Since my previous post I’ve learnt that my Taylor Wessing portrait prize submission was one of 429 selected for the second stage from 5717 images entered initially, but it didn’t then make it through to the next phase (i.e. was not shortlisted for the prize proper, or chosen for the accompanying exhibition). Still, not bad? (But no cigar…)
In the meantime I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I’ve also photographed two more large DILLIGAF project related events. Just got home from one rally this past weekend in fact, films waiting to be processed.
And over August I’ve listened to more podcasts, like Ben Smith’s A Small Voice (which I highly recommend BTW). I especially enjoy his own takes on things like Photo London, where you get to hear his voice more, but the interviews are also great. In terms of timing, the one with Robin Maddock was particularly good for me as, amongst other things, it included an account of how useful insider understanding of subject can be (re: his Our kids Are Going to Hell book), beyond pure personal or other aesthetic considerations.
This is the stage I’m at now. My consultant, Julian Germain, has been hugely helpful in breaking through some of the fears and resistances I’ve had with the process of editing – and during our last session he actually put a rough but plausible sequence together for me, with a tempting beginning and end (I’m really shit at endings…). But I know the subject better than him, and the Robin Maddock podcast confirms that some editing decisions might have to be made in consultation with people more closely involved with the events I’ve photographed.
Ultimately though, it’s up to me. Consultations and so on on can be incredibly helpful, but really it’s up to me to decide. It’s my project, after all. Next phase is for me to hire a space and spread pictures out again but, this time, look at and work with them alone. I’ll take Julian’s sequence from the previous session as a starting point, and spend time reconsidering it based on my own tastes and knowledge of the project.
Then, I’ll print the result as a first dummy and take it back to Julian, plus try to present it to a designer. I’m hoping to achieve this in the next month, but it might take a little longer because I’m due to start a Northern Bridge funded fine art PhD at Newcastle University in three weeks. My PhD is practice-based but my tutor has warned me that to start with I won’t have much space to make work… The fine art dept (or Hogwarts, as I like to think of it) has fantastic print-making facilities though, and I really hope I might be able to start using them straightaway – even if it is just to finish making something unrelated to my research project.
Anyway, yesterday National Portrait Gallery revealed the three images that have been shortlisted for this year’s Taylor Wessing prize. I think I’d have to see two of them in print to better understand why they might have been selected over others. And I really wish it was possible to know why my own submission didn’t make the grade finally. But now I suppose I can have a crack at Portrait Salon?
On Monday this week I had my second consultation with Julian Germain. As before, a whole afternoon was spent in Cowshill village hall in Weardale, shuffling rough prints around, with breaks for tea and chocolate digestives. And it was a really good session again, but beyond that I’m not yet ready to say more because I’ve been too busy doing something else since to properly think about it.
The rest of this week has had to be spent concentrating on just one image; scanning, retouching, tweaking contrast and colour balance, and then printing, packaging and posting it to meet today’s delivery deadline… And this is the photo all that fuss has been about.
I could only afford to submit one image to this year’s Taylor Wessing portrait prize, but getting an email back from the National Portrait Gallery with the opening line, “Dear Lucy, I would rather stick wasps up my arse”, made the £28 entry fee worth every penny, even before I realised that what they were actually writing to say was the photo with that title had made it through to the second round of their (infamously difficult) competition. It may not get any further than this stage, but I’m so chuffed already it won’t be a disappointment.
In parallel to the print, NPG asks you to fill in a massive form. One of the things on it is, “Please suggest why you consider this to be a successful and compelling portrait”, and that’s what I’ve spent most of this week thinking about…
Of all the photos I’ve made for DILLIGAF, this is the one that, by itself, seems to contain the essence of the whole project. If I could only keep one out of the thousands produced since the project began, this image would be it. I had strongly suspected it before but, on Monday, I came to the conclusion that I really need to build my book dummy around it somehow, as it’s the key. But that doesn’t really explain why I think it was worth entering for a prestigious prize.
A spare print I made for myself has, since Wednesday, been sitting on a table I walk passed umpteen times a day. Every time I see it I compulsively check the colour balance… then I look at it. I’ve studied it so closely now, and so often, it no longer makes me laugh out loud the way it did to begin with (and up until this week, in fact), but it always, without fail, makes me smile inside. It is funny (a powerful reaction!), but beyond initial amusement there’s a bit more to it? The more I see it, the more the man’s expression intrigues me. At one point yesterday afternoon, it looked to me like he might be about to sing; at another, something else entirely. His expression isn’t exactly neutral (or deadpan, if you prefer) so he seems present, but there’s still space for projection – there’s no certainty, no answers, but there are clues. Is this why it works? It certainly does for me, and if I can feel this way about it – and I met the guy, chatted with him (made the photo and moved on) – how might other viewers react?
Another thing NPG requests is the identity and contact details of your portrait subject. The event where the photo was made is covered by T&Cs which stipulate that anyone present “gives consent to the filming, sound recording and photography of themselves, as individuals or as part of the audience.” I wouldn’t consider this bulletproof, but it’s useful because it’s very difficult to collect model releases in these kinds of situations. People are, on the whole, more than willing to be photographed, but that’s not what they’re principally there for – they’re there to enjoy themselves. Add to this that my memory for names is rubbish… and I have to admit I don’t know who my portrait subject is, let alone how to contact him. The best I can do is try to track him down, which I’m doing with the help of MAP (Magic Action Promotions, the organisers of the rally where the photo was made), via its networks.
Yesterday MAP posted a copy of the picture on Facebook, asking if any of their followers know who he is. No luck yet, but almost as good is the comment one women posted underneath: “I don’t know,” she said, “but I love him.”
I know exactly what she means.
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.