Self-reflection for Assignment 5 – Documentary

I felt I showed good technical skill in producing the diptychs because it required patience and practise to get enough tourists taking pictures/selfies in front of the camera at the hotspots. Likewise I felt I showed more patience and paid attention to detail in order to get the framing and poses right for the self-portrait part of each diptych. Lastly making the composites in Photoshop required further patience.

The quality of outcome was good in my opinion. At first the project started out with me just trying out the composite technique as can be seen in the post: Photographs Inspired by Chris Dorley-Brown and Peter Funch but with tourists taking pictures as integral parts to the composites. Then after some correspondence with my fellow student Bryn, it developed into the idea of myself interacting with the tourists retrospectively through pictures. This was then embellished when I realised that I could take similar photographs to that which they had taken from those same spots, further affirming my relationship through pictures. I put this last part together in a scrapbook style which for me resembled the of the kind of scrapbook a typical tourist coming home from holiday would make.

In my opinion the creative aspect of the project was good and I learnt how valuable conceptualisation through shooting photographs and experimenting can be. However, certain aspects of the creativity in terms of creating the composites did initially bother me. I did at times question the ethics of my project in terms of depicting a true-to-life rendition of reality. This was especially true while ‘cutting out’ the tourists from one image and layering them into the composites using layer masks. I used a tablet with virtual pen to make more precise selections while painting in the layer masks. On occasions I had to look closely at the computer screen during this process which made me aware just how much I was making the camera lie and deceiving what was once an indexical relationship. However, I kept coming back to Umberto Eco’s assertion that: ‘the photograph reproduces the conditions of optical perception, but only some of them.’ – (Eco In. Burgin, 1982). Here I was just reducing another of those conditions of optical perception; that of juxtapositions within the frame and it could be argued I was doing so to highlight the perceived uncertainty over the nature of photographic realism nowadays. As Peter Funch (whose technique is very similar, and was a big influence for Assignment 5) puts it in an interview with Gregory Jones while talking about Babel Tales (2006): ‘Everything depicted in Babel Tales is true to life, however, the elements that construct the photographs were taken at different times.’ – (Jones and Funch, 2013). He previously says in the interview: ‘I present them [the pictures in Babel Tales] as documents that aren’t necessarily true. It is for the viewer to decide was is real and what is unreal – it’s not my prerogative.’ – (Jones and Funch, 2013). These comments by Eco and Funch alleviated my preexisting notions that a photograph ‘has’ to appear real. I began to think instead the viewer’s gaze was not predetermined by the nature of the photograph and they could make up their own mind.

I thought it was a documentary project in the sense that it documented parts of life – even though the composites were not indexical to the life the photographs had been made up from. In this manner it was more a topical commentary on tourism and consumer culture where pictures are a commodity which are more and more disconnected from reality. It was less a traditional documentary project where the photographs are an authentic document but it could be argued it still conveyed a message as clearly as traditional photojournalism.

References:

Eco, U. In. Burgin, V. (1982) Thinking About Photography. London: MacMillan.

Jones, G. and Funch, P. (2013). Peter Funch and the Constructed Moment ⋆ In the In-Between. [online] In the In-Between. Available at: https://www.inthein-between.com/peter-funch-and-the-constructed-moment/ [Accessed 10 May 2018].

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Research Into the Practice of Selfie-Taking in Preparation for Assignment 5 – Documentary

Since a large part of my work for Assignment 5 – Documentary revolves around myself documenting people in the act of taking photos but more specifically selfies, I have decided to conduct some research into the ultra-popular phenomenon of selfie-taking. Obviously there are a lot of selfies taken each day, although it was hard to find information quantifying just how many selfies are taken each day, perhaps because of the multitude that are taken. One source claimed 1 million selfies are taken each day: ‘the 1 million odd selfies taken every day across the world (the average millennial is expected to take 25,700 selfies in his or her lifetime)’ – (Walden, 2016). However, this was back in 2016 and is a rough estimate so numbers may have risen since then. In fact in 2014 another article came to the figure ‘Android users send … 93 million “selfies” every day.’ – (Brandt, 2014). These numbers vary wildly but I came to the conclusion that there are a lot of selfies being taken each day. I have also come to realise, while walking around my home city of London that there are a lot of selfies being taken, as well as the fact that London seemed to be a particularly popular place for selfies.

