In January 2013 Penguin books plan to re-design the front cover of ‘The Book of Imaginary Beings’ by Jorge Luis Borges with a focus on a contemporary and innovative approach. I have been invited to submit 3 final photographs that will be judged by a panel of creative experts including Martin Parr, Sophie Calle and Stephen Gill.
For this idea, I have decided to explore the imaginary lands of the child’s mentality. I think it’s fair to say that children have the biggest and best imaginations of us all, and I find no reason for me not to tap into that gushing waterfall of creativity. The fairytales and magical worlds we create as children can shape and refine our personality from the earliest age. Capturing the purity and innocence of young fantasies is what I aim to do, using good photography and developments as my allies.
Visual and Symbolic Artist Analysis for Idea 1: ‘Images of Hope’ photographed for the Generations of Hope Fertility Fund by Shelley Vandervelde
The ‘Images of Hope’, were photographed by Shelley Vandervelde who is a portrait photographer, one who aims to focus on capturing personality and relationships in her work. At first sight of one of Vandervelde’s photographs, the calm and magical spirit is startlingly apparent. Three girls are positioned round a little garden table, while their smiles and various tea cups tell us an enchanting story of a very dainty tea party.
The most obvious formal element here is the colour, or lack thereof. The image is in monochrome, which immediately draws our eyes to the bright white of the girls’ dresses. The decision to dress them in old-fashioned dresses with rather large skirts was probably made because we generally think of young children from ‘back in the day’ as being much more naive than children now. This is due to the media bombardment that has drastically affected young people in recent years - we know much more, much earlier. Therefore, three girls would be seen as much more tranquil and sweet were they dressed in white period garments, than magenta tracksuits, for example.
Furthermore, the composition of the photo is aesthetically pleasing as the three girls almost frame the delicate tea party they are having between them. All attention is focused on the girls’ interaction with each other. We can almost hear a giggly conversation as they begin to role-play a few posh ladies serving drinks. The honesty of the photograph cannot be counterfeited, as children are at their best when they’re just being themselves. Vandervelde’s candid approach renders us as simple spectators to an event with infinite possibilities.
The children, who are all entrancingly similar as triplets, expel the same innocence and creativity that I would like to capture in my own photographs. The undeniable sweetness of the photograph is intensified by the background. It is not overpowering, but also doesn’t entirely fade out. It’s whiteness almost blooms around the girls, complimenting them well and heightening the contrast with the darker parts of the photo. For my own backgrounds, I would choose an environment that works well with the magical theme, but not one that draws away from my subjects. I am considering the use of beautiful untamed wilderness, to intensify the natural and wonderful imagination that flows from youth.
Overall, I think the photograph is a success as it conveys a feeling of unabashed childishness and sums up the purity of doing something simply because it’s fun. It opens up a scene that everyone can relate to; memories of a forgotten time in our lives, where worries were scarce and joys were plenty.
My photographs were taken to illustrate the way I felt about the minds of children, and the way they related to imaginary beings. My initial photographs are fairly straight-forward and feature two young girls. Both of my chosen settings were on location, as I believe the imagination of many children, stems from their environment and their relationship with it. I chose the forest setting because I thought it had a ‘timeless’ atmosphere. This put emphasis on the universal aspect of creativity - it doesn’t matter when or where, creativity just is. I chose an old-fashioned house for my second setting, as I thought it enhanced the idea that as we grow, we can sometimes get a little lost or stuck in the past, often over childhood ideals.
For the forest photographs, I utilized the strange shadows created by the cascading branches. The unpredictability of the light patterns successfully encompass the mood of the brief - imaginary beings shifting through the trees; their aims unknown. Technically, I occasionally found it difficult to decide which ISO to use. This was due to the fact that there were very dark parts and very light parts of the images I was trying to take, and the contrast meant I was, at times, unsure of how high my ISO should be. I eventually overcame this problem by testing out different ISOs until I got one I was happy with. I then continued to adapt the ISO, and shutter speed alike, as the day moved on and began to get darker. The wonderful shapes created by the forest’s mixture of light and shadows allowed me to position my models with precision, so as to give them an almost unnerving and surreal quality.
I varied my distance so I would have a range of close and longer shots. I spent more time on longer shots because, as previously stated, I thought the environment was very important to the childish spirit of my photographs. The nimble and flowing stances of the models accompanied by the stern solidity of the trees around them added a layer of contrast, particularly where colour was concerned. The simple, deep black of the models’ coats created intense juxtaposition with the warm, but complex, woodland around them. All the colours are slightly muted, then overlayed with a pink tinge for a magical fuzzy effect. Therefore, I think that colour and composition would be my two most important formal elements. The main critique that I would give these photographs is that I lacked experimentation with angles or changes in aperture.
