribute to the overall meaning of the image. (Use flash/lights if required but available light is fine as long as it is considered.)

If the narrative is to be set in a different era then the elements of the image must reflect this. Also consider the symbolic meanings of objects and try not to be too literal in your approach. For example, don’t automatically use red roses in a love scene but try to be subtle in your ideas to obtain a more true-to-life scenario.

For this final assignment, you should also include an illustrated evaluation of the process you went through to produce your final image(s). Include snapshots of setting up the work and write about how you felt your direction went, how you found the location, props, etc. How did this process affect the final outcome? Write around 1,000 words in total (including your 300-word introduction).

Send your final image(s) to your tutor, along with your commentary and relevant pages of your learning log (or blog url).

At the start of this course when I looked through all of the assignments I would have to undertake I felt most daunted by Assignment 5. Now that I have arrived at the preparation stage for this assignment I feel much more confident about its planning and execution. Why?  Well I am viewing it as a culmination of the whole Context and Narrative journey and I generally feel a better image maker, not a great image maker, but definitely a more thoughtful one.

Throughout my OCA studies there has been reference to finding a ‘personal voice’, in the course materials and in the dialogue between students online, on both the OCA Forum and the numerous unofficial OCA social media sites. At this point 26 months into my degree programme, I am getting closer to a notion of the work I want to make and the idea of the autobiographical image has been a feature of most of my assignments on this course.

In planning  this assignment I thought it would be helpful to do a quick recap from memory of what I had covered in the course so far and who had been the influential photographers whose work and ideas had piqued my interest. While waiting for a train  I sat in a damp waiting room and I  drafted out a  quick chart of the C&N content, it was a useful exercise to do from recall alone and it helped me to begin to distill and create the idea that was to become the theme for this final assignment. 

Although not covering all of the course in detail, it still proved to be a valuable exercise, particularly in reminding me of the photographers whose work had had the most impact on me throughout the course. It was also helpful to see a clear train of learning from the initial exploration of the photograph as document, the ideas of reportage, the challenge of authenticity and the manipulated image. The work of W. Eugene Smith and the reasons for his departure from Life magazine reminded me of the fluid idea of what is real and what is not in an image. Then in part two the notion of narrative as story, but also as the link between images and how meaning can be communicated in a variety of ways.  Barthe’s idea of the death of the author, tackling the post modern narrative and the loss of primacy of the author. The idea of the reader/viewer creating meaning as being separate from the authors intent also  made me think about the idea of a narrative in general  and where the locus of contreol sits in the creation of meaning in both text and image.  Autobiography, the self absented portrait and the idea that an image can tell a story beyond the frame and its content has also been a clear message along the way. Masquerades and the photographer themselves being the focus of a project, but hidden and exposed simultaneously within a wider story made me think of the power of photography beyond it’s imagery and obvious initial content. The work of Lee, Morrissey  and Wearing really stand out in this section as does Shaffron and  Brothers.  Latterly Calypso’s ( see Christianson 2015) work has also influenced my thinking about masquerades, making it up and the self absented portrait.

All these artists  offer a narrative beyond the content of the frame. All to some extent use common tropes, the family portrait, the tourist photograph, the self portrait and the construction of  still life of domestic objects to mention a few,   to say something bigger about the human condition.

Decoding images and having to write about a single photograph in assignment 4 made me think in real detail about narrative, rudimentary semiotics, the sign and the signified and also placing work in a broader context and the concept of intertextuality. This notion in particular made me think about the natural and also accidental links between works in the same and different genres. Although not an exhaustive review of the course this was what I gleaned from just recall in a dreary railway station waiting room with paper pen and no access to my blog or the course materials. I was pleased with this exercise in recall!

The next stage in the assignment preparation was to pull out the work of photographers whose images and approach to image making seemed to be most relevant to my developing idea for a constructed image  for this assignment. Again, putting my thoughts on paper as a diagram assisted. From this I pulled out ideas based on the work of:

  • Cheryl Dunye and Zoe Leonard
  • Gregory Crewdson
  • Geoff Wall
  • Cindy Sherman
  • Tom Hunter
  • Jodie Taylor
  • Gillian Wearing
  • Hannah Starkey

While doing the research and preparation for the assignment two fortuitous things happened. I revisited the work of Jodie Taylor and I received an annual pension contributions statement from my employer. Two entirely unconnected events that led to a creative moment!