Upon closer inspection, I was able to find statistics that backed this up, showing that London is indeed the the selfie capital of the world. As of 2014, 14.05% of selfies were taken in London. ‘According to an analysis of millions of social media posts by personalized map maker Suggestme, London is the world’s selfie capital.’ – (Richter, 2014). I feel I have been very privileged to live in London and it has come in handy to take advantage of the city’s selfie capital status for the project I have been commencing for Assignment 5 – Documentary. Because so many people visit and take selfies in London it has allowed me to conceptualise through shooting photographs the project described in Final Development for Assignment 5 – Documentary. It will also have allowed me (with the help of some patience) to get shots of many tourists taking selfies in each hotspot, something that wouldn’t have been as possible in other cities.

One thing that did intrigue me about this data which somewhat quantified the popularity of selfie-taking was what drove people to take them so frequently and with so much enthusiasm. Fellow student Bryn had referenced Grand Turismo to me as a suggestion for reading as he knew I was interested in documenting tourism and selfie-taking for Assignment 5. Photographer Stefano Galli was interested in documenting the same phenomenon but in a different style and in the American West instead of London. Galli used certain similar techniques: ‘To best capture the phenomenon of massive tourism, I chose popular destinations, the ones that would allow me to find the big crowds.’ – (Galli, 2018), however his style was more natural and uncontrived than mine. He documented the tourists using the selfie as a commodity rather than experiencing the spaces they visited. One quote I could really relate to since commencing Assignment 5 was: ‘Where the travel photograph was once a memento of a personal experience it has now become a commodity, replacing the experience itself.’ – (The Leica Camera Blog, 2018). This quote in turn made me think back to a remark by Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977) where she states: ‘by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.’ It would seem that the photographs are now more important than the actual visit to the place. The visit to the place takes more of a peripheral backseat to the tourists.

The act of selfie-taking isn’t without controversy. According to Christoforakos and Diefenbach (2017), they state: ‘The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them’ as the title of their exploration into the psychological implications of selfie-taking. I already agreed with this statement but reading through the abstract of the article there were some interesting comments to back this statement up. ‘Taking, posting, and viewing selfies has become a daily habit for many. At the same time, research revealed that selfies often evoke criticism and disrespect, and are associated with non-authenticity and narcissism.’ – (Christoforakos and Diefenbach, 2017). This directly backs up the title of their article. The two parts to this statement were in turn backed up by ‘self-promotion (promoting one’s strength and abilities) and self-disclosure (revealing one’s feelings for earning sympathy) felt especially positive while takings selfies’ – (Christoforakos and Diefenbach, 2017) for the positive side of selfie-taking. Then for the negative side to taking/viewing selfies they found: ‘participants expressed a distanced attitude toward selfies, with stronger agreement for potential negative consequences (threats to self-esteem, illusionary world) than for positive consequences … and a clear preference (82%) for viewing more usual pictures instead of selfies in social media’ – (Christoforakos and Diefenbach, 2017). I thought this was very insightful research as most people would agree there are positive and negative sides to selfie-culture but probably wouldn’t be able to elucidate as clearly as this to why.

References:

Brandt, R. (2014). Google divulges numbers at I/O: 20 billion texts, 93 million selfies and more. [online] Bizjournals.com. Available at: https://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2014/06/25/google-divulges-numbers-at-i-o-20-billion-texts-93.html [Accessed 13 May 2018].

Christoforakos, L. and Diefenbach, S. (2017). The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them. [online] Frontiers in Psychology. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00007/full#B8 [Accessed 13 May 2018].

Galli, S. (2018). Grand Turismo. [online] Stefanogalli.com. Available at: http://stefanogalli.com/albums/grand-turismo/ [Accessed 13 May 2018].

Richter, F. (2014). Infographic: London Is the World’s Selfie Capital. [online] Statista Infographics. Available at: https://www.statista.com/chart/2268/most-popular-cities-for-selfies/ [Accessed 13 May 2018].

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 13.

The Leica Camera Blog. (2018). Grand Turismo – The Leica Camera Blog. [online] Available at: http://blog.leica-camera.com/2018/05/04/grand-turismo/?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=Leica_MD [Accessed 13 May 2018].

Walden, C. (2016). We take 1 million selfies every day – but what are they doing to our brains?. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/we-take-1-million-selfies-every-day—but-what-are-they-doing-to/ [Accessed 13 May 2018].

Final Development for Assignment 5 – Documentary

In the end I have decided against my idea as proposed in Further Development of Assignment 5 – Documentary where I interacted directly with the tourists as I was finding it very stressful asking tourists who were complete strangers whether I could take their picture. I did come up with a method for asking the tourists and introducing myself to them which helped. However, ultimately I felt I was forcing the issue and I envisaged I would be more comfortable with something less direct.

