Though I did not know it at the time, my involvement with photography began as part of a process of survival and escapism; a way of gaining a sense of control of events in a difficult family environment. My choice as a child was to look through an aperture and see a tinted and distorted version of reality, a reduced version of my environment, an experience which gave me a sense of fantasy and magic.
I had already begun manipulating scenes as a child, placing objects and posing people, and I already possessed a conventional embedding of photographic styling from existing family images, and other images I must surely have seen growing up.
Through adulthood I felt an increasing need to understand myself and the reasons for my continued photographing. The creative choices I have made, and continue to make, are often driven by challenging personal circumstances, a constant sense of searching for some kind of settlement, and reflections on a hard past. In recent years I have become much more interested in the notion of human decision-making in photography, and the idea that taking a photograph represents that “I have decided that seeing this is worth recording” (Berger, 2013, p25). I am also interested in photography where visual selection is not directly chosen – something which I will perhaps explore in more detail in the future. I am always in quite a strange place with photography; I have a kind of love/hate relationship with it in that I am driven daily to take photographs, but not understanding fully why I do this frustrates me endlessly.
For the last decade or so, I have had many projects / many ideas bubbling in my mind. At present, for example, I have the snapshots which are a part of my everyday (35mm, ongoing), landscape photographs which take place during my frequent walks (digital, ongoing), and specific one off projects which I am working towards developing, e.g. boxes containing scenes which I plan to create and photograph; still life work; etc. I have never felt the need to follow any one path or style, and do not enjoy one thing more than another – each feels necessary in its own way. Though this makes for difficult ‘marketing’, I cannot help but feel that I can only go to wherever I am carried – as cliched as it sounds – it really is a kind of inner drive, one that feel almost out of my hands. I am, of course, influenced by a multitude of external factors and inspired by other materials, subconsciously and otherwise. I have always felt that what I produce is entirely reactionary to the situation I am in. I am truly impulsive. Some images simply have to be made and I cannot rest then until I have made them. It’s not a great way to be in professional terms, but it’s who I am, and I am not sure if I can ever rein it in. I hope this MA helps me find that out.
Photography in recent years has also been something of a cathartic process; it successfully brought me to a phase of my life in which my past and self are accepted and I can move forward. in a freer way. I find I am continually interested in learning about theories of others, but rarely find any one theorist whom I sit with completely comfortably. I am always asking questions of what I read, but this, I feel, is positive and developmental. I am very interested in the work of so many creatives, too, and find inspiration in work by artists, writers, filmmakers, photographers etc. I approach the work of others with openness, and truly value creative expression whether celebritised or not. There are so many photographers that I could refer to as inspirations, different artists inspire me in relation to different elements of my own experimentation, it was hard to limit it here. It is refreshing when I find projects or practitioners whose life journeys have also been challenging/difficult/unconventional, those who do it their own way.
“The photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party.
But I’m not crashing; this is my party.” (Goldin in Remes, 2010).
“I don’t know how to navigate this world at all.
But I don’t know—I don’t know, what is the aim?”
(Goldin in Hell, 2018)
Nan Goldin’s realist photographs draw me in, not only her 1980s collection of 35mm snapshots entitled Ballad of Sexual Dependency, but Goldin herself as an intriguing character. Having famously captured an era, in hundreds of gritty colour images, Goldin’s approach is harmless in intention. She is quoted as saying, “My desire is to preserve the sense of people’s lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them.” (Goldin in Remes, 2010). Her resilient use of analogue film and her self-confessed anti-documentary approach are reiterated in the 2009 Sem Presser interview “Chasing a ghost”, a phrase for which the general meaning is to be looking for something that isn’t there. Nan Goldin was very much a part of the circle of people that she photographed, and her belief is that “only the people from a tribe could photograph that tribe.” (Goldin, 2009).
