Since my previous post a couple of weeks ago, quite a few things have been happening.
An application I submitted for a place on a peer review session was successful: co-hosted by James Lowther of Berwick Visual Arts and North East Photography Network‘s Carol McKay and Amanda Ritson, it took place at The Granary in Berwick on Saturday 6th May. Reviewers were the above plus Document Scotland‘s Sophie Gerrard, Sarah Amy Fishlock and Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert. Reviewees were me, Nat Wilkins, and Tom King.
I wasn’t sure what a peer review was exactly, but at this stage in my book dummy project development any opportunity to talk about it is good, and it turned out to be like a cross between a portfolio review and a crit session. I think the advantage this format has over portfolio reviews is that, instead of being paired with professionals for whom your work may not be the best match (in which case neither reviewer nor reviewee get much out of the encounter), the work presented for peer review becomes the focus for a group discussion (in which negative criticism can be diffused or become constructive because it’s part of the broader range of views being exchanged?). And this process is one that reviewees can contribute to as much to as reviewers – as peers, in fact. It’s more roundabout than seesaw.
I took along with me the portfolio version of my DILLIGAF project plus two book page layouts I’d just test printed – these latter being what I most hoped to get feedback about and, given the laughter one of them generated, can say that taking part in the session was definitely worthwhile for me.
Then on Friday 12th May was an artist talk, as Wideyed, for Hexham Photography Group. HPG runs an impressive and varied annual talk programme (off the top of my head, photographers like John Kippin, Pete Fryer, Ian Beesley, Deborah Parkin, Ian MacDonald, John Darwell, Wolfgang Weileder, Julian Germain, Paul Hill, Mandy Barker…), so it felt like a huge honour to be invited to speak! What the group seemed most interested in was how Wideyed exhibits and functions as a collective, so there wasn’t much time or space to glean feedback about individual members’ works in progress, but enough still for me to introduce DILLIGAF, and mention my book dummy project and the a-n bursary that’s making its development possible for me.
In non-photobook-dummy but nonetheless DILLIGAF related news, a couple of festival calls for submission I responded to have recently resulted in selection for online features: one image for Cortona on the Move New Visions, and two (of mine here and here, plus Richard Glynn‘s here and here, all four signed as Lostness Club) for Diffusion, currently running in Cardiff with the theme of Zeitgeist.
Anyway, what next? The best opportunity I’ll have to shoot some new images for the book (to potentially fill one or two gaps in the project, mentioned previous blog post) is at a big biker rally called Farmyard Party, 16th-18th June. I’m hoping my project consultant, Julian Germain, will be free sometime towards the end of June so we can have a second editing/sequencing session that includes this new material. But between now and then no slacking: the plan is to do more work on book design by testing more layout ideas. Given that I’m still far from having a final edit and picture sequence, it might seem a bit cart-before-horse to be working on layouts, but I have the feeling – especially after the Berwick peer review experience – that some design decisions might influence the image edit, so I need to do a bit more work on design upstream.
I have to admit I had a bit of a wobble just before the Berwick peer review session – wobble meaning massive ‘your work is shit’ panic attack. But the peer review really helped me get over that. And progress on this project can sometimes seem slower than I initially hoped… Then I remember it was last May that I first decided to pull my finger out and really, finally do something with this work, and I’ve achieved more in the weeks since I got the a-n bursary than I ever managed in the months before. So, still think things are going OK.
Last Tuesday (25th April) I had my first consultation session. I booked the community hall at Cowshill in Weardale for the whole afternoon, and turned up with tea and biscuits, a collection of biker related books (Danny Lyon’s classic The Bikeriders, Andrew Shaylor’s Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, Martin Dixon’s Brooklyn Kings, Maz Harris’ Bikers, Scott Zieher’s Band of Bikers, Robert Frank’s The Americans because that has a couple of biker photos in it, and some old Haynes Manuals), and an edit of around 650 photos (cut out of thirty-three A2 contact sheets printed the day before).