© Simon Roberts (2016) Sight Sacralization
© Simon Roberts (2016) Sight Sacralization

I had already shot one photograph using a less direct method of interaction with the tourists which helped me to make up my mind. Also after conducting more research/looking back on old research on photographers who tackle the subject of tourism I realised this method not only suited me better but also had a good rhetoric behind it. For example I looked back at some research I had conducted on the work of Simon Roberts. Although the main subject of the post was his project We English (2008), I extended this research in the latter part of the post to Sight Sacralization (2016). I was glad I had done this because it enabled me by looking back at this to renew my interest in the performance aspect that tourists (unconsciously or otherwise) undertake while taking pictures/selfies. Another, more recent post looking at the work of Peter Funch in particular was very inspiring retrospectively too.

© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane
© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane

The method I would be working in for this new direction for Assignment 5 consisted of myself photographing the tourists photographing the landmarks/hotspots but in a manner that made the tourists become as much of a spectacle as the landmarks. To do this I would create composites of multiple images with the same framing, in the style of Peter Funch. The final composites would be composed in such a way that it was obvious picture/selfie taking was the main activity occurring at these hotspots.

The next part to my assignment, which would give the project a much more personal element, was brought about by a discussion with my fellow student Bryn in which I described my struggles conceptualising my fifth assignment to him. He had seen my post on Peter Funch and suggested: ‘I wondered if you had thought about being the performer in front of the camera. Maybe visiting these tourist hotspots at a quiet time. Set up the camera as an interval shot and perform all the selfie and tourist poses before compositing it into a single image.’ While I had already thought of compositing tourists into single images, I hadn’t thought of doing something similar with myself! I took this suggestion on board and came up with a hybrid plan. Firstly I would carry out the assignment as described in my method above and then I would plan to return to the hotspots, retracing the tourists’ footsteps by posing similarly to how they posed in the same scene except all the poses would be performed by me in the follow-up photographs. I would do this early in the morning (when there were no tourists around). Finally I would be looking to combine the two types of photographs for each scene into a diptych which I could see working well together.

References:

Funch, P. (2006) Babel Tales. [online] peterfunch.com. Available at: http://peterfunch.com/works/babeltales/ [Accessed 30/4/2018].

Roberts, S. (2007-2008). We English. [online] Simoncroberts.com. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/we-english/ [Accessed 30/4/2018].

Roberts, S. (2016). Sight Sacralization. [online] Simoncroberts.com. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/sight-sacralization/ [Accessed 30/4/2018].

Further Development of Assignment 5 – Documentary

I have since contacted my tutor regarding my ideas for Assignment 5 as outlined in the post: Development of Assignment 5 – Documentary

To recap my ideas were varied and strongly conceptualised without having much to back them up. They consisted of: a parody on tourists where I acted the role of a spoof tourist, first-person perspective through the viewfinder of a smartphone (captured with the outer framing of my DSLR), photographing my local area from the standpoint of a tourist and lastly highlighting the repetitive nature of tourist activity in the hotspots they frequent. I posed the following questions to my tutor:

Me: Could you offer an opinion on whether parodies are usually hard to pull off and if you think applying a crude strategy for photographing the tourists or in mimicry of tourists works?

My tutor responded quite succinctly with the following comments:

Tutor: I would say, don’t over conceptualise, start to shoot it because the process of working is the best place for new ideas to form. Don’t try to stick to the original plan, for me that’s not art, it’s conformity. Go for subtlety over crudity every time. Parody of course is great, and it often appears in the edit, Parr’s work can be very subtle in this respect, sometimes so subtle its not there at all! The first person can also be ‘authored’, it doesn’t have to be subjective.

I listened to my tutor’s advice and started shooting but also I responded back to let him know how it was developing. Since I had been to visit Simon Roberts’ exhibition Merrie Albion on 10/3/2018, I had become aware of the act of performance in the landscape. I had begun wondering whether it was possible to do this with the subject of tourism but with an aesthetic style distinct from Roberts’s work. I was also influenced by a fellow student’s post on Richard Long’s art A Line made by Walking (1964) which I mentioned also. I was interested in this post because of the performance aspect of Long’s work with the photograph being used as a way to record it ( and incidentally the only record left of it):

© Richard Long (1967) A Line Made by Walking
© Richard Long (1967) A Line Made by Walking

