Assignment 3 – idea 1, final draft

The Friday Night Curry Chef, is the last of my Avedonian self-portraits. Set-up as before.

Contact sheet:

Contacts 3

Short-list

And the final version of the slide-show.

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Assignment 3 – more first drafts

Today, I shot ‘The Building Surveyor’ and ‘The Sailor’. Same set-up as before. Here are the contact sheets.

As before, the first group of images is about getting the lighting and framing right. After that, I am The Building Surveyor (the day job) with jacket, clipboard, compact camera and damp meter. The final set are The Sailor, wearing a drysuit and buoyancy aid. After the first few, dry, images I went and sprayed myself in the shower for a bit of verisimilitude (then went back and stood in among a lot of mains-powered flash units!)

These are my shortlist.

And here is the updated set of Avedonians

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One more obvious image to add will be ‘The Friday Night Curry Chef’. Beyond that, things become trickier (The Husband and The Father are defined by reference to other people, not by clothing or props) so I might cheat and stop at a set of six.

However

I put these images forward for peer review on the OCA Discuss forum and on the OCA student Facebook pages, and one of my coursemates, Kate Aston (Kate513940) suggested going in for much closer detail, using only small parts of me and the props, for example this crop from The Saxophonist:

unnamed

This is an idea with potential, and I am going to have to work something up and then decide whether to make a change of direction. I suspect that all images will either be hand(s) or partial faces. The only one that might work with feet would be The Sailor (wearing wetboots). Also some decisions on presentation – will high-contrast mono still be appropriate, or should I do something softer and in colour?

Watch this space.

Assignment 3 – some first drafts

And one man in his time plays many parts. (As You Like It: 2,VII)

I have made a start on Assignment 3, the self-portrait exercise, with three of my ‘roles’, photographer, camera collector and saxophonist. Lighting, camera position and settings will be held constant over the series, so pretty much the only variables will be clothing and props. My idea is to keep it deadpan and to emulate the Richard Avedon ‘nowhere for the subject to hide’ look, with contrasty mono and a plain background.

I am working in a very tight space with three lights. Main light is slightly high (30˚ or thereabouts above my eyeline, and slightly left of centre). Fill light is a big soft box on the floor at my feet. I found I got some nasty shadows on the background wall, so I also placed an open-tube light behind my shoulders to illuminate the wall.

Here are the contact sheets.

The first group of images are pilots to sort out lighting and framing. Framing, in particular is ‘interesting’ because the K-1 does not have a fully reversible screen, so I was using it on a tripod, with the self-timer, on a trial and error basis. I eventually left the framing a bit ‘loose’ so that there was room to tidy it up in the final crop. (I know Avedon used the full frame and printed the film rebates, but he had the luxury of being able to frame each subject precisely.)

After that, I have two sets as ‘the photographer’ (with and without the leather jacket) holding the RB67 as naturally as possible. Although some are posed as if taking a photograph, I eventually did not use them because it looks contrived and may be confused with having taken a mirror selfie. I picked up two other cameras for ‘the camera collector but only took two frames. Finally, I was ‘the saxophonist’. I decided against an ‘action shot’ in favour of holding the instrument in a relaxed way – partly, this was instinct and partly a knowledge (from my pub gig photography) that blowing a wind instrument can distort faces.

I selected these images as a shortlist, all cropped to 5×4 proportions and all similarly framed (belt and upwards). The only Lightroom manipulation has been to open up the shadows (move shadows slider well to the right).

Finally, I made my selections, one for each role and made a contrasty mono conversion in Lightroom (increased clarity and contrast, increased luminance in the flesh tones, general tweaking) which I have saved as a user preset titled “Avedon”

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An idea at last – the diary abandoned

Assignment three is about self-portraits; it says so in the opening sentence, “Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit.” The diary, which I have been agonising over and is probably my main reason for procrastinating over getting back to blogging, is just a tool to identify a way in.

My 11 day’s worth of diary was pretty much a chronicle of events, mostly pretty routine, and with no ‘deep innermost thoughts’. However, on re-reading it, I find that although much of life is routine (banal, to pick up on Garry, my tutor’s, comments) I do play several different roles, depending on where I am and who I am with. Of course, I should have been thinking about this all the time – after all, I introduce myself in the right-hand column of this blog (also on Facebook and elsewhere) as

I am a building surveyor, sailor and photographer, but not necessarily in that order.

