Interrogating Identity 17…..J H Engstrom

I looked extensively at the work of J H Engstrom during the production of my two ‘Between The When And The Why’ projects last semester, and , though the work I’m now editing and combining for final submission in this identity module is focused on images shot over a very short period and are of a single subject, I think a great deal about Engstroms approach could be very relevant to my own practice.

In Engstroms case, he shoots widely and prolifically, he himself uses the word ‘intuitively’, and only much later does he edit and combine images, usually in the form of a book, that are in some way personally connected and relevant to a theme , often not at all manifest at the time of shooting. He says he is approaching photography existentially, shooting images that are personal but that do not convey much if anything about himself. His photography seems to give visual form to existential states. Without focusing on one specific theme, he collects impressions in all possible styles – impressions that correspond to his emotions, in effect exploring what existence is.

He has said:

‘Mainly, I want to avoid formalistic limitations. But I guess being eclectic is a sort of style too, so I can’t really say that. I couldn’t care less about what is considered a good photograph; I no longer think in terms of “good” or “bad,” I just let the camera tell stories. To me there’s no hierarchical order when it comes to these different aesthetics, because using different techniques is required for what I’m trying to do; I want to be in all these different worlds. What interests me at the moment is carrying out, putting together and presenting my work.’

‘most of my work is personal, but without being directly revealing. I formulate myself photographically about my surroundings, but I don’t think anyone can tell anything about who I am and how I live from looking at my work.’

All Images from ‘Haunts’ 2006

 

 

The following interview is not credited to an individual interviewer, but was conducted by Leica when Engstom won the 2015 Leica Oskar Barnack award.

 

Q: Do you plan to take pictures in advance or do you always have a camera on hand to catch the chance moment?

A: I most often have a camera on hand. I work both with primitive and intuitive shooting, and more planned shooting and the whole range in between. There is absolutely no hierarchy within that range. To only work with one method would be too simplistic and it would bore me as well. The way I prepare myself is by trying to catch the energies within me that are in connection with my inner conflicts, doubts, fears, contradictions, questions or the pure joy of existing.

 

Q: Where do you find your motifs?

A: You can photograph everything. It’s about how you do it. Everything can be a mystery, so I don’t have to go to special places. When I was younger I had the urge to go somewhere. Now I can see the images everywhere.

 

Q: Do you have a connection with any other art forms?

A: Of course! All forms of art have influenced me as much as photography. I love human expressions. Whatever tool is used is not important to me. When it speaks to me, it speaks to me and that could be any form of art.

 

Q: Please describe your visual approach to the topics photographed. Do you have a method, a certain way of developing your visual language? Does it change?

A: It’s impossible to describe my approach in a short answer here. But if you insist I would use the word “intuitive”. My method is also to have many different methods and the way I develop is by doing, failing, doubting, and constantly questioning my self and my work. And sometimes, rarely, there is also some kind of flow when I work. I do hope there is a constant change. Otherwise I would become quite worried and also bored.

 

Q: You make use of many different styles for your work – eclectic, one would say. Playfulness seems like a common thread running though the pictures.

A: I don’t prefer one stylistic element over another. Everything depends on what you are trying to express and why. I use colour, black-and-white, sharpness, blur, natural light, large-format, disposable cameras, 8 mm cameras, Polaroids, medium-format, 135 mm … everything possible.

 

Q: Your very comprehensive work is made up of individual pictures that you have not kept in chronological order. By combining the motifs without reference to time or place, you create new contexts. It is easy to recognize the influence film has on you.

A: Well, film also deals with images. I personally always liked and believed in photography that on a deeper level deals with the serial in its nature. And that is definitely a link to film as you mention. It also comes down to my interest in storytelling and how series and combinations of images create stories. These stories can of course be more or less concrete or abstract. Rhythm in and between images also interests me. I work a lot with photo books as a way of expression, and I believe the photo book is linked to both the medium of film and the written short story.

