Work in Progress Development

I came into this module wanting to experiment with my approach to taking images. This was inspired in part during the break between modules when I started to take out a 35mm camera to pass the time. The images from that time are what I used for the week one Ed Rucha task.

Figure 1: Phil Hill (May-June, 2020) Early module images for Work in Progress portfolio submission [Click to Enlarge].

I was unsure if I was going to be able to make my pictures with people again, so I started to create images based on the banal and build up a portrait of the spaces that I encounter during my walks to see if there was a unique vernacular to the area around where I live (Fig: 1). I was keen to explore the ways that I could use black and white film working with a 35mm camera. What I found from the outcomes of these images is that I was drawn to the signs of the pandemic, which populate the landscape, such as gloves, masks, demarcation tape, and chalk signs. All things that are significant under the current circumstances however are quite ubiquitous in many of the projects that contemporary photographers are undertaking. Spencer Murphy, for example has been documenting the ongoing pandemic based in East London and has quite a few images of discarded PPE together with a central focus on people wearing masks (Fig: 2). Peter Dench has also spent a great deal of time looking at the impact of events (Fig: 3). Ultimately, I was not really interested in focusing my project on the impact of Covid-19, finding the images that I was producing were not really exploring the key concepts in my research project – community, connection, and identity.

Figure 2: Spencer Murphy (2020) Portrait from ‘Our Bullet Lives Blossom as the Race Towards the Wall’
Figure 3: Peter Dench (2020) Demarcation tape across London.
Figure 4: Phil Hill (June, 2020) Image from iso 100 film push processed at iso 3200.

Moving into the first few weeks of the module, I started my exploration into abstracting the image by push processing the film that I was shooting beyond its normal working range (Fig: 4). I had mixed results from this, ranging from very high contrast images, to kind of grey and not what I was looking for, which was something more like Masahisa Fukase (Fig: 5). I made a fundamental connection in the medium in the way that I approached its use during this time, deciding that there is already a significant level of abstraction inherent in the photograph that is pushed further by the use of black and white (View post). The main challenge was the limiting size of the 35mm negative, which was not producing an effective scan.

Figure 5: Masahisa Fukase (1975 -1986) Image from ‘Ravens’

I decided to borrow a medium format 6×7 format camera as I wanted to achieve more of a visual impact in my images. Additionally, I was finding it challenging to approach and photograph people again outside of the usual way that I approached making portraits. The theater of the apparatus actually created a means to approach people and engage them in conversation, and ultimately ask for a portrait. Essentially, I was looking for a tool to create the portraits that I wanted to make and found that this was the best method. Even though I spend the majority of my photography seeking out portraits, they do not come naturally to me.

My focus for this module was to start engaging with people coming back together after the strict rules of lock down have been eased, in that sense the project is about covid-19, yet I wanted to focus my attention away from the leftover evidence and objects of covid-19 as mentioned above, fully aware that a project created during the time period would always have connotations and a pathos linked to current events. The spaces that surround where I live became of interest to me as they have been quite empty during the last few months, it was really nice to see them in use again. Photographing people in these spaces felt like a good place to start re-engaging with my community too (Fig: 6). What I found is that I could engage with people and collect portraits for my project.

Figure 6: Phil Hill (June – July, 2020) Portraits taken during Surfaces and Strategies for Work in Progress Portfolio. [Click to Enlarge]

I have been pleased with the portraits that I have so far, the new direction and exploration into black and white, and a documentary aesthetic have been really valuable in focusing in on how I wanted my images to look. As discussed before (see post), my intention is to draw attention to the act of photography, which I feel creates a significance of the images, it also places me into the project, albeit subtly. This I hope starts to consider my own connection to community.

Figure 7: Phil Hill (June-July, 2020) Images showing Watford as a commuting town into London [Click to Enlarge]

What was missing is a sense of place, which provides the context for the project. What connected all of the portraits is something that I have found a challenge. This actually, is the core of my project. I have tried to look at Watford as a place and consider what it is about the place that makes it what it is. Watford is closely tied to its position just outside of London, commuting is part of this character. It is also the border between the city and the country. I have been exploring this through landscapes by considering the things that identify the town as a transport link, such as the railway, and the major highways (Fig: 7). This alone felt superficial as I have become more and more drawn to the green spaces. I am also still working out how t approach the idea of my own connection to this place. After reading Suzanne Keller discuss the idea of community as it relates to the American Dream (Keller, 1988), which was inspired by the way that Vanessa Winship argued that the concept is what most societies aspire to. Keller notes that American society is fundamentally individualistic, which is at odds with how a community functions, noting that there has been a shift away from Gemeinschaft – closer bonds linked to emotion and family, and on to Gesellschaft – impersonal and built on individual gain. Where I see this fitting into my project is the geography of Watford between country and city, is a space where this shift from the personal to the impersonal start to happen (Fig: 8).


Figure 8: Phil Hill (July, 2020) Discussing Community ideals and aesthetics.

