Image display : A Review

As part of the Informing Contexts Module at Falmouth University we have considered the status of the image and how it is consumed.

This is a review of display methodologies from Format, the Derby (UK) based, biannual photo festival 2017, visited on 8th April 2017

This year’s Format theme was Habitat.  I was able to to visit seven venues.  The festival ran from from 24 March to 23 April.  The scale, light conditions, fabric, lighting and environment varied hugely across the whole city. Image viewing aside, it was a very positive opportunity to visit so many venues in one visit including buildings that are not normally open to the public.  All areas were free to visit with the exception of the Cathedral tower which was a timed booking for  a small fee of £1.

As part of my practice I am considering constantly the scale and medium in which to display my work and the successes and pitfalls of display extremely useful way of gaining a deeper appreciation of the curator/director’s role and challenge.

I carried around with me a small camera on the day, this is a series of images chosen because they illustrate the numerous aspects of image exhibition.  Images are all my own with the exception of figure 6 which is from my colleague Chris Northey.

Projection

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figures 1, 2, 3

Figure 1 was at Quad,  this end of the gallery was blacked out which provided the right environment for both the floor standing and suspended screens, to create maximum impact.  The suspended projectors threw an image slightly wider than each screen to create a completely lit panel, the overspill light was lost into black fabric behind.  The two screens worked in syncronicity with a blend of video and stills.

Figure 2, also at Quad, was a conventional wall projection, it was possible to pass in front of the image as it was a closer ‘walk’ than figure 1.  Both figures 1 and 2 were strong and successful.

Figure 3 was in an old, disused school venue known as Pearson. The projector was at ankle level and the angled screens were approx 1m high and floor standing.  A half sphere was placed in front, to emulate a human eye.  A more intimate project. Engaging and successful.

Outdoor

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figures 4,5,6

An engaging installation into Cathedral Green featuring work in 5-sided back-lit boxes (of differing heights) as well as a series of horizontal panels set into the walkable grid, some 150mm above the normal grade.  The work viewed at night is especially dynamic and the quality of the transparency prints was very high and consistent.  As far as on could tell this piece was being viewed by festival goers as well as passers by. It was commissioned by Format and First Art and captured images locally as well as from international artists.  This was particularly of interest as I am hoping to work on a project as a permanent installation in Birmingham.

Reflections

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figures 7,8,9

Simply to show the difficulty of working with glazed frames and overhead lights not installed for display, in these instances from stairwell lighting and windows opposite (figure 8).

Using the Space

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figures 10,11,12,13

These images demonstrate the diversity of spaces and responses in Pearson building. Figure 10 illustrates a tower of interlocking, card mounted images.  Figure 11 board mounted prints mounted off the wall to create a shadow gap away from the wall surface; a counterpoint of highly refined images and the cracked and neglected wall surfaces. Figure 12 neatly shows a through colour acrylic sheet with image printed onto the outer surface and then suspended in front of another image on an mdf shelf.  Figure 13 provides a whole room view of two wide screens made from OSB board painted on some surfaces and left raw on others (one assumes a curatorial device to set off each type of image group).  The tall space and the related windows were masked to prevent too much light spillage into the space.  The lower portion of windows was utilised for naturally back-lit images.

Hanging Sheets

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figures 14,15

Figure 14 was taken in Pearson Building and showed a composite image printed onto translucent sheet, with excess unprinted areas above and below ingeniously used to frame the image and mask the frame beyond and also provide a high level suspension. Figure 15 was from Pickford’s House (part of the Derby municipal museum group) and simply used the main trusses passing through the space as a rail to suspend large fabric drapes with images printed upon them as an intervention across the centre of the main upstairs space.

Striking Backgrounds

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figures 16,17,18

Figures 16 and 17 were found in Quad. 16 uses a repetitive image pasted across the screen wall to act as a vibrant backdrop to a line of high colour production prints (red framed!).  17 shows a paper print pinned to a panel of timber; a slightly distracting backdrop as it did not bear a reflection of the image (as 16 clearly does) and I made the assumption that it was used to create a suitable surface for pinning a number of prints.

Figure 18 is a simple freestanding screen which acts as the pinning surface for a series of 8 images which were actually printed on a single roll of paper.

Links

Main website http://www.formatfestival.com/

BJP Review http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/03/format-festival-the-low-down/

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Mini-Series 2 : A Trace of life

As part of my Informing Contexts Module at Falmouth University I have, in the process of editing for my Work In Progress Portfolio, extracted a number of images that form a mini series in their own right.