Goldin’s work is blatantly honest; “the pictures hide nothing. They proceed from a sensibility and a community that admits all: lust, loneliness, black eyes, toilets, illness, and death, along with kindness, affection, sensuality, style, exuberance, and, most of all, beauty.” (Hell, 2018). Apart from depicting an era in which I spent my early teenage years, one major appeal for me of Goldin’s work is her lack of technical restraint; to me she represents a kind of freedom as well as a basic need to connect with other people, whilst the snapshot format enters us into bedrooms, bathrooms and private spaces, offering a kind of intimate honesty:
“Goldin’s representation of the transgressions of urban dwellers pays little attention to “the sacrosanct quality of the print, nor the basic rules of composition and framing.” Goldin uses a snapshot technique. As she puts it: “It’s the form of photography that is most defined by love. People … take them to remember people.”” (Remes, 2010)
In a 2018 interview Goldin discusses the slideshows that she continues to make from existing images, acknowledging the choices that create the sequences. She confesses that shooting in quantities results in good work. “If you take enough pictures, you’ll get a pearl. […] And that was the thing, I took so many pictures anybody would have gotten a good picture if they had taken as many as mine. It’s all about editing. (Goldin in Hell, 2018)
Billingham’s snapshots reflect a set of difficult family circumstances, experiencing poverty and alcoholism for example. Like Goldin, Billingham’s subjects are within his own ‘tribe’, more specifically, his direct family. “Billingham’s work is both intimate and distanced, but only a family member could get the privileged access that the artist has to his subjects.” (Remes, 2010)
The use of blur in Billingham’s family work takes on metaphorical meaning, as a symbol for closeness – or lack of – between Billingham and his father “Billingham’s extremely close-up images and the resulting blur effect suggest the impossibility of closeness. The mental or psychological closeness is unreachable no matter how close one is physically.” (Remes, 2010)
Blur is a technique I have also used in my work, and this statement resonates with me, not only in terms of closeness but also with acknowledgment to the limitations of photography, an area which continues to prod me to explore it. His work utilises the 35mm colour snapshot, a medium that has been a part of my own life for a long time and continues to be so.
“Billingham’s work could be seen as classic vérité documentary, but they were also clearly private and personal photographs. They were confessional, relational, deeply connected to his own being, yet at a remove and distant – as if he were set apart from something that also consumed him.” (Seymour,2018)
Billingham’s creation of a movie based upon the story of his family situation is an interesting progression and he is acknowledged for the fastidiousness of his direction in reflecting as honestly as possible the behaviours of his family carried out by actors. I can relate to the very personal nature of his work and find it inspiring that there is wider interest in his story, as the many articles and interviews available indicate. “Few have gone to the lengths that Billingham has to create something that meant so much – in a purely internal way.” (Seymour,2018)
The personal nature of the Ray’s a Laugh project strikes a chord with many viewers, and when they were exhibited in the 1990s, they were described as “easily the most truthful and affecting things on display.” (Adams, 2016)
I am also inspired by Billingham’s positivity. “If he does have any hurt about it, he’s not a haunted person, he’s a joyful person. And that’s what is really hard, because a lot of people get into this industry because they’re trying to have this catharsis. I’m sure most of us are, but he’s different.” (Seymour,2018) This idea of catharsis is one that I have, in hindsight, worked through, especially during my undergraduate degree. To come out of the other side of that process is quite something, as the past can be looked back at in an objective and accepting way and this is liberating. Billingham, to me, represents liberation from childhood bindings. Billingham’s upbringing was one of difficulty “It departs from the typical images of wedding/new baby/graduation/birthday family photographs, revealing the artist’s rough childhood surroundings and life in a council flat.” (Remes, 2010) Living in hardship, his access to photography was limited, making him think more about the images he took.
“My parents maybe had, like, a 110 pocket camera once, but it was always too expensive to develop the films. Those pictures I took of my dad were quite rare too. I took time over each one, probably only took 10 rolls that year.”
(Billingham in Adams, 2016)
Examples of some of my own choices made in photography:
In terms of structured choices, I have many examples of these in my work, one past example being the project ‘safe as houses’.
