“A photograph is a subjective impression. It is what the photographer sees. No matter how hard we try to get into the skin, into the feeling of the subject or situation, however much we empathize, it is still what we see that comes out in the images, it is our reaction to the subject and in the end, the whole corpus of our work becomes a portrait of ourselves.”
– Marilyn Silverstone
I skipped this exercise the first time I came across it more than a month ago, I didn’t get it then, and only just about think I get it this time around: something I have empathy with but something that I need to show the distance that exists between us too? Tricky. Then, the brief, as can be seen above, points out that we shouldn’t be really looking for any of that but rather the unexpected, the fortuitously discovered elements within the frame of the selected shots (which we have already looked at here in Ex 1.4. as well as in part two of this course Imaginitaive Places particularly Ex 2.2), erm, so, forgive me if I seemed a tad baffled here.
Still, a challenging way to approach my own photos – what did I miss? Why didn’t I see that/those before? How often does this happen and how can it be used? Is it an extra hidden vision? Or could it be classed as a problem for not having seen it/them the first time around? And when would the opposite be desirable?
Selection and concept
The following shots were taken over a week period late Nov 2016.
I was looking for something that I had an affinity with, could empathize with and yet still have a distance with which to work with. Here are a few of my first ideas: people going to church; my kids; my work. I have to be honest, nothing else seemed to pop into my head. The church idea soon fizzled out probably due to not actually having any empathy with that whole concept bar a mild curiosity. I thought about my students (I am a langauge teacher to people of all ages) where there would certainly be a plethora of personalities, faces, textures, eyes, and colours to work with. Although, I did have a few issues with student permissions (from my schools) and blah blah blah so I shelved that one for another time: I wanted this to be smooth, no grief please.
So the easy option was to use my family. So I did.
I had been looking back at some shots of the family – or rather the kids (the wife hates being photographed – just like I do!) and thought that I could retake a few of them (especially some double exposures – a ‘happy weakness’ of mine, as I like to call it!).
This double exposure was something that I had (and have) been playing with for about a year or so (see here), and thought that it would be a technique that I could add to this little project (originally inspired by seeing Sara K. Byrne’s work – great name huh?). I just love the almost 35mm film-like quality of the 25mm lens and the double exposure’s exposure. (Is that last sentence ever so cacophonic, or is that just me?)
From this shot, my double exposure inspiration developed for this task, or at least towards the end of it.
As much as I tried for this task, I just couldn’t help but focus on composition and the dynamics of the frame and its power – it’s what we’ve been learning to do! The photographs from shot 2 through to shot 6 have been quite carefully framed and have that artistic feel and balance to them that I seem to see and crave. Shot 7 through to shot 10, however, are much more spontaneous – I was looking at the content (the people) and trying desperately not to focus on the frame. It was almost as if I were looking for a snapshot aesthetic as opposed to my more usual clinical eye that I am more used to relying on. Nonetheless, interestingly, looking back at shots 6 to 10 there still seems to be a fair amount of unconscious compositional order.
This was something refreshing, if a little scary to let go of that discipline that I normally use (consciously or unconsciously try to use), but it did feel liberating, exciting, and different.
With the last four shots (7 to 10) above, I feel that it was subsequently easier to notice new things in the frame; easier to discover effects and moods that seemed to be concealed to me at the time of shooting (those ‘included’ yellow books on the shelf; the wall units ‘framing’ the banana eating lad; the pink unfocused leg; the poised thumbs). But were they really concealed to me? If anything, I think I just took a much quicker approach to shooting, predicting the scene as well as just trying to grab them before they moved out of view. Something that I don’t really do as a rule, I tend to observe, plan, move around and then shoot away (although I do shoot with a gut feeling too, but not with any kind of rush or panic).
This felt new.
If I had to choose one or two shots from this mini set, I would probably select shot 9 or 10. Shot 9 for its spontaneity (and shot 4 for that matter), and shot 10 for the burnt out background giving emphasis to the face and body stance – something that I pulled out of the shadows with post production, although not too much, as can be seen below from the contact sheet with the original pre-edited PA295141 JPEG (again demonstrating the Micro Four Thirds impressive “small” sensor and decent processing ability).
