Study Visit – Dayanita Singh

MCXC wee

Beneath the Southbank.

I saw a lot of photography on Saturday.

I went to London for my second study visit with the OCA, to see ‘Go Away Closer’ by Dayanita Singh at the Southbank’s Hayward Gallery. Making the most of the trip, and feeling like the wide-eyed boy from the sticks, I planned to see the Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity shows at the Photographer’s Gallery and the Foundling Museum, and Leicestershire by Mitra Tabrizian at Bankside. I’ll write more about each as I read, reflect and understand more about them. Five days later though, one particular artist’s work has stayed with me, above all others. In fact, it’s not so much the photographs themselves as the feelings and emotions that they generated.

Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus‘s Annunciation series formed a small part of the motherhood show at the Photographer’s Gallery. The title is an ironic play on the Christian idea of the Annunciation, where the virgin was visited by angels and informed that she would be giving birth to the son of God(!). Brotherus’ version catalogues her own repeated attempts to conceive through IVF. It shows a collection of self-portraits and images of the drugs and processes involved, revealing some of the mystery and taboo that only those that have been through the highs and lows of the process know about. The sharps bin, the broken vial of white powder, the blood in the toilet bowl; most strikingly, the calendars, with dates hopefully pencilled onto them. Images that without that appreciation of the work as a whole, mean much less.

In contrast, Dayanita Singh’s work was presented without context, title or caption. Singh explains that labelling reduces the image from what she wants it to be. “…the when and the where are a burden on photography” and “if people know why and where it was taken, they think they understand the image and can move on”. My feeling however, is that unless the work is deliberately abstract, this deprives the viewer who may not understand the artist’s idea and may misinterpret it, or pass over the work even more quickly. Dates, locations and subject matter are not necessarily required, but generally, some context is essential.

In his essay ‘The Art of Missing Information’ (the introduction to Will Steacy’s book ‘Photographs Not Taken’), Lyle Rexer writes that

…an image stands mute before the inexpressible delicacy, horror and associative complexity of our experience.

Brotherus’s ‘Annunciations’ are not offering us the experience, other than by a distant proxy. We are not experiencing what she has been through, but we’re sure that, after spending time with the photographs, we certainly don’t want to be where she has been and if we know someone that has, we’ll hug them tightly at the first opportunity.

The Brotherus backstory elevates her straightforward and simply shot photographs to another level. Trying to relate this to my practice, this level of exploration of the subject matter is something that I absolutely aspire to. The technical skills are far easier to learn than the subtle art of storytelling through images in such a powerful way.

References

Singh, D (2013) Go away closer. London, Hayward Publishing

Steacy, W. (2012) Photographs not taken. USA; Daylight Community Arts Foundation

The British Journal of Photography, October 2013

Assignment 1 – Contrast: Tutor Feedback

Myjnia TIR

Myjnia TIR

Last night I received my tutor’s feedback on my first assignment. It had taken a while, but was worth the wait.

The opening sentence said: ‘you have submitted an excellent first assignment’. I was tempted to close the email at that point but I read on and was happy with the very positive feedback on the work I had submitted for the assignment and associated exercises.

I’ve written previously about how I enjoy blogging and so I was pleased to see that he also complimented the layout and content of this learning log. While I believe that I’m getting better at it, I still feel that I need to get a little more descriptive and analytical when discussing my own photography and that work which inspires or instructs me. However, it was good to see my efforts were appreciated by my tutor in his comments that I was demonstrating ‘good independent research and an ability to analyse and apply good self-reflection’.

I feel that I can improve on this and as he suggests, will look to include further information on my thought processes, what I did and why to explain my methodology and evidence my decision making.

I was concerned when I submitted the first assignment that the images were taken across a couple of weeks, in different locations and had little to relate them to each other. However, the feedback was that the demonstration of contrast within the pairs was enough to hold the set together when viewed as a whole. My plan for assignment 2 is that all of the images will be shot within a couple of hours, be processed identically and look very similar – further exploring the effect of such variation (or not) to a project. My tutor encourages this suggesting that for the next assignment I ‘could start to consider your projects as series, make work around themes and related ideas, and consider the coherency of working in particular genres.’

