Portfolio Review : Practice Development

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 4, Sustainable Prospects.  Week 11.  

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It was with eager anticipation that I attended the Grain Portfolio Development day at Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry on 2nd December 2017, facilitated by Grain Photo Hub.

This was to be my third portfolio review session (beyond my university critiques); this time around I was more prepared and anticipated it, with a good presentation and attentive ears.

The day was launched with talks from all four of the portfolio reviewers; Camilla Brown, curator, writer and lecturer on contemporary art and previously curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, Anthony Luvera, artist, photographer, writer and educator, Craig Ashley, Curator and Director of New Art West Midlands and Liz Hingley, photographer and anthropologist.

In summary, we were advised to prepare well, show up to 20 images and up to three projects/bodies of work.  It is a time limited session and is a negotiated transaction; expect to be concise but clear about the premise for one’s work and then allow time and space for the reviewed to pick up the work, shuffle it round and corral a response.  We should regard our portfolios as fluid objects that reflect our artistic voice that will develop and evolve with time and after reflection.  To connect with reviewers we were advised to research your reviewers and make a choice about who you see were there are options in order to extract as much useful critique as possible.  Inevitably exposure requires composure and when the work is strong and compelling it may, after time, be networked into other realms of the photography world via the reviewers. 

As I have found before, preparation for conflicting, curious, incisive, searching and sometimes upsetting advice; this isn’t an ego smoothing exercise, it is meant to cajole, provoke and make one fervent for betterment.

Every speaker advised that we should leave a post card or a sheet to be taken away, to linger with the reviewers; proving the point, Luvera left as all with copies of his community art work newspaper, ‘Not Going Shopping’.

Brown posited reviews will increasingly be on-line in the future; somewhat appropriate when the Flexible MA at Falmouth University is considered and its working methods.  Both Luvera and Hingley found that their practice took notable leaps forward after portfolio reviews by people who were either directly influential or were connected with people who were looking to commission, hang or publish work.  Source Magazine was mentioned numerous times in this context.

Curators were referenced on three occasions and Luvera noted that they can help connect with the artist but also provide a new editing eye that may link with a new narration of one’s work.  He also stated that the audience for your work should be borne in mind when presenting, i.e. the anticipated viewers and the context.

Craig Ashley, as a curator, facilitator and writer is an experienced witness of audiences across the UK Midlands has interfaced with many artists including photographic artists over many years, including the Peter Kennard exhibition at MAC Birmingham in 2016 which I had especially admired for its layering of imagery and its powerful messaging.  He quoted Maria Balshaw (whom I was fortunate to briefly worked with in Birmingham)  made succinct points about curating see figure 2.

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Ashley cited Jon Tonks book Empire that sat alongside a body of visual work and maps and, with Ashley, an holistic show was created from this breadth of collateral. 

Hingley spoke about her body of work, Under Gods, 2007-09 (also a published photobook) and the influences of Martin Parr and asking Richard Billingham to review here work. She reminded us to maintain momentum around applying for awards and completions to keep up the chances of being seen and awarded.  As a result of this she was asked to create the Shanghai version of the ‘Portraits de Villes’.

The Reviews

I was rather pleased that, whilst one could choose two of the four available reviewers, I was offered an additional slot with a third.  In summary all three were distinct and highly useful for my moment of evolution with my work.

Craig Ashley

Following an introduction to the premise for the Pause Project and the selected 10 images in my portfolio box we spoke about;

Referencing James Webb at Coventry Cathedral who is using audio from the Dean’s broadcast when the cathedral was bombed in 1940 as a memoriam related to my anticipated multi media final MA show.

On discussing the venue for my final show Ashley cited Jan Svoboda (1934-1990) who, upon subsequent research (see footnote below),  I note created unique pieces, in response to my thinking about unique, concrete based imagery.

We discussed materiality, texture, environment, scale, light and print finish that would help inform the characteristics of my final installation.

Footnotes on Jan Svoboda:

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Jan Svoboda was interviewed with Liba Taylor for British Journal of Photography 1982 – an archive I will endeavour to uncover.