When I negotiated access to my first vulnerable building in December 2016 I was astonished to discover the abandoned things that were strewn across the spaces that once were busy offices, reception and gym.  I was geared up to capture the light, depth and architecture that was soon to be no more.  Indeed this first building is on its way back to earth now. 

Further visits began to scribe a visual catalogue of the things left behind, but also they were telling s story about these objects that were not precious enough to take away, but signified the purpose of the spaces, the ordinariness of the ubiquitous  beige photocopier – the meeting point, chat and gossip would circle this inanimate object that served as a machine of production and waste.  The anaemic space animated by a large pink bin, whose sides were smeared with marks of life, hard drives and wires that stored and conveyed the data, the life blood of corporate information, a billion emails critical to desk to desk communication and dress-down Friday protocols.

Then the regalia of a masonic life; a year book, latin inscriptions, medallions, bright ribbons, broaches, lists of names, braids.  These were poking out of a drawer in a vast building that had every fixture taken away, auctioned and removed.  This package of bright things was an aberration, an accidental remain.

Lynn Cohen, who based much of her photographic career on the found and the empty spaces of facilities says “There is often an eerie human presence or a hint of an activity just finished or about to begin… Couches and chairs look like people, and there are many other suggestions of the human body: dummies, diagrams and silhouettes”.  She addresses a question for her viewing audience to address “I prefer to allude to things and leave it to the viewer to fill in the details. Like Brecht and Godard, I want the audience to do some work”.  From interviews conducted by William A. Ewing, Vincent Lavoie, Lori Pauli and Ann Thomas, February 2001, and published in for Ann Thomas, No Man’s Land: The Photography of Lynne Cohen. Ottawa: Thames & Hudson and NGC, 2001.

Susan Sontag wrote that a photograph is “not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.”  Sontag S. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977 p. 154. 

These images are a trace of action, captured in a static, left behind state.

Here is the mini series on human detritus, echoes of work and a kind of worship.

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Practice and Influencers : De Stijl

During the module, Informing Contexts, I have been increasingly conscious of influences on my image making work.  Here is a short study of the work of the early Twentieth Century and an art and architecture movement that has shaped my practice.

 

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figure 1

I have written about minimalism and its influence on my work.  I talk practically about reduction, distillation and expressing the essence.  It is about images which show the simplicity or the substance of things seen or implied.  The practitioners of the de Stijl movement that are most relevant to my visual work are both Mondrian and Reitveld.  Mondrian’s work is well known and has found its way into art collections globally.  Dutch for ‘the style’, the movement spanned 1917-1931, the principal proponents advocated pure abstraction and a reduction to the essence of form, colour and line; the ‘structure of the three dimensional work, architecture and art is defined by the black line, sharply contrasting with the dominant white backgrounds and the insertion of blocks of signal colours.  The transaction of the defined lines and blocks of colour in sculpture and architecture led to planes that were unobstructed by each other.  To my mind this led to a richness of depth. The architect Rietveld created the Schröder House (1923/4) in Utrecht for an enlightened client, an icon of the movement and which I have visited.  See figure 1.

The most overt example of the influence in my ‘photographer’s eye’ is the image I created from the outside of St Thomas More’s catholic church in East Birmingham in March 2017.  Figure 2. The image has planes, lines at horizontal and vertical, blocks of colour defined by sharp shadows and depth. 

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    figure 2

I have undertaken a simple planar image analysis of the formation of lines, the homogenous block colour/tones, including the block of yellow which represents the image’s most conspicuous focal point, the priest. 

The original image is shown below.

In undertaking this analysis it has assisted me in slicing the image into its several parts which appear, nevertheless, to be a cogent whole, as does a Mondrian painting.  What I also note from the particular painting I use as my primary reference is that the canvas has effectively a frameless ‘edge’ which is echoed in my study as I have have allowed the black ‘construction’ lines to spread beyond the frame that I chose for the image, to imply the ‘beyond’.  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/piet-mondrian-1651 figure 3

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figure 3

A Practice Review: New Challenges

A short study in being less successful with image making

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Having been inspired by a book in my collection, The Box, Architectural Solutions with Containers by Sibylle Kramer (Braun, 2014) and a train journey that trundled by a Freightliner terminal in Birmingham, I embarked on negotiating a way into accessing this huge 32 acre site to see how it looked and felt as a sort of ‘container city’.  The shoot was thus planned and executed on 13th April 2017.  I spent 3 hours walking the site with a minder and full safety gear.  The challenge for me was shooting in such an open environment; I was mentally adjusting to scale and light; in some ways an extreme contrast to the intimate, fine grained pursuit of interiors of abandoned spaces.  There are parallels; the vista and the interface; the wide view and the close; the wide and deep and the flat and shallow, but I had an unease and did not find myself settled into this environment.

