This is the second part of my Assignment 5 submission, focusing on my self-evaluation of my experience of the Body of Work course.
A preceding post showing the set of images submitted for this final assignment can be found here.
The course handbook offers a series of prompt questions to frame the evaluation, looking back through Body of Work and ahead to Sustaining your Practice. I found the questions useful in framing my thoughts, so I present this as a self-interview, with some general remarks to close.
1. Looking back
- Where have you come from?
My Body of Work journey was slightly unorthodox. I understand that a more common approach is to begin by taking lots of photographs and over time working out what you are trying to ‘say’, honing the work as you go along.
I looked at it the other way around. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to say, and used the course to work through what kind of photographs I needed to take or make. The result was an eclectic start to the course, with the latter three assignments forming the development of the final execution.
The overarching theme that I chose to explore is forgetting. While a lot of art has used photography to investigate memory, the subject of forgetting has been less examined. My main goal with this body of work was to find or create a kind of visual vocabulary that evokes a sense of a particular form of meta-memory – of remembering forgetting. I aim to express the idea that human memory is more erratic and unreliable than we think.
The journey from Assignment 1 to 5 has been somewhat bumpy and twisty, but I got there in the end. Assignments 1 and 2 were experiments in different approaches which were ultimately set aside.
Assignment 1 used digitally manipulated versions of my snapshot archive to suggest a future self no longer able to recognise previously familiar faces. I agreed with my tutor Wendy’s feedback that the work was too shallow; under-thought and over-designed. It did however get me started.
Assignment 2 was a portrait series of elderly people in a singalong group, many of whom had cognitive impairment such as dementia. The idea was to capture people who might not remember much in their everyday lives at the point where they recall something joyful. Though proud of this work (it has been exhibited locally) I felt that it was a diversion away from one of my main objectives, namely to make work that is personal to me.
Assignment 3 began the thread that became my final BoW. I collected images of lost gloves that I’d seen in public, and paired them with text statements about things that I’d forgotten – the glove as metaphor for a lost memory. I produced a set of 21 text-image pairings and created a simple handmade book.
Assignment 4 was a variation of 3 but with a layer of visual abstraction by way of projecting the glove images onto different surfaces. I intended the projection/re-photography to become part of the memory metaphor. As explained below, I feel I went too far in the wrong direction here.
Assignment 5 is a development of the idea taking my tutor’s advice to maintain the metaphorical backbone of the concept (that scenes observed in public trigger memories of previous memory lapses) but expand the subject matter beyond gloves. The projection idea was shelved and the approach reverted to straightforward photography.
- What have you learned? What mistakes did you make?
I’ve previously preferred shorter projects, getting work to completion then moving on – I took this ‘episodic’ approach to my first two assignments. Working though Assignments 3 to 5 I realised the benefits of revisiting, refining and going in deeper on an idea rather than delivering its first iteration and moving on.
I’ve also learned to listen to advice from others, whether my tutors or my student peer group. My wobble around Assignment 4 could have been avoided or minimised if I’d listened to particular advice earlier. Having a peer group is invaluable on Level 3; I’ve had a regular cohort of 8-10 people to share and discuss my work with throughout the process.
For Assignment 4 I went too deep and narrow into what I ultimately agreed was repetitive subject matter. I had also tried to make it more interesting by constructing a layer of visual detachment. With hindsight I concede that this was to compensate for the lack of breadth in subject matter.
Overall, if I had my time again I would try to pin down my general direction earlier. Whilst using Assignment 1 to experiment felt appropriate, taking on then rejecting a second idea wasted me time that I could have used to better develop my ultimate approach. I gave myself a lot to do between Assignments 4 and 5, and would have preferred to have developed this work over one or two more stages.
- What were the low points? High points?
Low points: the tutor feedback – justified – on Assignment 4 that I had gone too far down that particular path and needed to regroup and refocus. This knocked my confidence for a short while. However, it was ultimately the kick that I needed to push on through.