The genesis and development of an idea

I hated every day of school!

Attending secondary school in the 1970s, at a large urban secondary modern, was marginally more bearable than primary school, but only just. I generally hated school. The exception was the time I spent in woodwork lessons. They were a sort of haven, in no small part due to the kindness of Mr. Arkwright, a teacher who seemed to genuinely care and be interested in his pupils.

A very different educator to his peers, who with hindsight were cruel martinets, quick to use the cane and even quicker to point out your failings and inadequacies. A tough and at times brutal regime that made the idea that your schools days are the best of your life an utter absurdity. The secondary modern school was the home to those who had failed the 11+ and I recall being reminded of this on a regular basis. A topical issue in 2017 with marginal  government committed to opening new grammar schools (stop press, this might be off the table now), which by default will mean the downgrading of comprehensive schools to secondary moderns,  a thought that sends a chill down my spine! But I digress.

As a 15 year year old I found confidence and sense of self worth in being able to make accurately  measured and well cut mortice and tenon joints, dovetail joints and many other constructions in timber. All executed, planned and prepared with hand tools, through careful measurements and a can do spirit spurred on by a good teacher. First a jewellery box, then a small coffee table , then a chair. Moving from using cheap pine to then ash and oak, then teak and mahogany. I had an aptitude that meant I was trusted with higher grade materials. The experience of one part of school being positive and engaging helped my confidence and sense of self worth. In my final two years of secondary education I was set on becoming a carpenter, a career working with tools and wood, making things of value and usefulness. A future as an artisan was my plan for when I left school. The next step  would be an apprenticeship maybe, day release to technical college and a pathway to  earning a living making things in wood.

This never happened and a strange turn of events took me along a very different and highly ironic path and as I read my pension statement of April 2017 recording 34 years of service in the field of work I have been in for more than three decades, I pondered  on what life would be like and who I would be  had I taken the path of artisanship all those years ago.

I decided this would be the theme of a constructed stand alone image, an imagined me as an artisan worker in wood, as I might have envisioned myself all those years ago at school.

It has to be a fictional image for multiple reasons, firstly it isn’t who I am, but more importantly it won’t be like a genuine woodworking artisan in 2017, with all that technology affords such a worker today. I want the image to be a carpenter as envisioned by my 15 year old self, a fantasy made real through location, props and lighting. There is undoubted nostalgia in this work but also something about a fictitious tableaux  image, that reveals something about my past. I’d also like the work to invite the viewer  to consider who they might be at this point in their lives if they too had taken a different path at 15 or 16 years of age. I want the work to ask that question of others. Life is full of key points of decision making, but also key points to ask the question, what might have happened if I had chosen a different route?

My influences in creating this work were Jodie Taylor’s: Memories of Childhood, Nikki S. Lee’s Masquerade image and  Tom Hunter’s constructed images influenced by classical painting. In addition the tableaux approach of Goeff Wall and also the epic and filmic work of Crewdson also gave me food for thought. Cindy Sherman’s images or more specifically her fictitious but plausible within her work also offered some real inspiration. Reflecting on the work of these artists allowed me to begin to construct , or make up the idea for this final assignment

In short I set out to create a self portrait of who I would be now, based upon an imagined self from my adolescence. A fifty something self had I taken a very different path at the age of 16.

Creating a plausible fiction, Making it up!


I needed an authentic  location in which to make the work. I had thought of hiring a studio and taking some props, but decided early on I needed something more authentic. After some leg work I was offered access to  a modern carpentry workshop, set up with high tech equipment, a fully 21st century operation. That didn’t fit the bill  for the atmosphere I wanted to create in the work. My mid teens where in the middle of the 1970’s and my notions of wanting to be a carpenter were located in the workshop and tools of that era. Given I wanted to create an image of me as a carpenter in my mid 50’s it needed to be as I imagined it back then. Trapped in time, un-realistic and far more about a vision in my head as a teenager, than any contemporary notion of the woodworking artisan in 2017.