To that list, I can add, father, husband, occasional saxophone player, Friday night curry chef …

My way forward into this assignment, with approval from my tutor, is to produce a series of self-portraits showing some of the different roles I play. I see this as a deadpan, if not totally banal (I still find that a pejorative word) series. My face will be the constant, with my roles signified by clothing and props. This might look derivative of Keith Greenhough’s ‘Iron Man‘ images on p73 of the course notes, but I plan to strip it back further. My first thought is to take inspiration from Richard Avedon’s approach to his ‘The Family‘ and ‘In the American West‘ series, contrasty monochrome against a plain white background, with frontal lighting, leaving his subjects nowhere to hide. It will be a digital effort, not large-format (I have the LF camera but focusing and actuation become a problem with selfies).

I had considered making this a self-absented series, still-lifes of the clothing and props but I think that would be a gimmick too far. Similarly with mirror selfies, which are already clichéd and the gimmick would detract from the meaning of the image.

Potential roles, identified from the diary (in order of appearance, not importance) are:

  • Building surveyor (‘the day job’)
  • Photographer
  • Photography student (assuming I can differentiate it from ‘photographer’)
  • Video/DVD watcher (is that a role?)
  • Rotarian (really unsure how to show that)
  • Reader of books (again, is it a role?)
  • Saxophone player (well, I make noises that I like)
  • Cryptic crossword solver
  • Occasional cook (top of cooker only, not oven)
  • Sailor and basic dinghy instructor
  • Wrapping wife’s birthday presents (on the day!)

No guidance or prescription on how many images are wanted in the set. I think 5-6 would be plenty. I will try some test shots during next week.

Masquerades – Trish Morrissey

Trish Morrissey is an Irish-born artist now based in London, who works in photography, video and audio. In the photography projects seen on her website www.trishmorrissey.com she appears as her own model, in work which I would place in the ‘masquerade’ category as she takes the part of other (often named) people.

In a previous posting, I noted her 2005-2007 series ‘Front’ in which Morrissey switches places with a woman in a beach group. It is interesting that media commentary on the series (e.g. O’Hagan 2013 and Phillips 2013) and online magazines (examples here and here) tend to pick on the same image ‘Hayley Coles, June 17th 2006‘, although perhaps unsurprising as it is the only image embedding Morrissey among a non-caucasian family, thereby making the theme of the series obvious in a single image.

In ‘Front‘, Morrissey selects family groups that have made some sort of encampment, or marked space, on a public beach (she tells us in the series statement (Morrissey s.d.) that the work is about borders and boundaries), approaches them and has herself photographed in the place of one of the female members of the group. She exchanges clothes with her subject and takes her place in a ‘family snap’ photograph, with her subject opening the shutter  of a 5×4 view camera. As noted in the series statement, and as quoted by Phillips (2013) the whole process is a 30-minute piece of performance art.

Once they said yes, I set up, which took half an hour. I had to entertain them to keep their attention, and the mood became quite hyper. But it was fun: it had to be fun or why would I do it? (Morrissey quoted by Phillips 2013)

With the possible exception of ‘Hayley Coles‘, viewing a single image in the set is quite unremarkable but in viewing the entire series we realise that Morissey’s face appears as a common factor (the “Where’s Wally” effect again), which causes us to think deeper. Incidentally, we have no information about Hayley Coles’ ethnicity, so maybe the viewer makes an unwarranted assumption (mea culpa as well).

The course notes raise the interesting question, would I agree to taking part in a ‘Front‘ image and if not, why not? I do not know (and it would have to be a family decision); certainly, I would feel very uneasy and that reflects Morrisseys comment that the series is about borders and boundaries. She breaches the implied physical boundary that beach -users place around ‘our spot’ and also the psychological boundary of the family group (Morrissey uses the word ‘cuckoo’ herself). A lot would depend on how entertaining she can be in the half-hour of contact and, as a photographer using 5×4 occasionally myself, I would be interested in her use of the camera.

Another interesting question is whether such a series could be made by a man, and I suspect the answer is no. The approach would go beyond ‘cuckoo’, into ‘lion’ or ‘elephant seal’ territory and might be perceived as an attempt to supplant an alpha male.

