Whenever I was asked to deliver an image-based solution to a design brief during my four years of further education, I experimented mostly with photography and, in particular, ‘staged photography’. I do not refer to tableau vivant, but the wider definition of ‘staged photography’; no living models are used in my work but, rather, I set up scenes with hand-made objects that would appear most effectively within a photograph. The five projects discussed below are some examples of my most creative experiences with the camera.
About half way through my year at Leeds College of Art and Design I signed up for a workshop that was set up to help those of us who were struggling to come up with a starting point for a brief of our own. A handful of us turned up in a small studio and were told to explore the room, documenting it in whatever fashion most appealed to us. We could draw it, measure it, photograph it, but we also had to decide what to draw/measure/photograph and this is how we each took an individual approach.
At the time, I think I’d just read about somebody who had spent time in prison (…or just looked very intently at a blank wall one day) and noticed the various marks and stains on the wall. He’d become fairly well-known for drawing miniature scenes on walls by reacting to any stains and marks; his work had a punchy humour similar to David Shrigley's illustrations. One of his drawings turned a round grey stain on a wall into a swimming pool, by adding in little leaping figures. I wanted to explore the room with that level of focus. I would seek out all of the hiding holes, nooks and crannies and observe them as if they were rooms themselves. Below are two examples of my photography from that day.
I began to find a number of interesting places within that single studio space. If only I had a macro lens! I found great value in discovering unusual corners/cracks/gaps and photographing them in such a way that they appeared much larger than they were in reality. I was drawn to the keyhole, below, because it was more of an enclosed space. It was also somewhere I could use the camera to get an image that would place the audience in hiding, where they would feel like they were inside the cavity, looking out.
I wanted to carry on this exploration of hiding places and dark corners with a more controllable subject. I started to look at things I could explore from different angles and firstly used a simple cardboard box. After a short while of cutting and tearing I used the camera to capture some more intriguing spaces. I then played around with type and tried placing bits of acetate into the scene which would read ‘always hidden in the most unlikely places’ just to get a sense of how it would look. I also tried to project the shadows of the text onto areas of the box but found it difficult to fit it all into a space and lighting it properly at the same time.
I finally ended up with a model that I'd made using drawings which were completed in a workshop we attended; whatever our personal projects involved, we were asked to make a series of drawings in response to our work so far. I decided to draw the various parts of my cardboard box. Combining these with prints of my earlier photographs, I put together a rather strange model that would be used to create more photographs. The process almost became like putting a mirror in front of another mirror. I could make drawings and take pictures of my latest model, then make a new model with that…then make drawings and take pictures of that one and make an even more detailed version.
Granted, I had little control over my line of enquiry during this project. This didn’t seem to bother my tutors, on the contrary, so I used the opportunity to simply exhaust every visual possibility. Thinking back, perhaps I was undecided on what I wanted to communicate. Was the audience hidden, as the camera? Or was I seeking out hiding holes and taking pictures? If I were given the chance, I’d go back and create an over-sized version of one of the dark spaces in the original studio space and place the camera inside it to find out what it would be like to be an inch tall, hiding inside and peering out.
Words in Space
In my second year at Bath Spa Uni, I received a brief by the title above. The task was very open to creativity and placed no restrictions on the student. We were asked to respond to the title with an image or series of images.
After several quick experiments and failed attempts, I settled on the idea of cutting out words from newspaper headlines. The frail nature of the paper meant I could use only the largest words. Once cut out, I'd stick them down onto greyboard and cut away the counters and negative spaces. I was basically left with ten or twenty shapes to play with; each was a different size to the next and had, to an English-speaking audience, its own meaning. As can be seen in the second image, I allowed the meaning of the words to evoke new images themselves, like a ‘cheap sink’. Evidently, my method of exploration relied heavily on making mock-ups and 3-D models.
Shooting in black and white forced me to pay attention to the way the light was working in my little typographic doll’s house and this was probably what helped me make an image like the one saying ‘cheap sink’. I noticed I had about four different methods of creating a word; the cut-outs themselves, the shadows of the cut-outs, a silhouette of the cut-outs, and when the words would be cut into a panel of card, like a stencil frame. Combining these methods would usually achieve interesting results.
My final solution to the brief was this set of three A1 prints. I found them successful, especially printed so large, in fooling the audience into thinking they were originally much bigger than a shoe-box. The selection also appear to give just enough detail of the background, where more words engulf the space as if it were a theatre set.