Selected images are shown here.  I am not wholly enamoured with any of them. Interestingly, the most comfortable I felt was spending time inside an empty container, with a shaft of light showing through a partially open door.  I include these in my CRJ to demonstrate how at times one can shoot, review and find that there is no quality that chimes with the practice aesthetic that has been developing, the colours are stark and out of the palette range established in one’s head, the sharpness of light that can create drama was absent (it was a very ‘flat’ light day) and the human trace I seek was also largely absent; the trace left by sea, machines and accidents were all there, but lacked a subtlety.  Notably there were no practitioners in my head during the shoot.  I was perhaps subliminally seeking a Paul Strand moment of fully contrasting light in my planning phase, but that day was not to yield such opportunities.

This mini-series does attune with my interest in capturing industrial design and its part in committing to honed, utilitarian, mechanistic shapes that drive a global economic process.

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On Editing, Discernment, Colour and Anti-Romanticism

s A further view on the process of editing my Work in Progress Portfolio, MA Photography; Informing Contexts

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figure 1

Here is my study table transformed to an editing table; it seems suitable as it is translucent white glass.  The books and papers are cleared and each of my 20 plus images are set out mostly at A6 size, printed and cut out.  A substantial amount of shuffling has taken place and a decision has been made to reduce down to 16.

I have enjoyed and found the comparisons made by pairing but have decided in making a judgement that where images are paired they are either split and shown separately or in the majority of cases I have discerned which is the stronger image and discarded the weaker.  I may, in due course, create a photobook layout but have made the decision to await the outcome of my Module Two assessment at the end of the Informing Contexts period at Falmouth University before doing that.

The most significant move I have made, in consultation with course tutors is to move from four geographic subsets and create instead a single series under the title Empty.  I have dissolved the ‘walls’ in my mind and actually literally and chosen to interweave the images and created a series which works from numerous methods, firstly there is a tonal deepening in the narrative now from light to darker and thus a revealing of darker meaning as progress is made, this is reinforced with a familiar opening image of a building envelope then the final image is looking into a building.  The perspectives vary deliberately; some views are ‘flat’ and shallow, others create an extended deoth and invite the eye into and beyond; a critical aspect of working with architecture and space.  Interspersing  these views is a device to keep the viewer engaged and modulate the flow.

I believe my ‘sunlight on the moulded student chair’ is one of the strongest images in my series and was a leading candidate for the opening piece.  It was left in that position overnight but was subsequently displaced by the current image which sets the scene and, like the chair, invites more than a glance; it suggests something is perhaps not normal, something strong but faded; thus allowing the stream of images in the series to suggest a walk through the spaces within and beyond to other banal, abandoned and unloved objects, walls and hollow spaces.

What has come as a surprise is the use of colour.  The late 1960’s and 1970’s were typified by warmer colours, characterised by teak veneers, brown tints to glass, orange cushions; like a bowl of autumn fruits.  These colours, often faded, sometimes just hinted, tend to flow through this series.  I have written before about my internal debate about mono and colour work and my desire to keep working in both, often giving myself no choice but to work with mono in my film cameras.  I often carry both analogue and film cameras with me on a shoot and in the case of the Conservatoire, shot over two days, I used analogue on the second day to reengage with the images and spaces I had already become familiar with.

One image, figure2, was discarded even though it represented a space that was once perhaps a bar and dance hall, the curtains and rail dropped to the floor and the simple light affixed to the wall, forlorn in a huge wall, but the colours simple jarred for me and I took the image out of the series.

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figure 2

My visual memory is stacked with images I was exposed to when younger and indeed captured myself, of overgrown, cobweb strewn spaces which appeared to create an echo of the Victorian obsession with the romanticism of neglected spaces; ruins and ferns, the softening of decay with rain, sunlight and wind eroding and encouraging an organic invasion. Notably, just 9 years before the birth of photography the architect Sir John Soames commissioned the artist J M Gandy to depict the Bank of England (1830) in a state of decay and ruin.  http://collections.soane.org/object-p267 (accessed 16th April 2017). See figure 3.

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figure 3

Such major statements by national figures must, we can perhaps assume, pervade the Victorian sensibility to use newly discovered cameras and photography to publicise even further the gardens and paintings that summed up such obsessions. 