Of the other photographic series, ‘The Failed Realist‘ is the only set that I would describe as self-portraiture. Said, in the artist’s statement to be made ‘in collaboration with’ her daughter (then aged 4-5), this is a series of head-shots after the daughter had attempted face-painting with various degrees of success. The series title comes from the psychologist Georges-Henri Luquet’s (1927/2001) description of the developmental phase where the child’s artistic vision exceeds its ability.

In ‘Rose, Irma and the Sandman‘ and ‘Ten People in a Suitcase‘ Morrissey takes the part of real, named people and recreates scenes from (or inspired by) archive photographs. In ‘Seven Years‘, she and her sister (seven years older, hence the series title) recreate the style of family snapshots from the 1970s and 80s. All of these series fall squarely into the ‘masquerades’ category.

Morrissey’s work invites comparison with Nikki S Lee. Both are playing a role for the camera, with the images being shot by an assistant, a collaborator or an innocent bystander. However, there are differences: Lee dons masks and make-up to bolster the illusion, whereas Morrissey (apart from occasional use of wigs) shows us her own face, and Morrissey uses a large-format camera rather than the snapshot cameras preferred by Lee. On a personal level, I prefer the Morrissey images – they give an air of letting the viewer in on the joke.

References

Morrissey, T. (s.d.) Front: statement [online] Available at <http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-front/statement.html&gt; [Accessed 22/10/2017].

O’Hagan, S (2013) The 10 best … photographic self-portraits [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/23/10-best-photographic-self-portraits&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Phillips, S. (2013) Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jan/23/trish-morrissey-best-shot&gt; [Accessed 22/10/2017].

Masquerades – Nikki S Lee

Nikki S Lee is an American performance artist of Korean origin. She uses a camera to record her art, but does not consider herself a photographer (Bright 2011,41). Her typical images are a form of self-portraiture, ‘snapshots’ of herself taken by others with simple point-and-shoot cameras. Of her two major bodies of work, ‘Projects’ is very much a masquerade exercise and ‘Parts’, although apparently more self-referential , is still a performance of sorts. More recently, she has branched into film; ‘AKA Nikki S Lee’ is part documentary and part performance, in which she plays both the documentary-maker and the subject. (reviewed in Kino, 2006 and Davis, s.d.)

‘Parts’ (2002-2005) is the less controversial and easier to describe body of photography. Lee has herself photographed in ‘social snapshot’ situations with different men, prints the image then cuts the man out, leaving just a vestige such as an arm or a hand visible. (slideshow of examples here) Seen individually, these images appear as caricature ‘break-up’ pictures, including the three-sided border which makes it obvious that this is a cut image rather than poor framing. In the AKA film, she gets angry at one exhibition where the borders have been removed before framing in a mistaken attempt to tidy-up the photograph.

When several of the images are viewed together, we see something different. The same face (Lee’s) is matched with differing costumes, make-up and locations and we realise that there is some role-playing (masquerade) going on. Lee tells us (reported by Bright 2011, 41) that these are not break-up pictures but “… show how personal identity is is affected by other people and different kinds of relationships. … You can see that it is one person throughout and that her identity shifts and changes depending on whom she is with”. The use of ‘her’ rather than ‘my’ is significant and suggests that even when interviewed, Lee is role-playing.

‘Projects’ (1997-2001) is a set of interconnected (if only by technique) projects in which Lee adopts a particular group or subculture for a period of weeks or months, attempts to assimilate or blend in, then has herself photographed in persona with group members, by members of the group or passers-by, in the same snapshot aesthetic noted earlier. As before, individual images are unremarkable but viewing multiple images makes the role-play and deeper questions more obvious.

At the surface level, we are tempted to play a version of ‘Where’s Wally’, to identify Lee in each image. Her distinctively oriental features make this easier in groups where there is a racial stereotype (the WASPs of ‘The Yuppie Project’ or the African-Americans of ‘The Hip-Hop Project’ for example) and part of the controversy around her work comes from reviewers dealing with perceived racism (eg. Berger 2001 and Kim 2016)

There are challenges in attempting to fit the group visually. In ‘The Schoolgirl Project’,  going back to Korea helps with facial features but Lee is noticeably older than the group. At the other end of the scale, she had to wear a mask and/or heavy make-up for ‘The Seniors Project‘ (it is reported that the group members ‘thought she was an elderly crackpot and gently humoured her’ (Cotter 1999)). It is her use of blackface in ‘The Hip-Hop Project’ that particularly attracts Kim’s venom.