The photographer I asked to act as consultant for me is Julian Germain. Julian was in the year above mine at RCA so I know him from when I did my MA there – we weren’t friends then but have continued to bump into each other occasionally since, plus I’ve followed his work and felt he could be someone whose judgement I can trust. As a bonus, Julian turned up with Malin Norrman, a Swedish photographer currently studying at the HKU University of the Arts in Utrecht – an extra pair of eyes, and some laughter (she found quite a few of my photos funny, which was hugely gratifying for me)!
The 650 image edit I ended up with was drawn just from the analogue material I have because I couldn’t be arsed going through all the digital photos as well. Bringing such a large edit was deliberate – I have a friend who seems to systematically edit out all of their best photos, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake – but going through them all was hard work (sorry Julian and Malin…). By the end of the afternoon we’d trimmed the number down quite radically, but though I still don’t have a final edit some really interesting things came out of the session.
Firstly, there are some gaps in the work: I haven’t photographed after dark as much as I could have, and I don’t have as many strong images of women as I thought I had. I might be able to get away with the former, but the women are important to me, and I have a couple of opportunities over the summer to shoot some more and try to rectify this (which means the project has become live again when I had hoped it was complete, but I’d rather do a bit more work and get it as right as I possibly can). Plus I can go through all the digital stuff as well now…
Secondly, that laughter! It occurred to me that the S-Town storytelling example I mentioned in my previous post might not be a perfect match for this particular project because S-Town lacks humour. One of the things I’ve tapped into in my approach to bikers is how funny the subject can be, by which I mean that I’ve responded to the humour of the people in some of the images, not just made funny photos at their expense. I’ve also deliberately allowed people to smile in my images, giving them a degree of agency, and in hopes that the smiles and humour undermine some of the stereotype – using humour to say the subject is not just what we think it is, as with the S-Town story? Some of pictures I’ve collected can be both amusing and aggressive, depending on the person in the image and how well I’ve photographed them. With this book project I have an opportunity to put together a final edit that, if it combines the right balance of dark or serious images with absurd and humorous ones, might have more complexity and emotional range, and therefore tell a story that is less one-dimensional than expected?
In terms of learning more about editing for books, what I found most specifically useful and interesting about this first consultation session was the way Julian began sequencing some of the images; putting together pictures it would not have occurred to me to pair, setting up runs of photos that surprised me. It blew apart the neat order of things I’d imagined beforehand, allowing me to see the work in new ways – which, without realising it, is exactly what I need at this point.
Finally, as I normally try to avoid showing people stuff I don’t think is up to scratch, allowing two people I’ve not shown any of my work to before to rifle through hundreds of pictures could have seemed quite traumatic… But making this book dummy is partly about letting go. Definitely ready!
The week before Easter I listened to a fascinating seven-part podcast called S-Town.
I discovered it via this review in New Statesman – put the text aside after the first few paragraphs as there’s a spoiler alert, listened to the first three podcasts, then went back to the review because I was intrigued to read the rest and compare it to my own impressions. Which is how I came to eventually read the following (slightly shortened):
Woodstock is exactly the sort of proverbial southern shithole that most other Americans look down on, and which most self-respecting Europeans would be terrified of. The police are mildly corrupt; the people are hugely racist. […] This place is exactly what you think it is.
Except, S-Town reminds us that it’s not just what we think it is: time and again, it shows us a stereotype, then reveals a human being. […]
S-Town is like one of those huge Victorian social novels […]: one of those books that constantly persuades us to sympathise with people we might otherwise dismiss.
The middle sentence is the particularly key thing for me (and please, don’t read too much into the para above it, which is there for context only). And the timing is perfect, as I came across it just as I was about to begin editing a body of work that has as its subject matter one sub-section of a group of people whose appearances and lifestyle choices reflect (sometimes even to the point of parody) some societal stereotypes that can be perceived quite negatively.
I know this from personal experience, if I’m honest. The very first biker rally I went to, I instantly knew there was a project in it for me but I was too terrified to take any pictures: it didn’t matter that I knew plenty of people who were bikers – e.g. one of my uncles, my own brother, the bloke I was there with – media coverage of the subject, that before that point I wasn’t consciously aware I’d absorbed, really affected how I felt. And it’s perhaps not surprising that, with just two exceptions so far, photography professionals I’ve shown my work on this subject to at portfolio reviews have seemingly tended not get past similar prejudices of their own – though to be fair I may be wholly or partly responsible for that, in the sense that the style, edit and sequence of images I presented them with lacked the degree of nuance necessary to see anything beyond the stereotype?
