Self-portrait exercise – submission and reflection

After spending far too much time ‘stalled’ in Part 3, Assignment Three the self-portrait exercise is now completed and ready to go off to my tutor. This is the final image set.

The changes from the images presented previously are the use of the dodge tool to eliminate the dark patch of background at the top left of each image and (of course) adding the text caption. I chose a rounded version of Arial font as being an appropriate balance between formality and informality (artificial handwriting fonts such as Comic Sans do not ‘work’ for me) and it is a font that does not draw attention to itself and away from the image.

Here are the contact sheets (submitted versions are marked up in manuscript)

… and here are the assignment notes

Reflection against assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills

Again, I am generally happy with my technical and visual skills. This was an interesting exercise in using studio lighting without being able to see how the light falls. Assessment and adjustments were made on viewing the results on the camera back screen. Post-processing was appropriate to the effect that I wanted.

Quality of outcome

The images fulfil both the project brief and my personal brief. I believe the basic idea (Shakespeare’s “one man in his time plays many parts”) is presented clearly and coherently.

Creativity

Tricky. The basic idea has been done before (but then how many haven’t?) and the style is modelled on well-known images. However, I had to work out my own lighting and camera styles (owning neither an 8×10 nor a big north-lit studio)

Self-portraiture is a new area for me, a bit outside the comfort zone. I am not particularly uncomfortable on the opposite side of somebody else’s camera, but the exercise felt self-indulgent.

As always, the question of ‘personal voice’ is one for the viewer.

Context

Mixed. The diary part of the exercise generated considerable self-reflection but the subject, by its nature (me) did not require a great deal of research. Similarly, I did not do a great deal of research on alternative treatments. Although there was no ‘light-bulb moment’ I have to say that the Avedon influence suggested itself to me very early and was self-evidently (to me at least) the right way to go.

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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.

‘Two Sides …’ Submission and Reflection

I have now submitted Assignment 1 (under the title ‘Two Seats, Two Views’) and look forward to my tutor’s feedback. My assignment notes are here.

The images are in two sets, intended to be read as pairs. In each case, the driver’s-eye and passenger’s-eye view are as near simultaneous as I could manage. For this posting, they are seen side-by-side. When I submit the assignment for assessment, they will be mounted back-to-back. This means that the corresponding viewpoints are inextricably linked but it will not be possible to see them both at the same time, which is true of the car journey as well. The images are presented in the order encountered on the journey, but there is no set order for viewing them.

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Reflection against assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills

I am generally happy with my technical and visual skills. I used appropriate camera techniques and all images are correctly exposed and well composed. I have an issue with the automatic focus of the driver-view camera; despite setting up for manual focus (and a hyperfocal distance) it defaulted to automatic and was inconsistent between focusing on the road and the interior of the car.

Quality of outcome

The images fulfil the brief, showing two viewpoints of the same narrative. My wife (the driver) saw the passenger-view images and spontaneously commented that she had not seen any of the things depicted during the drive.

I believe that my communication of my concepts, ideas and inspiration has been reasonably effective.

Creativity

As ever, my bête noir. I am aware that coursemates have produced more imaginative, or more socially-aware, work. Somewhere between ‘satisfactory’ and ‘competent’.

Context

I am reasonably happy with my level of self-reflection and research. I considered alternative responses to the brief before settling on my chosen project. I found some appropriate and relevant work for inspiration and applied critical thinking to determine which parts to take and which to leave – rather than slavishly following.

‘Two Sides …’ – first edit

After deleting the worst of the unsharp images and those interrupted by foreground, I was left with 152 passenger-view images. My long-list selection cut that down to 60, as seen in these contact sheets.

I have short-listed down to 14 images, which I have laser-proofed and will now spend a few days living with, shuffling, staring at and generally agonising over to select 6 or 7 for assignment submission. I am looking for images that show the environment that we are passing through, but detail that the driver has no chance to take in.

Two of my favourite images (the Headcorn tea room and the man selling Mother’s Day flowers) are unsharp, so will be early casualties of the cull. For the rest, I am looking for a balance between detail and wide views, town and country.

When I showed this set to my wife (who was the driver) she said that, other than the man selling flowers, she had not seen any of the things in the images. This is a nice confirmation that the basic concept of the exercise is sound.

The drivers-viewpoint images will be easier to select, given that framing and basic composition are identical through that set. I will look for the images taken closest to the same time as the selected passenger-view.

‘Two Sides …’ – doing it for real

This weekend saw the first attempt at the ‘two sides of a car journey’ concept. This was a trip from Maidstone, south through the Weald and onto Romney Marsh, with a variety of scenery. The driver’s-eye images were taken with a fixed camera, using a monopod, plenty of string and a remote control.

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With a focal length of 28mm (full-frame equivalent) it was possible to include the top and bottom edges of the windscreen and both lower corners, to follow Lee Friedlander’s ‘America by Car’ series framing. This resulted in rather too much of the car interior showing, so I have cropped the image and also made a moderately contrasty mono conversion in order to emulate Friedlander’s look. One refinement to consider is colour-popping the things that the driver should be paying attention to (traffic lights, signs etc.)

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I operated the remote control from the passenger seat and also took the passenger-view images, mainly through the left side window. It was not as easy as first thought because of practical issues of anticipation, and fast moving objects fairly close to camera, moving side-to-side in frame. In rural areas, I was frequently photo-bombed by hedges.

