Thanks to powerful provocations from Cemre Yesil and Laura Hynd and stimulating material in the curriculum, my project is going to some exciting places. I have to submit a portfolio by August 19th so I think it is time to sort the hundreds of images I now have in to some sort of structure. I can then refine and improve for the submission date.
The summer edition of Aperture has hit the sweet spot for something I wanted to understand. My project ‘The Truth & Beauty of Me’ is seeking to capture aspects of ‘me’ in a photograph or collection of photographs. The summer edition of Aperture is built around Virginia Woolf’s book Orlando and the film that followed. Here we have Orlando as a character in a book by Virginia Woolf. Is Orlando the character also in part autobiographical? Then Orlando as a film directed by Tilda Swinton who gathers the contributors for this edition of Aperture including writers like Michael Cunningham. Both he and Virginia Woolf wrote a book called ‘The Hours.’ Then photographers such as Mickalene Thomas capturing the idea of Orlando today bringing race to the equation of gender and identity that Virginia Woolf explored. Who is Orlando?
The following quote from the editor of this edition of Aperture is a concise summary of the challenge of capturing any ‘self’. Referring to Virginia Woolf.
There is no one singular self to capture. There is no single Orlando. ‘The’ in the case of my project is multifaceted, infinite and continuous. There is no one true or beautiful me but instead an infinite number of ways in which I can present ‘The Truth & Beauty of Me.’ The work will always be in progress and never finished.
At first this was scary but it is now exciting. Cemre Yesil pushed me towards pain as a source of material for a project. The personal pain experienced living with a chronically ill wife who I love was a starting point. That evolved in to finding ways of expressing my pain. Laura Hynd then pushed me to look at my boundaries and to ‘let go’. This is something she did in a project called Letting Go and it has really freed me up to play and discover some exciting ideas of expression. I am now freely exploring the totality of my experience and me. My project is opening up and two years seems a short time to get done what I would like to achieve.
The following two quotes from Aperture (p29) capture ideas I wish to explore with my project in the future.
‘How the once essential search for a definable, and immutable, identity has become stifling to our sense of development and the possibilities of finding true fellowship with other complex, variously wired, hesitant sensitive beings.’
‘To consider the wider territories of identity, of dream, of heredity, of consciousness, of memory, of history, of fantasy, of the limitations of mortality, of life itself. To consider the wildness of the future.’
For now I need to produce a container for the portfolio to be delivered on August 19th. I will do this keeping the above quotes in mind as we progress towards the next module.
Susan Bright’s book ‘The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography has given me a foundation in what is happening in this space of photographing a self. In it she says (Bright:21)
‘the self is difficult to represent and may be captured through a depiction of the face of the body, through a performance or a location, or purely as a theoretical concept ripe for sabotage. It is all pervasive but also elusive, hidden, collaborative, duplicitious, camouflaged, constructed, disguised, discursive and fleeting, always present but impossible to pin down.’
Little wonder it is so hard to capture.
For my current submission I propose to gather my work in to the following groupings.
- Just me – images that are just that. Images of me with no other help for the viewer than what they see of me. These images will show individual body parts or the full body as the focus and subject.
- Alien me – images of me that appear alien to me. They are me but evoke reactions of discomfort or pleasure from me or those who view them.
- Conflicted me – images mixing me with material around me to hint at the projection I am seeking from the viewer.
How can two little words ask so much? I have taken three approaches to just me. The first is fully clothed as I appear in the world and face the camera. The second is unclothed full length and then finally close up to body parts.
These four images offer different poses for a viewer to form an opinion on their truth and beauty of me. With no words all they have to go on are the images presented here. I can say in the first one I was very sad after a very hard day and such words with that image will guide the viewer in a certain way. In the top right image I am in Madrid, having a fun time. I call this image ‘I am defiant.’ The two lower images fascinate me. In both I am smiling. In one I am sad and in the other I am happy. Many people say to me ‘you can always see it in the eyes.’ However, so far on a test of over 30 people two thirds get it wrong.
These two images form the basis for my Landings Exhibition in August titled ‘States of Mine.’ One of the activities in the exhibition is to ask viewers to say which is the happy and which is the sad face.
Several photographers are worthy of mention as inspiration for the image above. In the just me series I want to get across the impact images from David Heath’s ‘dialogues with solitude,’ Sally Mann’s ‘One Thousand Crossings,’ Alec Soths ‘Sleeping on the Mississipi’. I keep looking at these images for my own inspiration.
Another image that has stuck with me is from the work of Lewis Hine. It is shocking to see the extent of child labour in his time and the valiant effort he made to witness it and provoke change.
I also have to mention another favourite before leaving this section. Dorothea Lange. So much inspiration to work with and so much more to do.