For the photographs in the old-fashioned house, I really wanted to bring out the homely ambience of the place. As I was using a child as my model, I let her explore the various curiosities that crossed her mind, only stopping her when I felt I could document a certain moment. This technique allowed me to encapsulate the childish honesty I had been aiming for in the first place. Wanting to keep most of the photo in focus, but with particular emphasis on my model, I used an ISO of 400 and f-stops between f.4 and f.5.6. By doing this, the model still demanded the attention in the photograph, but didn’t drown out the environment with which she was interacting.
To keep up my candid approach to the photography, I felt it was better if my model did not outwardly acknowledge the camera much. On top of this, I used the editing programs Picasa and Photoshop to slightly edit the photographs, giving them a vintage appeal. I increased the contrast and layered them with a light sepia tone, before adding a ‘bloom’ effect, that brought out a hazy glow. This way, it was as if we could see into the child’s imagination through a camera lens. The small glimpse of a world that might seem rather normal to us older folk, but full of infinite possibilities to someone younger.
Overall, I feel both happy and proud of my photographs and believe I accomplished what I first aimed to do. Aside from a few small technicalities that I could have prevented with extra care, such as taking more photographs than I need so as to have something to fall back on if some don’t turn out right, I think my first set of initial photographs respond very well to my brief.
For my developmental photographs, I decided to visually capture my theme of stark imagination in children by using thread and paper to almost shield the subject from view. I began by placing tracing paper over the image so that I could draw lines onto it with pencil and figure out where I would be making the holes with my needle. I then continued on to create shapes with the thread, not entirely obscuring the subject from view, but protecting her a little.
I also employed this same thinking when gluing the photographs to material and rubbing them away with water. This created an effect that looked quite like a frosted window, as if we were seeing a small part of a much larger picture, one that was safely hidden from view.
After finishing the sewing onto the photographs, I stuck down the loose ends with masking tape on the back. After holding the photograph up to the light, I realised that the slightly messy appearance of the back of the photographs shone through, and light also came through the holes made for the individual threads. It created a lovely effect; decreasing the contrast of the photos and inviting an ever more abstract atmosphere.
I decided to include this in my development, making the strange back part of the photograph one that affected the front. This corresponded very well with my theme, as a wispy protective force consisting of unadulterated belief and imagination further overshadowed the fragility of the subject. As for visual impact, I think that the first, fourth and fifth photographs are more successful because the tones are much more subtle and delicate in what they’re trying to achieve and the thread provides definite focus points that can translate easily with an audience, as their colourful, protective message is clear. Photographs two and three are less successful, because although I like the way parts of the images have been scratched away to enhance the vintage look of them, I don’t think they work as well with my theme of ‘imaginary beings’. However, I do like the fact that I experimented with a different technique that I hadn’t used before.
Overall, I do believe these photographs came out incredibly well. I believe that my concept of fragile childhood dreams and imaginings will be understood by an audience because the symbolism of the threads and the differing pockets of light and dark are well presented and visually explained.
For my second idea, I have decided to focus on the power of light and darkness. Both live inside us, and I think that the strange, unnatural shapes created by a limited amount of light can be captured beautifully from a photographic point of view. This also relates to our unconscious mind and the dreams we have at night; a more unpredictable and sometimes frightening, side of our imagination.
Visual and Symbolic Artist Analysis for Idea 2: ‘Joshua Trees at Dusk’ photographed by Michael Frye
The photograph was taken by Michael Frye and features the symbols of the Mojave Desert; Joshua trees. Frye used an array of wonderfully projected colours on the trees to put a different twist on such iconic subjects.
The photo initially looks quite haunting; no doubt a product of the combination of a striking amount of magenta coating an, already awkward-looking, desert tree. Frye’s decision to use Joshua trees is one that shows his strong attention to detail. The fact that these trees are not ‘garden-variety’, intensifies the weirdness, and detracts from any feeling of realism. The bright magenta leaps out from the dark sky behind and reminds us of it’s meaning; imagination, innovation and creativity - enhancing this idea of a dream-like state.
I believe that the imagery seen here is symbolic of an unconscious mind. We can almost imagine the disfigured branches of the tree acting as connections in a brain, lighting up with unlimited power as electrical impulses flow through every leaf and twig, eventually culminating at the end of each big branch to create a thought. In the distance, another four different coloured trees are seen enjoying the unnatural spotlights. Or are they little minds of their own? Each isolated to their own circle of light, but connected by the ever silent darkness between them.
I think the message Frye is trying to communicate to his audience is one of silent revelation. To me, intense darkness, such as that found in the desert, has always seemed scarily muted. Not a quietness of calm and tranquillity but a horrifying blanket of quietness that has been dropped down without warning. This emptiness is filled by the illuminated Joshua trees. Possibly a way of saying that though silence is not a void that must always be filled, sometimes it’s rather nice when it is.