 

Q: Editing a series together can really sap one’s energy. How did Tout Va Bien come about?

A: I composed the Tout Va Bien series over several years. It has been a long and windy road. It’s like that with most of my books. I think I have something like 15 dummy versions of Tout Va Bien in my studio that have been reworked and rejected. But now the final version is printed and the cards are laid out on the table. I can’t take them back now and that is wonderful. The work is done.

 

I absolutely love this attitude and approach, and, the more images I take, the more I feel I would like to adopt something similar. I’ve shot to brief for SO long that to consciously avoid that and merely free myself up to shoot in effect fairly randomly , but as a response to some indefinable trigger, and then to recognise and somehow filter what I’ve found sounds both exciting and liberating.

There is a video presentation of Engstoms ‘Haunts’ book on Vimeo, which unfortunately will not load into this blog post, but I strongly recommend readers search it out.

Interrogating Identity 16…..Group Crit

I haven’t been a huge fan of group crit sessions up to now. Mainly it’s been down to a combination of my deafness, causing me to miss a lot of what people say about both their own work and mine, and also the crits never seeming to fall when I can really benefit from them. Because of having to fit around commercial photography work and other unavoidable stuff, I’ve adopted the practice of doing all of the practical work for each module separately, rather than approaching them concurrently, so quite often I’ve been completely out of synch with what everyone else is doing.

But…Hand on heart….Yesterdays crit session was incredibly useful.

Beforehand I’d basically decided exactly how I was going to produce my work for submission, (and looking back on it, was really forcing square pegs into round holes).

Firstly a book including all of the documentary photos of the Holy Week celebrations that I took in the Altiplano, presented in the same way as I would digitally for a magazine submission, including all shots available to allow picture editors full access to all options. In effect a conscious decision not to edit. Though from the three 12 exposure films I’d shot, I had got 36 very usable images, there were a couple of fairly close duplication’s due to bracketing and slightly differing viewpoints, and though this does make sense when submitting to Picture Editors it was probably a bit of a half-baked notion for a study module.

Secondly I’d selected a sequence of six images to produce A3 digital prints from the 6×9 film negatives of the still life sequence I’d titled ‘Bordello’. This would definitely have worked, but I was disappointed that I felt it was somehow only a small part of what had been driving me when I was taking the images.

However, ideas that had first cropped up in the second PK session suddenly became clearer, and the way that people didn’t seem to have any impediment to their considering the different themes/groups that I had felt I needed to separate the works into, as actually being part of the same project and making some sort of sense when linked together, made me reconsider my whole approach.

Though the tactics and concept for all four ideas had been quite different, I had at the time of taking the images been very swept up by the narrative of the story/identity of my subject and this realisation that I might be able to make some sort of coherent piece from the disparate images I’d taken suddenly became very appealing. The fact that everyone present seemed to recognise all of the works as already being related made me realise this was a real possibility.

I’ve already started trying out a number of different ways that I thought might take this further but so far have come to no firm decisions. I shelved the idea of using text to hold them together as it seems both the most obvious method and also one that I very rarely like when used by other practitioners and tend to look down my nose at, (maybe one day I’ll put my prejudices aside and investigate this further but not now). I’ve also experimented with combining the images in post processed multi exposures,  (a couple of examples are below), but this seems a bit amateur hour. If I ever do something like this I’d much prefer to do it ‘in-camera’ rather than needing to make any major manipulation to my images.

So, I’ve now decided to experiment with the idea of producing either one or a number/sequence of triptychs, that combine the images of the different original themes into a coherent whole. The proof of the pudding will be whether they do hang together and suggest at least some idea of narrative, rather than being a disconnected grouping.

I’ve realised that my approach to last semesters two ‘Between The When And The Why’ projects was actually very similar to this, (apart from adopting a book as the final form), and I’m really excited at the prospect of developing something that works in the same way, avoiding anything even remotely literal, but creating a sense of mood, and the suggestion/opportunity of ‘story’.