From these links I note Svoboda was constantly endeavouring to create unique images using substrates; my concrete work has the same objective.

http://phototoolbox.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/photographer-jan-svoboda.html

http://www.atelierjosefasudka.cz/en/archive/comparison-ii.html

From https://www.photoeditionberlin.com/programm/czech-fundamental/jan-svoboda/  accessed 3.12.2017, I embolden the pertinent points here;

“In an effort to achieve maximum degree of autonomy of the photographic image, Svoboda, thanks to fundamental and original formal innovation, reached the very limits of the possible. Due to their sophisticated techniques, his works entirely shook off the principle of being reproduceable and thus became (paradoxically for photography) unique works of art. Their solitary nature was emphasised, Svoboda being unaccustomed in those days to large formats, by a total absence of framing, the use of a solid foundation with a supporting framework, of detaching the works from the surface of the wall. Photographs are thus elevated to the rank of objects that communicate independently with both the exibition space and the atmosphere of the lighting”.

From www.artmap.cz/jan-svoboda-1934-1990 accessed 3.12.2017 – here he notably exhibited with a sculptor and an artist – demonstrating his mix of company; “Jan Svoboda was more inclined to the company of artists, as it was called his time, than photographers. Although the marginal, yet distinctive detail remains that he likes to sign directly into the picture. However, Jaromír Zemina provided the exhibition with the May group (1964) when he introduced his works together with the statues of Jiří Seifert and the drawings of Václav Boštík in the exhibition O světlu (1994)”.

Liz Hingley

After viewing the images and talking about the body of work and its direction towards an installation and potentially a photobook,  Liz spoke about links to people in Birmingham that she is presently working with (for example Claire Mullett – https://culturalintermediation.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/arts-science-festival-1960s-art-architecture-tour/ accessed 3.12.2017)  and talked about scanning items that I have quietly liberated from some of my shoots and also the possibility of creating wallpaper from my images.

We talked about ‘feeling the atmosphere’ in the space where my final show would be hosted – to emulate the conveyance in my prints and images.  This echoed the discussion with Ashley.

Camilla Brown

Camilla Brown appeared enthralled by one image in particular and this delighted me because I too had highlighted it as the key piece in my work in progress portfolio, a painterly piece from the Round House and its window. 

I used the word ‘documenting’ as one descriptor for my work  but Brown queried this and felt that the work was more “evoking curiosity” and takes you to a “different place” than perhaps a pure catalogued documenting process may lead to.  We discussed Edgar Martins and his ‘Soliloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes’ and the degree of translation and selection that even then demurred from the original order of the source, thus not wholly documented and indeed manipulated digitally.  My response was to say I was perhaps then a “visually led art image maker” – though I think this still requires distillation.

Brown directed me to John Divola and Lucio Fontana.  See figure 4 for Divola’s work in abandoned spaces.

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Brown predicted that my Pause Project would develop sub-series and new threads as it moved forward.

I mentioned that I had planned to create a zine for distribution to developers and landowners to gather more shooting opportunities in the New Year – she extremely usefully suggested that I sought out cities that would be hosting future photographic festivals such as Brighton, Liverpool and Derby for the strategic exhibiting approach this may provide.

Finally Brown suggested a textual response to my work that is “fluid and creative” – I explained that I enjoyed writing about photography.  Haiku was mentioned as a potential pattern as was Rinko Kawauchi for her work.

http://www.rinkokawauchi.com/main/rinkokawauchi_eg.html

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/lucio-fontana-1102

http://www.divola.com

References

Camilla Brown www.camillaebrown.co.uk

Anthony Luvera http://www.luvera.com/

Liz Hingley http://lizhingley.com/

Craig Ashley http://newartwestmidlands.co.uk/who-we-are/

 

Cited by Craig Ashley

Jon Tonks, https://www.jontonks.com/books/

 

Cited by Liz Hingley

Portraits de Ville,  http://www.portraitsdevilles.fr/en/vues-choisies-/70-shanghai-liz-hingley.html

 

Cited by Camilla Brown

http://www.rinkokawauchi.com/main/rinkokawauchi_eg.html

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/lucio-fontana-1102

http://www.divola.com

https://www.photoeditionberlin.com/programm/czech-fundamental/jan-svoboda/

https://www.photoeditionberlin.com/programm/czech-fundamental/jan-svoboda/

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Luvera on Participation

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, Week 3

Anthony Luvera spoke at the State of Photography II Conference I attended in Birmingham on 16th June 2017.  This was timely as my group was just completing the crowdsourced zine project that week.

