Sunday, 27 November 2011

A different kind of truth

These short films document the process of making an artwork for 'A Graceful Death' a project of work by Antonia Rolls and others exploring how we deal with death and serious illness. I wrote about the most recent exhibition in Birmingham in a previous post.

Stuart's beloved wife Sue killed herself. After an extended period of grieving and recovery Stuart (an old and dear friend of mine from college days) expressed an interest in taking part in the Graceful Death project. He wanted very much to tells Sue's story, to speak about her struggles and decisions, her highs and lows. I will make a separate blog post with more of Sue's story. These films explore the process of making art about painful subjects. They begin with Stuart looking at Antonia's paintings. They explore issues of pain and honesty: sometimes real pain requires a different kind of truth.

The films have many technical and other failings (I have a lot to learn). But I think the subject rises above these irritations.

This final film shows the process of developing the pictures of Stuart and Sue (shown below at the Birmingham exhibition), looking at some of the considerations that went into each aspect.

I have measured out my life in coffee spoons

I took this little video clip with my phone a month or two ago. It was a wonderfully sunny lat summer/early autumn day. My friend and I were enjoying an excellent lunch at Pallant House gallery. The gallery cafe was full of sun and people. There was a courtyard outside and I could sea these leaves dancing in the sunny breeze. They were moving to a different rhythm than the sounds I could hear of human chatter and eating and I felt that I could almost, but not quite, hear the sound of their music. Some lines from T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', half-remembered from schooldays, came to mind:

"For I have known them all already, known them all-
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room."

I have been reflecting this morning about how easy it is to spend time being busy, doing necessary and even useful stuff, and how it is easy in such circumstances for time to slip away and for bigger and more important things to be left undone. Still not making much progress with my assignment four work. Determined to take a little time out this week to play and explore.

Below is another little video clip from the summer. I was trying to capture the experience of
being in a summer meadow. I hope to make a better job of this next summer.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

In memory of Kit

This is Kit, my friend Toni's much-loved aunt. Kit died earlier this week. She had been very unwell for some time but, as you can hopefully see from this picture, her spirit remained undimmed through it all. To give a sense of who Kit was, one of her nieces wrote that she "taught me how to fry eggs, curl my hair with rags, how to have a blatant disregard for what anyone thought of me and, most importantly, how to drink gin!"

I was fortunate enough to visit Kit with Toni just two weeks ago. While we were speaking I thought she looked so very lovely that I couldn't resist asking for permission to photograph her. And here is my tribute to Kit. No single picture can ever really capture the essence of a human being, but artists and photographers like me feel compelled to try.

In some ways it seems almost wrong to talk about how I processed the picture at this time, but doing so has brought forward a range of reflections and I want to set these out. For me it is very important to be respectful of people when I photograph them: I want to be true to what I see, but not unkind, and that is not always an easy balance. Because this is the final picture of Kit all those decisions seem more signifcant - it feels even more important than normal to try do her justice. This picture has changed in a number of ways from the raw original beyond simply losing its colour. I may post a colour version at some later stage, but removing colour allows one to concentrate on character and the play of light and shade, and that seemed right for this picture. The original was quite contrasty - harder than I remembered the scene - and I slightly reduced the clarity to soften contrast. I also used curves and some dodging and burning to further soften the picture and lighten the shadow side of Kit's face. I corrected a few little skin blemishes. Finally I sharpened only her eyes, and added a little tone as I think she would have liked that.

Kit was very ill and I don't want to pretend otherwise. But I really wanted to bring out the spirit and liveliness I saw, and have processed the picture to draw a little more attention to those things and a little less to the signs of illness, without removing them altogether.

So many choices are available to a photographer once a picture is taken. You can end up with a final image that has almost no relation to the scene the camera recorded, and I have no problems with that when it fits the photographer's vision. But when you want to make a fairly faithful record there are still subtle questions of what you emphasise and what is played down. Would a harder, more contrasty picture have been more accurate or faithful? Perhaps, but it wouldn't have been the picture I wanted to make.

RIP Kit.


"Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean."
Lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Colerdige

I have been working, on and off, on PWDP assignment four for some time. I took a break for a month to finalise my APEL application. Having started again in earnest last week I have come to the conclusion that the work I had prepared just wasn't coming together and have decided to give up on this project and take a break before startng again. The assignment is quite straightforward and relatively open - I am required to produce eight landscape images with a linking theme. Four themes are suggested - earth, air, fire and water - but I can agree another with my tutor if I wish. There is no steer about how you interpret the theme: what I have done is quite literal but that isn't at all necessary and I may take a less literal approach to the final work.

I had chosen water and have in fact been collecting possible images for the assignment since I started PWDP. I was planning on a relatively abstract set, exploring the play of water, light and shade and particularly reflection, in part as a sort of metaphor for the photographic process. I've been through the usual selction routine, narrowing down the images to a potential set and so on. I have done some work to produce final versions - working with colour and shade and so on. The pictures in this blog post show where I had got to when I decided to call it a day.

Although some of the pictures work on different levels, the whole thing just doesn't quite hang together and, to be honest, doesn't really inspire me. It had begun to feel like yet another task to be got through. After some reflection I have decided I need a bit of a time out until I find a concept that inspires me more. I suspect that the fact that I knew deep down this wasn't working is partly why I have been putting it off and finding so many other things to do and write about. I have been very busy and pressured at work and in other areas of life also and that has added to the mix. I feel rather burnt-out and lacking in energy generally. So for the next few months the plan is to play a bit, work through the PWDP exercises I have been ignoring recently and see where that takes me.

I nearly always start a module with a range of ideas about what I will do for the assignment already in my mind and it is very unusual for me (and well out of my comfort zone) to have no real idea at all of what I am going to do. It is still open to me to take more better pictures of water and complete the assignment as I had planned. But I don't really want to do that. I think a setback like this can be very creative if you go with it (at least I hope so). I won't stop doing photography and blogging. I will just try not to push myself to come up with a new idea but to let the idea perhaps come out from my playing and other work. We will see. It is rather disappointing to give up at quite a late stage and having done quite a lot of work: inevitably this will delay completion of the module. But doing the degree is not for me primarily about getting a badge of achievement: it is much more important to me to do decent work that means something to me.

For now, here are the pictures I completed. The picture at the top feels to me like the most fully resolved one. Not sure how it will come across on screen but it works well as a subtle print. I like the combination of interesting detail and cloudy mystery in this picture. Others express different facets and moods more or less successfully.

Killarney reeds
Reeds reflected. This picture is upside down - I found it works better that way. 

Spring: the play of light and air
Roiling waves
Light on the water

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Exhibition: A Graceful Death

"This is such an alone place to be" Sue and Stuart.

Some pictures from the opening of the Graceful Death exhibition in Birmingham. This is a project exploring the end of life and major illness, the work of my friend Antonia Rolls. You can read more about the project here. I contribute to the project by recording events, making portraits and prints of the individuals who contribute and providing other practical and moral support. The current exhibition is in the church of St Martin's in the Bullring in Birmingham and there is still time to visit if you are interested.

The work above is the most recent contribution to the project. Sue Pryde committed suicide. She left extensive notes explaing her decision and trying to ameliorate the pain that would be felt by her husband Stuart and close family and friends. Sue was quite a remarkable woman and Stuart is a remarkable man. Stuart has spent much of the last few years coming to terms with Sue's death and speaks and writes very profoundly about his experience and his love for Sue. You will be able to see some films of Stuart shortly. The pictures above show Stuart and Sue facing each other surrounded by favourite plants and with a sunny blue sky behind them. Between them are smaller pictures containing Sue's wedding day speech, her suicide note and some words from her journal.

A few portraits and detail shots below, showing of people who visited the exhibition on the opening day.

Poetry workshop: Penny and guest

Lost for words

This baby had the most wonderful range of expressions.

Entertaining a little boy while his parents view the exhibition.

Conversation pieces. I have been trying to resist the temptation to work in black and white recently, in part as a discipline to just work with what is there in front of me. But these two images just wanted to be bw.