After much thought (as discussed in my previous post – Assignment 3: Ideas) I decided to base this assignment around a documentation of my grandparents former home. Below is a record of the photographers that influenced my approach, some of the experiments I conducted to bring the project together and some thoughts about this process.
Alec Soth: The loneliest man in Missouri
The output for assignment 3 is a photo book, or at least a PDF mock-up of one. I have been influenced by the work of Alec Soth for some time and on reading the brief immediately thought of his artist’s book ‘The Loneliest Man in Missouri’ which is included with the exhibition catalogue ‘From here to there: Alec Soth’s America’. The book is presented as a softback pamphlet and is striking because the use of text, photographs and stylistic approach is the antithesis of the large format photography that typifies Soth’s work. There is no technical information for the images, but they look like they are shot on 35mm and printed commercially – some even have a white border at each side which emphasises the non-professional printing. The images are shown in the book in a way that is reminiscent of prints stuck into a photo album, the homemade nature is further emphasised by handwritten text written in the first person, the first sentence sets out both Soth’s strategy and intent: “I spent a few weeks driving around Missouri looking for the loneliest man I could find.”
The narrative of the book unfolds in a apparently organic way and shows Soth photographing various lone men (we can only assume they are lonely) and other pictures of landmarks, cars and the sky. He eventually meets Ed the day before his 45th birthday – something he has no plans to celebrate “his parents were dead – no friends but strippers.” Soth hires Blaze from the strip club Ed visits 3-5 times a week and she sings happy birthday to him before he reads ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot to her.
PDF of ‘The Loneliest Man is Missouri’ here: Alec Soth – The Loneliest Man in Missouri (2010)
I found the following quote from Soth in the ‘Gathered Leaves’ catalogue from a lecture he made in 2010:
“The only hope for me is storytelling – is narrative.
I used to give this lecture about how narrative doesn’t work in photography. But now, I feel like I have to make it work. I have to find someway to connect these pictures through storytelling. Because stories always have this power, and the connective tissue of stories for me is so necessary.
…So often, when people talk about narrative photography, they talk about Gregory Crewdson – ‘staged pictures’, and all that – but this functions like
all photographs do; it suggests narrative, but it doesn’t actually tell a story. It’s just one picture…
One picture is not enough to tell a story; it’s got to be a sequence…
Photography needs its own language to tell stories, where you leave gaps; you leave space for the viewer to connect the dots.”
These thoughts chime with those made by David Campbell in the lecture we are asked to listen to in preparation for this assignment – the idea that we form meaning from the process of narration – Soth appears to be saying here that his process of taking photographs represents his personal way of making sense of the world. Objectivity here is not even a consideration – what is important is a personal response. I particularly like the notion that a story can only be told through a sequence of images, and the importance of leaving gaps and space for the viewer to connect the dots.
Paul Graham: A Shimmer of Possibility
Paul Graham‘s ‘A Shimmer of Possibility’ is a body of work made up of 12 visual short stories which are united in the open ended, elliptical way they present the mundane beauty of everyday life. As Sean O’Hagan notes (2011) these vignettes suggest “a quiet, often overlooked, poetry.” In ‘Pittsburgh, 2004’, a man cuts grass next to a suburban car park. It is a beautiful scene, illuminated by ‘magic hour’ sunlight and soft rain. The images themselves vary in size and position on the page – a technique which is intriguing and asks the viewer to question what they are seeing; the time frame these images are from and the relationship they each have to each other. I am unsure about what this all means, but that in itself seems to be the point as Graham explains:
“it has steadily become less important to me that the photographs are about something in an obvious way. I am interested in more elusive and nebulous subject matter. The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether of nothingness…you can’t sum up the results in a single line. In a way, ‘a shimmer of possibility’ is really about these nothing moments in life.”
As well as the enigmatic subject matter and subtly changing viewpoints of Graham’s series, I find the design approach particularly inspiring. The work is clearly intended to be experienced as a book above all else, something that I plan for my assignment, and the changing size and positioning of the images shows a confidence that breaks conventionality and is not simply a gimmick. I particularly admire the way large amounts of empty space on the page is used to allow the images room to ‘breathe’, with this all said however, I am unsure about how many of these techniques I will use myself as I am naturally inclined towards a more ordered and consistent presentation style. Confusing the narrative I am trying to tell by using varying sizes and positioning could be a risk I am not yet confident enough to take.
Briony Campbell: The Dad Project
‘The Dad Project’ is a very personal response to Campbell’s father’s illness and death. The elements that inspire me from this project are the conversational, first person captions that accompany the images and are a very personal, almost diary like, response by Campbell. One of the most poignant elements is the final image – an archive photograph of Campbell as a young girl dressed in her dad’s coat, shoes, scarf and hat. It is a beautiful image that both brings the narrative to a close, underpins everything we have learned about the relationship between father and daughter and is especially moving due to Campbell’s father being absent – only his things are shown in the picture, and yet, there is an overwhelming sense of how the man has shaped, and will continue to influence, the child. Using archive images for my own project is something I have considered and has been suggested by many people I have spoken to about my subject. This is something I have decided not to pursue because the subject is the unseen aspects of memory and absence, however, I intend to finish with photographs of my grandparents, in a similar way to Campbell, as a kind of visual ‘full stop’.