Luvera (born 1974) is both a teacher and practitioner – his practice has, since 2001, moved from commercial photographic work to a collaborative form.  Palmer in his book Photography and Collaboration (2017) cites Luvera and provides a useful historic context to his work, ranging from the Half Moon Gallery in 1975 when the merger took place Jo Spence and Terry Dennett.  Palmer quotes Jessica Evan’s term (1997:11), the orthodoxies which “claimed for photography the status of art with its ideological baggage of expressive individualism” noting that there was a dismantling in progress.  He cites Su Braden (1983) in her book Committing Photography the movement in community photography as a reaction and counterpoint to the ‘high end’ galleries which only celebrated individualised art at that time.  The era saw the co-ownership of equipment essential for taking charge of image making and processing; cameras, darkroom, shows and magazines.  This led to “empowering participants…in the politics of distribution of mass media and its investment in retaining the status quo” (pp91).  The arts funding cuts that began in 1979 saw the demise of the essential funds to make holistic projects such as this viable, the activity thus became minimal for a period.  Luvera moved by serious social issues such as homelessness began to collect tokens for the purchase of cameras and processing.  His first foray was tentative and the strategy of learning by developing ideas prevailed and he now uses what he describes as ‘assisted portraits” using professional standard cameras, flash guns and remote shutter releases enabling complex control by the subjects after being offered a session to learn the techniques.  Film or digital images are then captured and any adjustments are done with his co-participants.

I recorded Luvera’s latest account of his work at the conference. He spoke about “communities being fluid’, whereby the ‘membership’ may vary and circumstances will change through the life of a project.  He placed emphasis on how is the “process briefed and predicted for participation”, thinking through the journey and most importantly how the conversation is engaged and encouraged, to create actual ownership.  He cautioned against funders and the fact that “commissioners sometimes predict and position the lead photographer”, I surmised that his body of work and visible outputs would enable him to withstand undue pressure to bow to a funders expectation of output as the very essence of the practice is to submit and facilitate the group to define its choices each time.  He stated a point suffixed with a question “using images there is representation – what is the power balance?” he notes the fun element and socialisation of defining a project and making the images, many of which are also aligned with textual statements of the personal.  As soon as an image finds its way onto social media, posters, conference presentation, there is an exposure; an audience beyond the group.  I assume that this is the most delicate and sensitised forum for debate and decisions with a mixture of fear and excitement.  Luvera cited an example of one participant deciding that their portrait could not be shown on the London Underground station displays; it was able to be removed; this exemplifies the difference between the notion of display and the reality of visible experiencing your own portrait to a huge audience.  Fundamentally Luvera is providing a voice to his groups.  Not going Shopping (Brighton) and the forthcoming Let us Eat Cake (Belfast) are visible manifestations of his teams’ work.  He insists that a project starts with an open view of its benefits, values, outputs they become cemented only when you ask the participants.  This conversation would help to define audiences for the work, a question all photographers and facilitators should be asking.  I suspect that his ethical positioning would prevent Luvera from making work that defies the wishes, expectation and involvement of his collaborators and this it is infused with authenticity.

Practice Impact

Reading and writing up my conference notes has enabled me to reflect more on how I make work with others.  The most immediate example of my work as a group was the zine project (week 3) – in retrospect agreeing the ‘brief’ more throughly as a team then explaining in more detail the outputs and use of imagery and subsequently sharing would have been good.  I could envisage more learning, founded on this experience in the future as I may involve myself in a zine.

On wider practice, I am currently working with 4 people who have been provided with compact digital cameras and SD cards for 6 weeks to capture the area where I work.  I am increasing my level of interim engagement with them.  This group differ significantly from the groups Luvera engages with but there has been some transferred learning.

References

Palmer D. Photography and Collaboration. London. Bloomsbury (2017)

Evans J. (ed) The Cameraworks Essays.  Rivers Oram Press (1997)

#seeingbidspaces Episode One

MA Major Project – Evolving Practice

“Re-seeing Public Art”

Episode 1 in the visual participation element of the project : getting started.

