Contextual Research | The Water’s Edge

Following on from an intensive week of portfolio reviews and feedback on my work, I am beginning to consider where the next point of development lies in terms of my approach. Of late, I feel that I had developed my approach to creating portraits and I feel that I’m at a point where I feel at ease in making them in most situations. In recent weeks I have made the transition from shooting with a 24mm lens to a 35mm. This change has led to my work generating a little more atmosphere however my approach essentially remains the same. I did feel happy with this however when attending a group critique with Paul Clements, having reviewed a collection of my work his observations were that my current practice was. a little safe. Again I took the feedback with a positive attitude and on reflection I completely agree with his observation. That’s not to say that being safe is a bad thing as I do feel my portrait work has become clean and tidy and quite carefully considered.

As a result, I am pleased that I have arrived at this stage as I’ve needed to work extremely hard to get to this stage but at the same time, who wants to make work that is safe? Not me.

In terms of developing my practice I subsequently ordered Michele Sank’s photo book ‘The Water’s Edge’. Having read the essay by Lacey, I begun to look at the portrait photographs made by Sank. Initially I was unsure of the work in a technical sense, not about the quality as I think the photographs work very well in relation to the subject matter. However, as someone who is now familiar with Sank’s later work the difference and evolution is evident. My first observation is regarding the choice of shot. Within this book, the photographs mostly crop below or above the knees. I notice this as I have had my own journey with this type of shot. Moving away from a mid shot to include the whole body of a subject then eventually moving back towards excluding lower parts of the body. The continuing use of this approach I feel moves the work towards an example of typology. At this stage of the post I need to acknowledge the work of august Sander here with an emphasis on the idea of ‘collecting’ however, when thinking about the observation made by Paul Clements and being ‘safe‘ I need to consider my response in terms of my future direction as opposed to highlighting a stall in development.

Dolly | Michelle Sank, The Water’s Edge (2007)

Going back to Sank’s work in The Water’s Edge, I feel the real strength of the work is the subtle gestures made by the sitters which hint at their working class roots, almost with a sense of melancholy which I associate with my own upbringing in a similar place with similar people. It then occurred to me that the photographs in this book stimulate my thoughts in a way described by Bate as ‘projection’. He suggests ‘In projection, a viewer can implant their own feelings in a portrait photograph even though it seems as if these meanings come from the actual portrait.’ In the case of the water’s edge, I feel this is definitely true in my own experience.

In terms of selecting a specific example to consider from the book, I could choose any of the images and apply a relatable example of a similar character from my own life. In this instance I am going to choose the photograph of ‘Dolly’ on page thirty. Is she similar to my Nana, yes, similar to the lady who lived opposite in my childhood home on a Stockport council estate, yes. Could she be a family friend yes who you have to refer to as Auntie?.

Her hair takes me to my nana’s home, sitting on her sofa while she makes me a drink and asks if I would like a biscuit. Always dressed well, colour coordinated with pristine and well groomed, silk like hair. Often overhearing conversations when the phone rings, arrangements for her weekly appointment with the hairdresser. In relation to the image of Dolly, I acknowledge the religious gesturing and its connection to the crucifix around her neck. But in my case, the image moves away from my own projection but the relevance here is insignificant because my personal projection of seeing my own life in here has already been achieved. The impact of the subject of the photograph is furthered by the environment Dolly finds herself. Conifers! I have a strange relationship with conifers, my childhood dominated by a large conifer which sat in our front garden for many years. I would stare at it, annoyed that I was unable to past it, but at the same time recognising that it was a unique feature to our house on the estate. Nobody else had a fifteen foot conifer in front of their living room window.

Within the book, Lacy (2007) comments about Sank as ‘having a profound ability to capture the compelling essence of a person’. This exemplified in the front cover image. In addition to the vantage point and choice of shot, the gesture, pose, eyes and placing of the chin serve to produce powerful connotations of the guarded yet aesthetic beauty of the sitter. This is person who is used to being pursued by males while being envied by by her peers. The essence of drama in this photograph probably runs parallel to her life. Berger (1972:47) comments

‘Every woman’s presence regulates what is and is not ‘permissible’ within her presence. Every one of her actions – whatever its direct purpose or motivation – is also read as an indication of how she would like to be treated’.

With reference to the image on the front cover of the book, the presence of the beautiful girl offers insight into her emotional fragility as a result to her guarded body language. Almost a barrier to her emotions, not giving anything away. Probably a matriarch in training, learning how to navigate the route to adulthood. Evolving her own ideas of what is ‘permissible’ although these ideas probably haven’t aligned with her own emotional experience. This is a powerful photograph because of its contested territory between representation and identity.

Blaze | The Water’s Edge, Michelle Sank (2007)

The photograph works on two levels. In one respect, the viewer is invited into her guarded world, whilst looking at the photograph as a projection, I see my own early twenties in this image. The adult and non adult dynamics between love and distrust. Old enough to engage in playing the game of adulthood without the emotional tools and experience which brings maturity. I almost feel the excitement of love and profound hurt when I view this image.

In engaging with Bate’s idea of projection whilst offering some explanation of permissibility as purported by Berger (1972). I am acutely aware of my own perspective as a male reader and the subjectivity that this entails. Viewing the photograph provoked self reflection and the exploration of my personal history. The image takes me to a specific period of time, and reflections of a specific person. Memories specific to myself as an individual. On a human level. Stepping out of this trail of thought and back to attempting to engage with any type of objectivity and engage on a critical level. Burr, V. (2003) cites (Denzin 1995)

‘Readers create texts as they interpret and interact with them. The meaning of a text is always intermediate, open ended and interactional. Deconstruction is the analysis of texts’.

Here, Denzin as cited by Burr reminds us of the importance of maintaining the critical parameters of the FMP. At present, the FMP has affected me due to the emotional nature of the task. I am emotionally invested on a personal level, and it is the MA structure that has enabled me to access such high emotion. Seeing and feeling the work of photographers such as Sank has a huge impact. (Lacy 2007) comments that the collaborative interviews and photographic events were conducted separately by separate people. Which I feel is a useful approach and assists the collaborators in navigating the blurred boundaries between the emotional, personal and professional. I don’t have that luxury which pleases in one sense as I have total control over the project. And with it being a project that I hope has some success in its critical recognition when completed. I feel that i’m somewhat at the mercy of the emotions of the experiences of others. These are sometimes powerful, sad and tragic. Digesting these stories broaden one’s horizons and enriches the soul.

Bate, D (2009) Photography, The Key Concepts. Oxford, Berg.

Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing: Penguin, Harmondsworth

Burr, V. (2003) Social Constructionism, Second Edition. Routledge, London.

Lacey & Sank (2007) The Water’s Edge. Liverpool University Press and Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool.

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