High points: public sharing of my work-in-progress has been gratifying. As well as exhibiting locally, I took my Assignment 2 work to an open portfolio share event to present to a group of other photographers. An early draft of the Assignment 3 book dummy was included in a local photobook fair, and another iteration of it has been featured on a photography blog.
My tutor’s positive feedback on Assignment 3 was a big boost for me, which is probably why the less positive feedback on Assignment 4 was disappointing.
- Who influenced you?
My Level 3 Hangout group, as noted. Additionally, I presented work-in-progress at critique sessions at various study visits over the course, and gained invaluable insights into how my work was being interpreted.
Scientific theory on memory, mainly Whitehead (2008), Yates (1992) and Shaw (2016) opened up my mind to how memory functions, sparking ideas on how photographic metaphors might work.
Critical theory on memory and photography from thinkers such as Bate (2010), Kracauer (1993) and Olin (2002), who all addressed the slippages between the content of photographs and the memories they can trigger. My Contextual Studies tutor Garry was a useful source of material in this regard.
Visually, I got a lot out of William Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest: Selected Works (2016) and Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), both of which featured dreamlike interpretations of everyday scenes, bereft of people, that carried the kind of calm yet uncanny mood that I wished to evoke with my own images.
Simple compositions and limited colour palettes came through as visual motifs in both.
Iain Serjeant’s Out of the Ordinary projects (2016-2019) had a similar feel, closer to home in that the subject matter was Scotland rather than America.
Serjeant’s work helped convince me that you can find visually interesting scenes anywhere, if you’re observant.
Conceptually, a touchstone work was Keith Arnatt’s Notes from Jo (1995).
It has a rare ability to evoke a sense of forgetfulness in a simple but affecting way.
With regard to the positioning of text with images I acknowledge the inspiration of Gus Powell and Karen Knorr.
Both employed a deceptively simple style of text juxtaposition that managed to avoid looking like a caption and came across more as though the text is in dialogue with the image. Seemingly small decisions around font style and weight, use of negative space and text wrapping made all the difference.
A bookmaking workshop I attended in 2018 gave me lots of ideas around editing and sequencing, as well as the practical side of book production.
- How are you critically positioned within photography as a result of your work on this course?
I finish BoW realising that my favoured use of photography is to investigate intangible concepts, to provoke a thought or emotion in the viewer beyond a response to the literal subject matter in the frame. Before tackling forgetfulness I had produced work illustrating ideas such as loss, hunger, grief, overwhelm, midlife crisis, tribalism and creative block. I consider my practice to be conceptual photography, with a small ‘c’.
- How might what you’ve produced impact on your future projects? Have you found a personal voice that you’d like to develop?
Although I am not wedded to a particular visual style and like to experiment with creative approaches, the underlying drive to investigate and depict ‘unseen’ concepts is what I will take through to new projects; this is what I consider to be my ‘voice’. In addition, the depth of research and development that BoW gives you – the ‘pushing on through to the other side of an idea’ – is something that will influence my practice going forward.
- How did your technical decisions impact on or impair the final outcome?
The most impact that technical decisions had was around Assignment 4. Digital manipulation plus projection plus rephotographing plus further digital manipulation led to a highly ‘constructed’ version of the developing work. I simplified the aesthetic significantly for the final outcome.
- Were you true to your artistic intentions?
Yes, in the end. My intention was to find a way of visually evoking ideas of personal forgetting and forgetfulness, and I am satisfied that the final outcome does this.
- What did you learn from the editing process?
That there are many potential versions of a body of work and you just have to commit to one at a point in time for a specific outcome. I have re-edited and re-sequenced the final work several times, and at the time each edit seemed ‘right’, but that verdict didn’t always survive a few days of reflection. So I’ve learned to stop treating an edit as ‘final’ and treat it as a snapshot of how I see the work in a particular context at a particular time.
- What are the main lessons you will take away as a result of this course?
To keep continually taking photographs, even if I don’t always know why. A few of my final images, whilst taken during the course, were from long before I knew what I was going to do for my final submission. Almost all of my final set were the result of multiple meandering walks around my local area, and I wasn’t always conscious of why I was taking a particular photograph. Take photos, put them away, take them out again later and think about why you were attracted to the scene in question. In other words, to loosen up, take more photographs than before and hone in on selected images in a more contemplative manner later, rather than treating photography as problem-solving (i.e. starting with an idea and narrowly seeking images to match it).