I decided to create a project revisiting the mobile home site on which my family had once lived. For this work, I made many decisions in advance with regard to visual approach. Firstly, I decided to use my childhood camera – a 126 pocket instamatic – for the shoot. I wanted the familiar square 1970s format. I knew 126 would be hard to source and of poorer quality, but decided this was the approach I wanted to take to try and create a project with some authenticity to my childhood. Though I knew that the resulting images would be low grade and unpredictable in tone, the colours were not something I had control over and I was content with the unpredictability of the results. I consciously chose to re-photograph some of the features that were still present at the site in which we lived, including the old street lamps, and the same fence panels. (In my original childhood images the panels had just been installed and I was astounded that they were still there 40 years later.) The safe as houses project had been a retrospective look at my life as a small child and I felt that only 126 film would have been appropriate for this work.
For other projects, such as ‘impossible freedom’ (2014), I decided to use black and white film, and to print the images with a very dark tone as they were reflections of a sense of restriction/oppression in the domestic environment which I wanted to convey to the viewer. I chose to frame the images without mounts, so that they were boxed in tightly to add to the sense of confinement. For me, choices made in the visual aesthetic of a project should be relevant to the concept as far as practicable.
I feel that these projects were successful on a personal level, i.e. success defined by my drive to better understand myself and my relationship with others/the wider world. I have always felt driven by process over output and it is the processes of making that carries me, day to day. My reasons for studying photography in the first place were to enable me to understand better why I take photographs at all, and since my degree (2011-2014), this has been the main driver behind what I do, with a focus more recently on the processes of photographic practice itself.
Successful? … or less so
Measuring success outside of my own head depends upon the responses of others. People have generally seemed to respond well to the work that I have done to date and exhibited or shared. In hindsight I felt that ‘impossible freedom’ was much too dark and too inward looking for most. No one really understood it, or the text which accompanied it, but I didn’t really expect them to; it came about through a unique set of personal circumstances and I am not sure it matters in this case whether the underlying story was clear to others, as long as others were able to get something from the work. I am not sure that I would deem it a ‘success’, though.
The project ‘Peripheral Strangers’ has always seems to prompt very interesting perspectives and discussions about the nature of photography itself, voyeurism, privacy and surveillance, a result which I was very happy with and I have always felt quite proud of the concept underpinning this work.
Visually, I chose to adopt a square vintage style format as I was using 1980s images from my own personal albums. I also chose to exhibit it in a formation that suggested relationships between the people in the images. This took much time to plan, but I was happy with the final order of images. My peers liked the project and visitors to the exhibition responded very well. My own feelings are that, externally, dialogue created is a good indicator of a successful project, if it makes people think and talk.
A visual weakness of peripheral strangers was that it needed larger exhibition prints, but I was very limited by budget and managed only one full size print of 1m x 1m in which the grain was very visible as was the intention. In my mind, all the images were meant to be this large. I also needed more consistency as the graininess was very variable throughout. Also, by featuring people without their knowledge or consent, my own conscience added to the weakness of this work. I have always wrestled with the idea of commercial usage from the image of others outside my own tribe, as Nan Goldin once said – see above. (Goldin, 2009)
More recently, my MA work has been a combination of landscape with underlying themes of tension; contradiction between inner and outer worlds; as well as completely experimental work exploring the practice of photography itself. The latter I found more rewarding to create as I felt the results were something very different. Technically, there is always an expectation of crispness in photography but I sometimes find pinsharp photographs quite stark to look at and have a tendency to lean towards work that is either softened in some way or blatant about its imperfections/processes. It would have been impossible to create this work with sharpness due to the nature of the process itself. Sharpness definitely has its place, especially in the commercial world. There is also an expectation of very large prints in contemporary art photography most of the time, and though these are often visually impacting, it is not always necessary, I feel, and is another choice on the table which, ideally, would remain relevant to the concept of the work.
Where to go next?
- The snapshots will continue, for now. I will collect them into a ‘project’ one day. They seem to be ‘becoming’ one by themselves and I also have a lot of film rolls still to process from the last few years.
- The landscape – I expect I will continue to be pulled in by those moments in which the light is so wonderful or mysterious that I cannot help but take out a camera that very second.
