Throughout assignment 3 I kept a journal of ideas and plans and the challenge was to balance the scribbling of creative thoughts with the process required to develop a log which later would make sense.
The idea of a journal came from keeping a personal diary as suggested as part of the initial research and it was interesting to see clear recognisable patterns emerging as I reflected on my entries.
How these entries were interpreted was on an entirely different level to what I would have imagined and this process really clarified my thinking and changed the direction of the assignment.
Research development of the photographic concept
The first working idea was based on the concept of absurdity as events from the 1st July to 21st July had created such significant turbulence so I began to research Absurdist philosophy and it’s relationship to art (see here).
The first creative idea was a reinterpretation of the traditional country walk and came from the fact that many people had voted in the EU referendum on the basis of their desire to get their Country back.
A reference was made to the absurdist play Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot set completely in a country lane. Also using Susan Bright’s The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography (2010) I found an interesting series of self-portraits by Lisa Ohlweiler (84-85) and what was interesting about these nuanced images was that the expressions of the model seem to draw a reflection on emotions existing at a deeper psychological level.
As my diary reflections continued I became less enthusiastic about the idea that the world has just gone mad as I began to consider that, whilst there was a heightened sense of irrationality during those July days and weeks, in many respects what we were experiencing was actually the absurdly predictable outcome of a mass media frenzied society which is structured around the needs and wants of advanced industrial capitalism.
I developed my thinking through further research and read a significant essay in cultural sociological studies The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1944) (see here) and this text became very influential in my thinking.
Around the same time I had also greatly appreciated the contemporary work of Elina Brotherus (see here) and especially her series les-femmes-de-la-maison-carre prompting the idea to move the photographic setting from the country lane to a domestic scene which was more relevant to my thought process. What also developed whilst reviewing Elina Brotherus’ work was the idea to take a starting point that can be quite personal but which can develop into broader more universal themes.
Figure 1: Self-portrait by Lisa Ohlweiler (2005) taken by Allan O’Neill (2016)
Inspired by both Elina Brotherus and Lisa Ohlweiler’s work was the idea of a more ambiguous expression in the model’s gaze and posture which also raised questions about the relationship of the image, reality and objectivity which was relevant to how I was planning to present the concept behind the assignment.
I was also beginning to focus on a specific concept derived from my interest in Jimmy DeSana’s Suburban (see here). I was interested in DeSana’s questioning of human authenticity and was exploring similar thoughts to this concept as part of my own assignment.
What I also took from Suburban was how the artist had staged the images in standardized settings and then added in his own theatre; so there were lots of ordinary beds, bathrooms, light switches and sports bags acting as a backdrop to models in abstract scenes lit by garish coloured lighting creating the overall effect with an underlying and disconcerting familiarity.
Making the images
Figure 2: Initial test self-portrait image taken by Allan O’Neill (2016)
Initially I tested a few shots to see which direction I wanted to take in terms of putting myself in the picture and decided and whilst I have n’t been for for having my photograph taken I wanted to break out of my comfort zone and maximise the learning and development experience.
Figure 3: Test-shot self-portrait by Allan O’Neill (2016)
For some initial test shots I dressed in a bright yellow tee-shirt and old shorts and I immediately recognised how I could improve my work. I needed to take a more professional approach and decided to dress or appear appropriately to communicate the relevant themes and build colour combinations that would look more coordinated and aesthetically pleasing.
Figure 4: Photo-shoot
Most significantly I developed the photo shoot step by step so that each image was a carefully planned and constructed scene and this worked well. I was able to try ideas, move things around until I was happy with the final scene. In total I took 470 images in approximately 15 different sessions over a four-week period for the final cut of 6.
Making self-portraits was a new challenge as there were technical issues that I had n’t previously considered around focal point and shutter release as on this occasion I was in front instead of behind the camera.
Figure 5: Test shot self-portrait
I used a number of tactics including the camera’s own self-timer function, a short cable release, infra-red shutter release none of which were perfect. Finally I invested in a wireless trigger kit to fire the shutter and this worked fantastically at any distance or timing and under any lighting conditions. To set focal points I taped bits of cardboard to things and used a light stand set to my own height before joining the set and casting the light stand or cardboard circle aside. I had initially encountered problems with jumping into scenes only to discover that the model was completely out of focus.
By using the wireless trigger I could also shoot each frame individually rather than having to pose under pressure for a number of images taken on self-timer which was causing staleness in the compositions. Shooting frame by frame gave much more flexibility and freedom.
Also another major step change was a visit to the William Eggleston exhibition (See here) at the National Portrait Gallery where I immediately felt inspired to make more varied and interesting images; I arrived home and discarded two-thirds of what had previously been considered as final short-listed images on the basis that they were too similar, boring or didn’t create the right feel.
Figure 6: Makeshift gallery
I also created a makeshift gallery wall in the bedroom where I began to experiment with presentation by setting different combinations to show how the images might appear in an exhibition-like context. This allowed a more flexible presentation and a more fluid interpretation of the images.
Finally I shared the series via the OCA level 1 Facebook group which proved to be another very positive experience. In my last feedback session with my tutor I was encouraged to get more involved with my fellow students so I have been contributing to this group on a regular basis sharing ideas and techniques which always proves to be a very worthwhile and positive experience.
The feedback that I received from my peers was very encouraging and motivating and one I will repeat in future. The discussion of ideas and concepts was invaluable as was the personal motivation and confidence that I gained from having to opportunity to show my work to other likeminded people. Below are a few examples of the comments that I received.
“Hi Allan, Before reading your brief I was already drawn to the pictures because of the overall atmosphere they breath. There is a bored, kind of depressing feel to the set, oppressive as well. After reading the brief, I find that it really enforces the images. The colours are striking and the images make me think. The only image that stands out a bit is the one in which you are standing in front of the bricked wall. The white board is a bit distracting, does it have a particular meaning? All the best with your studies! “
“Thanks for sharing this. I’m inspired to improve my work now”
“I very much enjoyed your series. Works very well and your text is succinct but cleverly developed. Well done.”
“I did not much think about how absurd life can be – but you are right. It´s a strong contradiction to how we tend to define our individualism today in times of internet, and a bit in the tradition of Arthur Millers death of a salesman? It´s funny to see that kind of thinking evolve today again. Your images are funny – the one in the bathtub has a depressive element, whereas the after shave image is very individual as I think. What do you mean with this “brick in the wall”??? History of Rock´n Roll??”
This has been a truly fantastic course to participate in and I have enjoyed the curriculum enormously. Whilst I have put more working hours into this part of the course than ever before the approach and journey that I have undertaken has taken my technique, awareness, standards, confidence and commitment to an entirely new level.