Invisible Man – more work on locations

This is an exercise in refining framing on location and exploring lighting.

My first choice of location is the dining room, using a corner of the table, showing bookshelves and enough window to indicate where the light is coming from.

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This was early afternoon on a sunny day. Lighting falls off from left to right (with distance from the window) and shows strong shadows on the camera-right sides of objects.

I then played with placing figures in frame (me, as I was the only available model, holding an iPhone because I am using it as a remote trigger – K1 has a WiFi mode via the Pentax ImageSynch app). I also tried a reduced exposure to get some more detail in the window.

Then, just for fun, I combined them in Photoshop.

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Not perfect. For instance, it needs some work to tone down the window frame and make the outdoor scene a bit more believable. I am not particularly worried about the left-hand figure having his face in shadow – he would become the Invisible Man so his head will be erased anyway. The lighting could be balanced by a big reflector at the right or, in principle, with flash.

Therefore, I spent the evening playing with studio flash. I used a three-point set-up, attempting to emulate the direction of daylight (main light with beauty dish at high level in the corner of the window) plus some fill (fill light with white reflector brolly at the camera position) and a hairlight to separate the right-hand figure from the background shelves (smaller light with snoot). Setup and one result below:

As seen, it is obviously artificial light (curtains being shut is a give-away) but I am confident that I could combine it successfully with natural daylight, subject to tweaking of lighting ratios.

However, I became less happy with the location, which will require considerable set dressing. The scenario I have in mind is a young lady with her invisible or ‘imaginary friend’, so the bookshelves will require replanning and filling with more appropriate books, instead of cameras. A logistical issue and also a potential distraction as I suspect viewers would spend (waste) time on checking out the titles.

I have, therefore, worked up a Plan B in the kitchen. The wide shot was taken at about 2pm, when there is too much direct sunlight through the window. The tighter-framed images were taken at 4:30, when the sun had moved around to just outside the top right corner of the window.

This is the location that I will work with as it can show an informal kitchen tea-party, and the natural lighting at the right time is good without artificial aids. (I will have some reflectors and studio lights available if I need them).

I moved the table and chairs to put them in the right place in frame, and I will have further set-dressing to do. Obviously, the table will need placemats, crockery and cakes. I wondered about a flower arrangement but it would have to be small – the white vase seen in the background was too dominant on the table. Background elements on the worktop will augment my narrative (a ‘young Miss Havisham’ figure with an ‘imaginary friend’ or ghost of a lost love) In particular there will be photographs of both (I have graduation photos) next to the fruit bowl or flower vase in the corner of the worktop.

The shoot will be next Thursday afternoon, with post-production done over Easter and submission to my tutor immediately afterward.

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Archives and Fae Richards

Fae Richards is a 20th-century African-American actress, singer and civil rights activist – fictionally. She, and her equally-fictional archive, was created as a plot device in Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film, The Watermelon Woman (IMDb). The film has layers of plot-within-plot in which the protagonist, Cheryl, (played by Cheryl Dunye who also wrote, directed and produced the film) a video store assistant and aspiring documentary film-maker, is researching the life and times of an actress credited in films only as ‘Watermelon Woman’. This is Fae Richards and (the film version of) Cheryl discovers a remarkably complete archive of photographs and film of her life.

The Fae Richards Photo Archive comprising 78 images, was created by Zoe Leonard, in collaboration with Dunye, to supply the background to the fictional Richards’ life (Wikipedia). What started as a set of film props has subsequently taken on its own life as a gallery exhibition and a book (Lubben). The book is staged as a ‘found notebook’ with distressed photographs, handwriting and captions produced on a manual typewriter (Lubben) to give it authenticity.

The overall Watermelon Woman project has a message and significance, as a response to the suppression and anonymisation of African-American people (particularly women) in 20th century history. As Dunye explains “The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.” (Dunye, quoted by Vaughan). However, I do not see the images as anything more than a movie prop, and I note that Leonard’s Wikipedia entry makes no reference to ‘Fae Richards’ among her other work. Although produced in impressive detail, I question whether ‘the archive’ is very different in type from the closing sequences of Titanic (1997) or Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).

An overtly fictional archive, such as Fae Richards’ points up some of the unconsidered issues surrounding archives in general, such as the FSA archive. While an archive might appear to be objective, we must consider the purpose for which it was collected, and by whom. In the case of the FSA, there was some notorious censorship (the ‘black suns’ created by Stryker’s hole punch); in other archives it might not be known or acknowledged.

The course notes ask, “Do you have any archives that you could have access to? Might you be able to use it for the beginnings of a project? Blog about some ideas that you could come back to some day.”