I am far away from achieving what I see in the images referenced here. I also know I have come a long way in the first eight months of this masters and am confident I will go to some more interesting places to find the images I want to present as ‘the truth & beauty of me.’
These are my boundary breaking images of just me. Me unclothed full length. Laura Hynd got me to ‘let go’. In Figueres on the way to Arles I came back to my hotel room and thought what interesting light. I had been thinking about taking an image of my body without clothes. Every time I did so my heart beat faster and I could feel some inner fears rising. Setting these shots up was like physically fighting with chains around me wanting me to stop.
I can now take an image like this, or not if I choose, and do so with no raise in heart rate. I also feel it is a representation of the truth and beauty of me. Jo Spence was an early photographer who took images of herself full length and body parts while she suffered from breast cancer. (Dennet: AfterImage). Such photography is factual, ie a truth documented and it is also a witness.
I have a personal tussle going on over photographing my wife in her chronically ill state. It would firstly need her participation. Part of me asks the question how can I genuinely show the fullest truth and beauty of me without showing what is happening to the love of my life. I will work through this with Karen, myself and others willing to engage.
Going close in to body parts has again been a fascinating experience.
The whole of the ‘just me’ experience has been surprisingly therapeutic. One of the side effects at looking so closely at images of myself has been to remind me that many of the difficult thoughts I am having relating to my experience with my wife are just thoughts. I did say to somebody one evening ‘I do realise they are just thoughts but they are fucking thoughts!’
These images really get people talking. On one level they are a documentary truth of me close up. On another they just show how beautiful and amazing the human body is. Each of these body parts has a function and when combined together become the organism that is me. The eye and ear images are so beautiful to me. The recognition of my own belly button connecting me to my mother in the past and the penis from which my children came in to being are very thought provoking.
Summing up ‘just me’ in photographs shows there is so much more than there first appears. I also think this is just the beginning.
For these images I have gone in close and these also really get conversation going. One evening one of Karen’s carers Sabrina said ‘Ugh how horrible’ for the top right image. The next morning another carer, Pien, said ‘wow, how beautiful, so much going on.’ As I look at them I thought how alien they appear. The top left nostril often gets mistaken for part of my ear.
I need to explore the idea I have that these are not images of me. I have studied the work of Elina Brotherus who has spent many years photographing herself. She had an exhibition titled……
I met her at her exhibition in Madrid at PhotoEspaña and before knowing about the above exhibition asked her which of her images were more like her. She replied ‘none of them.’
One consideration of the self is that it is as elusive as Susan Bright suggests above. However to us our minds make it clear. The ego knows who I am and is continually protecting that clear image. It berates me for going off track and punishes me if I don’t behave as I should. It also knows what it believes is beautiful. Existence, reality and consciousness are nowhere near as neat and tidy as our minds try to make them. The following images are an attempt to represent a truer view of the out of focus, unclear and strange nature of ourselves.
The bottom right is the most difficult but all four stretch the mind to make sense of what it is seeing. There is also a strong drive for gestalt to form a clearer picture.
A photograph is a static capture of a moment in time. ‘All moments having…an equality of weight, of buoyancy, of heft.’ (Swinton, Aperture:26) I am seeking to find representations of me within that capture. We know this is difficult to do. In the images presented here I have put myself on a stage to show me and some material to help the viewer form their own projections of my state.
I need to explore whether they need words to help further. I think alone they say something. Does it matter they say something different to what I would like them to say? Do I want them to say a particular thing and if so why? I return to Aperture and Orlando and a quote from Michael Cunningham….’When a writer like Woolf has been to the deeper reaches of hell and emerged to tell us that the world is a remarkable place, life is difficult but also wondrous, she is voicing an optimism we can trust…..an optimism that has survived the darkest depths of sorrow.’ She left us these images of the conflicts we all live but in the end must remember her sorrow got the upper hand as she filled her coat pockets with stones and committed suicide in a river.
Elina Brotherus work has inspired ideas for conflicted me. She also brings performance to her images. She builds a stage and puts herself on it to say something. Here are two examples from her work ‘LES FEMMES DE LA MAISON CARRÉ (2015).’
The portfolio feels very much like a work in progress but also very alive. Elina Brotherus has spent much of her life using her self as subject and still has lots to say. Between now and submission I need to give further thought to what I really want to say and who my audience might be. I don’t need to close this down yet but it can guide the progress of the portfolio.
Bright, S. The self portrait in contemporary photography. 2010
Aperture 235 Summer 2019
The wounded photographer: The genesis of Jo Spence’s camera therapy in Afterimage Article by Dennett, Terry Nov/Dec 2001
Elina Brotherus source accessed 23rd July, 2019