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As part of my Major Project I made the decision to test out the potential for expanding my theme of re-seeing the city of Birmingham and its particular accent on public art into visual participation.

These blog entries will follow progress and outcomes from the project.

Whilst not being experiences at all in this area of work, I embarked on some research looking at practitioners such as Penelope Umbrico http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/ and Wendy Ewald http://wendyewald.com/.

The premise for my engagement proposal was for the public to look and re-look at public art.  Art in public spaces.  There is a good precedent in Birmingham for the commissioning of pubic art over three centuries.

A was delighted to receive sponsorship from Colmore Business Improvement District (BID) in Birmingham city centre for the purchase of 5 compact cameras and SD cards which have been loaned into the project.  The BID also paid for the launch event on 13th February over lunch.

The launch was oversubscribed.  An invitation out to the BID database achieved a response in 15 minutes of the email being sent out.  This clearly demonstrated a powerful desire for photography in place making.  The launch event involved becoming familiar with the project as part of my MA studies, familiarisation with the cameras and an illustration of my images of public art in the city.  I also asked them to sign a form about personal safety, camera care and releasing their work to allow the BID and I to use imagery for our own, none commercial purposes.  We also discussed the fact that this is the vanguard group working with me for the first time on such a venture, so feedback would be welcome during and at the conclusion of the exercise.

The initial group of 24 people set off on a two week mission to engage with the city in their own time.

A meet-up in one of the main squares in Birmingham was held on 21st February.  8 people attended and we talked about experiences and observations to date, practicalities and how to handover the imagery.

Despite the British weather being consistently dull since the project began the group talked about what they liked about looking at public art and what they were seeing.  I encouraged them to exploit the selective qualities of wet surfaces to increase shooting even when the light is dull as the even light from cloud covered skies and the rain on surfaces can provide for interesting views.  Many wanted to extend the project to looking at architecture which we all thought was a good idea and we entered into a debate about the decoration that adorns the Council House and its friezes and caryatids.

A number of the group had used their phone cameras more than the issued cameras for several reasons; convenience, there being too few cameras to share and because they felt less self conscious using a camera phone than any other device.  One person had taken the SD card and placed it into his own camera.

The discussion was drawn into an area about being ‘seen’ as photographers, how people react, the subjects being viewed and I encouraged thinking about the audience, thus highlighting the subject/photographer/viewer triangular relationship.  This led to a brief discussion about the ethics of shooting people and in a moment ‘owning’ their image/face/person.

We had a debate about art out in the open and whether it should include in its definition railings, street furniture and things ‘applied’ to buildings. 

A number said the Antony Gormley “Iron Man’ was liked because it was modern and created controversy locally.

We talked about the historical and hierarchical nature of public art on pedestals (such as Queen Victoria in the eponymous Square) and the Gormley piece which is rooted directly into the surface paving.

The request to keep the cameras for another week was agreed.  We also came up with the hashtag #seeingbidspaces for use on Instagram to allow the project to exist visually and persist after the cameras were returned with there cards for me to download. Several people asked for a workshop to learn more about photography and that has been set up too.

I was able to hold a Skype discussion session with Anthony Luvera on 17th February 2017 (www.luvera.com and  http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/story-1-by-anthony-luvera) who has great depth of collaborative photographic practice.  He spoke about the practice and theory of visual participation and the process of making provoking ideas thoughts and challenges.  He put a deal of accent on the process of making (people) rather than the output (imagery).  He felt that is was important to document the meeting sessions with any participatory group.  he recommended a blog to share inputs.  His advice was to make sure as the ‘leader’ of the idea one loosens up as to process and expectations by having many conversations, being attentive, talk about some photographs, give the project a title, avoiding dictating a process.  As the leader you are a kind ok mediator or stage director, place the participants into the limelight.  He recommended two books

Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. Helguera, Pablo. 2011.

Photography and Collaboration: From Conceptual Art to Crowdsourcing. Palmer, Daniel. 2017.

I was able to apply some of this learning at the group session on 21st February (hence this blog).

I shall be posting the next episode as the project journeys into its next phase.

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