I have my father’s colour slide collection, mainly family images from 1958 to the mid-1970s, which I digitised in 2003 and distributed to my siblings and cousins on CD. I also selected images for a 2004 ‘family archive’ calendar but did not repeat the exercise in subsequent years. This is a very literal use of an archive and has not been ‘published’ far beyond the circle of participants. It is possible to speculate on the use that Nicky Bird would make of it.

An archive that I had, briefly, was a 1970s photograph album from a works social club (which had been disbanded by the time I received it). Although I had it for prosaic reasons – the building was more relevant than the people for my professional purposes – I did speculate on who these people might be, their relationships and interactions.

The archives of my Rotary club are available to members online (I contributed probably 50% of the photos). An obvious use would be to describe the history of the club. A less-obvious and more subversive use would be a typography of the images, dividing into categories such as ‘grip-and-grin’, ‘holding-the-giant-cheque’ or the more active hands-on involvements. Similarly, I have a lot of photographs of regattas held by my sailing club over the past 10 years.

References

IMDb (undated) The Watermelon Woman (1996) [online] Available at <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118125/?ref_=ttpl_pl_tt&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Lubben, K. (undated) Kristen Lubben on Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye The Fae Richards Photo Archive [online] Available at <https://aperture.org/pbr/kristen-lubben-zoe-leonard-cheryl-dunye-fae-richards-photo-archive/&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Vaughan, S. (undated) Zoe Leonard & Cheryl Dunye [online] Available at <http://www.archivesandcreativepractice.com/zoe-leonard-cheryl-dunye/&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Wikipedia (2018) The Watermelon Woman [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Watermelon_Woman&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Wikipedia (2018) Zoe Leonard [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoe_Leonard&gt; [Accessed 17 March 2018].

Exercise – Question for seller

Nicky Bird’s ‘Question for Seller’ is a conceptual performance art project involving photographs. There is a beginning, a middle and an end; Bird assembled an archive of old photographs, bought by one form of auction (eBay) exhibited and sold in another auction.

Bird works with ‘found’ images to explore the nature of memory, social and personal histories, and deeper questions about our relationship with the past and the value we ascribe to it (Bird s.d.). Describing a photo as ‘found’ is, of course, only a point of view. To their original owners, they are lost, abandoned or discarded.

In ‘Question for Seller’, Bird bought lots of old photographs in eBay auctions, selecting by bidding only on those with low initial prices and no other bids – they were about as unwanted as it is possible to be. She then contacted the seller with the same question

How did you come across the photos and what, if anything, do you know about them?

The answers are collected in a document on her website and range from a brusque “These were from an ordinary purchase. No further information available other than my description on site.” to some detailed and fascinating stories.

The archive was then exhibited, some photos in a mocked-up family album/scrapbook and some fixed to the walls. All were accompanied by text including the purchase price and the seller’s answer. At the end of the exhibition, all lots were auctioned off, live. Part of the process is recorded in a Vimeo clip.

The auction represents the end stage of the project, with the collected archive once again dispersed and by a similar mechanism.

Question for Seller re-situates images in a different context and in so doing allows for a new dialogue to take place. Reflect on the following in your learning log:

Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?

This echoes a question that I sometimes ask myself when viewing exhibitions. Is a 5’x3′ photograph on a gallery wall inherently ‘better’ that the same image as a 5″x3″ enprint in a Boots envelope? The ‘art world’ appears to think so, but I am not convinced.

In the case of ‘Question for Seller’ there is a simple test, comparison of the buying auction price with the selling auction price. There is a disconnect between ‘price’ and ‘value’, but an auction can be considered to offer the best evidence of both. We are not given the full information, but the Vimeo clip shows one lot being sold for £12 that was bought for £3.50, albeit the one with the most interesting history, and Schuman (2007) records that the album was sold for £205.

Where does their meaning derive from?

In general, photographs have a meaning, even if only a description of their content. In the case of these ‘found’ images, the meaning will change as a result of losing their original context; with a family snap, the subject and/or the photographer will be known to most interested viewers (boredom with other people’s snapshots is a cliché) but this changes when viewing previously unknown images in an exhibition. The meaning “This is a couple standing outside a beach hut – look at the archaic costume” takes over from “This is Uncle Fred and Aunt Mabel at Margate in 1920 – that was a great holiday”.

In ‘Question for Seller’, there is a value-added element of meaning, from Bird’s work in collecting the images, the research inherent in asking the question, and in the new relationships and juxtapositions between images resulting from their location in the exhibition.

