Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Manchester Art Gallery – The First Cut

I visited several galleries and exhibitions during the week in Paris and I’m not sure when I’m going to get them all written up in here.  It will happen, eventually.  But I’m going to leapfrog the French experience (!) and go straight to a mention of an exhibition that I saw at Manchester Art Gallery on Sunday.  It’s called The First Cut
and features the work of around 30 artists on an overall theme of paper.  It was beautiful, fascinating, inspiring and just downright good.  I strongly recommend a visit.
It’s hard to pick out ‘favourites’; the work was all so creative and inspiring.  Log-Bin Chen uses woodworking tools to carve busts and figures from stacks of old books e.g. obsolete New York telephone directories. This article gives you an idea - here. Peter Callesen, conversely, creates remarkable art from single sheets of A4 paper, for example, look at these. Manabu Hangai had created a wonderful forest and Rob Ryan's work is well-known and instantly recognisable.  I find what Georgia Russell does with books absolutely breathtaking – try this for starters - The Story of Art – but there are dozens more. And I strongly recommend anyone reading this blog to look at a film called ‘Going West’, on this site http://www.andersenm.com/. I could go on!

It has really made me think about future photographic projects.  The ways in which these artists have taken simple materials and transformed them into something ‘else’, something with another life, another meaning; often a new existence that has some sort of relationship to their previous form, but almost transported to another dimension.  After completing Assignment Two, I had referred to a possible exploration of conceptual still life images.  Now I’m thinking about materials, everyday objects, combined, transposed ...!

OK – I did say it was an inspiring exhibition!  It will be back to my Paris Photo images shortly – but I don’t think the impact of this visit is going to go away.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Assignment Three – Paris Photo – Progress Report 2

I shot just under 30 images on my first day at Paris Photo and around 100 over a 3-4 hour period the following day, after I had my ‘direction’ planned as explained in the previous post.  Those numbers include a few repeats and re-tries here and there, but I have about 100-120 basic images from which to work.  Day two was more focused, of course, and besides responding to particular opportunities that arose, I was looking for:

·         Some images taken outside the event that would set the (‘grand’) scene; that might indicate the elitist angle; that might position the event as ‘divorced’ from the ‘real world’ – or make a comparison at least.

·         To follow up the ‘elitist’ theme inside the event – the VIP Lounge & its grand staircase; the ‘types’.

·         Possibly some indications that business was being done/discussed – the market;

·         Book signings with opportunities for some ‘celebrity shots’ (!);

·         And, of course, busy photos of activity and movement.

I implemented most of these to some degree, with varying success; and also added detail shots, including some ‘price labels’ to indicate the monetary values being asked; some images to stress the importance given to photobooks in the event; and naturally a few responses to opportunities for juxtapositions etc.

In connection with the latter angle, I spent some frustrating minutes trying to implement what seemed like a good idea at the time – capturing someone’s head against the white central area of an abstract, colourful image that was positioned close to the entrance.  There were always too many people around (including an attendant who was discouraging ‘punters’ from brushing against this particular piece and became suspicious of me ‘lurking’) or I just missed timing it correctly or it wasn’t a very interesting head ...  However, I’ve included some of the results below – partly because it illustrates how easy it is to waste one’s time pursuing what would not have been that great a shot anyway, but also because I think there is a certain something about the shots when they appear together in this way.  Perhaps, chiefly, there is a testament to the folly of trying to be clever!

However, over the last week, I’ve had the chance to review my 100+ images and have narrowed them down, so far, to a long list of 44.  I’m not 100% happy with my handling of the new camera, in truth.  I did admit it was a risk.  It performs well in the lowish light of an exhibition-type environment and was, in many ways, ideal for the job.  But I was less used to handling it and sometimes didn’t quite get my settings right.  More importantly, I think I made a few basic technical and handling errors – even hand movement at times, which is irritating and has been the reason for discounting some of the images.  However, I do feel that there will be enough workable results from this 44 to deliver a satisfactory result on the assignment.  I’ve included that set as a set of contact sheets.  My tutor suggested this approach after Assignment One, so here goes.

Next step is to work out how I’m going to handle the submission; how many to submit; and, of course, which to select from this full set.  They’ve only had some basic processing at this stage, so there will be more work to do on the selected images anyway.

Assignment Three – Paris Photo – Progress Report 1

I’ve been back hone from Paris Photo for about a week and have had chance to do an initial process/assessment of my images.  I’ve also written a short piece for the WeAreOCA Blog - 'Un grand marche au Grand Palais'.  The latter was illustrated with a few images, but wasn’t an attempt to rehearse the assignment.

It is worth recording here what happened on the visit to Paris and specifically how I ended up approaching the making of my photos for the assignment.  I took a risk in relying on an entirely new camera with which I had only done some rudimentary familiarisation.  Attendance at two gallery exhibitions before the main event gave me chance for a bit of a dry run.

