Assignment two: Vice versa
Brief: This assignment is about taking what has worked from the above exercises and then trying to develop this further in terms of interchanging the use of portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio). You need to develop a series of five final images to present to the viewer as a themed body of work. Pay close attention to the look and feel of each image and think how they will work together as a series. The theme is up to you to choose; you could take a series of images of a single subject or a series of subjects in a themed environment. There is no right answer, so experiment.
Sitters carry on with a handicap in a chancy business, since they can only guess how they looked when the shutter was released. For portrait subjects to have been off the mark in their self-affirmation or for photographers inadvertently, or deliberately, to capture them unaware of it, was human on both their parts. (Kozloff, 2007, p.8)
1. Initial thoughts
This project really began when preparing exercise 2.4 ‘Same Background, different model.’ I wanted to step outside my familiar territory of health and social care. I have been interested in the notion of super and anti-hero’s for some time. My 4-year-old grandson is obsessed by Batman, Spiderman and The Hulk – I blame his father. My favourite is Superman, because although he has X-ray vision and can fly, he also has vulnerabilities as an orphan, is misunderstood at school and lives a lie – and of course Krytonite.
I created a character called ‘Ordinary Hero’ two years ago for a talk I did on ‘self empowerment’ for a 12-step recovery programme. My ‘Ordinary Hero’ has special powers, such as the ability to listen, care and do the little things to help other; there are millions of us out there. My wife made me a costume which I get out of the cupboard from time to time and wear beneath my shirt.
I had the idea of asking other people to create ‘anti-heroes,’ like me, with their photographs being taken against the backdrop of the skyscrapers of New York, Newcastle/Gateshead or just a plain background, probably in a studio. The skyscrapers would be a consistent ironic setting. I am not sure how that hangs together theoretically or conceptually but I am interested to find out.
That got me thinking about the duality of people’s lives where they have special powers or skills that are hidden in day-to-day life. I could move out of the studio to their ‘normal lives’ or work; I have someone in mind who is a director at a law firm as I have seen him dressed as a super hero in a public setting. He could be ‘aware’ and in character in the studio and captured ‘unaware’ at work. Les Monaghan springs to mind as an influence; I saw his work in Doncaster recently and have written a review in my blog.
2. Initial theory, concepts and personal insights
I think theories of power and powerlessness apply here; the able superhero and their adversaries. These people are often flawed with Achilles heels such as Batman – bats; Superman – kryptonite; Spiderman – webs. They also have their nemeses; Batman – Joker; Superman – everybody unmasking him. These raise the psychoanalytic dimension of of personal and hidden self.
I read an article about how the “Dark Triad’ of personality, narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism which postulates that Machiavellianism can confer positive benefits for the person rather than being maladaptive. The media is awash with characters that embody the Dark Triad such as Gregory House, M.D., Batman (a.k.a. the Dark Knight), and James Bond; these are some of the most popular media franchises today.
The Dark Triad traits exist in individuals in reality and it is not unreasonable to expect that this should be reflected in different forms of media today. Popular culture can be seen in movies and TV. In the recent film adaptations of Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark stands out from other Marvel Comics heroes as a “likable asshole.” Despite his claims that he is “not the hero type,” Tony Stark is generally seen as a hero—albeit one with little modesty (narcissism) or concern for the morality (psychopathy) of building and making a profit from deadly military weapons. There are numerous fantastical examples of anti-heroes in movies. They share numerous features. These features are linked by a coherent life history strategy, as evidenced in the Dark Triad traits. (Jonason et al, 2012)
I like this idea of dark versus light and decided not to look at more theory until talking to people about the idea. Am I looking for ‘Light (as opposed to Dark) Knights?’ There is something interesting here which I’m getting excited about.
Peter Jonason, G. W., David Schmitt, Norman Li, Laura Crysel (2012). “The Anti-hero in Popular Culture: Life History Theory and the Dark Triad Personality Traits,” Florida Review of General Psychology 16(2): 192-199. http://www.mysmu.edu/faculty/normanli/JonasonWebsterSchmittLiCrysel2012.pdf
3. Talking to people
I approached four friends on a Sunday with a garbled verbal presentation asking if they were interested in a photo shoot where they could show their anti-hero power, with costumes and make-up if needed. One of them had an idea I liked immediately. I also asked whether they would like to be photographed at work as a contrast; I am interested in that relationship between normal and hidden and may be able to show that in a diptych. I have been saving the diptych presentation for this assignment.