Richard Billingham: Ray’s a laugh
How much text to include in the project is something I have been considering a great deal. It feels important to include text as a way of allowing the viewer to make sense of the images but there is a risk that too much will prevent the ambiguity I am seeking. The choices I have are to have pages of large blocks of text or shorter passages accompany images in a similar way to ‘The loneliest man in Missouri’ and ‘The dad project’. The photographs in ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ are uncaptioned, but, the short text on the back page gives just enough information to allow the reader inside the family and what is not said allows us to apply our own readings. The warm, yet matter of fact, tone avoids the potential of naval gazing which is something that concerns me for the words I will include. The text is as follows:
“This book is about my close family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew.
My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. They married in 1970 and I was born soon after.
My younger rother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.”
My approach to taking the photographs was to initially be driven by instinct – I would walk around the house and take photographs of anything that caught my eye either because of the way it looked or because of the way the light fell at that particular moment. I experimented with different cameras and lenses, flash and using a tripod – something I rarely do as I prefer the flexibility of working hand held. I also used my daughters Instax camera which produces small, instant, polaroid style prints – the limited control using this format and fact that the end result is something physical rather than digital was an interesting distraction and something I may pursue further in future projects.
Knowing when to stop taking images was a challenge and I eventually took the decision to bring the project together and not to visit the house any more. Although I had made an initial assessment of the images after each shoot, I waited until I had reached this point before beginning my selection process. While this meant I shot the images without any preconception it also meant that ideas could not pursued and developed. I am unsure as to whether this is a benefit or a concern, but, my instinct is that it allowed a freedom of thought at the point of taking the images that certainly appeared to help me at the time I was shooting. Perhaps I would have engaged in a more focussed way had I spent more time editing between shoots, but as there were no images I felt compelled to go back and recreate it seemed that my strategy had been successful.
I used my trusted method of selection – I refined my choices on the computer and then ordered prints to aid with finalising my edit. I always had in mind a photobook as the output for the assignment and kept coming back to the notion of using an old-fashioned self-adhesive photo album to present the pictures in. This could have potential connotations about family and memory that would fit with my intentions and would also result in a true, physical, one off object.
The decision to present the project in a photo album meant some of my decision making around selection was driven by this. As the book I chosen had a certain amount of pages this would mean I would either need to base the number of pictures I include on this or have empty pages to break the flow in the way Paul Graham does in ‘A shimmer of possibility’. I decided to work on a number of different approaches and to do this by first producing a very planned approach and then working different treatments from that. I grouped my short-listed prints into sections by room or subject and put these side by side refining down to a final group. Next, I planned each spread of pages after applying a number of decisions I had already made:
I wanted these to be the front and the back of the house shot on the Instax camera – these small images of the exterior would contrast with the larger images of the interiors and the fact this format is a physical object in itself would emphasise the materiality of the book format I had chosen.
I knew I wanted to hand write the text as I found this effective in ‘The loneliest man in Missouri’. I was still unsure about how much text to include and whether
to have this as a large block or as smaller accompaniments to the images, more like captions. I decided to go with the former approach to begin with and then go from there – writing on the photographs themselves was another potential option and something I had seen used by Jim Goldberg, for example in this image ‘Untitled, San Francisco, 1981’. I planned 3 pages of text into the book, I had a number of ideas about the words I wanted to write but decided to leave this until I was close to completing my edit – I found that a lined reporters notepad was the perfect size for my book so decided to use this format.
End images – grandparents archive pictures:
I knew I wanted to end the book with pictures of my grandparents as a way of personalising what I had shown and bringing the narrative to a close. I deliberately chose images that emphasised a snapshot aesthetic – in fact, they genuinely were snapshots but repurposed for the project.
I wanted to juxtapose wide views which take in whole rooms with detail shots and kept coming back to a sequence that worked like a journey through the house. This fitted with my logical and ordered way of working but I had reservations that this was the right way to go, I was hoping that looking at the images together would help me place them together but found myself becoming tied up in knots. I decided to complete a draft in this ordered way and then look at deconstructing this for further experiments – I was now of the view that I would be making a number of drafts before reaching my final decisions. It was also becoming apparent that the 6×4 prints I had made to support my selection process could be another barrier – should I choose to use this size throughout? This would give consistency as well as reinforce the family photo album feel I was seeking as this is the standard size of prints and the main size that would appear in family photo albums. From the beginning I had the idea of different sized images and crops, but, this was something I was beginning to question as being potentially confusing or fuelling my need to complicate matters in the belief that this adds to the overall effect when the danger is that it actually detracts.
I used Photoshop to draft a number of potential versions of the book, PDFs of which I have included below. Versions 1-4 all use 6×4 sized images and experiments with sequencing. Version 5 is an attempt to include as many of my shortlisted images as possible and includes some variation on image size. None of these drafts feature any text as this will stand alone from the images and act as a counterpoint.
Billingham, R. (2014) Ray’s a Laugh. New York: Errata Editions.
Engberg, S. (2010) From here to there: Alec Soth’s America. Minneapolis: Walker Art Centre.
Graham, P. (2015) The whiteness of the whale: American Photographs 1998-2011. San Francisco: Pier 24 and Mack Books.
O’Hagan, S. (2011) Paul Graham: “The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether.” The Observer, 11th April 2011. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/apr/11/paul-graham-interview-whitechapel-ohagan [accessed 22nd May 2018]
Soth, A. (2010) The loneliest man in Missouri. Minneapolis: Walker Art Centre.