Above is a selection from a visit to 'Le Bal'Gallery in Montmartre, where images from two pieces of work by Paul Graham were on show.  I also went to 'Jeu de Paume', where there was a Manuel Alvares Bravo retrospective, but photography was prohibited, and to the ‘Maison EuropĂ©enne de la Photographie’, which had an exhibition entitled ‘Photography in France 1950-2000’.  It was a slight misnomer, since there were images by French photographers taken outside France and images by non-French photographers taken in France, but that aside, it was a big and very interesting survey of most strands of photography in the second half of the 20th century.  I was also able to give the camera a real ‘low light’ run since we visited in the evening.

Of course, I only had the opportunity to review these images in the camera at the time, and no chance to actually process them.  So there was still an element of risk.

My intention all along was to visit the main Paris Photo event on two separate days – the first to actually ‘take in’ the event and to assess my opportunities and options for the photo essay; and the second to ‘work’ the event, photographically, on my own, for a few hours, creating the main body of images for the assignment.  I did, naturally, take some photographs on the first day, but broadly speaking, I followed this original plan.  (I did also consider the possibility that the assignment would cover a range of the events going on across Paris, but came to the conclusion that I would be best to focus on the main event itself.)

What did emerge, when I reflected on my impressions from the first day, was a definite direction that I wanted to go with the assignment.  I would photograph Paris Photo for what it is – a market.  On the evening of that first day, I jotted down a series of bullet points that defined how I saw the event after the visit.  I wrote that Paris Photo is:

·         A top-end art market;

·         A ‘grand’ event at the Grand Palais;

·         Somewhat divorced from reality;

·         ‘tiered’ in its own right;

·         More about money than art;

·         About the ‘great and the good’;

·         A coming together;

·         A public display by dealers;

·         About ‘old’ pictures;

·         About the ‘established’;

·         A reluctant performance by some of the artists;

·         A positive statement of photography’s presence;

·         Something of a high-class car boot sale;

·         Comforting and reassuring for those already ‘there’.

Some of those might have been a little overstated after a long day and a few glasses of wine, but they provided a kind of script for my work the next day.  I had also by then decided to forget about the notion of producing a slideshow as well as the main photo essay.

So as not to make this too long a post, I’m going to continue the Progress Report in a separate blog entry, to follow.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Assignment Three – Paris Photo – A Plan (sort of)

Assignment Three is entitled ‘A Photographic Commission’, and the ‘brief’ is, in essence, to come up with an area of interest, in response to which your tutor will brief you for a ‘commissioned’ piece of work.  This follows a series of projects, written pieces, research etc around photojournalism, the photo-story, page layouts, and so on.  Knowing that I was about to visit Paris Photo, I suggested this as a topic; but my ‘brief’ is more or less non-existent – my ‘take’ on it, a ‘self-directed’ assignment.  That’s fine; I’m not complaining; but I do have to give it some thought and do some planning.  Otherwise I’m in danger of falling into the same situation as Assignment One.  My tutor did point me in a couple of directions – Martin Parr’s work at art fairs and an arms fair (including images in his ‘Luxury’ series) and Nick Cunard’s images of Crufts, which are here.  This latter work doesn’t do a lot for me, actually, and I’m not sure how closely images of a dog show relate to Paris Photo – but it does make me reflect on the possibility of a slideshow outcome; of which more later.

The Parr work is a bit more interesting, albeit difficult to ‘pin down’.  I haven’t looked at the ‘Luxury’ book and am unlikely to be able to get a sight of it before going to Paris next week, but I have dug out a few examples, via the Internet, with images from art fairs. This is a good example – typical Parr use of vibrant colour; a ‘clashing’ image; wit and observation; and there are others in similar vein.  Then there is his visit to an arms fair in Abu Dhabi - here.  There’s a longer collection of images on the Magnum site, but these show keen observation of ‘decisive moments’ and visually interesting juxtapositions.  He did, as the Magnun set shows, take plenty of ‘simple’ photographs of people and things, but his own edit for the blog selects those that work most effectively.  So, what I take from Parr’s work is that I must look for visually interesting images – juxtaposition; colour; visual puns; and so on.

Of course, one aspect of this is to consider what will be the eventual outcome.  Is this photo story for a magazine, a newspaper, me, a photographic journal, an art publication, my friends and family, my tutor, OCA, fellow student, Uncle Tom Cobley?  It seems unlikely – not impossible but unlikely – that a weekend colour supplement would be running a photo story on Paris Photo, unless I can find an angle that would be of interest to that type of publication.  It isn’t the sort of story that one would find in a travel magazine such as National Geographic.  Another factor to consider is that I have not yet had time to complete the exercises & projects – but since several of them are about layouts, they can be done afterwards, providing a create sufficient variety and flexibility of images.  My inclination is to have two different, but no mutually exclusive, ideas in the back of my mind as I visit the show and make my pictures – a photo story/essay for a magazine publication aimed at art-based professional photographers and students who might be interested in what the Paris Photo 2012 was like and might be wondering whether they should go to a future event; and a slide show presentation that is Stan’s take, Stan’s response, Stan’s expression of his experience.  It shouldn’t confuse my thinking too much to have both possibilities in mind, and at the same time, it leaves enough scope to create meaningful and personal images of the show.