One aspect that fascinates me is the question of what these photographs are doing on eBay in the first place. Why were they not kept, if valued, or thrown in the bin, if not? Bird and Sharon Boothroyd address the question briefly in their Photoparley conversation (Boothroyd 2013). It seems that there is a real reluctance to throw away memories, even somebody else’s. Personal history has an important rôle, even when it is more history than personal.

When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’?

As noted earlier, it seems that the monetary value (using the economist’s definition of value ‘the amount that a willing buyer is prepared to pay and a willing seller prepared to accept’) of the photographs has increased. It is a moot point whether this is due to (a) different circumstances in the auction (live rather than online auction, different audience) (b) Bird’s value-added input or (c) the fact that they have been exhibited as ‘art’. I suspect a combination of all three.

However, in my view the artistic value derives from being collected and exhibited as an archive, rather than being imbued in the individual images, and that value is lost on dispersal. It would be an interesting exercise to contact the purchasers now, ten years on from the auction, to discover how they now regard their purchase. Are the photographs still valued or are they once again in a attic, like the stereotypical raffia donkey souvenir from Benidorm?>

References

Bird, N. (undated) Nicky Bird: About [online] Available at <https://nickybird.com/about/&gt; [Accessed 14 March 2018].

Boothroyd, S. (2013) Nicky Bird [online] Available at <https://photoparley.wordpress.com/category/nicky-bird/&gt; [Accessed 14 March 2018].

Schuman, A. (2007) Found: Question for Seller [online] Available at <http://seesawmagazine.com/sellerpages/sellerintro.html&gt; [Accessed 14 March 2018].

Unconsidered circles – censorship, archives, dots and black suns

Belfast Exposed was formed in 1983 as a response to perceived censorship of images arising from what were euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. It is an archive of photographs from press, commercial and domestic sources and includes some 14,000 contact sheets. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin were invited to make works based on the archive, which culminated in a book and exhibition in 2011 (Mack s.d.), repeated in 2015 (Belfast Exposed 2015). The book is out of print in its original form but is now available as an ebook.

The work is in two parts. In ‘contacts’ (Broomberg & Chanarin 2011-1) we see contact sheets and individual images marked-up (or just marked) as a result of use and public access over the years. Archivists have marked images as they were used, ordered or recatalogued. Some members of the public have scrawled over their own faces to obliterate them, fearing reprisals for their involvement, which is a form of censorship in its own right. There is an interesting question to be asked, whether censorship is any better or worse for being performed by the ‘participants’ rather than some faceless authority figure.

One of the ‘marks’ that appeared on many contacts was a sticky dot, in various colours. This was semi-random and simply indicated that an image had been selected or approved for some purpose (reverse censorship perhaps) but formed the basis for the second part of the project, ‘dots’. Broomberg and Chanarin peeled back these dots and published, in circular format, what had been hidden behind them. According to the artists,

Each of these fragments – composed by the random gesture of the archivist – offers up a self-contained universe all of its own; a small moment of desire or frustration or thwarted communication that is re-animated here after many years in darkness. (Broomberg & Chanarin)

Another archive marked by small circles is the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documentary project of the 1930s and ’40s. The head of the FSA Historical Section, Roy Stryker would, notoriously ‘kill’ photographs that did not fit the FSA message by removing part of the negative with a hole punch (Bennett 2017) in a overt act of censorship.

This damage, sometimes referred to as a ‘black sun’ (for reasons obvious in the smaller image above) rendered the negative unprintable at the time. Recent advances in software, particularly Photoshop’s content-aware fill facility, mean that some of these images can be rescued if important complex detail has not been lost (Bennett 2017).

strykerpunchfeat

The alternative approach is to collect the censored images into a book, as Bill McDowell has done in ‘Ground’ (Meier 2016). McDowell tells us that the book is “the result of three separate acts of picture making: the original photographer’s deliberate compositional and contextual choices, Roy Stryker’s hole punch, and my recontextualization.” (quoted by Meier).

At one level, the images draw attention to the act of censorship and make us wonder what was off-message and had to be suppressed. At another level, the black circles unify the images and create a new archive with, possibly, a new meaning.

The two sets of ‘circle’ images are opposite treatments; ‘dots’ concentrates on the circles, while ‘Ground’ shows us everything else in the image. However, both archives have similarities in that they show us how people have dealt with troubled times.

