About the work
“I am … preoccupied with the question of forgetting. This concept not only forms the shadowy underside of memory but, more precisely, shapes and defines the very contours of what is recalled and preserved.”
(Whitehead 2009: 14)
If you could see a memory, would it have a shape?
Anne Whitehead’s words set my mind wandering into an imagined space where a memory is a tangible, visible thing with edges; and that its shape is discernible against the backdrop of that which has not been remembered. It’s ‘forgetting as a canvas’; in the same way as text needs an underlying blank page and music needs silence, remembering needs forgetting to give it shape.
Whilst one can’t photograph a memory, one can capture people in the act of remembering. These portraits are of members of a local singing group, Musical Memories, who gather to sing songs from their younger days. Some of the members have varying degrees of cognitive decline, others just like to sing the old songs with their friends. Remembering forms as important a part of the activity as singing.
I’m searching for a visual vocabulary for memory. By combining moments of remembering with the sound waves of the song being sung, I aimed to evoke the sensation of song being the trigger for a memory, whether a happy one or something more contemplative.
The course notes say for this assignment: “Develop a series of carefully considered images that moves your idea forward” (OCA 2013: 35), which one might interpret as a continuation of the Assignment 1 idea in a more direct manner than I have done here. Rather than being an extension or a refinement, this takes a couple of key elements of Assignment 1 (the core theme of remembering/forgetting; digital manipulation) and takes the work in a different direction, based on tutor feedback and subsequent reflection.
Looking at this assignment with regard to the course criteria:
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
I’ve used a variety of visual techniques and skills here, some of which I am well-practiced in by now and some that are new to me. I have, as noted in preparatory posts, used visual techniques of white space and unusual shapes before, although the uniqueness of sound wave shapes presented new challenges that stretched the outer limits of my image processing abilities.
In terms of observational skills the key was to try to identify moments of remembering (I concede that this is projection on my part) so that I pressed the shutter at the appropriate time. Compositional and design skills were ultimately about how and where I included the sound waveform, something I experimented with for a while.
Quality of outcome
Overall I’m happy with the quality of the work; there are a few source images where I wish the backdrop had been slightly cleaner, but I also didn’t want to direct or move around the participants, I wanted to catch them naturally (and I discovered over a few sessions that they are all creatures of habit and wouldn’t move seats for anyone anyway!).
The presentation format is something that I gave a lot of thought to; I intentionally used a standard portrait ratio (4×5) and printed the hard copies at 8×10″ because I wanted the visual language of portraiture to support my intention that the person is the subject, not the sound wave (also signified by the on-photo name caption).
I remain slightly unsure whether the viewer will discern the idea I’ve intended to communicate – namely the concept of memories having shapes, and forgetting being a canvas – without reading the artists’s statement. However, I have been encouraged by fellow students to embrace the opportunities of ambiguity! I am generally happy that I have put enough pointers in place (title, artist’s statement) to help get the message across.
I experimented with, but ultimately set aside, an audio-visual presentation. This and the rationale for excluding it can be found in the Appendix below.
Demonstration of creativity
For me this continues a journey I started towards the end of Level 2 to be more visually and conceptually experimental. I am, for now at least, more interested in ‘enhanced’ photography than ‘straight’ photography – I am no longer satisfied in taking photographs of the world as I literally see it, and am more into making photographs of the world as I imagine it could be. This work falls into this aspect of my developing personal voice, I believe.
Working through this assignment gave me cause for much reflection, some of it only tangentially related to the assignment itself. I realised, for example, how much inspiration I subconsciously take from both my own work and that of others. It also helped me to refine and articulate a narrower definition of what aspect of memory interests me. Following an interesting student hangout I formulated my thoughts on the relationship between intent and ambiguity.
In addition, coming to this assignment after having written my first essay for Contextual Studies, on the subject of the postmodern relationship between photography, reality and memory, gave me a deeper and richer understanding of how these three interrelate – which in turn informed this piece of work.
I’m keen to understand how my work sits alongside the canon of existing work either in a similar visual style or covering similar ground. Alongside online resources, a number of contemporary photography compendiums (listed under sources, but special mention to Jackie Higgins’ Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus (2013) and Charlotte Cotton’s Photography is Magic (2015)) provided material for much of my research into unusual shapes in photography.
In terms of critical theory, the aforementioned Anne Whitehead book Memory: the New Critical Idiom (2009) and the Ian Farr-edited essay collection simply entitled Memory (2012) have provided much food for thought, even if it isn’t directly referenced in the work. Outside of academic texts, I found inspiration and a few new ways of looking at things from a pair of what you might call ‘pop culture’ art books, namely Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery (2014) and Will Gompertz’s Think Like An Artist (2015).
Appendix: video test
Whilst showing this series as a work-in-progress to some fellow students, a few people independently asked if I was planning to present the set as an audio-visual piece, such that a viewer could listen to the sound of the subjects singing whilst viewing the portraits.
Whilst I was unsure of whether this would really work in the context of my intended message for the project, I was curious enough to give it a try. More detail and viewer comments are here but below is the video itself and my notes on the reaction to it.
Ultimately I came out with the concerns that I had gone in with: that the audio dilutes rather than enhances the desired effect.
I want the viewer to focus on individuals captured having private moments of memory, and the audio-visual treatment divides the attention between the portrait and the soundtrack. Also, the ‘individual moments’ aspect risks being diluted when the soundtrack is a collection of voices together. Finally, a couple of reviewers rightly pointed out that the end result came across as a little over-sentimental.
Interestingly (not to be immodest) most of the comments were people saying that they liked the video. However, on digging deeper into their feedback, liking the video and taking away the intended message are not the same thing.
Therefore, I am not currently proposing that this should be the primary presentation method for these portraits. I do however like the suggestion by one commenter that it could serve as an online ‘teaser’ if the work were to end up in an exhibition. So video may come back into the mix at a later date, but I am setting it aside for now.
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Gompertz, W. (2015) Think Like An Artist. London: Penguin.
Higgins, J. (2013) Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus: Modern Photography Explained. London: Thames & Hudson.
Perry, G. (2014) Playing to the Gallery. London: Penguin.
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Foster, J. K. (2009) Memory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Whitehead, A. (2009) Memory: the New Critical Idiom. Abingdon: Routledge.
Foam Magazine #48 (August 2017)
Foam magazine #49 (January 2018)