3.1 Mrs Visio-spatial
This woman has the ability to find her way in any setting – she is “a good person to have if you are stuck in a maze.” I asked her to think about this, but this is an ‘anti-hero’ who helps the lost to find their way.
3.2 Mr Perpetual-motion man
3.3 The Restorer
This is me! I thought I could do a self-portrait. If I could have one super-power it would be to heal people; to restore physical, mental and emotional health. I see a lot of damaged people in my work as a GP and working with substance misusers. My daughter also has an aggressive form of lymphatic cancer which no amount of money will impact; perhaps it is that paternal desire to salve pain and restore that I am expressing here, but I think there is a wider aspect. Jesus healed people; it would be startling to have this power or to be a channel for it.
3.4 Miss Colour
I met this woman yesterday at a meeting – I was drawn to her as she was bright, personable, colourful and younger than most of the people I have approached. I gave her a link to my website which had more details about the planned photo shoot. She sent me a message saying that she was “up for it.” Her immediate reaction to the idea was “I am Miss Colour.”
My ‘White Knights’ are social conscious, give help and are positive – the opposite to someone like Tony Stark. Classical ‘super-heroes’ have a collective group called ‘The Avengers’ (harsh term) my group may be the ‘Life-enhancers’ or “Healers’ or ‘Restorers’ or ‘White Knights.’ I like the coherence of this for the series.
Here is my website advert;
Do you have an alter-ego? Are you an anti-superhero? Do you have unusual or ordinary ‘special’ powers. Who would have thought that this school-boy had the power of ‘gentleness.’ He also knows a Mrs Visio-spatial who is a good person to have when you are stuck in a maze.
Would you be interested in being photographed in you anti-hero costume in a studio and then at work? We will be using a make-up and hair artist if you need them.
You would receive a colour image of the ‘other you’ and you would be on my website wall. Contact me if you are interested.
I have talked to other people about my idea. I sent them a collective email with potential studio days (I must speak to my friend who has a studio – I have a home one but we need stronger lights for full length images – my experience).
I think we have enough to write down an initial intention.
4. Preliminary intention
Title: ‘White Knights’
Subtitle: Portraits of people contrasting their inner ‘anti-super-heroes’ with themselves in other settings
Short summary: Diptychs portraits of people at home or work and as ‘anti- superheroes.’
Topic or theme – why? Block-buster heroes such as “The Avengers” are popular in contemporary culture. Some of these, such as Iron Man exhibit a ‘Dark Triad’ of personality, narcissism and psychopathy (Jonason, 2012). There is a counter-culture of the ‘ordinary hero’ and of goodness, creativity and altruism. I will show people’s ‘special powers’ from this culture of ‘White’ rather than Dark Knights (Batman’s other name), and explore the relationship of their anti-hero aspirations with their usual lives.
Intention: To show the inner desires of people to have a super-power
Audience: OCA and a photo competition
Approach and methods – technical, experiments, collaboration, management: Recruitment was done by face to face contact with friends and workmates. Studio setting with costumes and props. Initial trial shoot then reflection and further shoot. 6 subjects initially then another 6 after tutor feedback.
Access, consent, confidentiality, legal: All participants consented to their stories and images being put into the public domain.
Presentation, publicity, social media: I may set up a Facebook page for this project, Twitter feed, participants, OCA tutor, future competition.
What is the images purpose? A bit of fun for me and the participants. To provide an antidote to some of the negative aspects of super heroism.
