Monday, 19 August 2013

Making sense of my portfolio submission and assignments 3 and 5

Not unusually I have been having a bit of a crisis as assessment submission time approaches. This particular version of the landscape course effectively commits you to a course of action early in the proceedings – which can be a bit challenging if you feel you’ve developed in the interim and the work you started with may no longer feel “true” – even if you acknowledge its benefit in moving you towards something that does. A warning – this post is going to be long and rambling because I am trying something unusual for me – putting my thinking down in words.

After a somewhat hare-brained start – spurred on by the general enthusiasm for the Olympics – I rapidly picked up on my interests in perspective and memory that I was starting to develop in People and Place. From early on I picked an interest in perspectives that led me to think about Japanese paintings, and that in turn led me to thinking about seasonal symbolism in classical Japanese art and literature. This seemed a solid starting point – here was something I could use my camera to investigate, and that might form an interesting structure for later assignments. I struggled however, to find a clear path from those classical images to modern photographic practise. Reading around Japanese photography it became clear that there was actually a gap in that path.

While I was reading around Japanese photography trying to find a bridge I also did something I’ve not done properly in my previous course – acquire and digest some of the recommended books. In the process I discovered Sugimoto and Hatakeyama – the first attracted me for his philosophical approach, the second for his measured investigation. Both make extensive use of very similar images taken in series either to make a point or investigate a subject. My course for Assignments 3 and 5 was set.

In parallel however I continued with my explorations of fukei – landscape images with a hint of time passing through – based on symbols from early Japanese literature. And now we come to the crunch – I have three strands of work to present for assessment – in a format that only really admits two (portfolio and four seasonal images from same location) – and preferably one. If there’s something I’ve learned in the last few months its that presenting multiple ideas in a single piece of work is likely to lead to confusion and dilute whatever it is I’m trying to explain or explore.

Seasonal symbolism

I’m undoubtedly quite pleased with some of these shots – it’s still a subject that interests me but it poses a genuine difficulty which I’ve touched on previously. Without the background it looks like a collection of pictures of flowers, leaves and other figurative material without any obvious cohesion. It may have meant something to the mediaeval Japanese courts but for me it’s become more of an academic exercise which helps me better understood the poetry and art, rather than a subject in itself. I did consider producing the images on Japanese paper, but I feel this risks descending into simple pictorialism – which would be OK if that were my intent, but doesn’t feel convincing if it’s a desperate attempt to shout “Japanese”.

Cereal Field

I started this in response to the exercise which required me to shoot from the same location once during each season, but over the year it has developed into more than that. In an interview for SeeSaw magazine Jem Southam describes his working strategy as follows: “Once fixed on a site, I revisit it regularly, and gradually assemble a body of work that is a response to a slow absorption of the site …” He then adds some references to other research and discussions with people at the site which are less relevant to my experience here, but the initial sentence captures quite a lot of what I feel about this group of photos. In an artistic sense this is my field...I’ve watched it change and grow, I’ve recorded it’s development over the course of the year – and in some ways it’s like a clock marking of the passage of the year (and the seasons of course) with its subtle changes and differences. What would be a more fitting way to represent the four seasons in my portfolio?

Four seasons photo

This developed out of my interest in Japanese art, and my discovery of a genre of Japanese paintings which show  all four seasons in a single image – sometimes a pair of images across two folding screens. Over the course of the year I have assembled sufficient images from exactly the same location – I recorded the position of my tripod using the joins in my patio slabs - to spread the seasonal changes across a single image which can also be read as a simple allegory of the progress of life. This feels like an ideal way of presenting the “four images from exercise 15” even if it is a somewhat creative iteration of the precise brief.

So far so good – but what of the assignments – do they support this development?

Both assignments consist of series of similar shots which could be considered typologies in the Becher mould – given the similarities of presentation and content. I do not see them in quite that way. As I understand it the Becher typologies are about similarities and often reflect the modernist idea of form following function.

Wave studies

These are very consciously about difference. I was using photography to explore – challenge even – the ideas I picked up from Sugimoto’s work about the constancy of the sea and its link to the past. There are not intended as a typology in the Becher sense, because I would maintain that they demonstrate continuous variability, rather than consistency – and in any case waves have no function, so in one sense the form is of little relevance. In another sense the form is everything, as without the variation in form at the intersection of land and sea these photos would all be identical.

Triple point

I struggled a little for a subject for Assignment 5, but found myself drawn back to the coast.The “triple point” of the title , the visual point where land sea and sky meets represents in some way the limit of man’s environment. Sometimes this limit is totally natural, sometimes it has had structure or function forced on it. Again I would see the series as a study of the differences in form that can be found around the limit.

Where is this going?

I believe I have talked myself in to a position where I can say with some certainty that the work I have produced in the latter half of this course has been focused on difference – differences in wave forms, differences in land forms and differences in nature brought about by time and sometimes the action of man. Interestingly, from this end of the road I think I can understand how I got here. The two series for assignments 3 and 5 seem to fit quite well with the cereal field series – even the 4 seasons image can be seen as an extension which merges the individual differences into a single image.

All this seems to talk to the ideas expressed by Liz Wells among others at the seminar I attended in Newcastle months ago, about landscape as a documentary practise. How I take these ideas forward into the documentary course I have yet to work out.

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