I have had one or two other practical issues in the back of my mind as well.  What happens if there is ‘no photography’ at the show?  So, a search on images from Paris Photo 2011 reveals some You-Tube footage, which not only helps me prepare by getting an impression of the atmosphere but also shows individuals taking photographs.  As far as I can tell, therefore, that isn’t going to be a problem.  My second practical issue has been ‘which camera?’. The DSLR would be OK, if perhaps a little obvious when looking to take discrete photographs, but the D80 isn’t great in low-light, indoor circumstances.  It’s acceptable, but one has to use relatively slow shutter speeds or put up with significant noise.  My Ricoh compact is certainly very discrete, very handy to carry around, and I’m used to using it in all sorts of circumstances – but it suffers even more from the low light, high ISO noise problem.  Problem solved – I’ve invested in a Fuji x100.  Haven’t left myself an awful lot of time to familiarise myself with it before next week, but I’m sure I’ll cope.  A new toy!

So, off to Paris on Monday and we’ll see how we get on!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Exercise: Revisit Assignment One

I’ve spent a little bit of time on this process over the last 2 or 3 weeks – looking at the original brief, the images I submitted (and those I didn’t), the notes I prepared and the feedback from my tutor.  I’m confident that my submission for assignment was, at least, a personal portfolio of images.  I took photographs that I wanted to take, with subjects, framing, etc that were of interest to me.  In the notes submitted I refer to quite a range of concepts/themes – stone, dilapidation, history, ruggedness, absurdity, survival, adaptation – and all of those are present in the submitted images.  What I didn’t do, looking back now, was narrow that down to a common theme/concept and explore that through the images I prepared and chose.

The feedback was broadly good – a strong collection of images, a critical investigation of the area, good observation and commitment, conveys the atmosphere, good editing – and so on.  But there was a comment that my tutor ‘would have liked to see more focus on one of the strands’, followed up in a subsequent exchange by ‘articulate the motivations behind your images a bit more ...’.  So, once again, it seems to be a case of trying to get more focus and direction.

Thinking about it, there could have been two ways of doing that – 1) essentially have taken the same images but then edit with a strong focus/intent; 2) do more research and thinking up front, choose a theme, then go out and take photos that reflect it.  Seems to me that either could be acceptable.  The first is along the lines of Anish Kapoor – letting the ‘spiritual’ speak through the artist in the creative process & then the ‘reader’ reconnects.  In fact, these are not mutually exclusive.  My ‘personal portfolio’ for Assignment One was, probably, more akin to the first, but reflecting on the assignment now presents an opportunity to use that process as the ‘research’.  What concepts and themes do I see now, when I review the longer set of images from which I made my choice?  What appeals to me and seems to speak about the local area in a voice to which I best relate?  What, in fact, do I want to say about the area?  And what sort of edit does that produce? What new images does it make me want to capture that further the theme.

I’ve spent some time doing just such a review.  There were 35 images in my long list, from which I selected 15 (probably too many) for the submission.  I already had some prints of the submitted ones, but I’ve printed off the others and been shuffling them around, re-selecting and, I guess, re-reading.  It seems to me that what I want to say about life in this corner of the Holme Valley (and I always intended to focus the assignment into a very narrow geography – bit like painter George Shaw in my earlier posts & his images from within a couple of hundred metres of where he grew up) was/is:

·         Life is tough;

·         Life is absurd;

·         Life is rarely pretty;

·         But we can make something of it.

And, of course, those are ideas that apply to life in general, not just the Holme Valley; universal concepts that are as much about man and his struggle to survive as they are about me creating images that evoke the neighbourhood where I live.  And the ‘making something of it’ is as much about my images being the ‘making’ as it is about documenting what others have ‘made’.  Bringing the techniques of the sublime landscape image to a shot of a pig farm is, in itself, a metaphor for man making the best of his lot.

So, where does that leave me in reviewing my images for Assignment One?  It informs my edit of the images that I’ve already taken and it provides direction for me to continue to create images that will add to the portfolio.  It provides me with a focus, when I’m out with the camera, locally; and I can continue to add/develop, so that by the time I submit for assessment I have a more focused, more clearly directed set of images for this assignment.  It’s something I can continue to work on over the months to that stage – and beyond, of course.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Assignment Two – Feedback

I got the feedback on Assignment Two just over a week ago, but hadn’t had an opportunity, until now, to record reflections in here.  Some of the opening words caused initial apprehension; ‘... you may be disappointed ...’ and ‘... to be quite honest ...’ plus ‘...I’m really struggling ...’ didn’t augur well for what might follow.  But when the latter phrase led into ‘... to think of suggestions to improve upon this ...’ and the words ‘... fantastic piece of work ...’ came shortly after, I realised I was being led slightly down the garden path!! Thanks, Jesse!  I’ve broken with the normal code of modesty and quoted because, let’s be honest, that sort of feedback doesn’t come too often so ‘what the hell’ let’s get out the trumpet and blow it!