To worry less about viewers ‘getting’ my work. Now I prioritise making work that I am satisfied expresses my ideas rather than having a specific message to communicate. It’s a subtle shift in thinking but a significant one for me.
That it’s OK to experiment and not be afraid to discard ideas that aren’t working – to treat ‘failures’ as waymarks on the path to success. It’s not always about starting wide and honing. Sometimes it’s a more eclectic and roundabout way to your destination.
To maintain contact with a creative peer group, for mutual inspiration, encouragement, challenge and motivation.
To show work to strangers, even when you think it’s not ‘ready’.
2. Looking forward
- How would you like your audience to experience your body of work? Do you have any ideas for venues or production formats?
I’d prefer any viewing of the work to be as a series in the given sequence, as I intend there to be a loose sense of narrativity. I believe subsets of the work can get across the idea, but suspect that individual images out of context might be a little harder to interpret.
So far I’ve visualised it as a book, and produced book dummies for the last few assignments.
I have an idea about a potential dual format publication, with a one-off ‘artist’s book’ version and a lower cost replica available for purchase.
I am not totally wedded to the book format alone though, and happy to consider an exhibition. I’m currently open-minded on whether this could be a traditional physical exhibition, or an online exhibition via one of the growing number of curated photography platforms – potentially supplemented by a physical publication (a virtual exhibition catalog, or the low-cost facsimile of the artist’s book described above). This is something I aim to work through in the early stages of SYP.
- What do you need to do for this to happen?
I’m in discussions with someone who specialises in handmade bookbinding for one-off photobooks, with a view to commissioning them to collaborate with me on an artist’s book built around the work. For the ‘mass-produced’ variant I’ve begun research and acquired samples from companies recommended to me by other students.
- Do you need to make any changes to your portfolio?
I envisage a book version to have more than the 15 images presented here; an earlier version (Assignment 3) had 21 images, which feels more like an appropriate amount for a book.
3. Closing remarks
As noted above it has not been a straightforward journey. I am however satisfied with the ultimate outcome. It meets my artistic and communication intentions, and it eventually solidified into a coherent and meaningful set of images. I am now confident that I have made work that conceptually articulates aspects of remembering and forgetting that I wish to encourage the viewer to consider.
The course has stretched my skills of creativity, problem-solving, research, critical thinking, workflow management and taking on board feedback from others. I feel as though I have come through the two-and-a-bit years of BoW (and CS) having learned more about myself than in the previous four years of OCA study.
Notes from Jo http://www.keitharnatt.com/works/w73.html(accessed 13/06/2018)
Eggleston W. (2016) The Democratic Forest: Selected Works. Gottingen: Steidl.
Kracauer, S. (1993) ‘Photography’. Critical Enquiry, 19 (3), pp. 421-436.
Olin, M. (2002) ‘Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken” Identification’. Representations, 80, pp. 99-118.
Ritchin, F. (2009) After Photography. New York: W W Norton.
Serjeant, I (2019) Out of the Ordinary: A Journey Through Everyday Scotland. Vol. 1. (3rd edition). Highlands: Another Place Press.
Serjeant, I (2017) Out of the Ordinary: A Journey Through Everyday Scotland. Vol. 2. Highlands: Another Place Press.
Serjeant, I (2019) Out of the Ordinary: A Journey Through Everyday Scotland. Vol. 3. Highlands: Another Place Press.
Shaw, J. (2017) The Memory Illusion: Remembering, forgetting, and the science of false memory. London: Random House.
Soth, A. (2017) Sleeping by the Mississippi (4th edition). London: MACK.
Whitehead, A. (2008) Memory: a New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge.
Handmade Book Making Workshop, Leeds. 4th August 2018. Joe Wright at JW Editions.
Yates, F. (1992) The Art of Memory. London: Random House.