- Projects, ideas which rise and fall in my mind. (see below).
- Research – I want to get back on track with the research I began some time ago, exploring experience from a philosophical perspective and seeing what takes place visually.
I have always enjoyed working with tactile materials and enjoying what I do is absolutely key. I like to paint and draw and make collages. I like to write, creatively and otherwise. I like to cut things up, use ‘waste’ photographs, too, giving them new life. All in all, I like to try and make something from more-or-less nothing.
In 2013 produced a project (Rooms) that used cutouts from my family album and in my mind I have a further development to this approach, creating scenes in boxes to look in on the inner domains of home and self, creating a kind of spectacle, using myself, elements of my dreams and experiences. I began experimenting with boxes, lights and paper last season, and I am hoping now to begin this again. It will remain a frustration until I achieve it.
I have another text and image project which I am exploring, testing whether an image is ever enough. It is in progress …
My domestic environment; cooking, cleaning, chores, hard work, moments of tension and upheaval. Nothing is ever quite as it should be. I often photograph in this world and may develop a focused body of work on this theme – or this may fall in with the boxes (above). I aim to upload some images to this as soon as I get a chance.
Continuing my explorations of photography, of what I am doing, using conventions of still life but revealing limitations and imperfections. The still life above is an example of this.
Working on limited means, I do whatever I can with the resources that I have, but I am productive and always working on/trying/planning something. Working directly with paper is the ideal material for me. It is freely available. Ideally I would work with film much more, get back in the darkroom perhaps, but digital allows me to continue.
I continue my interest in the inclusion of other elements within photographs; many photographers I talk to recoil when I express that I often find satisfaction in grit, grain and dust, scratches, water, stains, or whatever needs to be there. To me, these are sometimes integral parts of the story, for example Stephen Gill’s use of insects and the burying of his paper prints in the ground. A bit of physical grit also reinforces the fact that we are looking at photograph as object, a printed surface and not the depicted thing itself. It also makes images unique – making one-offs is something I often think about.
Traditional processes fascinate me; I really enjoyed the darkroom when I had the opportunity, and it has been some years since I did. I find ambrotypes appealing; I have never had the opportunity to try this process and would like to. Sally Mann‘s portraits are engaging and beautiful, and her story fascinates me, too.
Also, I have just got a printer which is a dream for me; I have been longing to print again.
Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph
New York: Aperture
Billingham, R. in Adams, T. (2016) Richard Billingham: ‘I just hated growing up in that tower block’, The Guardian, The Observer:Photography, 13 March 2016, available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/13/richard-Billingham-tower-block-white-dee-rays-a-laugh-liz [Accessed 9th January 2019]
Goldin, N. (1979) Trixie on the cot, NYC, 1979 [Photograph]
Available at: https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/10829 [Accessed 25 January 2019]
Goldin, N. (1991) Gina at Bruce’s dinner party, NYC, 1991. [Photograph]
Available at: https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/10831
[Accessed 25 January 2019]
Goldin, N. (2009) Lecture: Nan Goldin (2009 Sem Presser) [Video] World Press Photo Foundation, May 18, 2017, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qV7HEai7O4 [Accessed 10th January 2019]
Hell, R. (2018) Downtown Legend Richard Hell Interviews Nan Goldin About Art, Opioids, and the Sadness of Life on the Fringes, ArtNet, 8 November 2018, available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/nan-goldin-richard-hell-interview-1387933
[Accessed 10th January 2019]
NOWNESS (2016) “Ray” by Richard Billingham [Video], Feb 25, 2016, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bz0Rc4U65xw [Accessed 25th January 2019]
Remes, O. (2010) Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham’s ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ Series” (2007), April 21 2010, ASX, Available at https://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/04/theory-reinterpreting-unconventional.html, [Accessed 9th January 2019]
Seymour, T. (2018) Richard Billingham’s new film Ray & Liz, British Journal of Photography, 19 October 2018, available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2018/10/ray-liz/ [Accessed 9th January 2019]