Exercise 2.1: Individual spaces
Brief: In this exercise, you’ll build on your ‘Background as context’ exercise (Exercise 1.2) by taking the relationship between your subject and their surroundings a step further. The objective here is to try to create a link between the two components of your image, i.e. the subject and their surroundings.
Make three different portraits using three different subjects. Prior to shooting your portraits, engage with your subjects and agree three different specific locations which have some relevance or significance to them individually. You’ve already tried to give
a particular context to a portrait by considering how the background might link to the subject positioned in the foreground, but now you must go one step further and negotiate a specific physical location where you’ll photograph your subject. This can either be inside or on location, but the key to this portrait is the interaction you’ve had with your subject in identifying a place that has specific meaning for them.
Each portrait should be accompanied by a very short piece of text explaining the choice of location or venue. Don’t be tempted to create a work of complete fiction here; it might make life easier for you, but you’d be missing an opportunity to really engage with your subject and collaborate with them in the image-making process.
Present all three images together as a series and reflect upon how successful this exercise was in your learning log or blog. Write around 500 words.
My research on ‘street’ photographers was preparation for this exercise and is on a blog tab.
I approached three people one of whom I knew very well and invited them to take part. I had a narrative in mind. I could have had a broad outline but my experience is that I would need to photograph a lot more people to let a narrative rise from the interactions and selections of images. I chose these people because one was a retired teaching assistant and founder of a local food bank (Jackie), another a company director and counsellor who was off work recovering from an illness (Debbie), and a close friend who is a very reflective retired teacher and counsellor (Margaret). What ties them together is that they are all intuitive and reflective and not afraid to talk about their emotional or physical lives. They are also women, not that women have a monopoly on emotional intelligence (I am quite emotionally aware!) but I see this attribute more in the women I know more often than in my male friends and colleagues.
Two shoots started with a cup of coffee and interview, with me making notes, and the last was a conversation with me making notes later. Margaret also sent a summary of her feeling about her private space which I have used. The images were all shot with a 24mm lens with or without on flash and developed in Lightroom. Below are some selections from each shoot to show the range of my shots. This is followed by my three images and my responses to the brief.
1. 1 Selections
2. My series and reflections
2.1 Jackie ‘My garden and home – a safe place’
Jackie is a teaching assistant who retired a few months ago, but her most important contribution in recent years is that she started the Gateshead Feedback which is one of the most successful Foodbanks in the UK.
Morris: “Why is your home your special place?’
Jackie: It is my home and garden. It can be lots of things to me, to entertain, to be busy, with family, just being here. I love it when lots of people are around; two days ago my son was here and had a great time. It’s also a place where I can take my make-up off and put my old clothes and relax. it’s also a place where you can cry and worry about things. It’s a safe place, that’s a big thing. I can shut it all out and be alone. It’s not about the things in my home, it’s about the people. I do like it nice but that is only a part of it.
I have a place in the garden where I can sit and be quiet. I contemplate and try to sort out what is happening in my life. I can sit and be happy or cry. I love it when it is sunny as I can take my ironing out and take it my special place. It’s not about the ironing it’s about moving to another place. Sometimes you just need your space and it is then that I escape to my garden and the special place. “
2.2 Debbie ‘My home – an act of love’
Debbie is a company director and counsellor who is at home recovering from a sepsis illness. She decided to meet me at her special place which is at her home in Northumberland.
Morris: “Why choose your home as your special place?
Debbie: We made it together. Pete and I did everything together; the plans that we drew in our heads that we created together. Everything that you can see has meaning and history – it is not accidental. It reflects who we are and what we love.
This is the place that Pete and I first met. I’d just got a new job here and worked in a small office in this house which used have the ‘Fox and Hounds’ below. As soon as a saw him a few years before I fell in love with him but he did not know that then. When he saw me in the new office carrying boxes in from the outside I heard a ‘wolf-whistle’ and it was Pete. We then started going out, got engaged then married. This is a special place because we started here together and refurbishing it recently together has been a real act of love. We got very excited about travelling to places to find new things to go in our home, and having a giggle along the way.
There has been a lot of stress being ill but completing our home has not been stressful. We like doing things together which people are surprised about. One of my relatives found an old lamp, which is in the corner over there. We bought that after seeing a picture of it. It is like a lot of things in our home, they have been marked by time and have a history that is substantial – like us.”
2.3 Margaret – Open landscape – ‘A place that ‘gives”
Margaret: “You got me thinking about why I wanted/ needed to be in such a place:
I re visualised the place and thought randomly about it to see what came into my mind:
Re energising – absorbing energy from the place, from the life there
Touching my inner being
Connecting with the natural world – vital for me like breathing
‘To be’ rather than ‘to do’
Feeling rather than thinking
My place in the universe/ in the cycle of life
A place that ‘gives’ to me rather than ‘taking’
Alone but not lonely
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be there and being the catalyst for a spell of renewal”
Question: Is there a link between the person and their surrounds in my series?
I learnt from assignment one that it is important to have a wide view to take in the background. I used a Nikon D810 with a 24mm lens with pop up or an SB 910 flash for almost all photographs. This wide view is particularly effective in ‘Debbi’, where the images includes many of the loved objects and signifiers that populate her home, and the landscape of ‘Margaret.’
For Debbie I experimented with vantage points on the settee, in the kitchen, low down and standing on the bench. When I got up on the kitchen surface I realised that I was photographing Debbi ’embedded’ in her valued objects that were dangling from the ceiling. I learnt that everything that is suspended means something. For example, the bunch of chilli’s signify their love of food and dining, the lights were sourced and fitted by her husband who is an electrician and the hanging pictures and stars are memento’s of family events and memories. Taking Debbi’s image through the light bulb distorts her face. I shared my thoughts that this was a metaphor for how she is now as she recovers from a serious illness – “life is still a bit foggy;” she agreed with this insight. It is the reason why have chosen this photograph as it has a punctum for me and perhaps for Debbi.
Jackie’s image is less successful. I chose evening as the sun was low in the sky and images would be warmer. I think that the special places in the garden and home were more in the mind than in the place; any place can be special it you are present there. Perhaps that is the nature of many special places that in themselves are not picturesque but have happy or important memories associated with them. I chose the Jackie image of the garden as it clearly shows that this is a garden and she is happy there. The ones taken in her conservatory were taken close up and the wide-angle lens has made her legs look disproportionately large. I have a few blurred images.
For Margaret I took a number of close-up images in a wheat field outside Gateshead. She had chosen an open landscape as her special place and this was near to our homes. The landscape is a crucial element to her ideas of ‘openness’ and ‘freedom’ and I used a greater depth of field than I would normally use for a portrait. I like the Harry Callaghan images where his wife is a figure in the distance and I was happy for her to be walking away and pre-occupied in ‘contemplation.’ This image is resonant of Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth and works well; it speaks of space and freedom. I decided not to copy Margaret sitting in the same pose as Wyeth’s model.
Question: Do they go together as a series?
Yes. There are two places visible in the selections and text, an exterior place that is safe and an inner space of contemplation or love. It is interesting that these portraits are all women; I selected them because I thought that they would have places that help them to explore their inner lives. I think is it more about my choice of subjects rather than gender and I could have chosen men with similar interior lives. The three images are different; conventional upper body portrait, environmental portrait and landscape portrait; I think that this helps the series.
The use of interview text also helps understanding of context. I seem to be doing a lot of this but I have been a social science researcher for 30 years.