The task I’ve set myself is not an easy one. The attempt will hopefully be interesting, but the difference between visual imagery, especially photographs, and storytelling in other media, as in the S-Town radio/podcast format, is that people are much quicker to judge on appearances. And who are these ‘people’? Another complication… Over the coming months I should be able to share edits of this work with different peer groups – but I also have ongoing access to the rallies I’ve photographed for this project and it’s occurred to me I can try to get feedback from that source as well?
Anyway, over the past couple of weeks I’ve made a start on tackling the first broad edit of all the material (bearing the above S-Town quote in mind as much as possible). I’ve also arranged a first meeting with the photographer who’s agreed to act as consultant with the editing and sequencing of my dummy. And I’ve bought some materials – a couple of 40m long rolls of Epson singleweight matte (for starters, I’m guessing I might need more), plus some sample packs of other brands of paper to play with (I’m thinking of using a bit of transparency in the dummy so need to find something thinner than I’ve ever used before).
I think it’s a good start?
On 24th March I hitched a lift to Derby (only a 3 hour drive away from where we’re based in County Durham) with Lostness Club / Wideyed colleagues Richard Glynn and Louise Taylor for the launch weekend of FORMAT International Photography Festival.
FORMAT is a biennial festival, and this year’s edition is the 6th since it began in 2005. With Wideyed, I’ve exhibited in three – 2011, 2013 and 2015 – so this was the first time I’d been to the festival without having to do any work there, and it was nice to just be a punter for a change. Bumped into lots of friends, met some lovely new people, and saw some interesting work here and there.
The point of this post is not to write a detailed review of the festival as a whole, but to mention the bits of it that are relevant to the project I’ve been awarded an a-n bursary for. One reason for being at the launch weekend (rather than any other) was the Photobook Market, which had some well known publishers in attendance (e.g. MACK, Dewi Lewis and so on), and a set of last year’s Kassel Photobook Dummy Award shortlisted entries on show. Scattered on a couple of (post-ironic?) coffee tables, there were 50 dummies to look at, and I think I managed to examine most of them – an incredible variety of content (subject matter, photographic approaches and sequencing) and book-making techniques, with some books easier to handle and more seductive than others. Without realising it, the only one I ended up sitting down to really read cover to cover (though the cover was not the most appealing at first glance) was the Kassel Award winner: Monsanto, a photographic investigation, by Mathieu Asselin.
Another part of the launch weekend I found particularly interesting and enlightening was the Portfolio Walk. I haven’t been able to afford a portfolio review at FORMAT since 2011, but wandering around during the public viewing afterwards and looking at the work – and the variety of ways peers are presenting it, including lots of photobooks, self-published and otherwise – can be really instructive. Plus it makes it easier to meet photographers and speak to them about their projects, the stories behind some of their photos…
Apart from discovering that I might intuitively know a bit more about photobooks than I thought, the thing that I brought away from FORMAT – from the Photobook Market experience, the festival exhibitions generally, and from conversations with many of the people met over the weekend – is the importance of storytelling. And when I begin work on my dummy, this is something I really must remember to bear in mind.
It’s all about the development of a self-financed body of photographic work called ‘DILLIGAF’. The project began in 2005 and, in terms of image creation, was completed in 2016, but now needs a big push to begin transforming the material into a finished object, as a book.
I have enough experience of basic bookmaking techniques to feel confident about putting together a good quality dummy, but not enough experience of editing and designing to pull together an object as complex as the book object I envisage for this body of work: the number of images to edit (thousands of the things) and sequence has seemed petrifying, and at the end of 2016 I realised that I would need help breaking through the fear barring my progress.
The bursary a-n has generously awarded me is going to make it possible to buy the materials I need to produce dummies (the price of inks has gone up significantly since EUref… plus I’ll now be able to experiment with papers and layouts that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford), and get much needed advice and feedback from some experienced photography and design professionals.
And then, getting a bursary like this just feels hugely encouraging generally, of course – thanks so much a-n!