There are, of course and despite the intro, a few good suggestions e.g. some other lines of research, some interesting angles on the design, and a comparison that I like – with Edgar Martins’ night landscapes on beaches http://www.edgarmartins.com/ (‘The Accidental Theorist’ project).  I’ve seen and enjoyed Martins’ work before, including some of the beach images, but I hadn’t made this connection.  And I hadn’t really studied him - I need to look more closely.

One other useful thought has come to my mind as a result of this positive feedback.  Looking back over my studies with OCA, I have consistently got this sort of response (maybe not quite so glowing!!) when I’ve been working in this sort of ‘controlled’, ‘studio-like’ manner – strong but controlled lighting.  Way back in ‘Art of Photography’ – photographing a queen scallop shell for the ‘lighting’ assignment and the ingredients of ‘flapjack’ as a kind of still life image, for example.  The Martins’ images have a kind of ‘still life’, constructed look about them.  I do enjoy shutting myself away and playing around with compositions, lighting, framing, and I wonder whether – further down the line at Level Three, for example – it might be interesting to explore ‘conceptual still life’, which I guess is what this book cover amounts to.

Really encouraging to get good feedback; I’m definitely not disappointed; now on to Assignment Three, which is a ‘Photo Story’ or ‘Photo Essay’.  I’m going to Paris Photo week after next, which might well turn out to be the subject matter; but I don’t have the time to work through exercises first.  So it might be a case of capturing the images first – my take on the experience - and then structuring the story some weeks later.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Anish Kapoor at the YSP

I had the opportunity, last week, to spend a short time at the Anish Kapoor ‘Flashback’ exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park Link Here.  It’s a travelling exhibition that has also been in Manchester and Nottingham, with around a dozen or so varied pieces of work from different stages of his career. Coincidentally, I’d just read an interview with him in one of the newspapers over the previous weekend in which he’d talked about the way he always works (or directs others to work, since he clearly has a large team of assistants doing most of the day-to-day stuff) on a wide range of projects at any one time, in very different forms, materials and scales.  As the images in the link demonstrate, this small show included examples of his use of vivid colours, with varying materials and surfaces.  It was, as I say, a short visit, but I was particularly interested in his ‘voids’, for example Adam, in which he is ‘creating a state of emptiness’, as it says in the accompanying brochure, leaving the viewer with the sense of looking at nothing.  (Reminds me of walking into a room full of black paintings at the Rothko exhibition a few years ago.)  The brochure goes on to quote Kapoor as saying that he seeks to empty out content and make an empty form but that, of course, “... content is there in a way that’s more surprising than if I’d tried to make a content ... subject matter is somehow not the same as content”.

I’ve got myself into this area of subject matter and content or meaning before, in this earlier post.  It made me go off and do a bit more digging for what Kapoor had to say about it, which led me to this transcript of an interview.  Some key points emerging are:

·         He looks to put subject matter out of the way and, by that means, something else occurs; his objects primary purpose is not interpretative;

·         He believes that you cannot set out to create something spiritual; that comes from other resonances;

·         The spiritual world is latent and the artist finds this latent content;

·         He makes art for himself and then the viewer completes the circle (Barthes – the death of the author); though he acknowledges that the artist can use titling and context to manipulate and seek to invest meaning; but he is interested in the viewer’s immediate translation, and the ‘theoretical stuff comes later’.

So, he seems to see the artist as a kind of ‘medium’, through which the creativity flows from some unknown spiritual source, into the world, where the viewer reads, possibly with some guidance, a spiritual meaning and content in the work.  This almost certainly reflects his Indian roots, one feels – this mystical, spiritual explanation of his creative process.  It isn’t something with which I can comfortably relate – steeped in 60+ years of solid Western capitalist materialistic influence.  Mind you, the previous interview I’d read (Sunday Times, I think) mentioned Kapoor’s £80m+ wealth, but I will resist the temptation to be cynical.  The ‘voids’ did touch me, and I can see how his work does indeed interact powerfully with the viewer.

I did also pick up another relationship between some aspects of his work and the field of photography – surfaces, and the absorbing/reflecting of light.  It’s interesting to compare the deep matte blue surfaces of his voids that absorb light and absorb the viewer’s gaze, with the reflective, shiny surfaces, which return the gaze.  In the exhibition brochure, he refers to the matte surface as the ‘traditional sublime ... deep and absorbing’ but says that the mirrored surfaces ‘... might be a modern sublime ... absolutely present ...’.  I just wonder about this comparison in the context of photographic surfaces – the surface of the print. Personally, I have tended to work mainly with matte papers, but I know that this approach is sometimes criticised because of the absorptive nature of the surface – absorptive of the light by which the viewer is viewing, that is.  Interesting that Kapoor sees that as relating to the ‘traditional sublime’.  If what he says is right, printing on a matte surface should have the effect of drawing in the viewer’s gaze, which is surely what we want to do with a photographic print!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Assignment Two – Evolution of the Final Concept!