As I said before I won’t be using these multi exposure style images for submission, but I’ve been quite jammy in placing one of them. A Flamenco guitarist wants to use the second for a CD cover, so I’ve included an initial mock up.

 

Interrogating Identity 15……Pecha Kucha 2

I was given the option to do a second PK presentation due to numbers being low in group two, and, given that I’d missed the 1 on 1 tutorial with the visiting lecturer, (the only good French air traffic controller is a dead French air traffic controller), I  decided to take the opportunity, even though I’d had such mixed feelings about the first.

I’m at the stage with the work I’ve produced for this module of having to decide on exactly what to select for my final submission, and also how I might present it. Consequently as I’ve got four separate bodies of images in the can, I thought I’d get the most benefit from showing a group of five random images selected from each, and see what sort of feedback/reaction each group generate.

Click on any image to open in gallery view:

Group One ‘Semana Santa 2016’

Group Two ‘The Long Wait’

Group Three ‘Bordello’

Group Four ‘La Sevillana’

 

The way a PK presentation works means that you are required to talk about the images as they appear, which, to my mind at least, is a bit of drag. I have absolutely no problems talking about my work, (as with most subjects, even ones I know absolutely nothing about, it can be hard to shut me up), but I would always prefer for an audience to have the opportunity to see the work and make some sort of decision about it based purely on visual terms. At it’s best, photography is a visual language, and to weigh it down from the absolute outset with both another language, and the ideas/excuses/aspirations of the producer, is hugely limiting on the reactions the image might bring about.

If it had been possible I would have preferred to introduce each selection of images with just a title and number. For example ‘Semana Santa’ 1-5, ‘Bordello’ 1-5, etc. I know it could be argued that I’m shooting my argument in the foot a little by wanting to use a title, but a title is really just a clue that can work as a trigger to an audiences imagination, and I have no issue with that.

I was really heartened that a lecturer commented on the problems that the images being pre-loaded by what I was saying affected the way they were seen. I am still convinced that the feedback and reactions would have been different, (and I don’t mean necessarily more positive, just more useful), had they been viewed without the encumbrance of an up-front description/explanation.

All that aside, feedback on the first group of images of the Semana Santa festival, undertaken as an examination of Cultural Identity was interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, though of the four projects it was by far the most photographically challenging  to take, it was the one that received the most positive reaction from my peers, and seemed to suffer the least from the effect of it’s Pechakucheration, (if it’s not a word it should be).

Secondly, though as a body of photographs I’m extremely happy with this project, I love it’s sense of colour and spectacle, it’s eye on a world vastly different from the one I’m still most used to and normally see, the really interesting thing for me is that I can’t stop myself feeling a little bit ‘sniffy’about it, and I suspect the same was true for my audience. By it’s very nature, it’s a ‘Documentary Project’, and yet we find it sadly lacking in suffering. No starving children, no blighted landscape, no bullets or disease. I’m joking of course. But, isn’t it strange that photographing something that looks so beautiful and, even to me, the most devout of atheists, somehow affirming, can so easily slip into becoming viewed as ephemeral and lightweight as soon as you call it a documentary piece. It’s a pity that photographs that are at least trying to examine cultural attitudes to faith, community and tradition need to wear  the somehow lesser ‘travel’ banner to make them easily identifiable.

I’m reasonably sure that the group of Semana Santa images that this first selection was taken from will make up part of my submission, as even though it’s a relatively simple idea, I think it’s well executed and successful. However I’m no further forward with any final decisions on the other three ideas I’ve been working on.

 

As an after note, I approached the Ayuntamiento, (local council), in advance of shooting the festival images to see if they would cover the cost of film. Though my Spanish isn’t great I’m not stretching the truth too far to say the phrase ‘On yer bike you English fool’ is a fairly accurate translation of their response, but, I’ve since been asked to provide one of the images to be used as a promotional poster for the festival next year, (which I’ve done f.o.c.) and they’ve asked me to shoot three of the main 2017 parades commercially. Haha, should have just paid for the film Pedro!

