I was fairly confident with how my wipp was looking off the back of the zine design and reception that publication received, however I was still keen to gain feedback on it. During the last webinar, it was noted that I had a couple of similar images in the broken tree stumps (Fig: 1), something that I had overlooked. As soon as this was pointed out to me, it became immediately obvious and really makes it clear the importance of being able to print work out and ‘live’ with it in a tangible form. Something that I am looking forward to being able to do once I can return to my work and use the facilities there. I quickly moved on to create version 2 of my wipp
Figure 1: Phil Hill (July, 2020) Broken tree stump images. [Left] kept in WIPP [Right] edited out of WIPP
I opened this version with the image of the disused rail link (Fig: 2) and aimed to create a mix of single portrait juxtaposed with a subtle version of the Watford yellow, inspired by Bryan Schutmaat, and also a way of continuing connection to place. I have also created a number of diptych combinations, as they would be seen in a double page spread, for example the image of the youth centre next to the train bridge arch (Fig: 3&4) to consider the commuting connection and potential impact on community, the arches of this train bridge are also quite synonymous with the part of Watford, called Bushey. I don’t think this particular dyptich is working however. Although there are visual similarities in these images in the bricks and the architecture, the individual meaning of the images is lost when going for a mere aesthetic combination of images, so I sought to change this again. I also placed some of the portraits together with details of Watford, however again I felt that the visual impact of some of these portraits is lost when placed with other imagery (Fig: 5 & 6).
Feedback received for this version support some of my own conclusions. Ross noted that the sequence would really benefit from opening with a portrait and on reflection I would agree. My project has always been based around the portrait so feels more logical to start with one of these. It also creates a ‘hook’ to lead you into the work. Ross also mentioned that the last image, which I had left from the design of my zine might be better changed too. The image of Owen is gazing out of the frame and pushes the eye out of the frame (Fig: 7), so it might better to finish with a portrait of a direct gaze, such as Luis (Fig: 8) to really plant you into the narrative, which is something that I have been aiming for.
With this edit, I have decided to utilise more of the yellow juxtaposition next to the single image spreads (Fig: 9). I feel this adds a nice contrast to the black and white as well as bringing the Watford connection through the work. I also consider it a way of carrying you through the narrative and not be confronted by a jarring blank white page, which in turn allows the reader to examine the single image more fully as the eye is directed to focus on the portrait. The yellow also warms the tone of the reading. As discussed before, I have a number of images that reveal an underlying anxiety, yet I do not want the narrative to solely be about this, or at least, I do not want the reader to immediately come to this conclusion, perhaps after one or two viewings of the work to fully understand it. To warm it up also links to the summer months that the work was created. This version feels the most complete to me.
My work in progress portfolio is aiming to be about how people are coming back together as restrictions are lifted. It is also how I continue to consider my own connection to place. Through research into a number of concepts, I also wanted to explore in detail the idea of a documentary aesthetic and how this continues to permeate our collective consciousness of how we assume a documentary image ‘should’ look. Whilst doing so, I also became interested in the idea of drawing attention to the act of photography, which is how I am starting to consider some of the best photographic projects do. This starts to consider my place within the scene (Fig: 1).
This supports some initial research that I made on the concept of ‘gesellschaft,’ (Fig: 2) or the larger more impersonal communities that many of us find ourselves in whilst living in bigger urban and city areas (Keller, 1988: 171-172), and also the idea of community idiorrythmic living together but also separately (Barthes, 2012: 102). These two concepts have been quite crucial in understanding my own feelings towards places as I moved around a lot and now find myself living in Watford, brought here for a job. That sense of connection has never been there, even after meeting my wife and having our daughter here. The town has always felt fairly transient, although this may just be a personal reflection of my own feelings towards the town. Existing outside of London, it serves the capital via its many substantial transport links (Fig: 3).
It became more and more apparent to me during the time creating work for this module that my project was becoming a journey through Watford. An evolving connection is beginning to form in the Images that I am starting to make, which is partly out of the new spaces that I discovered whilst we were on Lock down, this is something that I wanted to reflect in this submission. There is actually a great deal of beauty in the immediate surrounding countryside and even in the numerous wooded areas that permeate the suburban sprawl of Watford. Until now I have viewed the town as the designated ‘Urban District’ that exists just outside of London with no real character of its own other than to serve London; the last place before entering the capital or the first town you enter when leaving. What I have started to discover in the sense of my title for the work ‘I hope this finds you safe and well’ is a new appreciation (UK Government, 2011) for the place that I have lived for the past 7 years.