Me: Thanks that did help a lot and I have since started shooting photographs. One plan I’ve come up with after shooting and reading up about artists and photography as well is now my Plan A although I have another Plan B in case is as follows: My current plan is to be a more active kind of performer in the photo by interacting with the tourists at the hotspots. I’ve tried the idea out (once) and it works in my opinion. I firstly take a self-portrait, then wander around talking to different tourists with the camera set on an intervalometer (with the exact same framing as the self-portrait), asking them if I can photograph them. Finally if they say yes I take their portrait in the same position as where I took the initial self-portrait (and with the same framing). I’m then left with a triptych of photos for each of the five tourist hotspots I will visit. It was influenced by a fellow student’s post on Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1964), where Long’s trace of his performance is left on the photograph, whereas mine is ‘in’ the photograph(s). The problems I’m experiencing is a lot of the tourists or passers-by say no and it affects my confidence and the rainy weather a bit. However, I feel it is worth persisting and I have attached a series of photographs from one location so you can see how I’m getting on.

The alignment in position of myself in the self-portrait and the portrait of the tourist is not very good so I’ll make sure it is better in the future. For now I like this concept and I will try it out more while I would look forward to your response hearing whether you think this functions well as a documentary concept. The documentary aspect of it is that it is a series of documents of a scene with the same framing. However, because of my interventions within the scene, an effect (the portrait) is caused and this is also evident within the photographic triptych. For me this shows a kind of behind the scenes in front of the camera and intersects the viewer’s usual gaze. For the second part of the triptych (me interacting with the tourists section), I was thinking of either choosing the best photograph or scaling down the photographs for this section and putting them into a grid the same size as the other two photographs for the triptych. My Plan B is to take photographs of tourists and the way they behave but with a more snapshot aesthetic, mirroring their style of photography and gaze on the places they visit.

References:

Davies, B. (2018). Research: Forest, Field & Sky – Art out of Nature. [online] Available at: https://bryn515919.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/research-forest-field-sky-art-out-of-nature/ [Accessed 30/4/2018].

Simon Roberts – Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island [Exhibition] 19 Jan – 10 Mar 2018. Flowers Gallery, London Kingsland Road.

Development of Assignment 5 – Documentary

I have been preparing for Assignment 5 by reading the brief and making a mind map as suggested while reading Behind the Image – (Fox and Caruana, 2012). I found this experience extremely useful in formulating ideas and structuring which were the most important issues to consider surrounding the project.

Mind Map Created for Assignment 5
Mind Map Created for Assignment 5

My basic idea I arrived at was I would be taking a spoof tourist role, documenting my experience in the city from the perspective of a tourist in London, with myself falling for the usual tourist traps and hotspots/landmarks that a usual tourist would but with twists in the photos used to document this act. The twists would be present in order for the viewer to be able to discern it was a spoof tourist role I was taking. The problem I could foresee with this was getting the spoof aspect to be obvious enough that the viewer could discern this was a parody.

I have felt sometimes my work when it is formed from theoretical ideas to practical photographs lacks subtlety. I would like to veer away from this trend but I’ve found it really hard to do for the conceptualisation of this project, perhaps because tourism and photography are intrinsically linked and tourism has many crude traits. One solution to this problem would be to embrace the crudeness although photographers like Martin Parr with Small World (Parr, 1995) have already thought of this. My approaches include photographing with my main camera through the ‘viewfinder’ of my smartphone the shots a tourist might take. This introduces a (crude) first-person perspective to my photographs, is it subjective though? Also if I was in the first-person would I mimic being a tourist or a voyeur of tourists, i.e. am I looking through a viewfinder that is first or third person and simulating the experience or observing the experience?

© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos (1990) ITALY. Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From 'Small World'
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos (1990) ITALY. Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From ‘Small World’

Another approach, in order to negate the difficulty of just imitating Martin Parr etc and photographing tourists in their natural habitat, would be to photograph my local area from the standpoint of a tourist, embracing the vernacular of the tourist aesthetic to make it obvious I’m a tourist. However, I could perhaps offer insight into some of the less obvious spaces of my local area. The difficulty with this is that most of the tourist photos I see are selfies and achieving a series of shots where the selfie doesn’t just look like someone taking a usual selfie is challenging.

I looked back at why it was I wanted to take the role of the spoof tourist and one reason was the repetitive nature of the tourist activity really interests me; the fact that there are loads of tourists but often they partake in the same or similar experiences. Therefore I considered doing the same-ish shot of a tourist taking a picture of a landmark but with a different tourist each time multiple times. Then do this with a set of the most famous landmarks which would explore the souvenir of the experience the average tourist often feels they want to take away with them also.