Something of a grand title for this post – but not entirely inappropriate, since I’m going to relate the story of the last ten days or so, & how I’ve arrived at my submission for Assignment Two.

I do have a pencil drawing of the very earliest version of this one, but it falls into the ‘not to be shared in public’ category, and so will remain private.  I’m not entirely sure of the actual source of the idea.  It might be some reflection on ‘The Outsider’ and the presence of a coffin in the story, especially since there is also reference to the screwing down (or not) of the lid and whether or not Meursault wants to view his mother’s body.  There again, it might be the couple of days recently spent tidying out our store in which, amongst myriad other rubbish, reside tools, spare screws and nails, and odd bits of wood saved for their perceived future usefulness!  It might also be that I was forming the conclusion that I might struggle to implement the two earlier versions of a cover design for the book; and that perhaps I would be better advised to find an option that was more easily under my own control.

Whatever the origins, here, in the absence of a drawing, is a description of what was in my mind.  I envisaged what we might refer to as a ‘still life’ construction, which used nails, wood and a screw, to evoke the concept of ‘difference’, in particular, the ‘difference’ of Meursault, the ‘outsider’ or the ‘stranger’.  There would be a row of nails, probably on their heads, with points upwards, interrupted at one point by a screw (probably a brass one, to further emphasise ‘difference’) that was partially fixed, at an angle, into the wood on which the whole ‘scene’ is placed.  Once I’d got the idea, I could also see the possible oblique reference to the coffin and screws in the text.  Also, having the nails pointing upwards, with the screw fixed amongst them, hinted at the difference between being firmly focused on the physical world – Meursault – and the (absurd) high-minded spiritual aspirations of his fellow humans.
Over the last ten days or so, I’ve been able to turn that into reality (not least because, having tidied it, there was room in the store to set up the scene and leave it there for a few days!).  I’ve retained a number of the various images made over that period and put some of them together below.  Without relating the whole story here, it begins, top left, with a few random nails on a plank of wood, and moves left to right, firstly with the appearance of brass screws and a more substantial base; then to the purchase of some 2 inch nails to match the 2 inch brass screws and the beginnings of some experimentation with lighting and layout.  The murder victim makes a brief appearance in two of the early versions, but was felt to be a step too far.  One early decision was what lens to use to give the feeling of being close to the action.  The right hand middle image is significant in that context.  I don’t possess a macro lens and was wondering whether to explore that.  My Ricoh compact does have macro & this image is taken with it, at about a 35mm equivalent focal length.  I liked the way this one worked, and made the decision to use a 35mm prime on my DSLR, which does focus reasonably close.  That enabled me to concentrate on working out the best overall layout (bottom left) so that I could fix the screw into the wood and test out different angles for the nails, different forms & position of lighting (using an off camera flash), eventual arriving at the version (bottom right) that I have used for my submission.

By this point I had also begun to try out the image with some text.  I already know the overall size and had some text prepared from the previous concept with which I’d been experimenting.  It got me thinking about the idea of combining this new image with a background of blue sky to simulate the idea of sun and heat – especially since the colour of the wooden surface resembled that of sand.  So I played around a little more with the lighting – moving it higher, diffusing it etc, to produce other, interesting versions of the scene.  Here is my simulated high, Mediterranean sunlight.

And here are two in which the light is heavily diffused, creating a more even and ‘democratic’ light – perhaps more reminiscent of a room in which a coffin might be kept (although, in the book, the description is of a glaring electric light in the room).

Beginning with the right hand version above, three have been converted into possible book covers.

Then there is the Mediterranean version, with a sky replacing the black background.


There is a fundamental problem with this version.  I have struggled to make a selection in Photoshop that effectively matches the nails to the new background.  I’ve played around with different original version – ones with more even lighting, for example – but I can’t make it work.  Perhaps with more ‘studio’ lighting available, better Photoshop skills, and more time, there could be a way to make this one work.  I even had the idea that the ‘horizon’ could have a hint of the sea to really bring home the idea of a beach.  However, firstly, I think that might all be a step too far, but secondly and importantly, I’m not convinced it is effective a cover as the one I’ve chosen.  ‘Clever’ as it might be, it begins to look like a light-hearted holiday read, which ‘The Outsider’ is definitely not.

