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.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Photography Workshop – Leeds

This is a tricky one – there is so much I could say!  Two days spent with 19 other OCA Photography students; 2 OCA tutors; and 2 external speakers – how could it be anything other than a positive and uplifting experience?  It was – a great weekend.  And we’re eternally grateful to Penny & Eileen for organising it.  I don’t, in this post, intend to try and summarise the whole event but, as befits a Learning Log, attempt to reflect on the things that I take away from it.

Three days spent with fellow students is invaluable to a distance learner.  Forums are fine; but to look peers in the face and exchange views & ideas in a manner where there is a genuine chance to read the body language, hear the inferences, respond to the signals – that is what we all miss out on, most of the time.  This was a diverse group in many senses – experience, age, gender, background, and so on – which makes for a rich experience; but the common purpose and the mutual understanding & support were plain to see and greatly to be valued.  Two days of face-to-face contact with tutors was of immense value too – and the interaction between them and the group developed positively as the weekend progressed, I thought.  Yet, all these are generic gains from such an event.  I’m keen to step beyond that and look for personal development points.

There were two external speakers - Mishka Henner and Peter Rudge from duckrabbit .  Full marks to Peter for a highly professional and enthusiastically presented session on the concept and creation of the photofilm, which was, I know, inspirational for many of my fellow students.  But it was Mishka, the artist, the ‘photographer without a camera’, who captivated me, personally. Why?

There is a conviction about him, a solidity that inspires, almost through understatement.  He seemed to give of himself, without actually giving anything away.  He was (I think) open, honest, uncompromising, yet engaged, listening, and responsive.  He is (I’d say) dedicated, thorough, determined and highly focused, yet personable, amusing and communicative.  Sounds like I’m giving him a character reference!!!  His work is fascinating, original and, yes, inspiring – but I find myself reflecting on him, as a person.

I suppose I’ve reacted in a similar when listening to other artists - Dinu Li at the Cornerhouse Manchester, J H Engstrom at the NMM.  I find myself wanting to understand them as people; wanting to analyse them and get under the skin of their creativity.  And, fundamentally of course, understand how I might develop my own creativity.  That has to come from within me, I know, but I’m interested, very interested, in how other people have got there.

Which brings me to Jesse Alexander’s  presentation of his MA project, Threshold Zone . I’m into tricky territory again!!  Jesse is my tutor and will read this – but I’m reflecting on his experience of creativity and how it might inform my own!  Well, anticipating that one of my conclusions is likely to be that you step boldly on towards your goal – here I go.

I took something in particular from this session, something about being prepared to take the uncomfortable and uncertain step.  Jesse’s work involved photographing underground spaces; and the Threshold Zone refers specifically (if I’ve understood) to the space between the entrance and the point at which there is perpetual darkness.  In one context, he described his own reticence to move further until he, effectively, stepped into the darkness and created the image of the space from which he had stepped ... or at least that’s how I interpreted it.

What a metaphor – presumably intentional – for the creative process.  Have the confidence and conviction (back to Mishka, there) to move forward, into the space that feels uncertain; be prepared to explore what feels uncomfortable; and something new, some better appreciation of who you are and where you’ve been emerges.

That even takes me back to Roger Ballen , the geologist/artist who compares his creativity to mining – making deeper and deeper visits to the depths of his own mind and coming back with new finds.

I can’t resolve these thoughts; and doing so is, by nature, a very personal thing ... not something I’m ready for at the moment.  But I never expected that two days in Leeds would take me off searching the dark corners of my own mind!!  And I only had one glass of wine throughout the whole weekend.  It must have been the water!  (Or the chips!)