My practice deliberately sets out to avoid the romanticisation of the abandoned space; instead I aim to make images of the banal, the everyday, where a single hand, in the case of a desktop glue pen, or many where a brass handrail offers support to everyone.  Once caressed, but no longer cared for or needed. 

The other judgement I made was to loose the two images of which I realise I had a fondness for, but simply did not fit in the series, due to the colour and the fact that they appear to be, to a degree, ‘pretty’ .  These were made during a dawn visit to St Thomas More church in Sheldon, Birmingham, a building under threat (http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/two-birmingham-churches-added-at-10292178) (accessed 16th April 2017) and thus an appropriate candidate for my series.  The stark concrete frame houses a huge range of both abstract and representational stained glass, which cast an extraordinary light onto the stone floor and window reveals.  Whilst they were a key part of the story of the church and its design and purpose, these two did not make the edit.

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Inverting Todd Hido; My Personal Journey

In considering both practice and editing for my Work in Progress Portfolio, Informing Contexts, I sought out a way of dealing with a rule and an exception

I have been struck by the need to analyse and therefore explain my decision to not only photograph ‘people-free’ but in particular to make an editing decision to show the trace of humanity.  But with an exception.

The creative process is about intent but also about revelation.  So, having sought out a theme for my work on the MA course which commenced as an overarching title ‘re-seeing’ it initially developed into a piece on public art and its crafted quality (the hand of the maker was manifestly what I was inclined to show) but moved on into the hand of the architect and maker in creating buildings in the mid-twentieth century that had been deemed to be at the end of their useful life.  I know all too well that to develop a building from an idea to a fully fledged investment and commitment to complete is an Herculean effort.  So to see these at the end of life is an undeniably emotional downer.

Yet there is another emotion at play.  This begins to open out a personal, reflective space. 2016 was quite a moments year for me, I made the decision that corporate leadership was not such fertile territory and I needed to define a period that I call, at least to myself, a break.  I was drained and tired.  Spliced into this was dealing with the loneliness of being the eponymous singleton.  The title and status had for years synchronised.  How to deal with these two things?  Well a break meant downing the management tools, but nothingness was not the answer to the loneliness.  So I embarked on the journey to learn, to provoke myself, to move my critical faculties away from architecture and apply then to a new realm.  That newness is about photography, about making, undertaking, theorising and critiquing.  At the end of the second module of my MA course I feel armed in all of these new faculties.  Sure, there is more to explore, more learning to do, but there is tangible discovery and there is definition.  But, as I tap away on Easter Sunday, alone with just my dog who is gently wagging his tail on the sofa in his canine dream world, I am having a realisation;

I like to be around people, just a few, never a crowd.  I love talking, I like to laugh, I listen too.  The socialisation of my MA crew has been key to my own emotional stability, yet yet yet; so many many of my counterparts are dealing with the images of relationships in one form or another, whether intimate or socially at scale.  I am not.  I perambulate around spaces, looking for light, shadow, doorways, windows, texture, marks, scrapes, patterns, dust, detritus, looming and lurking.  It is just me.  Indeed, perhaps I wear black to reduce personal impact and visibility.  Like Jeff Wall’s octopus in a corner. 

I ask myself the question, is it easier not photographing people?  To a degree it is, there is no relationship to develop, nurture and convey with a ‘subject’.  But actually, it is just different; I am developing my eye for the space, place and moment of light, of a feel for how a detail conveys a whole; for human touch and trace.  This is deepening and becoming more regular, this photographer’s eye is not a generalist it is becoming a specialist.

Practice

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figure1

I was joined by a mason when making images of the redundant and vacant masonic hall in Birmingham.  He was able to really help me understand the use and meaning of all the spaces and demystify some of the secrecy and processional procedures.  So, I decided to photograph him in the very inner ‘temple’ space.  The space was actually less precious and distinctive than I expected, fitting the banal I was seeing throughout the complex, so I made an exception to my rule, I asked him to move through the space as I exposed on the tripod.  He was happy to be photographed, but I wanted to suggest in the image my view that people in this faceless, windowless building should be similarly asked to preserve some blurred anonymity; he, as the subject was happy with this.  After a few attempts, this is the photograph, figure 1.  I pondered its inclusion into my series Empty.  It did not make it into the penultimate edit.  If I were to make a photobook of the masonic experience it would probably be included, but in the Empty series it seemed distracting and adding little to the hollow content I was wishing to capture.