Additionally, I have been quite drawn by constructing a cinematic feel to the landscape and the portrait images that play with this idea of connection, by acknowledging Keller’s crucial point, The idealistic community is essentially a myth, yet it does not stop us continuing to seek it. By constructing a landscape set of images, I can then explore identity of the place – potentially you can view my work and not be quite sure if you are actually looking at the UK landscape (Fig: 9). I have specifically worked to photograph my project at set times of the day to create an emotive sense of the cinematic; aiming to present a constructed vision of an ideal that might not exist. As one of my initial ideas was to explore how people within my community are coming back together as the restrictions start to lift, this construction is particularly prescient knowing that we are not out of the woods yet.

Figure 9: Phil Hill (June – July) Landscapes selected to be more ambiguous, cinematic and idealistic. [Click to Enlarge]

Where I believe my WIPP is going is to show an idea of community of my construction. Created by utilising black and white to denote a sense of what it was like before current events, and selected portraits and landscapes, some of which aim to provide a sense of an ideal, some to create context and ground to where I am creating this work in Watford.

Bibliography

Keller, S., 1988. The American Dream of Community: An unfinished Agenda. Sociological Forum, 3(2), pp. 167-183.

Community, an American dream aesthetic, and the persistence of the FSA.

I wasn’t expecting to do as much research into the FSA photographs as I have. Essentially, I dismissed this as work that was studied during my formative photographic education, which was for beginners and then move on. It is a persistent presence in documentary photography however, and referenced continuously by other photographers, either overtly, or as a clear influence in the style of the work. Whilst rediscovering its significance when reading Todd Hido referencing the use of Roy Stryker’s shooting scripts (2014, p. 123), the FSA creates a scaffold in which to construct a photo documentary about people, place and connection to community. The canonical imagery from this work, from photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans have become mythologised works, where the original context has, as Susan Sontag points out: “the photograph is, always, an object bound in a context, this meaning is bound to drain away” (1979, p. 106) after acknowledging that the original purpose of the FSA images was a complete construction of the precise elements to elicit the feeling that these people were in fact poor (p. 6). They have been shown time after time to be falsehoods, yet remain revered as the quintessential documentary representation (Stein, 2020, p. 59) and I see the influence of this body of work in much of the photography that I am researching as part of my project.

Figure 1: Paul Hart (2009 – 2015) ‘West View Farm’ from ‘Farmed’ series.
Figure 2: Dorothea Lange (1938) Tractored Out, Childress County.

For example, I started to look at the work of Paul Hart’s work titled ‘Farmed’ (Fig: 1), which are a striking series of landscapes in black and white that are quite emotive, which reference the FSA imagery through the industrialised farming landscape that he shoots (Fig: 2). Comparisons are even made in the opening essay to that work, where Steven Brown compares Hart’s images to those of Dorothea Lange (Hart & Brown, 2016, p. 5). I have started to consider the landscape much more as a vital part of my narrative. I have already discussed Vanessa Winship’s use of landscape in her series ‘She Dances on Jackson’ (2013), in which two thirds of the work is actually made of landscape images (Fig: 3), however Winship notes that even without the presence of humans in these images, they are still about people. Traces of human impact and existence are ever present, especially in a country like the UK where every square inch of the country has had some kind of impact from Humans living here.

Figure 3: Vanessa Winship (2013) Image from ‘She Dances on Jackson’

I have been especially drawn to the woodland areas that surround Watford, which started last module after I connected with the volunteers of Harebreaks woods near where I live (Fig: 4). I had never been to the woods before and was amazed that such a resource existed without my knowledge. This wood become somewhere that I walked during the lock down and have taken a great number of images. This exploration has extended into this module where I have been aiming to connect with people who have also been using the same spaces and are now coming back together – inspiring the title for this work.

Figure 4: Phil Hill (February, 2020) Helen, volunteer litter picker, Harebreaks wood.

Vanessa Winship talked about her work based in Albania and how the people seemed to have some semblance of the American Dream, where she notes that the idea of the ‘American Dream’ is something that all societies are striving for, or at least, a local version of this (2015). This really resonated in the way that I started to approach some of the landscape images as some of the scenes, especially those with pine trees, feel like they could have been taken in north America somewhere (Fig: 5). The concept of community and the American dream have a deep connection in themselves and have become part of a nostalgia and idealised version of the world that may not even exist so I am keen to continue pushing this look in my images to highlight constructed perceptions of the idealised community and now that I am really focussing in on Watford as a place for this exploration, there are parallels to be drawn in the ultra-suburbia of Watford as the last place before entering the metropolis of London, and also the first non-London town when leaving.

Figure 5: Phil Hill (July, 2020) Meadow by the Grove, just outside of Watford

Treating the American Dream as a conceptual tool in which to explore the idea of community is interesting because part of the idea of that dream is inherently individualistic and draws on Barthes’ idiorrythm (2012); people wish to live in the same space as one another but remain separate. As Suzanne Keller notes:

“American society confronts a paradox, historically, the culture has emphasized the language of individualism, laissez faire, and private property; it has valued the idea of the individual succeeding on his or her own, in the absence of social constraints, prodded by a do-it-yourself, do-your-own-thing philosophy.” And she moves on to point out that “there is no way to go it alone”

(1988, pp. 167-168).

