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].

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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.

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.

Reflections on Simon Roberts’ Project: We English

Simon Roberts strikes me as a photographer first, and a bit of a shrewd business man second. I saw nothing wrong with this – images are for sharing; if he didn’t commit to the business side of things his photographs would be shared less so it is just a means to an end (while at the same time providing himself and his family wth an income). He applies his business sense by marketing and publicising his upcoming project/book arduously; thereby increasing the chances it will sell well. He also employs clever strategies like creating a dedicated, dynamic website for the project which changes and is added to according to how the project is panning out a the time. Besides the (80%) business side of things, I have come across Roberts’ work before and I feel his (20%) photographic work is very technically sound and still creates a message.

Amerta Movement Workshop, Avebury Henge, Wiltshire, 2nd June 2008 - We English - Simon Roberts
Amerta Movement Workshop, Avebury Henge, Wiltshire, 2nd June 2008 – We English – Simon Roberts

In We English for example, he utilises a predominantly high viewpoint and concepts like: ‘he decided people should occupy no more than one third of the frame’ – (Houghton, 2009), presumably to aid narrative in his work where: ‘Such an image announces itself as a tableau, a site where a compressed narrative can bloom across the frame’ – (Houghton, 2009). This approach works in my opinion because it is almost as if the viewer has to make the narrative up for themselves from the people in the third of the frame and their relationship with the surrounding landscape.

One possible narrative Roberts might be trying to suggest in at least some of his photographs for We English is that the idealised, romantic picturesque of the past views has remained for the most part. The views might be changing (largely because of the influx of people evident in the photographs Roberts takes) but they are still ‘good enough’ to attract the tourists to their countryside in large numbers. This influx paradoxically makes the views less attractive, while on the other hand displays the views popularity.

Lingmell Fell, Wasdale Valley, Cumbria, 22nd August 2008 - We English - Simon Roberts
Lingmell Fell, Wasdale Valley, Cumbria, 22nd August 2008 – We English – Simon Roberts

One point Stephen Daniels eloquently highlights in his companion essay for We English: The English Outdoors – (Daniels, 2010) is:

While the presence of other excursionists in these pictures is often only implied or at any rate discreet, some artists addressed the popular encounter with landscape, in crowded scenes, sometimes expressly theatrical ones, in which the landscape is an arena of performance and narrative.

Roberts with We English, according to my observations certainly doesn’t back away from photographing people when he sees them in the English countryside and in fact even makes a feature of them, similar to Daniels’ aforementioned quote from The English Outdoors. I would say he goes a step further when he photographs people at famous tourist sites in Switzerland with Sight Sacralization: (Re)framing Switzerland – (Roberts, 2016). Here he definitely concentrates on the relationship between land and people and makes a fairly strong argument I feel that the act of tourists visiting popular tourist sites is a performance in itself and takes almost more significance than the landscape which is the cause for their activities such as selfies. I found this work very absorbing and clever in making a tourist site (which nowadays is often not aesthetically-pleasing) something quite beautiful at times and with a powerful narrative holding the project together.

References:

Daniels, S. (2010). The English Outdoors. [online] Simoncroberts.com. Available at: http://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/We_English-Stephen_Daniels_Essay.pdf [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

Houghton, M. (2009). Foto8 Issue 25. [online] issuu. Available at: https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/issue25 [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

Roberts, S. (2008). We English. [online] Simoncroberts.com. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/we-english/#PHOTO_0 [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

Roberts, S. (2016). Sight Sacralization. [online] Simoncroberts.com. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/sight-sacralization/#PHOTO_0 [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].