The work and title is also to acknowledge that a work made during this time, which primary focus is on a community would inevitably draw connections to the current pandemic. Although my initial concept of the work was to engage with people as we come back together, I have not actively sought to directly photograph the evidence of covid – this is something that has been covered effectively by other photographers (see post). However, there does exist a subtle anxiety of a community emerging tentatively in the aftermath of restriction (although again, this is potentially my own reflected feelings towards the subject). I have attempted to show this in my image sequence, for example, the overgrown railway to denote a shutdown transport network – a major contributor to Watford (Fig: 4). The image of the concrete post with the words ‘help me’ written (Fig: 5), a boarded up youth centre – a usual gathering place of a functioning community (Fig: 6). A broken tree at the stump (Fig: 7), which is hugely metaphorical denoting a number of meanings in life and death, existence, and can also be used to show groups or individuals (Wirth, 2015) and in my case could also denote the community. I have also included an image of a dead fox, which is another important metaphor for sly and underlying, and also associated with blending into its surroundings (Smith, 2005), which could be linked to the virus itself. I also want a certain amount of ambiguity in the sequence, even with the above, I understand that viewers of the work will bring their own narratives to its reading, yet have a certain pathos to how that happens. During my last webinar, Ross also pointed out that that there are a number of images that suggest forms of broken down communication, via the messages, the power lines and the railway, which had not occurred to me before but I quite like.
Continuing with the design elements of my zine (Fig: 8), I have made a number of developed changes to the design created for my landings zine. This includes the position of the title text on the cover for legibility and changed the ‘and’ to an ampersand as I felt that it looked graphically better on the cover (Fig: 9). I wanted to maintain the consistency of what I had made for landings with enough differentiation for my WIPP submission.
My work for this module has been about establishing an applied approach to the research that I have undertaken. There is a distinct rhetoric to the way that photographic projects present projects about community, which is steeped in this idea of a ‘Documentary aesthetic,’ and how the language of documentary is bound to the mythology of the grand photo documentaries, such as the FSA. However, even more contemporary photographers have a role to play in shaping how this kind of project is depicted and how we as an audience interprets and reads the work. I have used Alec Soth as an example throughout the module, who acknowledged the specific use of apparatus and language in constructing a documentary image (Soth in Feuerhiem, 2015), and also has an ‘Alec Soth character’ that he will gravitate towards in the work that he creates (Soth in Flectcher, 2020), which perpetuates and continues to shape the collective awareness of how this kind of image is expected to look.
Considering how to start editing my final WIPP submission for Surfaces and Strategies, I am gravitating towards using my Landings zine sequence as a starting point (Fig: 1). However, I have created a number of images since putting this work together and also worked on developing my approach to creating a greater sense of the place that I am photographing within. After considering the work of Bryan Schutmaat recently, I quite liked his use of coloured paper opposite some of his individual images in the book ‘Grays the Mountain Sends’ (Fig: 2). As mentioned previously, I am unsure on the idea of a book, yet quite drawn to the connection that I made to the location of Watford through the materials and the colours in my zine (Fig: 3 & 4). Additionally, I felt that the colours on the cover create a striking contrast to the black and white images within, which is potentially at its greatest impact in the linear narrative of a photo book. I am also still developing my sequencing and narrative skills and the book in its linear placement of images, juxtapositions, diptych’s is an ideal place to develop this, especially as it can also be printed out and ‘lived with’ in order to see if the placements and sequencing is working overall. Even if I do not opt for a photo book for the FMP down the line, this is still a valuable exploration to create effective visual narratives.
I still intend to have an online presence for the work and create an updated gallery for my website, which would be different again from the gallery that I put together for Landings. My aim is to extend and develop the existing narrative ideas that were started with the exhibition work. This expanded focus over the zine is to try and create an additional ‘character’ in the place, as Schutmaat does with his work, and to acknowledge that even in the images without people, they still reflect the people that I have depicted in the community that I have depicted them. I also aim to do this through my own subjectivity and the selective and constructed views, inspired by my research into the FSA and documentary aesthetic.
By also building on what I have already created with the zine, it will be presented consistently across the channels that I have already shown portions of the work, which could otherwise be confusing to audiences. And this also incorporates the strong juxtaposition of colour and title text.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Keller, S., 1988. The American Dream of Community: An unfinished Agenda. Sociological Forum, 3(2), pp. 167-183.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.