 

 

 

Interrogating Identity 14……Some Decisions.

Posted historically.

These notes were made during my enforced break with the internet, a few days after the first exploratory shoot discussed in  previous post ‘normal Service Resumed’.

I have spent much of the first few days of the Easter break from University considering how to progress with this module, and have decided that rather than follow a single course of action, I am going to attempt to produce more than one set of outcomes for submission, hopefully producing some quite varied pieces of work, exploring different approaches to the idea of identity. I did this with the studio module last semester, and found that I much preferred the resulting pace that I had to work at, and that the juggling of a few balls as opposed to concentrating on one single idea, was much more satisfying.

Thinking back to the 2 photos of Spanish religious festivals I used in the PK session, I have decided to shoot an extended series of photographs of Semana Santa, (or Easter Holy Week), as it is celebrated in the region where I live. Though over the last few years I have taken the occasional snapshot during this period, I have never approached it as an assignment or serious piece of work, yet as an examination of an aspect of Cultural identity I can’t think of anything, with the possible exception of the bullfight, that is so singularly and spectacularly Spanish.

I have never really considered shooting what is essentially a documentary piece before, so this will be an entirely new experience. The module brief specifies that medium format equipment should be used, so I am going to take the opportunity to shoot on an Arax 60, 6×6 body and use expired portra 160 film of which I’ve got sufficient stock to enable a consistent approach across what will probably be 3 or 4 separate shoots. The Festival lasts for the whole week and I intend to shoot at a number of different towns and cover a variety of the events.

Secondly I am intending to shoot one or maybe two series of photographs based on the belongings of a person I have never personally met.

I find myself in a strange situation, where I have full unmitigated access to what was once the home of a person I have no personal experience/knowledge of, yet I have a certain amount of information about them and their life within that home. The home is full of their belongings and has been untouched since the early 1980’s.

I’m hoping to produce two series of works, one shot in situe, and if time allows, one with the belongings removed to a studio style situation, to examine ways of investigating identity through the recording of what surrounded a life. These will be shot on either the Arax 60 or a Mamiya RB67 and will probably be on new Ektar 100 film stock if I can source some, or if not, on expired fuji 400 that I already have. I would prefer the Ektar to make use of the much finer grain and the dependability/consistency of new stock.

Thirdly, again if time allows I am going to shoot a series of staged portrait tableau’s based on the story I know of the person whose home I am examining. I intend to fictionalise this story, and adopt a cinematic and fanciful approach to what is essentially a somewhat grim tale. I have done some preliminary work in researching the period of history most relevant to this story and find myself already thinking in black and white about the images I am hoping to shoot, consequently I will shoot FP4 or Tri-X and again use the Arax 60.

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ARAX 60, 80mm, Portra 160 expired.

An advert for Semana Santa shot when I was doing the exploratory shoot referred to in my previous post. ‘Come and see Jesus nailed to the cross…Bring the family ‘

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JPEGsp16easterThree67

Werra Rangefinder, 50mm Agfa Vista 200

Who lived here, what assumptions can I make, is what is left relevant, or just smoke and mirrors?

 

 

 

 

 

Interrogating Identity 13……….Erica Scourti, ‘So like you’.

A brief post and another bee in my bonnet.

I apologise in advance to Erica Scourti  and her work ‘So Like You’, as I’m using it purely as an example of a type of work on which I want to vent my spleen.

Art about the photograph, about the proliferation of the photograph, about current and changing/developing communication of information by photograph, about the ubiquity of the photograph, about all of these things and more, but, not in any real or relevant sense, the work of a photographer.

Scourti thinks, researches, compiles, edits, curates…All valid artistic pre-occupations, but the photograph is her subject not her medium.