So, why, after this inner debate and clarity, is there a man in the last image in my final edit of Empty?  See figure 2. Well, here are my reasons.  The man in question is absolutely central to the image and all to the purpose of St Thomas More’s church.  I had spent the whole morning there since just after dawn when the church doors open.  Mass started two hours later and I vacated the building for the duration.  That moment struck.  There was the priest administrating, standing under the ‘chimney’ at the crescendo of the structure which shafted light down onto the alter area, viewed through a glass door, itself the inner door of the lobby to the outer solid doors, themselves beyond the concrete structure.  The layering of space and image that I really seek out, was all there.  This building was the only one in constant and persistent use, despite its threatened status.  It has been the exception to prove my rule.  It also served as a finale image where I look in; a counterpoint to the opening image which is about looking out, here is a sneaky look in.

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figure 2

The Practice of Others

The interview with the photographer Todd Hido in Ahorn magazine in the archive http://www.ahornmagazine.com/issue_6/interview_hido/interview_hido.html (accessed on 16th April 2017) is revealing and appropriate here. 

He is known for capturing American landscapes and the human imposition. he shoots at dusk, with film, using found light to capture the stillness, the place but also the light emitting from interiors, the sign, the index of occupation, of life; implied not visible.  It is a suburban ordinariness at small scale.  Yet there is one house where no light comes from within, as the interviewer asks “The image “Untitled #2312-a, 1999” from the series Houses at Night is one of the few images without a visible illumination coming from the house. A beam of light cuts the front of the house but no light comes from the inside. In every house you have photographed the human presence is implied. The quality of the light is also the quality of their presence. Thanks to this perception, you are able to establish a relationship between the viewer and the image, as a personal relationship. Could you explain something more about this particular choice? How important is it for your work to show inhabited houses with human beings’ presence instead of empty houses?” See figure 3.

Hido responds, “You are very perceptive.  Yes, that is the only house at night that does not have a light on the window.  I chose that particular one because it was actually a place that a lot of my ideas about home and loss and longing came to fruition. What I found was really remarkable to me as it was a neighborhood that had simply been walked away from my many of its inhabitants.”  He continues very usefully to explain his feeling and practice “Yes, it’s true that most of my photographs of homes at night have a light on in the window. That is a very important part to me as it implies that someone is in there. I have often said; “The lights come on and the inside seeps to the outside.””

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figure 3

What fascinated me on reading Hido further is that he often manages to find his way into homes and here is his observation in response to this question “You frequently have photographed interiors. How did you find the places, do some of them have a special meaning for you?”

Hido responds “Yes, I love to photograph interiors. They often add another layer of narrative to a sequence of photographs.  And I really like what that does—it sort of brings the viewer inside of the home”.  See figure 4.

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figure 4

Summary

My practice is a sort of inverse of Hido.  He finds light as a source of life; I find emptiness as a source of life dissipated.  His edited exception is a lifeless house captured via its setting and architecture; my edited exception is one of life at the core of a purposeful architecture.  Hence the inverse.

Yes Hido’s emotional stance, his feelings for loss and longing are very much the centre of practice.  He finds human trace, so do I.  There is a commonality alongside the inverse.

Edited Out

Informing Contexts, MA Falmouth University.

Visual narrative that did not meet the edit for my work in progress portfolio.  Here is why:

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figure 1

My work in progress portfolio has, through a newly learnt and quite vigorous editing process, made me realise that issues, ideas and stories merge and are discerned on the layout table.  I have begun to be ruthless and remove images that are in fact rather good in my own eyes, but, on canvassing the views of others, I was able to arm myself with ‘reassessment eyes’ and see that actually the colour range I had captured in the 4 buildings thus far accessed as part of the Empty series were in fact within a restricted palette; muted and often specifically of their time, the 1960’s and 70’s.  The story evoked by the images were of human activity, of hands touching of mundane activity in banal spaces where only the humour, warmth and interaction of people added the necessary dignity that sustains  and creates the commune.

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figure 2

Thus in the case of a building captured in December 2016, where dead flies, abandoned suitcases and food littered the view, the demolition visit in January 2016 (figures 1 and 2) was all about arc lights, a churning and disembowelling of a place.  It tended to reflect the work of Peter Mitchell (http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/analysis/after-40-years-in-obscurity-meet-britain-s-most-overlooked-photographer-1-8115117 accessed on 13th April 2017). 

This is a different story; not quite another mini-series but nevertheless included here for completeness of the account of a building that once designed, made and occupied for commerce, now abandoned and festooned with gloom is razed from the city landscape in all its twenty storey stature of muscular edifice.  These images, despite being part of the narrative of demise, were distinctly not suitable for final inclusion in the series Empty.

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