Which brings me to the version that I’ve chosen to submit.  It uses the last image from the ‘Evolution of a Concept’ set earlier in this post and was actually produced before the two above.  They have simply been attempts to try out some other ideas, neither of which came out to be as effective as the first.  Going right back to where this started, I do feel it evokes the idea of ‘difference’.  On its own, it is an interesting image, but combined with the book’s title, I feel that the concept works.  For a potential buyer (and they are most likely to be people who already know something about the novel) it could be intriguing enough to encourage them to pick it up and explore.  It is, of itself, absurd, even a touch surreal, which isn’t too far away from the mood of the novel.  It also has the merit of simplicity – whilst also, for those who do know the story, just having a few direct links with the narrative itself.
So, there we have it – just remains to write up some notes for my tutor and submit it for his feedback!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Assignment Two – Considering Options

Over the two weeks since I last posted on the topic of Assignment Two, I have made some limited progress on that original concept; given some serious thought to a second idea; and then, just a few days ago, come up with a third option that will, I think, prove to be the one I take forward for submission.

Starting off with the original concept, I did produce another version that repositioned the bars and arranged them in a way that resembled a window.

I continue to see possibilities in this approach, but there are issues that would need to be addressed – I think – to give it a quality look.  The sea isn’t right.  It should shimmer to give a sense of the Mediterranean heat.  That involves using an image where the sun is more or less directly opposite the camera and reasonably high in the sky.  I experimented at a local reservoir when out for a walk.

One thought would be to drop something like this into the bottom of the version above, but because the water isn’t actually stretching away to the horizon, it would never look right.  I could find an opportunity to create an image at the seaside.  On the face of it, that is a relatively straightforward approach; but it would need to be suitably sunny day with a coastline facing South into the sun – not impossible by any means, but would take a bit of planning and isn’t going to happen quickly.  I could use a stock photo, as Eileen suggested in a comment on my earlier post.  I even bounced that idea off my tutor & he agreed that it would, in these circumstances, be a legitimate approach.  Looking at several contemporary book covers confirms that this is the most common solution for designers.  So, that option remains – though it doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in the context of a photography degree.

I also feel that, to work effectively, I would probably need to use a more appropriate face.  I even had a look around to see if there is a local photographic model agency – but since my options for the assignment have now broadened, I don’t think I’ll need to pursue that any further.  In essence, this first concept is a good one, which I could work with, but which is going to take quite a bit more time and organisation to bring about in a properly professional format i.e. something better than this basic ‘sketch’ version.

I have also been mulling over a second contemporary option.  This partly came about from thinking about who actually buys copies of The Outsider.  Because it is a ‘classic’ novel, not many people, if any, are going to pick it up and make an impulse purchase.  In fact, students of literature are likely to be the most frequent purchasers.  So I began to wonder how the novel could be presented in a 21st century context.  Working on the idea that technology might be a driver for alienation in today’s world (the equivalent of Camus’ bright light an heat) and linking it to Meursault’s behaviour at his mother’s funeral (or at least society’s interpretation of his behaviour), I came up with this.  A row of people, dressed in black, are facing a coffin on a dais, with their backs to the camera.  The person on the right is turned to one side and is sending or reading a text message on a mobile phone.  I’m guessing that would be just the kind of thing a 21st century Meursault might do, and that it could easily be misunderstood by those around him.  Then my other contemporary twist on the story would be to make that person a young woman!

This concept appeals to me a lot – but it has the very obvious downside that it is even more difficult to set up than the first option.  Getting access to a coffin and four or five people who were willing to dress up in black and able to make themselves available for such a shoot – well, could be done, but likely to take some time.  I think, if I were a professional photographer working with a designer on a genuine assignment, I’d be quite keen to pursue this one.  As a Level Two distance learner working on my own, I’m less inclined!

Actually, reaching that conclusion made me reflect on my whole motivation for doing what I’m doing.  Am I just backing off from these two ideas because it’s too much trouble & does that throw into question my commitment in how I approach my studies. Or, on the other hand, as a part-time, mature, ‘2nd level’ distance learner, is my second assignment important enough to start putting other people to a lot of trouble, as would be necessary for the second option.  And anyway, if my instincts are to create in isolation, should I be pursuing concepts that fit with that approach.  Or is that just a convenient ‘get-out’?  And, were I to make that extra effort, would I discover that I can work in more challenging and demanding ways and ultimately get more out of it?  They’re worthwhile questions.

Either fortunately, or because I started thinking that way, I have now come up with option three, which I think has the potential to deliver a sound result, fit with my ‘need’ for something that is under my control, and hopefully show off my photographic capabilities as well.  It is a relatively simple conceptualisation of the notion of ‘the outsider’ in a form that I can create in a sort of ‘table-top’ scale, but which might also reflect some other specific aspects of the novel.  I’m working on how to execute it – the ‘props’; the scale; the ‘set-up’; the lens; the lighting etc – but I won’t go into further detail yet.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

"Land Matters"

I have just finished reading Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity by Liz Wells.  It has taken a while.  She is rarely an easy read and it has been heavy going in places – sometimes dry and uninspiring, to be truthful. But, the first read of a book such as this is often about familiarisation – with what is there and where it is – so that one knows what to consult it about and where to go for the information.  It is good to see a contemporary theory book on Landscape.  It brings the genre right up to date (well almost – she says that the manuscript was completed in 2007) and so gives an excellent point of reference through which to link contemporary landscape practice with cultural thinking.  I have just re-read her personal comments in the Preface and it made me recognise that, through all the (often dry) surveying of modern landscape photography, the book does retain some sense of the personal interest and enthusiasm, which is good to see.