Any masquerade project (apart from obvious drama in a formal theatrical setting, when we know what to expect) is going to be controversial, with accusations of voyeurism or exploitation. The language used by reviewers is interesting. The more neutral reviewers say little about the process by which Lee joins her groups; however Dalton (2000) who appears generally approving, refers to Lee ‘befriending’ the group, whereas Seamon (2011, reviewing Smith) in a book review says that Lee “… ingratiated herself with various subcultures …”.

The images appear primarily as a comment on the nature and identity of the group she is working with. Group members appear as subjects in the photographs, and Lee has either done her research or spent time assimilating in order to blend in as well as she does. Whether they comment Lee’s own identity is problematic. Clearly she is there, but my own reading is that she is playing a part. Ultimately, these are film stills with Lee as one of the actors.

References

Berger, M. (2001) ‘Picturing whiteness: Nikki S. Lee’s Yuppie Project’. Art Journal 60 (3), pp.54-57.

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now.. revised edn. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.

Cotter, H. (1999) ART IN REVIEW; Nikki S. Lee [online] Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/10/arts/art-in-review-nikki-s-lee.html&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Dalton, J. (2000) ‘Look at Me: Self-Portrait Photography after Cindy Sherman’. Performing Arts Journal 22 (3), pp.47-56.

Davis, B. (s.d.) Cultural Karaoke [online] Available at <http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/davis/davis10-24-06.asp&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Kim, E. (2016) Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects”—And the Ongoing Circulation of Blackface, Brownface in “Art” [online] Available at <http://contemptorary.org/nikki-s-lees-projects-and-the-ongoing-circulation-of-blackface-brownface-in-art/&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Kino, C (2006) Now in Moving Pictures: The Multitudes of Nikki S. Lee [online] Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/arts/design/01kino.html?ex=1317355200&en=ba68cca87c7383c1&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Smith, C. (2011) Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper and Anna Deavere Smith, Durham NC: Duke University Press [reviewed by Seamon, M. in unidentified journal]

Masquerades – Hannah Starkey?

I have put a question mark in the title because it is unclear how Hannah Starkey’s work fits the theme of this part of the course. On p79 of the course notes we are shown an image titled ‘Self-Portait, February 2013’. It appears to be a page-filler and, frankly, it is an odd selection when we are not shown works by the artists (Nikki S Lee, Trish Morrissey, Tracey Moffat) whose relevant works are described in the notes.

Neither is the presented image an obvious self-portrait. We see a pane of glass, probably an art shop window, behind which is an assemblage of curtains, assorted woodwork (easels?) and, in the centre, a painting on a classical theme. We also see reflections of parts of the outdoor scene – tree branches, an indistinct outline of a building and (centrally) a very indistinct outline of the lower body of the photographer. Any reflection of the photographer’s face is lost in the central bright area of the painting.

I have found two other ‘self-portraits’ by Starkey online. They are, similarly, window reflections with an indistinct image of the photographer. This differs from the reflection-selfies of Vivian Maier, for instance, who would generally catch herself sharply and distinctly. Either these images are saying something deep about self-effacement or they are jokes at the expense of the art world (is the emperor clothed or not?)

However, this is a distraction and Starkey’s other work is certainly worth considering in the overall context of a ‘Context and Narrative’ course. Her photographs, all titled “Untitled” plus a date, are carefully posed and constructed images showing women (either paid actresses or members of the public ‘picked up’ locally) in mainly urban settings or intimate spaces, usually in some sort of apparently natural, contemplative pose. I see parallels with Gregory Crewdson (constructed and directed images) and Martin Parr (apparently unguarded moments) but without Parr’s whimsical style. These images are too serious for that. The Tate suggest a parallel with Jeff Wall’s constructed banal scenes (‘banal’ is not necessarily a pejorative term, see my previous posting)

Starkey’s images are haunting and just a little unsettling. Perhaps it is the cinematic style (and I feel the same thing with some of Crewdson’s work) suggesting that this is the last moment of calm in the movie, just before the horror strikes.