Photographic influences: Not sure yet
Peter Jonason, G. W., David Schmitt, Norman Li, Laura Crysel (2012). “The Antihero in Popular Culture: Life History Theory and the Dark Triad Personality Traits,” Florida Review of General Psychology 16(2): 192-199. http://www.mysmu.edu/faculty/normanli/JonasonWebsterSchmittLiCrysel2012.pdf
5. Monological and dialogical relationships
Joanna Lowery’s contribution ‘Negotiating Power’ in ‘Face on: photography as social exchange,’ talks about dialogical and monological relationships in photography (Durden, Richardson, 2000). She refers to the work of Bakhtin and his concept of ‘monological’ and ‘dialogical’ text which is theoretically very helpful (Bakhtin, 1981). It is Steve Edwards (Edwards, 1990) who has applied these ideas to photographic relations where the studio “could be seen as a monological site par excellence, in contrast with those sites outside the studio where the photographer may have less authority and may have to be more responsive to the self-presentation of the subject:” the dialogical (Page 13, Durden, Richardson, 2000).
These ideas are immediately applicable to my work; the monological (studio) and dialogical (subjects work or other place). This area needs a bit more thought as I suspect that this relationship is not binary. How much do I want to be master of the studio images and how much will they answer me back with their views and input there? I have ideas about the final output but currently there is dialogue with them about how their characters will develop. I see the workplace images are more their selection. Part of this is running with their ideas – that dialogical contract.
Ed Mark Durden and Craig Richardson. (2000). ‘Face on: photography as social exchange.’ London, Black Dog Publishing Ltd.
Bakhtin, M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination Austin, Texas, University of Texas.
Edwards, S. (1990). “The Machine’s Dialogue.” Oxford Art Journal, Oxford University Press 13: 63-76.
6. More development
I have been working on A3 (by joining a drug recovery group), A4 (just recorded an audio of a dream and near death experience) and A5 (my personal diary about my daughter having cancer). I am doing exercises in A3 and next week A4. A2 is taking longer than I thought as it I am finding it hard to get my sitters together and decide on props. I will meet with my photographer friend to talk about using his studio next week.
One of my participants, her character name is ‘Inspiration,’ agreed to talk to me about ideas for costumes and presentation. This was very helpful. I think I am arriving at having ‘anti-super powers’ that are rooted in real skills that people can extrapolate into fantasy and wishful thinking. So far we have;
Human attribute: “Being creative and having ideas.” Hannah had a fledgling jewellery company but is qualified as an agriculturalist and has spent a lot of her adult life in Africa.
Anti-super power: Providing solutions where there are none. This might include relationship disputes, feeding the poor, drought, economics, wars etc.
Costume: Head-piece which looks like a light-bulb with gold leggings and top
Normal setting: Hannah has chosen to have her image taken in a cafe where she gets most of her ideas.
NOTE: I am torn here costumes. In one sense my anti-heroes are the antithesis of those glamorous costumed heroes and ‘baddies’ such as ‘Wonder-woman’ and ‘Poison Ivy’ but my people want to dress up! One participant has very specific ideas about their costume and has sent me his character bio and that of his counter character. Maybe it is back to this idea about ‘who is in charge;’ on costumes there needs to be a bit of flexibility.
I have also been wondering about gender and powers; it would be good to have powers that challenge stereo-types e.g. ‘Nurse’ as an imaginary character could be a male and not female.
6.2 ‘The Listener’
This is ‘Inspiration’s husband who is a junior doctor.
Human attribute: “Being compassionate and listening” Hannah gave me a quote about listening which is “Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world,” which is a Cuban proverb. I like this idea.
Anti-super power: Being able to take on that ‘world of thoughts, feelings and confusions that brings peace to people.’
Costume: I am less keen on a costume, maybe bringing a hand to the ear is enough to signify listening.
Normal setting: I will probably shoot Matt one night when he is in his A+E scrubs and on a break.
6.3. ‘Mr Perpetual Motion Man’
Human attribute: Richard is a professional artist and has always been interested in perpetual motion machines and energy.
Anti-super power: Being able to produce free unlimited energy for everyone on the earth. This would be clean energy and remove the need to use as much fossil fuels. take on that ‘world of thoughts, feelings and confusions that brings peace to people
Costume: He is keen to have a silver suit with energy waves going down the legs and arms and a ‘plasma-ball’ head!
Normal setting: In his painting studio.
6.4. ‘Mrs Visio-spatial’
Human attribute: Good at reading maps and finding her way around mazes and places
Anti-super power: Being able to help those who are ‘lost’ to get their bearings and find themselves.