I felt, at first, that the brief was too open but, eventually, I warmed to the idea of making random experiments and investigations. Nothing was expected or intended and happenstance ruled the outcome. Once I began to notice things happening to my advantage, like the extra visual device of the shadows for instance, I would exploit them and try to allow for them with every other snap of the camera.
Immediately after the Words in Space brief, I set to work on another called ‘Hidden’. Just like the previous brief, we were given complete control over the outcome provided it was the result of an image-making process.
After the usual hilly start, I decided how I would interpret the brief. All I need to know was what would be hidden. I thought back to my foundation year at Leeds and my work that followed a similar idea, only I'd never properly engaged with the idea of hiding the audience.
I knew from experience that a photograph from inside a dark space looking out at a lighter area did not evoke a connection to the audience without suggesting movement of the camera. I wanted the audience to look at my photographs and feel like they themselves were hidden.
What was needed was ideally a way of making this effect anywhere I pleased. Something had to be made that could attach to the camera somehow; this way, the camera could be put anywhere and still allow the audience to feel hidden. The solution was fairly simple. I rolled up a long sheet of black paper, thick enough to slide over the end of the camera lens. Before attaching the roll of paper, the camera would be given a long shutter speed and focused on its subject. With the roll of paper held around the lens the shutter would then be released and the roll of paper allowed to move around. I experimented by moving the paper quickly, slowly, to and fro, back and forth but found the best method was allowing it to move slowly a few inches before the shutter closed.
The result was an intriguing visual affect which I think suggests a number of things. It could be a memory, a fleeting glance, a visual impairment, what happens when you get hit by Frank Bruno or, as intended, the obscured vision of a hidden person.
I was most happy with this project because I’d created a form of image-making from scratch. In the professional world, image-making devices similar to this one (but a little more refined!) are bought and sold for lots of different intentions so it was of little importance, at that stage, that my images did not exclusively communicate ‘hidden’.
As a personal project in my second year at uni, I wanted to carry on my stage-craft photographic experiments. I challenged myself to somehow bring to life a selection of paintings by Edouard Manet who I'd studied at A-level for my major essay. A large part of his work was related to Spanish culture because of Spain’s influence in France at the time, and also because Manet himself visited Spain to experience the world of bull-fighting.
I set out in a similar way to how I’d done for the Words in Space brief and cut out the figures themselves from the paintings. As shown above, I made little models with the cut-outs and researched shadow theatre and the puppets that are involved. This youTube video gives you an idea of what I was reading about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuN6bIuUK1g
Unfortunately a shadow theatre play was maybe biting off more than I could chew so I stuck the original plan and carried on with the photography.
The point of making these images was to narrate Manet’s work on Spanish culture. What is most appealing to me about his work on this subject is that, although he went to Spain to observe his subject, he completed the paintings back at his studio in France. In the original painting above it’s quite clear that the visual perspective fails to convince us – unless, of course, the rider and horse in the background are actually only three feet tall. This would demonstrate one of the issues Manet must have contended with; piecing together his sketches from Spain with a model’s pose at his studio.
The relationships between Manet‘s work and that of his idols Goya and Velazquez was also a significant feature to his paintings and, with my stage-craft approach, I could set up a scene which might involve recognizable characters from older paintings alongside figures from Manet’s work. The image above, for instance, shows Manet’s firing squad from The Execution of The Emperor Maximilian. Behind them is Goya’s Third of May which, itself, depicts an execution; without getting too far into the details, Manet appeared to liken his painting to Goya’s for political reasons.
I came up with this awesome name for a project and just wanted to do something that reflected the name. …only kidding! I was racking my brains one day, as is a designer’s want, and wondered what it would be like if the shapes inside a kaleidoscope were not just pretty shapes but beautiful letterforms! By the way, if you steal my idea, I’ll hunt you down …again, only kidding.
Anyway, it’s quite straight-forward as an idea; unfortunately it’s not as simple to build the things. Nonetheless, when you finally get it working you can add any typeface you like and really play around with it. I was easily excited by my new ‘shiny shiny’ object and didn’t bother trying to build something that looked good – not on my budget! But I did explore the possibilities in what typefaces you could use, how you could perhaps cause words to appear and, eventually, I turned the patterns inside the kaleidoscope into graphic drawings and used one of these as a self-promo device. So I definitely rinsed it of its image-making capabilities.
They always make me think of a potential nightclub interior design – not sure who’d go though…it’d have to be a club for type designers only. What?! It’d catch on! Below is my self-promo device, as aforementioned. As it is, it’s quite dull, but used in small doses and with colour, it’s a nice eye-catcher. It currently embellishes the inner spine of my box portfolio…until the sellotape wears off underneath.