Personally, I think this photograph is an enlightening example of the effects that colour can have. The strange shadows on the branches of the most prominent tree look complex and unreal, emphasising the fantastical edge of the photograph. This is of particular interest to me because my own photographs will be focusing on the unpredictability of light and shadow in a night time environment. This piece has been inspirational to my own photographs as I intend to use the projection of light onto branches to create unnatural-looking forms, as I think this outlines the theme of nightmares and hidden realities very well. However, I do think I will commence my photoshoot when the sky is at it’s darkest, as I think the ‘silently fearful’ atmosphere would work better with a night sky that was not as blue as in Frye’s photograph. As for the use of colour, I would like to experiment with bold, brazen colours that would stand out against the absence of light and bring the textured branches to life.
Interview Magazine has commissioned me to shoot a series of ‘fashion portraits’ to accompany an interview/conversation with an up and coming young talent. The person in question is a young actress who has also become something of a style icon. My photographs should reveal the personality of the sitter whist also highlighting clothing and accessories.
For my first idea, I want to try and focus on capturing personality, emotion and unique style. I would like to do this by centring my work on black and white photographs, because I believe subject matter can be easily lost or overshadowed by colour. I also think that tone and contrast can be better observed when in monochrome.
Visual and Symbolic Analysis for Idea 1: ‘Untitled Portrait’ photographed by Eoin Macken
This photograph was taken by Eoin Macken, and is a sample of his portrait gallery. I chose this particular photograph because I felt it embodied Macken’s style and was inspirational in terms of my own photograph ideas.
The subject of the photograph is dark and poignant, and we almost feel like we’re intruding on such a vulnerable moment. Her gaze is into the distance and it’s sheltered and guarded, her posture small yet independent. And so the candid nature of the photograph is important, because it means we are given a window into her soul and spirit. Macken quotes that his portraits ‘aim for an observational style to capture the personality of the individual,’ and that has been accomplished perfectly.
Macken has managed to highlight the subject of his photograph by, effectively, rendering her the darkest part of the image. This purposeful and clever way of drawing our eyes is one I’m not wholly familiar with. Deep black hair frames a lighter face that, in turn, frames two sable eyes. The holes in her face make us feel disconnected from her and intensify our curiosity as to what lay inside. That is, inside her head.
A guitar case lies on it’s side in front of her while light hands fiddle with the catch, opening or closing it, we do not know. We are then greeted with a sense of anticipation. A million possibilities spread out along a few frets and that distant look in her face could now be the stifled wonder at playing her beloved instrument yet again. Each time it’s the same but it’s still oh, so different. The street around her continues to bustle with life, but she doesn’t mind. They all have there own wonder-moments, and this time it’s hers.
The instrument itself does not contain the magic, as it is so often thought. Macken illustrates this by keeping the smooth guitar case in the shadows. It is the woman’s hands that inject the life - the brightest and whitest part of her body, as this is what she does for herself and for others. The car behind her reflects the sun’s rays and her little patch of self-imposed darkness is almost like a secluded corner from which she blooms and begins to share her own rays with the world. As an audience, we are drawn into a story we probably didn’t even know we were reading.
I believe that the main issue highlighted in this photograph is, first and foremost, the choice to use monochrome. Most of Macken’s portrait photography is shot in black and white film, and I believe it gives us a chance to really enjoy the strong contrast and tones created by both the light and the absence of it. Some particularly effective points would be the delicate ebony curls flying against the shine of the car. The tail lights of cars blinking at us; giving us perspective on the woman’s life, for much can be assumed when the street is your stage.
My personal response to this photograph is that it’s incredibly successful and aesthetically pleasing. I adore the hazy white glow of the surroundings coupled with the intricate, hardening black of hair strands and sleeve netting. I also like the way she is positioned to the far side of the photograph, the negative space leading us to believe there is more to her than meets the eye; a wider scope and realisation that she is not alone - the same way none of us are. There’s always more to it.
For my own photographs, this has inspired me to take chances with increased contrast and experiment with the amazing shapes such simple shadows can make. I want to use every part of the photograph to my advantage, each knitting together part of a story. This is especially important as my photographs need to be suitable for the companion interview piece. A unique style belonging only to the individual needs to be clear and as well as a connection to the audience. Imagination is key in portrait photography and I feel that I have learnt a lot about how a location can have an effect on the meaning of a photograph. as well as negative space. My own concept will feature around capturing the youth of the subject, yet also paying homage to her maturity and obvious success. I will be working in monochrome for the first part, to increase attention to the tonal range of the subject and her clothing. Afterwards, I intend to inject colour manually and play around with the outcome it creates.