Though, given that I exist in the same world as Scourti,  I am affected by/informed by these issues and find many of the questions that the work invokes interesting, as someone who considers myself a photographer before an artist, I can’t stop myself hoping that photography, (a pure idea of photography), might follow the emerging lead of other artistic disciplines, and cease in it’s constant navel gazing and slavish adherence to concept and pay more attention to its own intrinsic integrity as an art form, and to, (at least), an inclusion of an artisanal approach.

Rant over, image of kitten sourced by methods similar to Scourti’s.

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Interrogating Identity 12………..Melanie Banajo

Prior to the lecture in which she was referenced I’d already seen some shots from Banajo’s ‘Furniture Bondage’ series….

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Banajo says:

“When I was a child, I was very restless and never wanted to sleep. To have a little rest my parents would tie me to the bed, but I was able to escape running around with a mattress and half the bed tied to me…As an adult my life goal is all about preserving my stuff, bringing it from A to B and back again and dropping some of the things in C in between. If I look at the objects maintaining my life as a condensation of material energy, I often wonder how long I could live free and happy from the gain I get out of that pure energy…I don’t actually own so much stuff, but often I dream of burning everything I have.”

I’d found the idea of being shackled/tied to our belongings interesting. As a metaphor of such, the images are amusing and disturbing in varying degrees of balance. I’d found them to be curiously mismatched, some appearing to be shot from  a totally different headspace to others. For example the shot above along side the shot below.

Melanie-Bonajo4-670x395

However after looking at more of Banajos work, she seems willfully to engage in the practice of approaching the same/similar ideas from widely varying points of view, and vastly differing methods in a very capricious way. This could make her work seem untidy and ill-conceived, but if you can get past her non adherence to technique and consistency of approach much of her work is striking and fascinating. From the point of view of identity, the idea of our belongings defining/confining us is a well trodden path, but Banajo brings something new and visually very striking to the table.

MELANIE-BONAJO_05

The work referenced in the lecture ‘Thank You For Hurting Me, I Really Needed That’ was, however, completely new to me, and almost enough to make me go no further in looking at her extended work. Boanajo, during the course of a relationship break-up, tells us that she reached for a camera every time she felt tears welling up and shot a self portrait. In isolation, or even in a small grouping, these images did have a certain power, but as an extended body of work I found them to some how trivialise the situation, (which may well of course have been the point), and that viewing them was in itself a miserable exercise. Reminded of the Brotherus series of daily self portraits during a period of illness, this triggered another attack of one of the regular bees in my bonnet. I really struggle with this method of extended series examining a single phenomenon in a formulaic way. The Banajo approach is admittedly less formulaic, the poses,(albeit fairly unposed poses), and environment change in a limited way, but like the Brotherus work, we are presented with a work where most of the power is due to the repetition, or sense of scale of the overall work. In some cases this seems to be a bit like making a mountain of a molehill, taking a small and relatively inconsequential idea and aggrandising it purely by making it physically big. There are of course many exceptions to this, Donovan Wylies series of the Maze prison, Ruffs portraits, but it is a mechanic, to my mind, much over-used and something to be nervous of.

I’m glad I did investigate Banajo further however as I have rarely come across such an incredibly varied and individual vision. A lot of it completely goes over/under/around my head, but there is a sense of playfulness and absolute abandon about much of her work that is very exciting.

Masks and costumes, play acting, theatricality, sheer lunacy…..With such a varied catalogue of images, it would be impossible for some not to feel mannered and trying a little too hard, but there are so many of her images which literally stop you in your tracks that a further examination is more than warranted.

(note to self… who was artist who gave away literally all of his belongings??)

Interrogating Identity 11…………..Pecha Kucha

Posted historically.

The Pecha Kucha session in which I presented my images was in the first such session scheduled, and only a few weeks into the module. Consequently I was not able to use any current work.

It was necessary therefore, to make a choice between showing and discussing work by other practitioners, or refer to previous personal work, or, (something I felt would probably be a mess), negotiate a combination of both.