This first batch of double exposures have been edited with quite a lot of fun had with levels (contrast/blacks mainly).
I’m not too sure how this set “explores the distance” between me and the subjects. Perhaps these photographs suggest the mystery of one’s own children; the esoteric nature of their futures and a parent’s preoccupations regarding their inscrutable, enigmatic and intangible fate? Surely there’s a psychological distance of not knowing these outcomes that permeates here, as well as, possibly, estrangement?
Could these images suggest the organic nature of thoughts, dreams and aspirations? Or the unfathomable disposition and precariousness of ‘self’?
Do they imply that nature is within us as she is outside, always guiding us through the tribulations of modern life? Or perhaps they suggest the ephemeral qualities of life and the fleeting moment – much like the plant’s relatively brief cycle? All of which could be said to heighten and exemplify a feeling of distance that suggests helplessness perhaps, or hope even depending on your point of view.
Or are these just pretty patterns? And can their meaning(s) only be perceived when they are viewed by an audience that brings its own cultural knowledge to decipher the conceptual mystery of the images – assuming there’s a mystery to be solved? Couldn’t that be classed as disassociation too, especially if the viewer’s culture differs drastically from the cultural context and content of the image they are looking at? Not all images speak the same universal language, do they? How important is the audience’s expected pre-existing knowledge of the intended meaning (if there is one), its specific symbols and signs (if there are any), as well as how that ‘meaning’ is presented physically for the viewer?¹
Ultimately, these images mean absolutely nothing. They are just pixels on a screen anyway, it’s debatable that they have ever really existed at all, or ever will. If these photographs were left in a forest with no one to look upon them would they even exist?
And here too, doesn’t this demonstrate a lack of clarity, an ambiguity of meaning and purpose? All of which alludes to the presence of doubt; doubt that manifests itself as distance through the incomprehension of unanswered, and unanswerable, questions that arise from it.
Naturally, I find them pertinent, lovely, magical even, and that’s all that matters. I don’t want to understand them, I don’t need to. Aren’t they part of me anyway? Do you understand all the things that are part of you and that make you? Do you even need to?
Where am I going with this?
Anyway, time for the final selection of pictures.
With shots 15 to 16 I tried to purposely make some ‘mistakes’: meaning that, above all, I tried not to be too worried about getting the ‘right’ framing (whatever that actually means), or get the second subject (the walking girl) perfectly within the frame. As with the first batch of shots above, the more relaxed approach to capturing the content has allowed me to see anew (especially with shot 16 where cutting limbs off would have been seen as sacrilege to me as little as a couple of weeks ago).
To be able to take ‘different’ photos, something that one would hope for by doing a course like this I suppose, feels intriguing, liberating and exciting. To begin to see and interpret photographs for what, in this case, seems like the first time is a truly enlightening sensation and gives me an electrifying feeling towards both taking future shots and looking at old photos too; the more we learn, the more we realise there is to learn.
This exercise had originally seemed ridiculously pointless to me, whereas now it seems like a ridiculously legitimate, bona fide lesson, in more ways than one, and hopefully in ways that I will continue to discover, become familiar with, and develop over the upcoming modules.
¹Thanks to Short’s Signs and Symbols chapter (pp120-140) from this book and especially p133 from which I have developed the above question.
Short, M. (2011). Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Academia.
Soutter, L. (2013). Why art photography? New York: Routledge.
Fried, M. (2008). Why photography matters as art as never before. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sara K Byrne. (2016). DOUBLE EXPOSURES – Sara K Byrne. [online] Available at: http://sarakbyrne.com/about-2/double-exposures-2/ [Accessed 31 Oct. 2016].
Photographer, C. (2016). Human Animals. [online] Corey Arnold – Photographer. Available at: http://www.coreyfishes.com/albums/human-animals/ [Accessed 16 Oct. 2016].
Flickr. (2016). Multiples. [online] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinbyrne1971/albums/72157667694553265 [Accessed 31 Oct. 2016].