The rural landscape of East Anglia where I live, is littered with remnants of the second world war and in particular the remains of the 8th Army Air Corp of the United States. After the war some of those facilities were recycled and it was in one such location I found the exactly what I needed. In the 1950’s a local house builder in the village where I live bought and moved a wartime nissen hut to his premises. The hut was used as the workshop for his caparenters who made bespoke windows and doors for the houses he was building. He went out of business in the 1970’s (when I was still at school hundreds of miles away from this location and thinking it was a carpenter I would become) and the workshop fell into disuse, eventually being used for dry storage. Some traces of the nissen huts workshop past remain but when I found the location I needed to do a lot of tidying and clearing to make a usable location. It did have a workbench though and although the working space was cramped, I set about using this as the location for the work and clearing things out (with permission) in order to construct my plausible fiction.

The bench and the main shooting location

The lighting and also an image showing the relatively cramped condition in the location


In setting out to create a tableaux image I needed the right props. My image of me as a carpenter in my mid 50’s, as perhaps envisioned by my adoelscent self would be using hand tools and the sorts of tools that were used in a school woodwork room. Other than a lathe and a pilar drill all other items were basic hand tools, a try square, steel rule, pencil, chisels, a mallet a tack hammer and mortice gauge. A couple of car boot sales and  several eBay purchase proved beneficial and I was a blue to assemble the tools I envisioned using in the assignment.

The range of tools as props, not all were used

There was also what to wear? I have no doubt that my 16 year old selfs vision of a carpenter was  was shaped by Mr. Arkwright and his appearance. Unlike the other practical subject teachers, he always wore a collar and tie, what I now know to be a regimental tie and cufflinks. He also wore a white lab coat ( not the manila beige coats of his fellow practical subject teachers. His lab coat pocket filled with pens and pencils was also a feature I recall. I didd’t know any carpenters and my positive engagement with woodwork, shaped by a helpful and positive teacher created a sort of fantasy that being a carpenter would be like being Mr. Arkwright!

This then became part of making up my plausible fiction. I acquired a white lab coat , a regimental tie and the pre requites pan and pencils for the lab coat pocket. Reflecting on the military striped tie neatly in place created an echo of a time before health and safety regulations. 


The assignment forced me to really push the boundaries in using lighting. I tend to use natural light and have some rudimentary skills in the use of  speedlights. For this work I set out to create the sort of lighting that is use in environmental portraits, the sort that might be used in advertising materials or magazine articles. The nissen hut had poor quality fluorescent lighting that would not be helpful and also had a number of windows allowing natural light. One of which was large and given the restrictions of space and where I could place the camera and me as the subject, meant it would be behind me. I  did a lot of experimentation with both multiple speedlights, umbrellas and reflectors and also some daylight balanced continuos lighting from a softbox.  the corrugated scripture of the building created some strange effect that I was able to counter through experiment.


I was able to practice and experiment at the location and eventually settled on a mix of daylight for backlighting, a single high power daylight balance continuous light and a speed light and umbrella running at just 30 %. The diagram below shows the arrangement at the location. It also illustrates the mix of light sources I was manipulated to achieve my desired outcome. What the diagram can’t show is the effects that all light sources, artificial and natural have when directed in a corrugated nissen hut, which is in effect a giant baffle.

Lighting arrangements

It is also worth noting that the diagram shows the final position of the lighting, but during the image making process the camera position was changed slightly with the final images being made with the camera off set to let from the position in the diagram

Camera and Lenses

This assignment was a solo effort much like assignment three. It would have been great to have had an assistant but in  truth having to work alone pushed the boundaries technically for me. I used a crop sensor camera, initially with a zoom lens until I understood the space and location better and then switched to a  fast prime lens  approximating to 50mm on a full from camera. The camera was mounted on a tall tripod and I aligned if from a step ladder in order to get the height I wanted. like the experiments with the lighting I made a number of self timer images to get the framing that i wanted.

I used a wireless trigger for the speed light that also allowed me to control the flash output remotely. In addition I used the camera wirelessly tethered to an tablet. This allowed me to frame and focus as well as get a quick preview of the images. Had I not done this I  think I would have taken days to get an image I was happy with.

Location of the iPad for wireless control o the cameras functions

I set up the location and made the images over two days , around 300 images were made included the location light testing shots.

All in all this was a very enjoyable, nostalgic and personally thought provoking assignment to execute, one that I learned much from, technically, artistically and also psychologically.