It opens with a general introduction on the landscape genre – history, context, theory, cultural links with painting.  This will certainly be a good chapter to re-read, at some stage, for its theoretical and contextual overview.  She follows with four lengthy chapters that are, essentially, surveys of landscape practice in North America, Britain and Scandinavia (and the Baltic, actually, to be accurate).   A great deal of ground is covered with many examples – some of these will be worthy of follow-up, particularly the last of these sections, covering Northern Europe.  The photographers she discusses there, from Scandinavia and the Baltic States, are, almost without exception, unknown to me before; and she links the landscape photography of the region with national identity, which was also interesting alongside the current BBC TV Series on The Vikings.  It’s probably fair to say that, despite the historical and cultural contribution that we inherit from the very North of the European mainland, we don’t always pay it the attention it deserves.

In the final chapter, she pulls it all together under the heading ‘Sense of Location’.  It’s a chapter that is “... concerned with the inter-relation of image and memory.”  I feel that the sense of the personal comes back strongly here.  Yes, the work is learned and academic; yes, she is writing in a theoretical context; but I also get the sense of landscape photography happening in a highly personal sphere that relates to the individual’s (photographer and viewer) own space, emotions, senses, memory, etc – even some sense of her own personal response.

I’m glad I’ve got this book and have read it; I will be going back into it on a regular basis, I’m sure – for both resource and inspiration.  It is an academic book, and so it does require effort to read and study, but that is no bad thing.  And there are rewards for the effort, in terms of understanding and enlightenment.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Assignment Two – Exploring the idea

Taking forward the idea that I discussed at the end of my last post, I initially sketched it out on paper.  I cannot draw!  Repeat – I cannot draw!  So, whilst that exercise might have helped me clarify things a little bit in my own mind, it certainly wouldn’t have successfully communicated anything to anyone else!  I stuck the drawing into a rough notebook that I keep, so somewhere down the line, an assessor will see it.  Heaven forbid!

In pursuit of something more meaningful and useful, I have subsequently had a go at mocking something up in Photoshop, using existing images.  This was the first effort.  It’s the full wrap-round cover, front, spine and back.

This incorporates the sea and the ‘looking’.  I printed it on plain paper and wrapped it round my paperback version of the book and, amazingly, it didn’t look too bad.  The colours work OK, I think, with the rather warm skin tones in the forehead being reminiscent of sand or sun.  In a final version, I would want to have the sun reflecting off the sea, too; so there would need to be a specific image made at a seaside location, when the sun is at its height.  I would also want to incorporate some other elements from the book – but not too many, I feel, having now produced this initial ‘sketch’.  Too much information is likely to confuse the outcome.  Immediate thoughts included – perspiration on the brow, to add to the sense of heat; maybe a barred window, alluding to Meursault’s imprisonment and looking through the window at the sky; possible flies, which do crop up at least once in the book.

I’d need to find a location for the barred window & can’t immediately think of one, but to test the idea for my ‘sketch’, I created an image through some railings.  That led to the following version.

I tried to do something clever with vignetting, which didn’t quite work, but the principle is there.  Fired up with enthusiasm, I have then had a shot at creating the ‘perspiration’.  Working with an assistant, a bowl of water, and a lot of trial and error (though little actual perspiration!), I got to this.

I’m not sure this version of the ‘bars’ works as well as the previous – perhaps the square crop in the previous is more indicative of a small prison window?  I wonder whether it would work best to spread the bars across more of the image, too – something else to explore. Getting the perspiration right is going to be a tough one, too – but could be done.  No flies, unfortunately, and that might be a step too far.

I’m posting these experiments to my learning log as an alternative to drawing out the idea.  I feel more comfortable manipulating and experimenting in Photoshop than I do trying to sketch out my thoughts.  But – creating something real and visual is essential.  It’s all very well having ideas in the mind but they need to be visualised.  Taking that approach one step further, this is what my experimental version would look like as a front cover.

Needs more work, but it could be suitably eye-catching – the stare!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Assignment Two – some research & thinking

Assignment Two asks me to design a book jacket – front, spine and back, for a work of fiction selected from a list of titles in the notes.  I have chosen ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus.  It’s a book that I (along with several million other people) originally read in my twenties, alongside his ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ essay.  The philosophy of the absurd has stayed with me ever since.  It’s a short book, but I’ve re-read it twice to make up for that (really!).  Since I already knew it quite well, I was fully aware, when I made this choice, that it might not be an easy one to represent in a cover.  The research that I’ve done certainly confirms that!  I’ll come back to the challenge and possible solutions, but to summarise, the philosophy that ‘life has no higher meaning and so man’s strivings are absurd’ (something of a simplification but not far off) doesn’t necessarily have easy visual connotations – except, perhaps, Sisyphus rolling his stone.