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While this is reminiscent of some of Elaine Mayes’ ‘Autolandscapes’, I wanted to find better scenery and/or some things that a passenger could focus on, similar to Steve Fitch’s images. My intention is to leave the passenger-view images in colour.

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The next stage is editing. With about 150 images in each set, I hope to find six from each. Also, ideally I want to match pairs to show driver and passenger views from the same place. It is possible in principle, although I may have to exercise a little artistic licence.

‘Two Sides …’ – Research and some decisions

With a self-imposed deadline of the end of March approaching, it is time to make some decisions. The most important is the decision to go forward with the ‘two views of a car journey’ idea. The other two ideas were rejected for the following reasons:

‘Mugshots and portraits’. Producing the ‘mugshot’ images would be a contrived exercise. If my sitters had police mugshots then (a) they are not likely to tell me and (b) I would not have access to them anyway. Therefore, I would have to fake something up in the studio and the whole assignment would be a comparison between two different styles of studio shooting.

‘Glamorous skin and oily workings of a car’ fails because it would comprise essentially similar close-up techniques in both sets.

The car journey has the advantage of genuinely showing two different viewpoints, and there is also the possibility of applying different techniques to the two sets – of which more in a future posting.

I have started some research into photographers who have made ‘road trip’ photography. A suggestion from my tutor, Garry, was to contrast Lee Friedlander’s approach with Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s approach, so let’s start with them.

Lee Friedlander

Friedlander’s 2010 exhibition ‘America by Car’ follows a road-trip format with the conceit that images are shot from within the car, using the windows and mirrors as frames. All images are fairly contrasty monochrome and have good depth of field, allowing the car parts to be rendered as sharply as the exterior view. There is good inspiration here, but my versions would have some differences. First, of the images I have seen, there are at least as many shot through the side windows as through the screen; for the driver’s-eye view (which I think this style suits) I would mostly be looking through the windscreen. Second, my impression is that most of these images have been taken with the car parked; I need to be shooting from a moving car, otherwise what is the point? (If the car is parked, both driver and passenger will get out to view the surroundings)

Philip-Lorca di Corcia

DiCorcia appears to be best-known for his series of carefully-staged and lit documentary-style tableaux such as ‘Hustlers’ (gay prostitutes) and ‘East of Eden’ (post-apocalypse), neither of which will be a good fit with my intentions. According to MoMA (2017), diCorcia has ‘influenced a generation of photographers who work with controlled situations and semi-anonymous portrait subjects’ an aspect that I will return later in my studies (either in C&N or in Identity and Place)

He also practices a form of street photography but, rather than ambient light grab-shots he sets up his camera and pre-arranges flashes to give an artificial and frozen look.

The technique will not fit with what I intend to do, but it is worth noting that (in town, at least) the passenger view is an opportunity for some street photography.

William Eggleston

I include Eggleston primarily for this image, which I saw at his National Portrait Gallery exhibition in 2016. I was not impressed with it as a portrait, but it makes an interesting ‘road trip’ image. Not much can be seen through the windscreen and the notional subject (Dennis Hopper) is unsharp. Eggleston has focused on the the dashboard and instruments, which reminds me that the driver will spend some time paying attention to instruments and controls – which must be the subject of at least one of my ‘driver-view’ images.

Various ‘Road Trip’ photographers

A Google search on ‘road trip photography’ brings up some lists (example1 example2) of photographers who use the genre, including Jeff Luker, Nic Hance McElroy and Venetia Dearden. In the main, however, they use the road trip as a hook for travel or landscape photography. The photographer is out of the car and, often, neither the car nor the road is featured.

Second-generation surfing from the Google results brought up a page about a 2013 exhibition, ‘Landscapes in Passing’ (Gan 2013) which introduces two interesting photographers:

Elaine Mayes

Mayes’ series ‘Autolandscapes’ is based on a car journey from California to Massachusetts, taking a photograph through the window at each change of landscape. It includes other vehicles in traffic jams, open spaces and some motion-blurred close views (similar to mine that I had regarded as unsuccessful). Of course, the American road experience is rather different from the British but the series is a useful ‘proof of concept’.

Steve Fitch

The exhibition included Fitch’s series ‘Diesels and Dinosaurs’ but there are several of his later series, such as ‘Western Landscapes’ and ‘Vernacular Assemblages’ that deal with rather quirky things (mainly advertising signs) seen at the American roadside. Again, the British experience will be different, but we do have our share of roadside advertising, which is worth looking for as a subject.

The exercise has been useful. I am reasonably clear on my driver’s view images, although a strict Friedlander approach may be unsuccessful because it would be dangerous to get into the driver’s eyeline. Having studied diCorcia and Fitch, I will expand my vision of the passenger view from simple scenics to street scenes and advertising signs. I suspect that I will not get what I need from a single trip.

References

Gan, V. (2013). Landscape Through a Car Window, Darkly. [online] Smithsonian. Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/landscape-through-a-car-window-darkly-22480025/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].

The Museum of Modern Art. (2017). Philip-Lorca diCorcia | MoMA. [online] Available at: https://www.moma.org/artists/7027?locale=en&page=1&direction= [Accessed 14 Mar. 2017].

Whitney.org. (2010). Lee Friedlander: America By Car | Whitney Museum of American Art. [online] Available at: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/LeeFriedlander [Accessed 12 Mar. 2017].