The idealistic package being sold versus the reality of achieving are not compatible with one another.

Keller’s discussions on the American Dream and community are useful, even for my project based in the UK as she outlines some basic principles of community:

“Community is part of the proximate, everyday world, more immediate than the far away society yet larger than the family and primary group, that gives meaning and purpose to one’s life and that also diminishes one’s sense of vulnerability and of being adrift or alone in an anonymous world”

(1988, p. 170).

If all cultures around the world are in search of their own ‘American Dream’ as Winship states, then it is important to understand how this ideal is a flawed concept and will continue to perpetuate the disconnect of an immediate perception of the community, creating a perpetual disdain for what is right here, right now. This is becoming quite revelatory to my own perception of community as I consider whether there is a worthwhile investment in the community where I currently live.

Photography seems like quite a useful way of exploring this. Knowing that the idealistic community is a construction, it is quite easy to construct my images to hold up the ideal as a way of analysing it. I am already doing this with my use of black and white to accentuate the nostalgic elements of the community as others might see it. I have aimed to create my own paradox of nostalgia whilst at the same time photographing the present. By also seeking to create an aesthetic in my work that emulates the look and feel of a North American scene would only further play with the perception of community and the ideal, knowing that these are all constructions in my work.

Keller also outlines a theory of community put forward by Ferdinand Tönnies, the idea of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, which is something that will be useful to look into in greater detail. “Gemeinschaft … human association rooted in traditions and emotional attachment” and “gesellschaft is a very different social formation: larger, specialised, impersonal, and pluralistic”  (1988, p. 171). For Keller, American society has shifted into gesellschaft, which has created this disconnect as we increasingly live in larger and larger communities. Moving forward in my own research, it is important to identify whether my own community values gesellschaft over gemeinschaft. This too, is important to understand in the context of the ongoing pandemic and other socio-political issues that we are facing as a society, such as Brexit. Keller also notes that the shift to a more individualistic, impersonal community comes at the cost of the emotional attachment of gemeinschaft, yet people still seek it and long for it, which supports the way we view community through a nostalgic lens (p. 172). This I feel, is something that I have been aiming to place into my project. My own feeling of disconnect is potentially born from the idea of gesellschaft and I also seek an emotional connection to place. My photography could be a way to do that.

Work in Progress Gallery

PHO703 First Shots

This week’s webinar, I put together a contact sheet of images from my recent medium format film shoots, primarily the portraits that I have begun to collect again (Fig: 1). All of the people in these images are taking very locally to where I live on the recreation ground and playing fields nearby. As the lock down is starting to be lifted, I am seeing many more people come together in these spaces and start to enjoy the outdoors and meet up with people they might not have seen for many weeks.

I have been very pleased with how many of these images are starting to come together. After some initial technical challenges with the equipment and getting used to shooting in this way again, I feel that I have managed to take some string images to move forward with my project and it has been quite a nice validation for my new approach, after having to really work up the courage to engage with people and take their photograph.

This was echoed by Cemre during my feedback, who noted that I have some really good portraits to work with when it comes to the next wipp edit and submission. What I am lacking at the moment is the images, which link all of these people together in terms to the space and connection between them. This is fundamental to the work that I am trying to produce. It was also noted that for this kind of work that is completed in the place where the photographer lives is almost always about the photographer as much as it is about the place, which is something that really resonates with me as my intention for the work has always been to explore the idea of my connection to the place that I live. Although Cemre made reference to this as an idea to explore for the idea of community, it is yet to show effectively in my research project; a series of portraits is not enough for a resolved strong submission.

To develop this, I am considering a number of approaches. I made a comment on Andy’s images from this week that he might want to consider keeping a journal to record his thoughts and feelings whilst taking his images so that he could use the text to support the visual. It occurred to me as I was saying this, that this is something that I should also do as a way of showing my personal narrative in the work via my own reflections before, during and after I take my pictures. Additionally, it is something that I could write when I take my daughter to the same spaces; ultimately, I use these places in a similar way to the people that I am photographing so I should be in there somewhere.

Figure 2: Alec Soth (2010) From ‘Broken Manual’ on Soth’s website

It was suggested that I also take a look at Alec Soth’s ‘Broken Manual’ series (Fig: 2). I have been getting quite familiar with his work ‘Songbook’ in relation to this idea of the documentary aesthetic and how it was employed overtly for this series, however I have not taken a wider look at Soth’s other work (during the MA anyway), so this would be useful to start really considering the way that portrait and landscape images can work together and the potential to re-introduce colour at some point. Another really valuable suggestion was to look at Vanessa Winship’s series ‘She Dances on Jackson’ which is a really beautiful blend of portraiture and landscape images that creates a really strong contextualisation of the work (Fig: 3). I aim to read some more into both of these bodies of work and create a reflection on them.

Figure 3: Vanessa Winship (2013) From She Dances on Jackson

The key takeaway from the webinar was that I need to really start asking the question of what is drawing me to these people, and what is my place within this community? Should I be taking a step back and question why I took this image. Once I have an answer to these questions, I can really start to focus on it.