Practicing the Words

Practice Development : Final Major Project

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 5

Figures 1, 2

I have been deliberately rehearsing the messages of the Pause Project and the exhibition title Birmingham Dust.  Talking over and over again, at any opportunity has assisted in refining not only the vocabulary of practice, but attunes the mental process too (the reinforcement of repetition).  To be compelling and convincing as a personality seems perhaps as important as the set of edited images themselves to engage people.

As I am a month away from installation, I have had meetings this week with the art blogger (Ruth Millington, fig 1) and also the PR (one-person) firm (Stacey Barnfield, fig 2) I have asked to spend a month promoting the exhibition.  Alongside the zine production, too, the published words become critical to be acute, succinct, punchy and meaningful.

Firstly, the list of buildings;

The Conservatoire

The Roundhouse

Municipal Bank

Edgbaston House

The Clarendon Suite

Madin Studio 123 Hagley Road

Herbert House

Gilder’s Yard

1-4 Great Hampton Street

Christopher Wray Building

Steelhouse Lane Police Station

Junction Works

Here is why they were chosen for my shoots, within the body of work;

All of these buildings were ripe for change and thus became the primary target for negotiation with owners and agents, to enable me to carry out the shoots.  I will often spend 5 to 8 hours in a building to understand its history and purpose and then closely observe its use, often uncovering surprises.

The project formed when I shot Edgbaston House on the Calthorpe Estate, in late 2016 and again in 2017, as I was expecting a series of banal and repetitive spaces over its 20 storeys, but in fact the things left behind were curiously engaging and a real find –  both corporate and personal, from food, to tables, to pictures, signs, computers and a suitcase.  I took delight in the intimacy, the detail, the unexpected – as if stories were emerging or being implied, peoples’ lives, their memories, the simple signs of abandonment.  I use dust as a theme because it evokes the passing of time and neglect – it also shrouds but invites marks and traces of human movement, like fingerprints.  Photography is a kind of imprint; light is shed onto an object then captured onto the camera’s sensor and that moment is caught.  The moment precedes the wrecking ball or the polishing of the new.  So, these memories are made solid when I create concrete tablets that are in the installation at Argentea gallery.  It is as if I make concrete from the dust or crunched up walls.

All twelve of the buildings are within the wider city centre of Birmingham.  I have been living here for 28 years now and I am certain that the sheer pace and volume of change in the city exceeds anything I have seen before.  The routes we take are being altered, familiar forms, structures and buildings are being reconfigured, rearranged.  All this change means we lose the past, so memories can only live in our mental catalogue and of course through images.  We live so much now ‘in the moment’ but we calibrate where we are now with where we were – call it progress, call it growth, call it regeneration, but it is only those descriptors if we know where we have been and what things were like.  Photography serves as a visual stimulus and founds these thoughts.  This is why I make a statement of memoriam via the solidity and tangibility of concrete and, by contrast and counterpoint, the projection of the ephemeral, playing with light, remaking images onto new surfaces.

A little more about my back-story, where the themes interact with the text above;

Being an architect has given me an undeniable view of the world – the materiality, the shapes, the forms and meaning of things.  This has seeped into my image-based work.

Add to that the fascination with Birmingham – the city that has absorbed two-thirds of my life.  Its motto, Forward, provides fertile ground for architects; the liquidating of buildings just one generation old means the shiny new becomes the next wave of excitement.  I intervene with my camera into the paused time before the demolition ball or clean-up moves in.

I have become more reflective; my images indulge that sentiment.  Each building earmarked for change or death, however seemingly ordinary, I have discovered, is imbued with a patina of life, even when the people are long gone.  There are marks, abandoned things, echoes of life.

So, the work is about memory – both the physical and the social – of Birmingham.  Its prominent buildings like the Conservatoire to the ordinary, like shops in the Jewellery Quarter.

The work is not some vast vista documenting facades and huge volumes, it is more about the intimate, the detail, the lost moments, the leftover objects.

The exhibition is an exploration of the dust of time; dust as the sign of passing.  The work divides into three very different media – I have been experimenting with concrete and this has become solid, tangible tablets, like a permanent memorial to the objects that will be gone, forever.  Concrete is that hard material, almost like a remaking from dust.  As a counterpoint, the other media is projection, where I will be creating an opportunity for the gallery visitor to see images in constantly rolling pairs – these are more transient, about light and moments of observation.  So one thing you can touch, the other is fleeting.  The third means for showing is the traditional, high quality, limited edition print, framed and behind glass, to demonstrate that the work is rooted and can be regarded in a conventional sense.

Notes

Stacey Barnfield image from, company website, accessed 13.5.2018

Ruth Millington image from Twitter (@ruthmillington) accessed 13.5.2018

 

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Getting one’s head outside the Black Box

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, Week 4

In reviewing the presentations from week 4 I have chosen from the wide array of poetical sources a small number which chime or challenge me into think about my practice and its techniques.

Collage work such as Hockney (1986) (ref 1), as a form of ‘post-photography’, is “work that considers the objectness of a photograph” according to Geoffrey Batchen (2000) (ref 2).  This overt and explicit overlaying draws attention to the multiplicity of ‘edges’ whist simultaneously creating a whole, wide view.  This is very much focused on the artist as the maker, whereas there is a strong reminder by Joanna Zylinska (2016) (ref 3) of the process that is largely automated in the making of images “The Human agency required to make a decision about what and how to photograph is only one small part of what goes on in the field of photography, even though it is made to stand in for the whole of photography as such.” 