The most interesting part of the feedback was the following:

I think what I’m saying is that I can see that you are obviously a competent technician but don’t let technical issues get in the way of your creativity, if you can evaluate and justify your images then that’s closer to the notion of contemporary photography. Personally I like to see ideas, after all photography is about the maker and how they communicate their ideas to their audience, we share a little bit of ourselves every time me show our work!

This idea is exactly why I began the course in the first place. I know that I can take ‘pretty’ pictures, but want to learn how to share my ideas, my vision and my message (whatever that might be) with people. Most of the photographers and photographs that I like best are not necessarily technically excellent. The composition, exposure and sometimes content is not always ideal, but the story is there, between the lines (or pixels perhaps). The photographer has found a way to communicate the story or idea through less obvious methods.

At times I feel a little daunted at the size of the subject. By way of example, yesterday, I posted my first couple of pictures onto the OCA Student Flickr Group and shortly afterwards received a comment on one, suggesting I investigate the work of George Tice, and particularly this photograph. I was blown away – another photographer that I wasn’t familiar with, but exactly the type of image I love and aspire to take. Just when you think you know where you’re taking your learning and practice, more inspiration comes along and makes you consider other ideas and direction.

As I’ve said before, I’m enjoying this…

Reflection – The course so far

Over the last week or so, it feels like I’ve begun to make improved progress with the course. I’ve particularly enjoyed the study of lines in composition for a couple of reasons. Firstly, having had time off in Poland, spending Christmas with my wife’s family, has mean that I’ve had the time, and importantly daylight to get out and take pictures. I also see more things to take pictures of when I’m away from the familiar surroundings of home. This is of course only my perception and something I’ll need to work on if I want to maintain this current rate of progress. There’s plenty of subject matter in Leicestershire, I just need to identify it in the same way that I would here.

The first section of the course that dealt with the frame, and at times did feel a little basic, not helping to encourage my engagement with it. Learning more about composition, particularly the analysis of the composition of ‘classic’ photographs has been fascinating. It is a huge subject and I look forward to a lifetime of learning about it. This study has already begun to influence and improve my pictures.

This enthusiasm for the subject matter obviously helps motivate me further and I hope to be able to continue this momentum when I’m back home, at work, and not seeing much daylight because of work and other commitments. In the last couple of days of my holiday, I’ll be taking the opportunity to begin thinking about my next assignment.

The course also helps us learn in other more subtle ways. I am experimenting more. I’m taking pictures of things that I wouldn’t usually and seeing subjects in a new way. A couple of examples from this week are below.

Tool

The scythe picture needed the identification of a suitable subject, the creation of an interesting composition and lighting in a way that enhanced both. Such still-life photography is new to me but I’m pleased with the result and will try more in the future, perhaps in the next section of the course when we study shape.

Most Grundwaldski

The picture of the bridge, also from the ‘curves’ exercise is more standard fare, but thinking to include the shadowy figure in the shot is another example of this newfound experimentalism. It’s hardly revolutionary, but for me it’s something new.
Another interesting learning point from this week away has been the change to my workflow. I usually use Aperture, Photoshop Elements, Silver Efex etc. Here, I’ve been limited to importing the pictures onto my mother-in-law’s creaky laptop, saving them to Dropbox before carrying out very limited editing in Snapseed on my iPad Mini. What I’ve learned is that despite this apparent restriction, the pictures are still good. It has shown me that the time I spend working on my pictures after they’re shot is less ‘value-adding’ than the time spent taking decent photographs in the first place. Better spending a couple of hours reading about composition and then practicing it than tweaking the mid-tone structure of an average image.

Personal Work
Aside from the coursework, I have begun a collaboration with a fellow Leicestershire photographer to explore the issues raised by Don McCullin in this article in The Independent. Through our photography, we’re hoping to investigate the experiences and motivations of, and prejudices against, migrant workers in Leicestershire. I hope that we can expose the social division that is often exacerbated by the ignorance and fear of the unknown that some British people can be known for.
It promises to be an interesting project – I’ll keep you informed.

References

Clark, N (2013) ‘Forget foreign conflicts, chronicle Britain’ says war photographer Don McCullin (Online). The Independent. Avaialable from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/forget-foreign-conflicts-chronicle-britain-says-war-photographer-don-mccullin-8947692.html?origin=internalSearch [27 December 2013]