Costume: A maze top?
Normal setting: Jenny is a speech-therapist – not sure what that setting is
6.5. ‘Miss Colour’
Human attribute: Rachel works for an insurance company. She has brightly coloured hair and clothes.
Anti-super power: Being able to bring colour and life into people’s lives especially when their lives and environments are grey and drab
Costume: Maybe we don’t need a lot here
Normal setting: Not sure
6.6. ‘The Restorer’
Human attribute: This is me – I don’t want to be left out! I am a GP, work with drug users who are mentally ill and contribute to a Christian recovery project called Celebrate Recovery. One of the verses in the bible that inspires me is Luke 4.18 where Jesus states his mandate for his work, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed. I like this idea of mending and healing brokenness and I do see restoration in my professional and personal life.
Anti-super power: To produce wholeness out of brokenness.
Costume: I was thinking about holding two glass bowls – one in pieces and the other whole.
Normal setting: Maybe at my drug service.
6.7. ‘Mrs Green’
Human attribute: Janet is a doctor working in sexual health. Her passion is gardening.
Anti-super power: Helping growth in inhospitable situations
Costume: A sprouting plant might be enough, certainly the opposite of ‘Poison Ivy’ with that costume and all those capital letters in he name – maybe my anti-heroes don’t need capitals, e.g. mrs green?
Normal setting: Not sure – in her garden or greenhouse?
7. Thinking about presentation and the final look
Back to Les Monaghan and his ‘Aspire’ and other works. I am looking for full length portraits with or without props and definitely with some textual element that may link the studio with the natural environment image. I have done similar work in my ‘NHS 2015: a question of number series’ last year.
I am planning to use diptychs with an image of home or work and in the studio. Maybe that juxtaposition will provoke questions about the relationship between their outer and inner fantasy lives which are connected yet disconnected?
I have been too-ing and fro-ing about having a background for my portraits but think that it is cleaner to have a white background as the focus is about the person and character. The studio image could go on the right as people tend to look at the left image first although I may be making that up.
8. Planning and preparation
I am looking at two settings, the studio with a consistent background and the person’s work or regular environment.
One of the things I learnt from an Adrian Sommelling tutorial on composting is where to place the camera when shooting the background and then the person. I noticed that he usually has the camera at the same floor height and distance from object for background and subject. Usually this is low down to emphasise ‘monumentality’ and I will do the same as I want my ‘heroes’ to be heroic! Maybe that is not what I want for my ‘anti-heroes.’ I can experiment with low down shooting and conventional positioning of the person in the frame.
In the studio I will use two bright soft boxes close to the person for a full figure shot with an accent light behind me to one side. The boxes will illuminate the white background. Another option is to have two front lights and two illuminating the background.
I will use a remote for my Nikon D810 either with a 50mm or 70-200mm lens on a tripod. This will only be my third studio session. I need to learn from my first shoot to get the background lighting and shadows correct as it is difficult to correct afterwards.
8.2. Natural environment
I will take my kit of large flash, which can be used off camera, with diffuser and wide angle lens – I learnt this from A1; you need plenty of width to capture context and place.
9.1 Shoot 1
My first shoot was at ‘Insipiration’s’ place of ‘work’ which was a cafe that she had chosen to have her image taken. Here are a few images.
I have been looking at the portraits in Joel Sternfield’s book ‘Strangers Passing’ and am having second thoughts about these images – where is the GAZE? (Sternfield, 2001). Sternfield’s characters address you and Hannah does not. Maybe a photo outside the cafe might have created more ambiguity and questions? I don’t know if that matters at this stage as the ‘anti-super hero’ will be looking to camera.
Sternfeld, J. (2001). Strangers Passing. Germany, Melcher Media/ Bullfinch Press.
9.2 Shoot 2 – prep for the studio
The professionals studio is not available so I have set up a studio in my hall with two strobes and light from downlighter and from a windows to the right of the shooter – lots of different light temperatures! I have chosen a white screen. I want a bright image with even lighting (not main and fill with lots of contrast or dark and moody lighting that we see in ‘Avenger’ images). My best lens is a 70-200mm lens and had a trial focussing on a light stand with writing on it; 90mm was the best focal length for an upper body shot.
