I haven’t posted for a while but have been beavering away in the background finalising my Assignment 2. This is a post summarising progress, process and decision-making thorough the last few weeks.

To recap: I’m aiming to visualise ‘remembering’ by capturing portraits of elderly people singing old songs. I’ve been shooting at ‘Musical Memories’ singalong sessions over the last couple of months.

Click here to jump straight to the final set of images.


Chronologically speaking, I’m starting at the end, as the title is the most recent part of this to slot into place, but here it feels right to bring it to the top of the post as it helps frame the viewer/reader’s understanding of what follows.

I’m a big believer in the importance of the title to the work: it can help to give a kind of ‘guide rails’ to steer the viewer’s perception of what they are looking at. For me a good title is one that alludes to, but doesn’t spell out, the underlying point (or concept, or message) of the work – a word or phrase that walks the fine line between ambiguous and didactic. This is all the more important if the work is perhaps open to misinterpretation, and a good title can be used to pin down an aspect of the work that you wish the viewer to pay particular attention to.

For this series I had in mind the following key messages I wanted to get across, much of which is from my background research on memory from a neurological and philosophical point of view (to be referenced in the final assignment submission post):

  • Memory is fragmentary, not continuous; memories have ragged edges, metaphorically speaking
  • Memories take shape because they are against the backdrop of what we have forgotten, in a figure-to-ground relationship (as music is to silence / writing is to the page / a foreground subject is to the background)
  • I want the waveform to represent an imagined ‘shape of the memory‘, as the singing is the trigger for what is being remembered
  • I want to get across the idea of personal memory, of the subject being in an act of remembering when I pressed the shutter

Potential titles I considered and rejected:

  • Shapes of Memory / Memory Shapes
  • Edges of Memory
  • Finding the Edges
  • Musical Memories / Music & Memory
  • Moments of Memory

Right now the working title is:

Memory Waves

… but of course it may still change. I’m happy that the “a memory has a shape” concept is served reasonably well by this phrase. Without being a common phrase, it brings to mind existing concepts such as sound waves or brain waves.

Iterations through additional shoots

After the first shoot at the end of November I edited what I had captured, shared some mockups with peers and made some decisions on what was and wasn’t working. The key decisions I arrived at were:

  • I wanted to incorporate some element of what the memory trigger was (the song) and had settled on sound waveforms – I tried various executions here
  • Based on these experiments, and research on how memory works, I decided to work with the execution based on lots of negative space and the sound wave being a kind of cutout frame shape

Gilbert neg space portrait

  • Based on the limited frame shape, I realised I needed to isolate individuals better – too many of the shots from the first shoot had fussy backgrounds, which disrupt the visual effect
  • The second shoot was in a different location to the first – rather than being in a light and airy room with white walls, it was in open space in a public library – so the fussy backgrounds were actually much more of a problem than the first shoot…
  • The third shoot was back in the original location where I could control the backgrounds better
  • In the end, the shortlist is all based on the first and third shoots, and all the second shoot images were discarded
  • I also ultimately decided to remove the song title as unnecessary and potentially distracting…
  • … but to keep the name for two reasons:
    • These are portraits, albeit slightly unorthodox ones, and I want to ground the viewers interpretation in the person rather than the sound wave
    • It gives a kind of visual ‘anchor’ that emphasises the negative space

Image selection

In my first pass through the initial batch of images, I’d mostly selected ones where the facial expressions were very happy/smiley, as this is generally the atmosphere of the singalong sessions. However, looking back at this original longlist I realised that it didn’t really meet one of the criteria of the project: that I wanted to capture what people look like when they are remembering something. Collectively, the images spoke more of the enjoyment of the singalong than of moments of remembering – an accurate depiction of the event in one sense, but not quite pulling out the moments that I had been looking for.

So I went back through the images from the first shoot and looked for expressions that made me think that the subject was experiencing some kind of memory – I am very aware that this is highly subjective/presumptuous on my part, and more difficult to do after the event, but I still felt that this second pass produced a set of candidate images that better captured my intended effect. The selection from the first shoot then became a blend of happy and more contemplative expressions, including some where the subject had closed their eyes while they sang.

With the subsequent shoots I was more consciously looking to capture expressions that implied an inner act of remembering; again I concede that it is pure projection on my part, but I still felt that this criterion guided me when to press the shutter, more so than in the initial shoot.

Aside from this, I also wanted to get a reasonable but representative mix of gender; in the end I felt that six women and four men was about right.

The 10 original images that I settled on are below:

Processing and sequencing

Then followed quite a lot of faffing about with sound wave graphics, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I decided to use the actual sound waves of the song being sung by the subject at the time of the capture, so identifying extracts from the full waveform from each singing session was quite time consuming. Secondly, getting the waveform to look right as a framing device for a face was a challenge that required me to go off and learn a few new Photoshop tricks.

I was finally happy enough to mock up the candidate images in this format, then printed them out small to hang on the wall. Seeing the images printed, on and off over a couple of days, is a step I increasingly find useful for the editing and sequencing stage.


With this physical editing stage I came up with a sequence I was happy with: the first image gives a sense of the context with some faint text in the background. Then it was a case of blending male/female and happy/contemplative in a rhythm that I felt worked.

The main outcome from this stage was that, despite my efforts at keeping backgrounds clean and isolating the subjects wherever possible, there were a few images with varying degrees of messy backgrounds; Jenny, the last image, had people either side of her, while Ann and Judith had blocks of different colours behind them. At this point I decided that it was acceptable to clone out the distractions – this isn’t a documentary project.

Proposed set

The final tidied-up set I’m planning to use is below.

Next steps

  • Show this to some other students for comment
  • Write up the visual research I’ve been doing around this area (unorthodox framing and negative space)
  • Write up final assignment post
  • Print and send sample images to my tutor