Sunday, 18 December 2011

Assignment Five – more background & thinking

As I said in the last post, the idea for this project came to me some years ago.  Coincidentally, about six months ago, there was an article on the Guardian website about a project that Martin Parr had done for Oxfam, which has some similarities with what I have in mind.  The article is here.  In Vietnam, he photographed local people with something that they regarded as sufficiently precious to ‘save’ by taking it with them to a higher part of their dwelling when the floods came. This led to a project back in the UK, where he photographed ‘celebrities’ with whatever they would choose to save in the event of a flood.  Not surprisingly, there are interesting differences between the two groups, with the Vietnamese showing a strong preference for identity cards, school books and means of cooking rice, whereas the Celebrities favour laptops, diaries, sketchbooks and the like.  That said; paintings, photographs & other images crop up in both groups.

Of course, my interest in the Parr work is less about what it says and more about the way it goes about saying it.  The style of the portraits is, on the whole, simple – a basic front on pose, standing, facing the camera, usually holding whatever it is they choose to save.  The faces are unsmiling, quite deadpan, not expressing any obvious emotion, but they work as portraits – as simple expressions of these peoples’ personalities and lives, rather less self-conscious in the case of the celebrities, unsurprisingly.  The Vietnamese images look as though they have mostly been shot in natural light whereas the celebrity shots have the characteristic Parr ‘ring-flash’ look (I think).  Very early in this course, I looked at Avedon’s portraits and read about his method.  I think of the famous image of the young boy with a rattlesnake - here - the pose is similar but the outcome is something much harder.  I don’t think I’m in the business of making Avedon-like portraits and the Parr approach is probably a better model for me.  I do, though, want to try and explore the story, the narrative of the emotional link between this person, the object, maybe the place, and certainly the childhood that the object represents.  I’m setting myself a very tough task trying to get all of that into a single portrait – it’s probably impossible, but I feel that it’s worth having a go.  There is something to learn from stretching oneself and looking at what results.

I have also been looking through some of my books for elements of ‘theory’ that might relate to what I’m doing.  One piece that certainly struck a note was in ‘Photography: a Critical Introduction’ ed. Liz Wells.  In Chapter 5 ‘Spectacles and Illusions’, page 221 talks about the ‘Grammar of the Ad’.  It refers to Barthes’ ‘denoted’ and ‘connoted’ messages, and the potential significance of the latter in advertising.  My brief, as I have written it for myself, is to produce images that may be used in advertising and, in any case, the notion that there is communication going on at different levels is an interesting one.  The ‘denoted’ messages, supported by the accompanying text, will be the specific stories of the relationships between these people and their retained objects, but the ‘connoted’ messages, if I do my job effectively, will be to do with the way in which we are all products of our childhood experiences.  In Maria Short’s ‘Context and Narrative’ about which I wrote in here a few weeks ago, there is a chapter on ‘Signs and Symbols’.  Amongst others, it features work by Emma Blaney entitled ‘The Spectre of the Impossible Desire’, in relation to which there is a reference to “... the meaning that is often invested in small everyday objects...” as “... triggers for deeply embedded memories ...”.  Somewhere in here, I feel, is a theoretical context for the work I want to do in this assignment.

·         The memory and emotion triggered in the mature adult by the object that they hold, touch or look at, which they also held, touched and looked at when they were a child;

·         The presentation of that relationship and its emotional implications in the image;

·         The context of the relationship, as presented, which includes:

§  ‘place’; the location or background;

§  The style and physical qualities of the image;

§  Text which will accompany the image;

§  Nature and quality of media;

§  Inevitably, the reading of the signs in the image – by the viewer;

·         And so, the connoted message(s) about childhood experiences and their relationship with the adults; and, in the context of advertising, the resulting action that the advertiser seeks.

When I start analysing the possibilities to that degree, I start to find the whole thing somewhat daunting; but I think I need to keep my feet on the ground here and not try to be too ambitious.  Or at least I need to keep a range of options open.  Back to the Parr work with Oxfam and its relative simplicity – it will perhaps make sense to take at least one version of each portrait that follows this type of simple approach.  That way, if other experiments fail, I at least have the potential for some consistent and usable images.  This also fits with my thinking early on in the course, when I was favouring the contemporary ‘deadpan’ portrait style.  The best option will be, I think, to try out a few versions of each but to always make sure I have at least one that is – front-facing; looking into camera; unsmiling; deadpan; holding the object; etc.  Trouble is – will that explore the emotional aspects that I’ve listed above?  This isn’t going to be easy!

Another angle on what I’m planning in this assignment is the use of text.  Each image will be accompanied by 50-100 words that encapsulate the story.  I am kind of conscious that this could be interpreted as a ‘cop-out’ – the text doing the work that I should have done in the image!  That shouldn’t be the case.  The image must contain enough ‘signs’ for the viewer to form a ‘message’ in their mind and to be drawn to read both itself and the text.  There is a whole chapter in Short’s book on the use of text and I also need to look at Barthes’ ‘The Photographic Message’ where he discusses this relationship.

Above all, though, important as it is to consider the theoretical context of the assignment, I want to produce a piece of work, images and text, that I feel enthused by; something that expresses the interest that I feel in exploring this particular subject area; something, also, that picks up on the interest that has come back from the people with whom I have discussed the project.  I’m actually writing this after completing my first session with a subject, though much of what I’ve said above was going around in my mind before.  The first session has confirmed that getting everything right is going to be a real challenge.  It has even made me question my own ability to carry this off at a technical level.  However, I am keen to see this through, so ‘onwards & upwards’ as they say.


  1. This does sound interesting Stan - look forward to seeing what you come up with. With regard to your last para: I think your priorities are right - it is so important to care about what you are making.

    I think tne nearest thing I have to a childhood pbject is my OM1, bought as a student and treasured ever since. And some photographs taken on earlier cameras. I guess you can see what my priorities were from an early age...

  2. Hmm, does sound interesting Stan. My childhood object would be a doll called Beans, which unimaginatively was a doll made of Beans...worth nothing, but I had it as a baby, there is one picture of me and youngest now plays with it, out of loyalty to me I think is the one object that can traject me back in time just by looking at it. You could get some really interesting results Stan, good luck.