OCA Thames Valley Workshop : 19th October 2013
Photography, portraits and prints
Eight of us met, with tutor Sharon Boothroyd in attendance. The format, as usual, was a portfolio review in the morning and then a discussion in the afternoon. Our homework for the discussion was to read Chapter 4 of David Bate’s book Photography : The Key Concepts.
The morning session
Experimental work, a photo essay exercise and two sets of work towards assignments for AOP and DPP provided a lot to think about and digest here. I was able to experience a microcosm of the way in which my own process of “compassion fatigue” sets in, despite the strategies of the photographer to challenge this. I realised over again how difficult I find it to edit a selection of photographs to produce a ‘story’. We also discussed methods of presentation – size of prints and use and placement of captions. Sharon then shared her progress on a new series she is working on at the moment, including giving us a live demonstration of how she works later in the afternoon.
My print experiments
As there was time, I took the opportunity to ask for some feedback on two prints of the image above. The background to this was that, since the Arles Residential Visit I had been thinking more about presentation. I’ve been working on edits of my Templemere project and I wanted to achieve a print with a dark glow, perhaps an aluminium print. I asked for some suggestions on OCA Flickr and decided to use The Printspace and Kodak metallic paper. The print arrived the next day and I’d liked the effect but it was quite glossy and almost like a print on a mirror or on aluminium. I knew that, if I was going to submit such a print for an assignment or Assessment, then I would have to have a good justification for it. Kodak Metallic paper doesn’t seem to be generally available so, after more discussion on OCA Flickr, I decided to experiment with Permajet Titanium Lustre using my own printer. It was definitely less glossy and had a slight texture to it that gave almost a painted effect. My next step was to bring the prints to the TV group.
Feedback was generally positive with not a lot of difference seen between the two. Comment was made that the narrow border on my own print made it slightly more difficult to compare as the Printspace print was full bleed. I had aimed for full bleed on Titanium Lustre print but my sizing was inaccurate and I need to work on this. My Titanium print was considered to be slightly cooler than the Kodak metallic in having a slight blue tone and suggestion made to warm it up and print it again. John had also thought he could detect ‘bronzing’ on the shadow areas but when he double-checked it wasn’t there. I’ve looked this up and found this discussion. I need to read it again but is seems to me that having two different types of black ink (as in more expensive printers) is a way to overcome this effect which appears to happen sometimes on glossy paper.
Dave also reminded me of the photographs we had seen at the Somerset House Exhibition, Henri Bresson-Cartier: A Question of Colour – a Russian (?) photographer and the low-key prints were very large and on aluminium. I immediately recalled how their rich, dark tones deeply glowed and also how we commented at the time that you had to stand in a certain place to avoid the reflections on them from the lighting.
The afternoon Session
The points I picked up from my reading of Bate’s chapter were
- Portraiture is a semiotic event for social identity and aims to say, “this is how you look”.
- Painters began to use photographs as a basis for their paintings and this changed the conventions of posture and style – e.g. hand used to prop the face. Photographers also borrowed from paintings.
- All classes could benefit from photography in different ways and to meet their different aspirations.
- There are 4 basic elements of portraits that work together to make up their codes of description – Face; pose; clothing and location/background setting.
- The question of how much can be ‘read’ from an image goes back to Plato and his distrust of surface visual appearance so there is always a critical suspicion that the surface is hiding or covering something over. It’s like the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” I suppose or “handsome is as handsome does”. However this leaves out the intentionality of the spectator in the equation.
- When we look at a portrait we ‘recognize’ the human figure and this process gives us pleasure – the pleasure of looking (scopophilia). The fact that we ‘recognize’ means that we are returning to something already known, and this fits with the ‘compulsion to repeat’.
- This pleasure of recognition applies to 3 general categories of people – familiar, unfamiliar and known representations (e.g. celebrities). We are a viewer with the camera and looking at images of others engages our own sense of self. The latter links with Lacan’s ‘mirror’ phase – the process by which the infant recognizes itself as a person through identification with its ‘mirror’ image of another person and, in this sense, human identity is a precarious structure because it is subject to ‘others’.
- A central gratification of portraiture is that it addresses the question, “Am I like this person or not?”. This can link to the phenomenon of projection where we relocate feelings (usually uncomfortable) about ourselves within another person or thing. This process of projection also has implications for what we do with portraits, e.g. we can confirm our own stereotypes.
- There are certain techniques which can be used to encourage viewers to use their imagination to prove to themselves that the traits they believe they see do exist. The artist Gainsborough achieved this through leaving some features undetermined. Leonardo da Vinci used the technique of sfumato – slightly smudging Mona Lisa’s face to give her an enigmatic quality such that she seems to smile or frown according to the mood we project when we look at her face. Photographers such as Julia Cameron and Edward Steichen used soft-focus blur similar to the painting technique of Rembrandt. An opposite technique to this can be the use of excess detail in an image such as images by the photographer Thomas Ruff where the viewer will search for meaning.
An interesting post on WeAreOCA blog by tutor Russell Squires also gave me food for thought. This concerned Russell’s experience of photographers not wanting to be a ‘subject’. His point of view is that to be a portrait photographer one must go through the process oneself,
You must understand what it is like to be in front of the lens and relinquish your power to another. And it is the power and control element that fundamentally drives a portrait photographer. Take note, they are in charge, dictating the lighting, the pose and the focus, then at a precise moment firing the shutter, capturing a moment that is theirs and theirs alone (R. Squires, 14.10.13)
Russell goes on to talk about the ways in which some photographers are endeavouring to circumvent this and he refers to the idea of a ‘controlled chaotic environment’. I have certainly been photographed umpteen times in my life. For me it’s having to sit still for a certain length of time in what feels like a frozen pose that’s the most difficult. I had a very different experience though when I was a guinea pig/subject for Keith when he began exploring his idea for a project on women and landscape photography . It felt much more collaborative because he talked about what he was doing and why and we discussed where I should be and how I should pose.