References:

Caruana, N. and Fox, A. (2012). Behind the Image. 1st ed. Lausanne: AVA Publishing, pp.28-29.

Parr, M. (1995). Small World – Magnum Photos. [online] Pro.magnumphotos.com. Available at: http://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53G7RT3 [Accessed 29 Apr. 2018].

Liz Wells – Photography: A Critical Introduction

I enjoyed reading Liz Wells’ (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction, particularly the first section: Thinking About Photography. This was because it introduced many complex ideas and elaborated on them, without becoming too convoluted. On the other hand, understandably the book became hard to read as it began to delve into many specific debates concerning photography. While I got the reason for this, it would have been nice if the book had remained at a consistent level of readability. Therefore I decided to comment only on the first section as this was the area of the book I gained the most from.

The Photograph as Document

The first area that captured my interest was the part The Photograph as Document where Wells talks in depth and quite thought-provokingly about photographs’ relation to reality. Because of their indexical properties photographs retain a sense of authenticity. Umberto Eco In. Burgin, V. (1982) ‘has commented that the photograph reproduces the conditions of optical perception, but only some of them.’ Eco indicates that although photographs are iconic to their source, they only share some of the characteristics of optical perception associated with seeing.

Some photographers break down this notion of realism associated with photography in their work. For example Peter Funch produces a composite of a scene (with the same framing and therefore remaining a realistic representation) but overlays the scene with different people who appeared in that scene over a period of days or even weeks. This interrupts the indexical properties of the photograph because things are changing in the image world that didn’t change in the real world. All the while Funch plays with our notion of authenticity as the photograph at first glance often seems realistic. Looking closer it becomes obvious that the people overlaid in the scene are too similar to one another in terms of clothing/activity and that the scene is not a realistic rendition after all. Yet because of the established aesthetic conventions employed (landscape compositions), the viewer has to question the authenticity of each photograph. This I believe is where ethics become important.

© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane
© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane

Clearly the photographs produced by Funch do not represent reality as we know it; rather a kind of satire of it. However, they do document the people who passed through particular scene albeit at different times. The difference then between it being an alternate reality and realistic is the juxtaposition of the various people in the scene with each other. Traditional photojournalists would probably argue on the ethics side that such photographs tamper with the real and are not a ‘true’ representation of a time that has passed as the juxtapositions of the people have changed. They would have a strong case although, as noted earlier, Eco states that only some of the conditions of optical perception are reproduced. Funch has just reduced another of these conditions, perhaps to highlight this disparity of realism in photography. On the other side of the ethical fence artists might appreciate this reduction of the conditions of optical perception as it allows not only the interesting juxtapositions of people but brings into question some of the authority traditional photojournalism has in photography.

Wells acknowledges this kind of debate by attributing it to the realm of digital manipulation (I would assume Funch shot the images contributing towards the composites on a digital camera). ‘in recent years, developments in computer-based image production and the possibilities of digitisation and reworking of the photographic image have increasingly called into question the idea of documentary realism.’ – (Wells, 2009 – pp. 19). What was taken for granted in the past as truth – a photographic representation of reality – is according to Wells increasingly questioned because of ‘digitisation and reworking of the photographic image’. However, she does also allude that: ‘in everyday parlance, photographs are still viewed as realistic.’ – (Wells, 2009 – pp. 19).

The Postmodern

I have struggled with the concept of postmodernism in general but reading the section The Postmodern by Wells (2009) – pp. 21-24, I felt I understood much better the crux of its debate. Instead of there being grand, singular works of art, constructed by ‘seers’ of photography with a unique vision for their own work, photography has increasingly become saturated and so originality has been consumed. This has been brought about not only by the ubiquity nowadays of photographs but because the way we see the world (through communications) has become made up by simulacra – copies without originals. I did some research into Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard (1981) where I heard about the term simulacra and used the concept in my second assignment – Ephemerality of the Image.

Because of this it would seem there are a few negative aspects to postmodernism as Wells notes: ‘in the world of the simulacrum what is called into question is the originality of authorship, the uniqueness of the art object and the nature of self-expression.’ – (Wells, 2009 – pp. 23). However, this does not have to be the case as photographers have found ways round this loss of originality. For some like Cindy Sherman with Film Stills (1977-79), it is an opportunity to use traditional, accepted forms of media like 1950/60s Hollywood movies as a base and play upon the viewer’s gaze. As the viewer looks at seemingly authentic documents, interesting narratives are produced when the type of media (is it a photograph or a frame from a movie?) is juxtaposed with its content.