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

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

Christianson, H. (2015) The photographer went on a one woman honeymoon, Dazed- found at : (Accessed June 2017)

Cosgrove , B. (2012) W.Eugene Smith’s landmark Portrait: Country Doctor 1948 Found at: (Accessed June 2017)

Kino, C. (2006) Now in Moving Pictures: The Multitudes of Nikki S. Lee, New York Times found at: (AccessedJune 2017)

Shaffran, N Website, found at: nigel shaffran (AccessedJune 2017)

Gillian Wearing takeover: behind themask – the Self Portraits (AccessedJune 2017)

Nikki S. Lee: The Creators Project found at: (AccessedJune 2017)

Phillips, S. (2013) Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach, Guardian, found at: (Accessed October 2016)

Trish Morrissey works found at: (AccessedJune 2017)

Sherman, C. (1977) Untitled Film Stills Found at: (Accessed June 2017)





Assignment 4- Reworked and rewritten

Motorama – Los Angeles – Robert Frank  

This essay interprets a single image, reflects on its meaning and places it in a wider artistic, historical and political context. It also presents a personal reflection on a single image, the artist’s intent and what might be being communicated.

The image is Robert Frank’s: ‘Motorama – Los Angeles’, taken from ‘The Americans’ published in 1958.

Frank, a Swiss born photographer needs little introduction, ‘The Americans’ makes a major contribution to photography’s cannon, described by Peter Schjeldahl[1], art critic of The New Yorker as: ‘one of the basic American masterpieces of any medium.’

‘The Americans’ was the product of a road trip in three parts,[2] over several years. On coming to America, Frank’s association with Edward Steichen, then the curator of Photography at MoMA[3] and with photographer Walker Evans, led him to successfully secure a Guggenheim grant to fund the project.

Motorama – Los Angeles at first glance might appear to be one of the less iconic images in ‘The Americans’. The image denotes a dark scene that on closer inspection reveals the illuminated interior of a car seen thorough its windscreen. Cars and people framed through windows are recurring tropes in Frank’s work. This image isolates the windscreen in a sea of darkness, hints of chrome in the highlights imply an expensive automobile at night. The image alone reveals little about the cars location. The framing and printing[4] place emphasis on the occupants of the vehicle. All are children, but one stands out in particular, his face half lit, half in shadow stares directly out at the viewer. It is this face, self-assured and assertive in its expression, flanked by the two others, both staring at this protagonist, as if seeking approval or waiting for instruction that creates what Barthes (1979) would describe as the punctum: ‘that accident which pricks or bruises me’. The interplay of the expressions of the car’s occupants asks questions of the viewer about the relationships of the occupants. The absence of adults and the unknown location present additional questions to consider.

The occupants, protected in a steel and glass sanctuary from the surrounding darkness could be an allegory about wealth, class, race and division. The car as a symbol of prosperity is not new. Two decades earlier, Margaret Bourke White’s image[5] of African Americans queuing for aid in front of a hoarding depicting a white happy family through the windscreen of their car, anchors it as symbol of the American prosperity. The hoardings caption reads: ‘Worlds highest standard of living’ and ‘there’s no way like the American way’. Frank’s subtler image, like Bourke Whites earlier work, questions the validity of Americas view of itself in the 1950s as a place of growth and prosperity. Indeed, during Eisenhower’s[6] two terms of presidency the administration only balanced the budget on three occasions. Frank’s image doesn’t refute that Americans have wealth and happiness, but rather that it might not be a universal experience.

But all may not be what it seems, Motorama was General Motors annual show of its latest models. It’s likely that Frank made this image at the show in March 1956[7]. Does this contextual information shift the meaning of the image, now simply a group of boys sitting in a show car?

The image is beautifully cinematic, a screen within a screen, like a still taken from a film noir movie, evocative of Hollywood’s renditions of Raymond Chandler[8] or Dashiell Hammett[9] novels and Frank is highlighting the three-young occupants and not the car.

The title too is important, although the image was taken at an event to showcase new automobiles, this may not be what Frank was revealing in this image. It is the three young people in the scene that Frank captured and like the new cars at the show they too were on display. The next generation, most likely to inherit the fruits of the American dream, already being groomed for a future far from the experience of many. The expression on the face of the principle protagonist confirming a confident assertive view of themselves. The meek might inherent the earth, but these future presidents, praetorians or philanthropists in waiting, are the generation that will inherit the best of the American dream and Frank’s image tells us that they know it.

Like Chandler and Hammet’s fictional private detectives, Marlowe and Spade, Frank and his camera are revealing a truth that might otherwise have been hidden.