I decided not to have a full body shot as I did not have enough space in my house and closer image has more presence.
I have just finished reading ‘All my friends are superheroes,’ which is a quirky love story where everyone has a super-power except the main protagonist (Kaufman, 2006). Most of the superpowers are, like my characters, extensions of their personalities or experiences. The other books I have been reading are ‘Train your gaze’ by Roswell Angier (for the first time) and ‘Cindy Sherman’ by Paul Moorhouse (I reviewed this is a previous module) (Angier, 2015: Moorehouse, 2014). Chapter 6 of Roswell’s book titled ‘Portrait, Mirror, Masquerade’ looks at the evolution of visual representations of identity, from daguerreotype to carte de visite to social media avatars and alternatives to the self (masquerades). The thing that stood out most for me were her comments (Page 101) about Judith Joy Ross’s ‘Portraits at the Vietnam Veteran Memorial, Washington D.C.;’ “The monument does not need to be literally visible, because it has become incarnate in the complex emotions expressed in the faces of people who visit it.”
I have decided to keep the background in the studio plain but the other backgrounds are troubling me. I am moving more to a Joel Sternfield ‘stranger look’ (Sternfeld, 2001) where the subjects look similar but in ordinary places – certainly full length and maybe swallowed up in the frame by their environment; that provides a good contrast with that light and bright main image in my diptych with text.
I am not sure who much signage to have in my main image – I will shoot without and with props to give me more choice. I am moving to simple images as they are more powerful and you have to give the viewer space to explore the image.
Kaufman, A. (2006). All my friends are superheroes. United Kingdom, Telegram.
Angier, R. (2015). Train your gaze: A practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. London, Bloomsbury Publishing
Moorehouse, P. (2014). Cindy Sherman, Phaidon.
Sternfeld, J. (2001). Strangers Passing. Germany, Melcher Media/ Bullfinch Press.
9.3 Shoot 3
Here are some annotated ‘Mrs Green”s contacts.
I asked Mrs Green to ‘be herself’ while I got the camera and light right. I also asked her to look at me. I chose the props. During the shoot Mrs Green found a large moth inside one of the flowers and held it out to me. She was thrilled by this and this is my best image despite the hand being slightly out of focus due to the shallow depth of field – I was not expecting to focus on something 0.5 metres in front of her. The depth of field was a compromise based with the ISO to give an image with highlights in the top quarter of my histogram. I also like the diagonals of the shot which is dynamic. Mrs Green chose her own clothes and glasses.
I asked her to look at her plants “as if they are your children” – this was experimenting with gaze to an object rather than to me. I was not sure if smiling was the right gaze to me but seemed appropriate in the moth image – maybe something of that spontaneity comes across.
Here are my selections. I am not so sure about the darkness to the lower right hand side of the image which is shadow that I thought I had cleared by moving my model away from the screen. I have two other strobes that I could use to illuminate the background separately and may do that and adjust the exposure in Lightroom or Photoshop.
I have been thinking about Julian Germain’s portfolio of work which has many innovative ways of presenting words and images. In ‘In Soccer Wonderland Souvenir Stamp Album’ there is a brilliant combination of graphics, images and text (Germain, 1992).
My presentation of the images might look like the next image in my blog. The black space is for the image of the whole person in their work or ‘normal’ context. I had the large image to the right but flipped the PS frame to put it on the left as that is where the eye is drawn first. I did wonder about having no title with ‘Mrs Green’ in the body of text so that people could ‘discover’ the anti-superhero and power. I might include an anti-superhero logo but this group are modest and discreet.
The image of the person ‘at work’ will need to have the subject to the right of the frame to balance up this image, but I will experiment with placement this week. Mrs Green’s gaze is to the moth and not to me, maybe the others will be preoccupied in their gaze and look directly at me as the Sternberg strangers.
Germain, J. (1992). In Soccer Wonderland Souvenir Stamp Album http://www.juliangermain.com/
9.4 Shoot 4
This is ‘Foundation,’ who is a solicitor, and his wife ‘Mrs Visio-spatial,’ who is a speech therapist. I am being more directive the props which I am trying to keep simple. There is less ambient light today but I am adjusting the ISO, DOF and compensation to create a bright image.
