For the past 10 days I’ve done little other than edit images, and by 6 o’clock last night I’d really reached saturation point! Poured myself a large glass of wine and went to sit in my back yard (it had at last stopped raining), hoping to clear my mind before bed so that some insight or inspiration might, perhaps, filter its way through the tangled panic this editing is causing me…
Woke up this morning with two questions:
- If I’d been editing for an exhibition, I’d have nailed it by now, I’m sure, so why is editing for a book so much harder when the number of images ought to be roughly the same (give or take a dozen or so)?
- When I’m writing, I tend to be able to structure text in my head – I can ‘see’ it like a 3D form almost, can picture moving parts of it around till the whole seems to have some kind of balance and flow (not saying this is easy, or that I’m brilliant at writing, just describing a process) – so why can’t I apply this way of thinking to imagery for a book object?
Though I tried not to, I did end up going to bed thinking about about the digital material I’ve begun trawling through. There are actually a small number of digital pix edited into my portfolio already, roughly half a dozen, that I’ve cropped to match the square format analogue shots that make up the bulk of my work. Nobody has ever seemed to notice the difference. But one of these pictures has consistently drawn comment from reviewers I’ve shown it to, and I’m only now starting to wonder why.
One person singled this photo out as the image that changed their perception of all the others with it in my project portfolio set – said that the woman in the picture helped them realise that there was more to the subject matter than they had previously believed, and helped them see the whole project in a different way. This response provided the first clear confirmation of the importance of including images of women in my project. Then, in another, more recent review, someone else also singled out this specific photo – saying that for them it was the best in the bunch, and then kind of told me off for not having more than one image of the woman because they wanted to know more about her (which for me means it’s a success!).
I could add other examples, but that’s already enough to make the point. And as I thought about them all last night, I realised that… I don’t really understand what the fuss is about this particular photo or, more specifically, the woman in it. Yes, I’ve clearly recognised something in the image (which was shot in 2005, right at the beginning of this whole project), something that made it worth drawing out of the mass of other images I’ve produced, worth printing it for inclusion in my portfolio set and keeping it there because it seems to be passing the test of time. But what I see when I look at it is the whole thing, the entire image. It’s the same thing I’ve always seen in it – and it starts with the triangulation between the woman and her two kids. The kid in the back, looking out at you, has a dummy in his mouth; the other kid is sucking a lolly; the woman is pursing her lips in concentration, as she spikes lolly-boy’s hair into a mohican. There is more to it than just that, something more difficult to describe, but everything essentially spirals out from that triangle as far as I can see – from a moment where all the ‘characters’ are puckering up simultaneously to create a serendipitous three-part movement around the frame.
On this basis, had the woman in the picture been a man, or another child, wouldn’t the photo have worked just as well? What is it about the woman in this picture that other people can see but I can’t?
Just for fun, I’m going to chuck out the full frame version of this image for comparison, as I found it again when I began going through my digital archive. Though I wish I hadn’t, as I now might have to choose between them…
In the long gap since my last blog post, the snap election and aftermath have been a distraction… and life has been a bit all over the place generally, especially as every single weekend has been spent away. Lots of family stuff (an aunt’s funeral, a cousin’s birthday, a sister’s garden party) plus a short, much needed break in Wales… And also work, little of which has had any relation to my book dummy project, apart from the weekend spent photographing one big biker rally called Farmyard Party. But before I talk about that…
21st June I nipped over to University of Bolton for a one day symposium with the title “Publishing, Presenting and Exhibiting: Reaching 21st Century Audiences – A View from the North” which, given the aim of my professional development project, seemed timely. And it was really stimulating, even if it didn’t quite manage to do what it said on the tin. The speakers were three practitioners – in order of appearance, John Kippin, Mandy Barker, John Darwell – plus Thomas Dukes, curator at Open Eye Photographic Gallery in Liverpool. Though all four come from or are based in what is now broadly called The North, the question of what a northern perspective might be wasn’t addressed in any way. And what are 21st century audiences exactly? Are they really, essentially any different now to previously? Especially to photographers who are still producing, publishing and exhibiting work conventionally? Don’t know…
Gallery spaces seem to me to be increasingly suffering from identity crises. The cultural/social engineering agendas of funding bodies, and the accountability attached to spending of public and charitable funds, seems to engender anxieties in arts orgs and their staff about their own ‘usefulness’ which is then transferred to the spaces they run and the artists they engage to work with them. They seem to forget that artists make up part of their audience. And could it be that it’s the tabloid mentality (“Look what they’re spending YOUR money on!”) behind this kind of anxiety that’s the really useless thing in the context of culture? Is pleasure useless? I’ve yet to meet an artist whose primary concern is their usefulness – they may worry, amongst other things, about the relevance of their work perhaps, in relation to a whole range of factors, but usefulness? In a country where there’s still such a small number of dedicated photography galleries, do we really need the few we have to contort themselves into what could otherwise be more accurately described as community centres?
Whatever the platform or context may be – social media, publications online or in print, books, exhibitions, competitions etc – the takeaway from this symposium, in a nutshell, was… make good work. Then get it out there, by whatever means. And keep your fingers crossed.
Anyway, Farmyard Party. As anticipated, there were a lot of women in attendance. And I did photograph them, but… now that I have the time to edit the images at last, the ones that are jumping out at first glance are of men still. I just can’t seem to help myself…
One thing I remember noticing while I was shooting, was that the women I was trying to photograph were playing up to the camera the way a lot of men also tend to do at these rallies. It really irritated me to begin with. Then I realised that my annoyance might stem from the fact that they weren’t behaving in ways that would allow me to photograph them so they look as women ‘should’, and from that point on forced myself to photograph them whether I liked it or not. In the editing process I have still to get passed the same deeply ingrained block. It may take some time… But I’m working on it.
The plan for the coming month is to also go through all my digital images – which, bearing the above block in mind, should make the task even more interesting? In parallel I’ll pick back up the book design testing, and arrange my next consultation session. July looks like it’s going to be a fairly quiet month, thankfully, and with less distractions I hope to be able to take this project forward quite a bit.
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 to 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?