Thinking about this image in the wider context of Frank’s work, it certainly provoked a range of reactions and has been used to question a nation’s view of itself, presenting an alternative view of America that chimed with the ‘Beat’ generation[10] who’s literature and poetry also challenged the assumptions about the American dream.

As Jobey (2009) states:

 ‘Frank’s book was condemned almost unanimously when it was first published, but for decades now it has been recognised as a work that identified a cultural shift in America; that showed the country back to itself, and more clearly than most of its inhabitants cared to acknowledge.’

However, Dunford (2011) presents an argument for Frank’s work being appropriated by commentators wanting to make political arguments about America in the 1950s. In doing so Dunford suggests they have robbed it of its aesthetic and iconographic content. Citing Frank’s work being referenced by sociologists without any use of or reference to a single image.

Barrett’s (1988) notion of the ‘external context’ of an image might also help understand where Frank’s work has been located and how the connotations present in ‘The Americans’ have become a tool for political and or sociological critique, as he suggests:

the meaning of any photograph is dependent on the context in which it appears.’

In summary, what this single image reveals is the investigative power of Frank’s camera, his bold use of iconography, referenced to wider media of the time, notably cinema, to present to the original viewer in 50s America, three young people, who just might be charge in the future. As an outsider, Frank was uniquely placed to do this, uncontaminated by an American’s view of themself and revealing what was there in plain sight. For the contemporary viewer seeing this image ‘out of time’ it is Frank’s keen eye for the pictorial that tells a story beyond that which is contained within the 35mm frame and in doing so we are offered tangible evidence about the power of the still image to tell a story.

[1] Peter Schjeldahl, Quoted in Dawidoff (2015)

[2] Sarah Kennel (2014) describes the three components of Frank’s road trip in her lecture to the Bowdoin College

[3] MoMA is the Museum of Modern art in New York

[4] In researching this essay 8 distinct versions of the image were found with differing crops and varying degrees of darkness and light in the prints

[5] Bourke White’s image was part of an assignment looking at the impact of the 1937 flood of the Great Ohio River in Kentucky that displaced many residents. Source: Cosgrove 2014

[6] The Eisenhower Era 1952-1960- AP United states history Study Notes, found at: (Accessed March 2017)

[7] Motorama was only held once in Los Angeles during the period Frank was working on ‘The Americans’. Frank started his road trip in July 1955, too late for the only other time Motorama was in LA Source 1- Kennell (2014) Source 2- GM Archive found at:

[8] Raymond Chandler 1888 – March 26, 1959American/British novelist famous for crime dramas and his character Philip Marlow, a private detective

[9] Dashiell Hammet 1894 – 1961 American author famous for stories like The Maltese Falcon and his character Sam Spade, a private detective

[10] Beat Generation writers and artists such as Karouac, (who wrote the introduction to The Americans) Ginsberg and Burroughs questioned materialism, wealth and the inclusivity and equality in American society Source:


Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, Vintage, London

Barrett, T. (1986)  Teaching about Photography: Photographs and Contexts  Art Education, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Jul., 1986), pp. 33-36. Found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Campany, D. (2014) The Open Road- Photography & the American Road Trip, Aperture, London

Cosgrove, B. (2014) Behind the Picture-The American Way and the flood of ’37, found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Dawidoff, N. (2015) The man who saw America-Looking back with Robert Frank, the most influential photographer alive, New York Times Magazine found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Dunford, T. (2011) Looking at Robert Frank’s “The Americans”- New English Review found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Dunford, T. (2012) Miss reading “On the Road” New English Review found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Frank, R. (1958)  U.S. Camera Annual 1958 , p. 115 found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Frank, R. (1959) The Americans, Stieidl (2008 Reprint), Gottingen

Howarth, S. (Ed.) (2005) Singular Images-Essays on Remarkable Photographs, Tate Publishing, London

Jobey, L. (2009) Photographer Robert Frank: holding a mirror up to America, The Guardian, found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Kennel, S (2014) Robert Frank: Nobody’s Home, Bowdoin College Lecture found at: (Accessed March 2017)

O’Hagan, S. (2004) The Big Empty- The Guardian, found at: (Accessed March 2017)

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Robert Frank at 90- The Photographer that revealed America won’t look back. The Guardian found at: (Accessed March 2017)

Papegoerge, T. (1981) Walker Evans and Robert Frank – An Essay on Influence, found at: www. (Accessed April 2017)