In his talk Flusser speaks of “photographers dance around an event” thus implying a multiplicity of shots with a roving eye on composition required at every step (ref 4)

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figure 1

Richard Kolker (ref 5) studied a sixteen year old girl in the tradition between teenage hood to womanhood and used software to trace her movement and stance using Microsoft Kinect Sensor, a physical/virtual interface, to plot lines which are then shown on a series of neutral backdrops as constructs.  These images (fig 1) are not abstract, they clearly denote a human form and are a highly worked example of Zylinska’s observation of process.  There was a subject, a process and an image; highly distilled but nevertheless very close to what we may choose to call a photograph.

Practice

I am now asking myself about the limitations of my technique and particularly my equipment which are now reaching a higher consciousness for me.  I realise and acknowledge that I was building into my thinking about image making these boundaries and limitations; lens focal length, camera weight and portability, air freight restrictions, the unknown character of shooting on film (and the reverting to digital with regularity), my own eyesight (I wear veridical glasses), restricted darkroom access and the limits on time, complexity of cameras and recalling controls on each shoot, image loss anxiety, economic cost and software acquisition and ignorance.

So there is much to do, to think, to do and to act on to hone my approach especially in terms of the technical equipment.

References

1 http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/105374/david-hockney-pearblossom-hwy-11-18th-april-1986-2-british-april-11-18-1986/?dz=0.5000,0.3433,0.91 accessed 22nd June 2017

2 Batchen, G. (2000) Post-Photography. In: G. Batchen (2000) Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History, Cambridge, Mass, London: The MIT Press, pp. 108–127

3 Zylinska, J. (2016) The Creative Power of Nonhuman Photography. In: K. Kuc and J. Zylinska, eds. Photomediations: A Reader. London: Open Humanities Press, pp. 201–224

4  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWcX3XQyukg accessed 23rd June 2017

5 http://www.richardkolker.com/reduced.htm accessed 23rd June 2017

‘Hands Off’ an Exercise in Not Making Images.

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, Week 4

This proved to be an provocative stage of learning.  We were tasked with not making images uses the established methods in one’s practice. I was thus faced with the choices which began to open up from what felt like a restrictive ploy but actually opened a metaphoric window onto two new trains of thought.

The task was to make work in a 24 hour period on the longest day of the year, 21st June 2017, exploring the new then posting the outputs on the VLE portal and via programmed webinars.

My initial reaction was go ‘back to basics’ and test out techniques I had not ever explored, either using photograms or cyanotype papers.  A trawl of web based retailers did not guarantee delivery before the day of activity.  I had decided that it would be a group project using wither of these media.  This group idea led me to creating a short piece on the past and future of a central regeneration project in Birmingham , UK, known as Paradise Circus.  I created a 4 page paper to share with 5 colleagues, set out here.

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I invited answers to two questions, one about the past, the other the future.  I deliberately asked about feelings about both states.  All 5 were completed on the day of 21st June.

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The second, parallel project was very different and came about through a discussion with a peer, Simon Fremont.  We held a late night debate about practice, technique and challenged each-other’s thinking.  I was particularly feeling ‘old fashioned’ in using 21st century versions of 19th century inventions, capturing light, space and making prints (to distil an enormously complex process and all the thinking that goes with it).  I then downloaded an app called Splash onto my iPhone and started using it in my work meetings (one of which interestingly was in a huge 19th century space), my garden bedroom and, least successfully, on my own head.  As a free app it is crude in its execution and as it is stitching in real time the complete image model tends to make errors, as can be seen below.  However it was the first time I had created a ‘spherical’ image.

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Practice

These two exercised have helped advance and consolidate my work.

The consolidation comes from the appreciation that photographic work is about collaborative ventures and engaging others in image making and now in textual narrative is likely to find its way into my cross media work in future.

The largest and most advancing leap is the creation of images that are spherical panoramas of spaces.  As I work in buildings and structures which are going through transition there is a new opportunity to widen the visual capture by ‘mapping’ whole spaces and finding ways (VR and more) to recreate those spaces that are disappearing from reality and making them recur in a new reality.

Links

Splash IoS app https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/splash/id1057262494?ls=1&mt=8 (if link does not work try from your phone)

For the textual engagement project:

http://www.paradisebirmingham.co.uk/the-vision/

http://www.john-madin.info/

An Emerging Methodology

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, Week 4

My Evolution

My thinking about making work, thus my practice and strategy and indeed methodology, are on my mind. Week 4 of the Surfaces and Strategies module has led me to develop my writing about my work.

My early writing on practice on this site included minimalism followed by a  review.

I then recorded approaches and  practitioners that I could draw on  Art movement a Dutch style and the imprint of human intervention leading to a review of places/surfaces to show

On being uneasy about a change in shooting location container city, on testing out and developing my skills and kit using film time.

So, there is an ongoing and revealing journey, cogitating, revolving and gelling in my own mind and my goal is to able able to succinctly narrate my practice.

Where now?

I have uncovered a purposeful definition of methodology;

“A system of broad principles or rules from which specific methods or procedures may be derived to interpret or solve different problems within the scope of a particular discipline. Unlike an algorithm, a methodology is not a formula but a set of practices”.

From http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/methodology.html accessed 23rd June 2917

I have reached a point where I can describe my approach conceptually, which is satisfying because it provides a matrix whereby I am able to test an idea against and if it proves an appropriate fit it will then smoothly ‘plug-in’ to the matrix.


 

My practice is centred on Documenting Memories

It is about liminality, the state of change and transition that leads to birth : life : death : rebirth.

Each state casts off, but emerges from, its predecessor; my practice intent is to record the previous; the preceding state and the interstitial.

I equip myself with the techniques to capture the whole, the intimate, the trace, the space and the material.

I reinterpret via visual strategies to provide an experience of memory.

 


 

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

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

desk

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.

ends

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

TT

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.