The first things to say about this assignment was that I approached it with mixed feelings. On one hand I was actually quite anxious about it. I had two attempts at going out to shoot it but failed to pluck up the courage to ask people, returning home with empty memory cards. Equally, I knew it was a psychological bridge that I needed to cross with my photography and I was very keen to overcome it. It felt very much like my first assignment right at the beginning of my OCA studies again – venturing into something new with trepidation, not sure whether I was making the mark or not. Throughout Context and Narrative my confidence had grown significantly but now I was suddenly thrown back to square one.
Analysing per personal anxiety around this, I’m very conscious of all the adverse media publicity nowadays associated with middle-aged men with less than savoury intentions. For this reason I immediately ruled out approaching any children or females that appeared younger than myself. I hoped that this would reduce my changes of verbal abuse or worse. This narrowed my pool of people to choose from to men and older ladies. I also discounted younger men on the basis that they would be more likely to respond aggressively if they didn’t like the approach.
I rationalised that I would not meet the people again and so it did not matter if they refused to be photographed. But as I considered this further I identified that part of my fear was more to do with the risk that I could in fact meet these local people again at some point. Presumably that is why the assignment specifically asks for local people in order to allow students to experience and overcome this fear.
Having selected my target subject type, I then looked to other practitioners for inspiration on how to photograph them.
Bruce Gilden is one street photographer I have always admired for his ability ability to overcome all the fears I outlined in the previous section in an audacious way. His style can be very confrontational. However it is also very candid street photography and this is not what I wanted to achieve for this assignment, instead I wanted to deliver a series of posed, considered portraits where the subjects are very aware that they are being photographed.
However Gilden’s latest project, Faces, does take a more traditional approach to portraiture in many respects.
The more ‘characterful’ aspects of his subjects are still accentuated through the use of extreme colour saturation and Clarity in post processing, but fundamentally these are mostly tightly cropped head and shoulder portraits. Although I could not expect to meet such interesting people as Gilden, I was inspired to follow a similar head and shoulders approach towards making a small typology of local people.
My tutor encouraged me to explore the methods and work of Diane Arbus. Magazine Work contains almost as much text as images within its pages since Arbus goes to great lengths to explain how she really got to know her subjects before photographing them. For example, of Mae West she says she was ‘imperious, adorable, magnanimous, genteel and girlish‘ (Arbus, p58). These personal attributes are then accentuated in the accompanying portrait of West on page 59.
At the other end of the scale to the street photography of Gilden, I also explored the genre of Deadpan. Typically taken on large format cameras and blown up to poster-sized prints, this style invites the viewer to read the subject’s personality as a blank canvas, much like the enigmatic portrait of the Mona Lisa. Without the distraction of any obvious personal expressions such as a grin or grimace, the viewer can easily to project their own reflective feelings and judgments onto the person, almost like looking in a mirror. There is also an unnerving intimate experience of viewing such photographs – as though we are being invited to see the person for who they really are without any mask put on for society and to study them closely for as long as we desire. I determined to ask my subjects not to smile for the camera in an effort to capture some of this natural persona within the portraits.
On a smaller scale to August Sander’s ambitious project to photograph the people of Germany, the contemporary work by Estonian photographer Birgit Püve ‘Estonian Documents: Portrait of A Nation‘ reminds us that ‘The human face is the best record of time.’ (Püve, 2016). My intention was to create a similar record of the people from my local area.