One piece of research was to find some examples of the way that it has been represented on covers before.  The book was first published, as “L’Etranger”, in 1942, so there were likely to be a few to go at.  I went onto the Book Cover Archive and Amazon (UK, France, USA, Germany, Italy), where I found 16 different versions, which are illustrated here:

I have to say that I don’t find any of them especially inspiring; confirming my concerns that this book is not an easy one to deal with.  There are, natuarlly, several lone figures, with the ‘folio’ French edition showing a sillhouetted male figure against abrightly lit background is the most ‘obvious’;  but this one, in truth, doesn’t bear any relation that I can see to the novel itself.  I quite like the German ‘Der Fremde’ version, for its simplicity and because the bright light and heat that the photo implies, are recurring themes in the book and the suited figure with his umbrella could well be attending Meursault’s mother’s funeral.  The Italian version does ‘place’ quite well – the novel is set in Algiers – but I have no idea what is going on in the version with a man sitting on a desk talking to two other characters!

Some further Internet research revealed that, in late 2010, The Folio Society chose ‘The Outsider’ for its inaugural illustration competition.  Their News Article from August 2011 says, of The Outsider’s main character, Meursault:

It is his failure to show remorse, perhaps, more than his crime, that condemns him.  Expressing this alienation visually is a challenge.  [My emphasis]

Reading that confirmed, again, my sense that this is not an easy book to deal with visually.  The problem, I guess, is precisely its philosophical connotations.  One is drawn into trying to present concepts such as alienation (though it is debateable to what extent that is actually a theme in the book) and the absurdity of human existence.  The winner of the Folio Society’s competition, Matthew Richardson, at least had the relative luxury of a series of illustrations as opposed to a single cover image.  The Book was published this year and won a V&A award.  The illustrations are shown in full on Matthew Richardson's website. The use of collage, the feel of ‘the time’ (shades of mid-twentieth century surrealism), and the selection of colours achieve an effective combination of ordinariness and strangeness, all at once – absurdity!

Of course, researching what other people have done with this challenge is all very well, but this needs to be my illustration.  I have also accessed the Spark Notes information about The Stranger (the books title in the USA).  It has helpful summaries of the main themes – the irrationality of the universe; the meaninglessness of human life; the importance of the physical world – and motifs – decay & death; watching and observation.  As I’ve already observed, these are not simple ideas to convey in a single cover, but at least this provides useful definitions of the concepts with which I’m dealing.

I have, also, been thinking about possible approaches for the cover.  My thoughts have included:

·         Finding a specific scene from the book and illustrating it – this has its merits and is an approach often taken, of course.  In fact, one of the sample covers above does exactly that, with a line drawing of the actual ‘shooting’ scene.  One of the merits is that, having chosen the scene, the way forward from there is neatly focused – set up the scene, find the props, find the model(s), and so on.  It is potentially quite a bit of work, but it is focused.  The downsides are a) choosing a scene (the one above makes it look like a crime novel!) and b) the tendency to over-simplify what is a complex, if short, novel.

·         I have given some thought to the idea of bringing the story into the present day, maybe even bringing it close to ‘home’.  Two particular versions of this approach might be:

§  A contemporary take, exploring what might characterise a Meursault-like individual in the early 21st century; for example, rather than the ideas of ‘sun, heat and bright light’ that seem to contribute to Meursault’s alienation in 1940s Algiers, what about ‘Technology’ as the alienating force?  I can see possibilities in this one – though I’d need to be confident that such a contemporary approach was valid.

§  Another somewhat ‘off-the-wall’ idea is the set the novel in Yorkshire – again, perhaps, in the 21st century.  I do recognise that I’m partly motivated by finding an approach that is conveniently manageable for me, personally, but I also quite like the idea of thinking through such an adaptation.

·         Going back to the themes and motifs is still, perhaps, the most likely, and one of Matthew Richardson’s illustrations has set me thinking.  I could work around the theme of ‘the importance of the physical world’ and combine that with the motif of ‘watching and observation’.  I’m thinking of an eye, maybe a pair of eyes, with one wrapping round the spine and onto the back.  I can see this linking with the idea of the eyes as the window of the mind, a way into Meursault’s thoughts.  Then I’m wondering about layered images (faintly visible through the eye) of some of the stronger physical scenes or elements in the novel – the beach; sun and heat; looking at the sky – and maybe some beads of sweat running down a forehead above the eye(s).  The eye(s) is/are in the lower half of the cover; there is a suggestion of a forehead above, fading away into a single colour (the bright sunlight, maybe), across which the title and author appear.

This as far as I should take things at the moment, I reckon.  I have read the book a couple of times in the last few weeks, and made some notes of scenes/ideas from that.  I need to let these things wash over me, perhaps play around with one or two of the ideas above – but I’m making some progress, I think.