I felt that to get too bogged down with other practitioners work at this early stage, might restrict my own ideas, so decided to concentrate completely on previous personal work that might, (and I emphasise might), have some influence on where I might take the module.

I explained this at the outset, empahasising that I’d very much taken a ‘scatter-gun’ approach, dipping into work, some of which went back quite a few years, and that any image included was there purely as I felt it might possibly provide some sort of ‘jumping off point’ for where I might go with any new work generated for this module, none of the images I selected were intended to indicate ideas I intended to follow in their current form.

In retrospect, I really didn’t find this a particularly useful exercise from the point of view of generating any new approaches, I’m already perfectly aware of the sort of things/ideas/themes that interest me, and digging up previous examples seemed to be looking backward rather than forward. It was also unfortunate that feedback was based on work that I feel I’ve left behind.

Also, as is nearly always the case when getting feedback from peers, most feedback tends to be firmly based on the interests and attitudes of the person giving it, and though it is always interesting to hear, I find it very rarely helps me to move forward in focusing my own ideas.

Response to the images I used was mixed, and, I’m pretty sure as a consequence of the fact that the twenty images were such a disparate bunch, quite confused. I got the impression people were trying to find links when there really weren’t any.

The ideas I started to explore in last years studio module of exploring dreams seemed to strike a few chords but, at the moment, I feel that this is not something I want to continue with. This course is only three years long and it was always my intention to explore as many different ideas as possible rather than getting entrenched in one particular area of interest. Spending a second semester thinking about the same source  material really does not appeal. After the PK session I felt even more than before that I wanted to explore something new.

The one exception to this was the vague idea of an exploration of some aspect of cultural identity. I touched upon this, (very briefly and elliptically), with shots from Spanish religious festivals which I’d actually included because of the use of masks, and photographs of traditional Asian dance.

Interrogating Identity 10……Normal Service Resumed

Since my last post I have been without internet access other than that provided by smartphone. One of the drawbacks of where I live is the ‘Manyana’ attitude to storm repairs. Seven weeks to fix a mast is nothing.

Consequently the next few posts will all be made very much ‘After the Fact’. Hopefully I’ll catch up in the not too distant future and be back in real time.

However, given that I have now returned to cyberspace, and there’s no excuse not to at least try to make my posts worth a quick shufti, I might as well include some images. This material was shot on the first exploratory shoot I made for this module, the weekend following my Pecha Kucha presentation.

The PK, (which I’ll discuss in a subsequent blog), didn’t really help at all in deciding where I wanted to take the module, so I decided to start to shoot on a fairly random basis, to see what, if anything, might transpire. I had discussed in the PK a possible idea for an examination of some aspect of the cultural identity of my newly adopted country, and began by looking for examples of things that struck me as being singular, and specific to, what is still a fairly alien culture.

These were all shot handheld with a Werra Rangefinder using expired Kodak Portra 400.

 

Though I am pleased with some of the images I don’t think there was anything that justified continuing along the same route. The stand out impression I had from the resulting images was the idea of language, (particularly broken language), as some sort of signifier of identity. That the particular language is still, to a large extent, a mystery to me, is of course personally significant and interesting, but as an idea to hang a whole identity based module on it seemed pretty thin. Back to the drawing board.

All images copyright Stuart Allan Hyde

Interrogating Identity 09……Mask?

Since the Pecha Kucha presentation where I discussed some of my ideas regarding masks, I’ve shot a totally ‘off the cuff’ test image with a mask incorporated into a domestic tableau. Not really clear where this might go as it’s actually a combination of two separate ideas that I was considering testing. I was two bottles down when I shot it so it was all a bit slapdash.

Need to leave this for a few days and come back to it. Pissed or not, I always find I need to leave a gap between shooting something that hasn’t been pre-planned and deciding whether it’s worth pursuing or not.

Two versions here, click either to open in gallery view.

Shot in digital, eeurgh. God how I hate it.