Group Discussion and Exercises
“Can we tell anything about a person from a photograph of them?” Sharon shared four different photographs of herself to illustrate this. I have always been interested in this searching for the ‘true’ person underneath (linking with (6) above) and the two poles – every portrait shows something of the essence of a person versus we only see what the person/subject wants to portray.
Sharon then led us into some exercises around the aspect of the how we can be manipulated by whoever uses the image to see what they want us to see. Three images – an older man (I was quickly aware that he reminded me of my husband!) and a young man and woman. We had to write down what came into our heads when certain were made – “This person is going to be famous, committed a serious crime, is a a philanthropist. I found it hard to project anything particularly imaginative. It’s hard for me to do that when all I see is a face without any context – but then to see them in some kind of context might make me project more. On the other hand, maybe I’m resistant to directions to think in a certain way/the statements were too closed.
Following this we looked at elements of portraits with Dave as our willing guinea pig. We thought about this in three different ways – writing a sentence about how we saw him; thinking of a photograph that could tell a lie about him and then discussing with him how he would want to be taken. It was the third method that I was most interested in and it opened my mind more flexibly towards portraits, helping to dissolve a few of my inhibitions I think. Dave said he would like to be seen in a more serious, thinking pose and Sharon asked me if I would take the photograph using her Canon 5D. I was pleased that Dave said he liked it and it’s a pity I can’t show it here but there it rests on Sharon’s camera card.
We then went to the laundry area as Sharon was very interested in its pictorial qualities and I ended up being a ‘subject’ as she used her Mamiya film camera. I knew this was how it worked but hadn’t really thought about the effect of having to make a photograph when what you see is upside down and this led to some interesting effects as Sharon was ‘staging’ me.
Immediate thoughts of the day
Interesting, interactive and it moved me on in a positive way. I enjoyed seeing how people were progressing with their various projects and was pleased to get some feedback on my prints. Also a different way of looking at portraits in a collaborative sense – not how people don’t want to be portrayed and trying to meet that, but working with people on how they do want to be portrayed. Each has its pitfalls and difficulties I’m sure but it does seem more freeing somehow and fits in with Russell Squire’s point in his blog post.
How I’m moving things forward
Discussing them as opposed to taking them as yet! There’s been another interesting post by Russell Squires on WeAreOCA as a follow up to the first one were he talks about self-portraiture He writes,
I ask now, why produce a self-portrait; is it to construct another identity in which to provide a sense of externalisation. Or do we create these images to see a perceived idealised version or ourselves?
This accords with Bate’s comments regarding narcissism. Conversely a visit to two recent Exhibitions under the umbrella of Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity contained self-portraiture that challenged idealized and sentimental views of motherhood and aimed to show how identity is altered through the process of becoming a mother.
I’ve looked back and the photographer at the Somerset House Exhibition was the Ukrainian photographer Boris Savelev, here and here who prints all his photographs himself using traditional and alternative techniques. The ones we saw at Somerset House were multi-layered pigment prints on gesso coated aluminium. There’s no mention of the type of gesso but I’m assuming it’s clear and applied as a primer. They certainly have a dark and melancholy richness. The effect is very unusual but I do think that a lot of attention needs to be given to placement of this type of print.
There was also a discussion about printing on the OCA Flickr forum Technical for me, but it was regarding the use of either Perceptual (P) or Relative Colormetric (RC) rendering intent. I’ve used RC up to now because that’s what Scott Kelby suggests. Still, encouraged by the discussion I did two small test prints using each. The difference is infinitesimal to my eye but Perceptual does seem to have a slightly lighter effect which I’ll bear in mind.
I also arranged to go and visit a local photographic printing company and went yesterday. I’ve been exploring the idea of not having a whole book printed, just the images, and then creating my own covers. Actually I’ve been thinking about this for a year and so I decided to take some action instead of pondering about it all the time! Michelle, the owner, showed me the type of books they produce. They provide software if necessary and generally use hard covers similar to those sold by Opus – in fact I’ve had one of those – yes – for a year. The full photo book cost is £60 for 15 pages/30sides which is more expensive than Blurb. They do have alternatives, such as just providing a cover-wrap for one’s self-created book. The photopaper they generally use is Naritsu double-sided Lustre which is similar to Blurb Premium Lustre but Michelle also showed me some Tecco Professional Matt which is 225gm. I mentioned I’d tried some metallic paper and she also showed me some Tecco Iridium Silver Gloss that she mainly uses for Company work. After that Michelle showed me the large Epson printer she uses, her smaller Noritsu mini-lab and we had a brief discussion on hand-developing black and white film.
All in all I came away with a lot to think about, although my tendency at present is still to think about either Blurb books or creating my own book. To that end, I have enrolled for five sessions on a weekly evening course which is an introduction to Book Arts and Book Binding run by Meg Green . I’ve had quite a lot of email contact with her and was pleased to discover that she is particularly interested in ‘the psychogeography of place as an accumulation of cultural identity’ which seems excellent synchronicity. The course begins on the 7th November and I’m looking forward to meeting her. Have several ideas of book projects I’d like to embark on.
The OCA Thames valley Group meetings are certainly continuing to exert a creative effect! I think it’s because meeting face to face has so much more impact and seeing other people’s work spurs me on to progress my own. Additionally I’m beginning to feel more settled in myself in terms of my own photography.
31st October 2013
Bate, D, Photography : The Key Concepts (2009), Berg, Oxford