I have used the tactic of taking lots of images while they are talking and getting used to the flash during the shoot. This has bore fruit with all three participants so far; there has been quite a lot of laughter in these shoots. I did not intend this but it seemed appropriate. People smiled quite a lot but I left that up to them.
‘Visio-spatial’ is not Mrs Visio-spatial as they are non-gendered. Their natural ability of being able to remember where things are is in men and women. I had folded an Ordnance Survey map into a hat as a prop but this is a subtle sign. While shooting she was told me that she looks up to the left to concentrate and can find in her ‘minds-eye’ where a lost object is to be found. She never gets lost in the car. She would extend this super-power by finding, anywhere in the world, simple items such as a lost book. This probably more useful than something more ostentatious.
‘Foundation’ is an interesting anti-superhero and the narrative that will go with this is very good. We experimented with holding up things and this gave the best implied visual narrative. I am keeping notes of conversations during shooting and afterwards, as in this case, the text will be very helpful.
I am arranging to photograph these people on the way to work or at their homes to provide that ‘background’ picture. I am clear that the main image is about the person with a plain background but the contrast environmental image is of them embedded in the urban or other landscape.
9.5 Shoot 5
This is my second environmental portrait where I am channelling Joel Sternberg. I photographed Mrs Green (she tells me she is female like ‘Mother earth’ – I have started to ask about gender preferences for characters which is a feature of the “Avengers’ and such-like). This shoot was in an underground car park when she was in a rush to go to work. The entrance to the health centre is card-controlled and pretty anonymous. You can see the camera above the door. I used flash but there was more light that I anticipated and brought my ISO down quite quickly. I used a 24mm lens to give a wide shot. Here is an updated diptych with this new image (there was only one usable image as the others were overexposed).
I think that ‘Mrs Green’ works. Maybe she should be bigger in the RHS image but I did want the background the signage of which is ambiguous and needs work to de-code. I planned Janet to be on the RHS of the frame to try to balance with the main image but perhaps she could have been centre frame as there would be a pleasing triangle of shapes in the frame. I may re-do this.
9.6 Shoot 6
This was with my junior doctor, ‘The Listener’, who is male rather than female. This was an easy shoot as we had decided to have minimal props. He suggested that he sat for this; this immediately reminded me of “The Thinker’ by Augustus Rodin. I shot 20 images some with a hand to the ear but the image chosen was one of the most natural. For the environmental shot we used some ‘scrubs’ that I had and the background of a health care facility nearby to shoot the image. The diagonal yellow lines are an area where ambulances arrive and depart. The staff at the facility began to question why we were there but we still took the images and left. I was trying to embed this person in the landscape. I used flash again as it was dusk and the exterior lights had come on. This time the interview was first before we shot the images. I could show lots of contacts but you will know my working methods by now. Today if was easier to choose this image than on other shoots.
I will shoot myself tomorrow and the exterior shots for 2 and 3 the day after. That gives me my series although I have three other people being produced. Two of those need more preparation and have more potential for great visual impact. I have decided to submit at 5 images while I am photographing the rest.
9.6 Shoot 7
This is me. I ordered a glass globe to signify wholeness for “Restoration.” I did not have time to photograph me outside my anonymous looking health centre so I chose the garden which I like. This is not ideal and if I keep the image in the final selection (after my tutor’s comments) I will re-shoot it outside my work-place. I used a shattered and whole globe but chose the whole one finally.
10. Reflections and pause
I have decided to submit to my tutor at this stage. I still have to complete ‘Inspiration,’ ‘Perpetual Motion Man’ and Colour. I think that some of these will replace some of these images. This will happen over the next 2-3 weeks and I will take this up in a new tab.
I have also been thinking about the nature of style and presentation and person in my main images. How much of what I show here is similar to the archetypes of August Sanders instead of the role enactments visible in Anton Raderscheidt’s portraits which is more what I was aiming for? I think my characters inhabit their creations at least in the main portrait.
NOTE Changes made, including re-shooting, after tutor’s comments appear on the this tab