© Cindy Sherman (1979) Untitled Film Still #48
© Cindy Sherman (1979) Untitled Film Still #48

For other artists, they can use the transient nature of mutable forms like photography to experiment with new methods of vision, brought out by technological advancements like digitisation of the image. One example of this would be Joan Fontcuberta with his Orogenesis (2002-2005) series. Here he uses completely computer-generated images. These were created by inputting ‘visual data for contained in famous paintings or pictures of different parts of his anatomy’ – (Fontcuberta and Feustel, 2010), instead of the cartographical information the 3d renderers usually receive. This produced images that look a lot like photographs but ‘The results are these “landscapes without memory.”’ – (Fontcuberta and Feustel, 2010). This plays upon our notions of reality and truthfulness by utilising new technologies.

© Joan Fontcuberta (2002) Orogenesis Pollock
© Joan Fontcuberta (2002) Orogenesis Pollock

References:

Eco, U. In. Burgin, V. (1982) Thinking About Photography. London: MacMillan.

Fontcuberta, J. and Feustel, M. (2010). Interview: Joan Fontcuberta, Landscapes without memory. [online] Marc Feustel. Available at: http://www.marcfeustel.com/eyecurious/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

Wells, L. (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp.11-64.

Simon Roberts – Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island – Study Visit – 10/3/2018

I took it upon myself to make a study visit on 10th March 2018 to see Simon Roberts’ Merrie Albion exhibition on the last day it was open! I am glad I did because it made me realise a few things about Roberts’ approach (by seeing his massive prints in person) that I hadn’t completely grasped when I wrote a post about We English a while ago.

Merrie Albion - Landscape Studies of a Small Island Exhibition
Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island Exhibition

The main thing I came away with was that Roberts doesn’t just choose any random subject and photograph it from above. Invariably he chooses events to document people interacting with the British landscape and obviously feels it is more effective to adopt an elevated position in the majority of his viewpoints of such events. I would have to agree that his approach in choosing a high vantage point works for his subject. Viewing his beautiful and consistently huge prints in person was a rewarding experience. This was because it was appreciable the amount of skill that went into taking the photographs in the first place (on a large format 5×4 camera) but also the print quality rendered lots of detail and pleasing colours. More importantly however I could take in the scene from a perspective which allowed me to see relationships between the different people but also juxtaposed with the setting they inhabit.

An Old Photograph Taken from a High Viewpoint But with No Real Subject or Event Taking Place
An Old Photograph Taken from a High Viewpoint But with No Real Subject or Event Taking Place

If Robert’s work didn’t concentrate on events in the landscape would it be as effective? I wouldn’t say so for the reason it would still look nice but it would become more incidental and the tableaus wouldn’t have as much meaning. While this might seem pretty obvious what I am trying to get at is that this is a niche that Roberts’ has found and used to his advantage very well.  If I were to imitate Roberts’ work in my own it would have plenty of meaning and pleasing aesthetics but the style is quite rigid and I couldn’t foresee much different I could do to make it my own. However, by looking at his work on the study visit I started to wonder about how the people in the scenes looked almost like they were part of a performance. It might be possible to play upon the performance aspect of his work in certain ways.

One way I could envisage this working would be to choreograph some kind of (random, not yet an event) performance in front of the camera and have the camera be set up at eye level (unlike Roberts’ approach). The reasoning for the camera being set up at eye level rather than from a higher viewpoint would be in order to subvert the fact that the performance isn’t happening naturally anymore; it’s being choreographed. One example of a choreographed-based performance I could imagine occurring in front of the camera would be myself moving around in front of the camera (while it is set on a tripod and an interval timer) and perhaps interacting with people in the vicinity. This kind of performance intersects the usual gaze of the photographer being behind the camera which is documenting the scene in front of it.

© Simon Roberts (2008) - Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 2008
© Simon Roberts (2008) – Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 2008

Therefore by visiting Simon Roberts’ exhibition on the very last day it was open I have been able to find a new idea that differs in many ways from his style of photography but yet shares one key feature; that of performance in the landscape. Admittedly I am yet to try out this idea but I will endeavour to do so and see how it pans out.

References:

Simon Roberts – Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island [Exhibition] 19 Jan – 10 Mar 2018. Flowers Gallery, London Kingsland Road.