Yes, that’s me, front row, second from the right
I’m not long back from a residential study weekend run and organised by OCA* students. I’m not even going to attempt to cover every part of the weekend, partly because there’s so much to say and think about, and partly because I know that not everyone who reads this is part of OCA and I don’t want to bore you with insider stuff. So I’m going to pull out a couple of highlights that got me thinking hard about photography.
I’m still buzzing with it all. Anyone who’s been reading along with me will have noticed the gradual diminution of blog entries over the last few months, and the complete lack of photographs in the last few, and you’ll have heard me bemoan the fact that I’d lost my photographic mojo and couldn’t locate it again. Readers, I was depressed – more depressed than I even realised myself. I’ve been having some treatment for that (alternative-style, not the drug kind) and was feeling a lot brighter before I went on the weekend but still not inclined to get out there and get shooting. This weekend has changed it all about for me – yesterday I went out with my camera for the first time in months, and I’m full of ideas and enthusiasm and motivation again. I’ve got myself back – yeeha! (And a huge thank you to Penny and Eileen who organised and ran the whole thing with flair and friendly efficiency.)
Our first external speaker was Mishka Henner. I’d looked at his website before we went, and to be truthful didn’t really get a lot from his work, but how that changed when he started talking about it – it was fascinating and I ended up loving what he did. It also made me aware of my own prejudices in one respect – Mishka uses photographs to make art, but they’re other people’s photographs and not his own. Something in me wants to reject this as photography – as art, yes, but as photography, no. I had to ask myself what it means to say we’re photographers. For me, this involves actually using a camera but is my thinking too rigid in this respect? For several of his projects Mishka uses photos taken from Google Earth. Now, OK, he didn’t shoot them, but in terms of his projects he chose the frame, cropped it, enhanced it in Photoshop, and presented it as art. That’s probably more effort than the Google people put into that particular frame, and these are all parts of the photographic process. I must admit that I’m still inclined to feel he’s an artist who uses photography rather than a photographer as such, but old prejudices die hard and I dare say I’ll get over it. It’s not really so different from Marcel Duchamp appropriating a urinal and presenting it as art (but then I wouldn’t have called him a ceramicist!).
One of the things I really liked about his work was that, although it was strongly conceptual, it was also very aesthetically pleasing. The images were visually satisfying even when you removed the conceptual element from them. This isn’t necessary, of course, but it keeps me happy. For one of his projects he would use a number of portraits taken by a particular, well-known photographer – such as Diane Arbus, Rineke Dijsktra, or Lewis Hines – and super-impose them on each other. He selected portraits that were taken face-on and lined them up using the irises of the eyes. The results are astonishing. He shows the process in video form, each layer (set at 3% transparency) going on top of the others, until a final face takes shape; the faces emerge out of the blackness, slowly becoming more defined. I find it hard to say why these are so compelling, but they certainly are, with the eyes staying strong and clear and the rest of the face acquiring a softly smudged state of ethereality.
It’s not my intention to give any kind of comprehensive overview of Mishka’s work, and I intend to come back to some of it in due course, but I must just mention his Dutch tulip fields. These are views of the tulip fields, taken from the air, and transformed into dramatic abstract shapes, reminiscent of modern paintings. It struck me that here is a very different view of spring. When I was putting together my first assignment on the Landscape course, which was to portray spring, this might have given me some food for thought – although I’m not sure my budget would have run to aerial photography. I don’t know whether he took these shots himself, or if they’ve been taken from Google Earth again, but either way, they’re stunning. However, as someone pointed out, OCA students wouldn’t get away with submitting photos for our assignments that we hadn’t taken ourselves. It seems there’s one rule for students and another for when you’ve gained some sort of a reputation – fair enough, I guess, although I wonder if that’s the case in all degree courses.
One of the other sessions I found really interesting was from tutor Jesse Alexander. He took us through the process of development of his MA submission, from its early beginnings to the finished work. Interesting in itself, and again I loved the fact that his images are visually stunning as well as having conceptual meaning. His project is called Threshold Zone and is all about underground landscapes, the transition from light to dark, and the myth and meaning surrounding journeys into the underworld. However, it’s not the images I want to discuss but the fact that he told us that he found these places pretty scary and had to face up to these fears while carrying out the project. In a similar vein, another of the other students on the workshop showed us pictures of pollarded trees during the critique session, and said that even though she hates to see trees like this, and finds it almost painful to look at them, she feels compelled to take shots of them. I don’t think I have any instances of this in my own work, but I wonder how many photographers are drawn towards subjects they find painful, distressing, frightening, and so on. In a way, Jesse’s underground shots could also represent for him a journey into the underworld of his own psyche – it’s an interesting parallel. By photographing these things, are we looking for a way of coming to terms with them, or perhaps simply expressing a reflection of some inner process of our own?
I’m leaving it here for the moment. I have loads more to say, and a huge number of things to think about, and a lot of that will no doubt find its way into this space in due course. As you’ll have gathered by now, it was a terrific experience and has turned things around for me in so many ways. This is due in no small way to the other students on the course. It was a real joy to have such a diverse and interesting group of people to talk to, knowing that you wouldn’t bore them by rambling on about photography too much. And it was just great to finally meet people whom I’ve mostly only known as avatars and user-names on forums. It’s a strange experience – you feel as if you know someone already, but it also feels like you’re meeting a stranger. People are very much as you imagined them, but also in some ways very different. Weird. I can only hope that we continue to have weekends like this. Well done Penny, Eileen, tutors Peter and Jesse, and OCA for their support for the venture, as well as our two guest speakers Mishka Henner and Peter Rudge from duckrabbit. (and more of duckrabbit later).
*Open College of the Arts