References

Belfast Exposed Photography (2015) PAST BELFAST EXCHANGE GALLERY EXHIBITION: PEOPLE IN TROUBLE LAUGHING PUSHED TO THE GROUND [online] Available at <http://www.belfastexposed.org/exhibition/People_in_Trouble_Laughing_Pushed_to_the_Ground&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Bennett, MJ (2017) Countering Stryker’s Punch: Filling the Black Hole with Photoshop and GIMP [online] Available at <https://petapixel.com/2017/07/31/countering-strykers-punch-filling-black-hole-photoshop-gimp/&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Broomberg & Chanarin (2011) PEOPLE IN TROUBLE LAUGHING PUSHED TO THE GROUND (contacts) [online] Available at <http://www.broombergchanarin.com/hometest/#/contacts/&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Broomberg & Chanarin (2011) PEOPLE IN TROUBLE LAUGHING PUSHED TO THE GROUND (dots) [online] Available at <http://www.broombergchanarin.com/hometest/#/kodak-1-1-25-1-1/&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

MACK (undated) Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin:  People In Trouble Laughing Pushed To The Ground [online] Available at <http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/4-People-In-Trouble-Laughing-Pushed-To-The-Ground.html&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Meier, A (2016) Scarred Rejects from the Farm Security Administration’s Great Depression Photos [online] Available at <https://hyperallergic.com/287638/scarred-rejects-from-the-farm-security-administrations-great-depression-photos/&gt; [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Invisible man – first attempt

This is a first attempt at an ‘invisible man’ picture, as a proof-of-concept exercise for assignment 5. The principle is simple; the execution turns out to be rather less so.

Broadly, the technique relies on two main images (one empty setting and one with the subject in position) plus details for infilling. All images were shot with the camera on a tripod and with an identical lighting set-up for ease of compositing. With the two main images layered together, I erased my face and hands from the top layer to reveal background. The tricky part is infilling details such as the inside of the shirt collar. I also found that I had overlooked my hands on the book and where they obscured parts of my shirt, which needed extra details shot.

These are the contact sheets for the first shoot.

… and this is the result.

Invisible man 1

A reasonable first attempt, but I am under no illusions that it will stand close inspection. The back cover of the book is particularly poor – a victim of lack of foresight. However, I have learned a lot about the technique and the next one will be better.

The spectacles are important as the give the only indications of where the man’s head (and face in particular) are. A hat would help the illusion but would not be appropriate indoor wear. Without a face, body posture becomes more important to telling a story.

The assignment image, which will involve integration with other characters, is going to need some careful planning.

Invisible Man – location scouting

The setting for ‘The Invisible Man comes to tea’ will be either a tearoom/teashop or a home dining room. While it could be completely modern, the title suggests something slightly retro. My house, built in 1927 has retro-enough detailing to provide some possible locations.

These are all wide-angle (24mm) views; the final version will be framed a little tighter.

Whichever location is chosen, there will be some set-building (furniture-moving, placing props) involved. Windows face east or west, so natural lighting is possible, subject to filling shadows with reflectors or fill-flash.

The kitchen (maybe a different view, showing sink and cooker) would give an informal setting – perhaps a little more informal than my original concept. The bay window of the dining room could be furnished as a ‘cosy nook’. The lounge, in particular the corner near the fireplace, seems to offer the best all-round possibilities, and the option of a longer viewpoint.

With furnishing in mind, an alternative to a tea-party might be a game of bridge. A folding card table is smaller than any other tables available, so might be a better fit for a compact arrangement.

Assignment 5 – an idea at last

The subconscious mind is a wonderful thing. Mine completes cryptic crosswords for me. If I am stuck on the more difficult clues, I put the crossword away for an hour or two. Often I find that the answers pop out as if they were obvious. Partly this is the result of breaking a circular chain of reasoning and coming to the problem afresh, but partly it is due to my subconscious continuing to work on the problem in the background.

The reason for this introduction is that my subconscious has presented me with an idea for my assignment five.

I have been using the mind-map to explore ideas and approaches. I have the basic ideas that:

  • I want to do something in ‘modern dress’, or with only very slight variations. This removes a non-photographic logistical problem.
  • An indoor location is preferred, to give me better control over climate and lighting.
  • I want to do something slightly surreal, that is not going to be mistaken for a snapshot (I do not have the art-world recognition of a Wall or a Crewdson, who can get away with that sort of thing). I had been thinking of a ‘Borrowers’ or ‘Land of the Giants’ scenario,  playing with the scale of models and settings.
  • I want to experiment with some sort of in-camera or post-production trickery to achieve the surreal effect.

The title that my subconscious has come up with, therefore the idea that I plan to work up, is “The Invisible Man comes to tea”

I have actors in mind, and several options for a location in rooms at home. Creating the invisible man is a post-production issue. It needs images with him present and absent, together with details such as the insides of cuffs, a shirt collar etc.

Watch this space.