Monday, 23 May 2011

When is the best time to do research for a photography project and the art of hanging an exhibition

Forest © Caroline Fraser 

Getting near the end now; just had a talk on how to hang a show; I thought I knew a fair amount about that, but then I wasn't planning to suspend a TV from the ceiling or create a rigging to suspend my precious art works from the ceiling. After a 90 minute lecture from the technical manager of the School of Art, interrupted regularly by the sound of his frog croak mobile phone ring-tone, I am now au-fait with the likes of spring toggles, SDS drills, strap hangers and the joys of high quality tools.

As I am showing three regular framed prints fixed with mirror plates (which, after this morning's talk, I now know should be placed 10% above the half way point of the frame's vertical ), most of this was more information than needed, but at least I know where to go if I do ever branch into more exotic hangings. The most useful tip was to mark your drill holes and spacing onto masking tape, so as not to leave pencil markings on the wall.

Two weeks before all the work has to be handed in I finally have time to reflect on what I have been doing for the last 9 months. The traumas of trying to settle on my project meant that for some weeks I have been unable to concentrate on reading anything related to my subject topic. I am now emerging into the light at the end of the tunnel and have found I can read again. This is a little late in my view; or is it?

One of the things that research does is inform the work that you are doing; I have been unable to inform my work as until quite recently I was not clear about my purpose. I believe my project to be about searching for beauty amongst the chaos and order of nature, both at Hawkwood; a relatively wild spot in suburbia, and on the streets around my home.

Looking on the library database I find very few books that contain both "suburbia" and "vegetation / garden " or "photography" as key words. One I have already enjoyed is "Suburbia" by Bill Owen written in the 1970's. This is primarily about the people who move into a new suburb and how they individualise their personal spaces. It focusses on the people and their home interiors, thoughts and beliefs. It does not, however look much at the outdoor vegetation, except a cursory look at the importance of a well-tended lawn.

The only other titles that came up on my search are " How Britain got the gardening bug" a BBC4 2009 DVD which I have not yet managed to see, and "Paradise Now" by Peter Bialobrzeski  , a book published in 2009 with what I consider to be stunningly beautiful images of Asian metropolises filmed mainly at twilight. Peter was born in 1961 in Wolfsburg. link to his website ( in german)

Paradise Now #13, C-Print, Größe 60 x 75 und 126 x 160 cm
Paradise Now #13, 2009 , Peter Bialobrzeski

These images were created on a 4x5 Linhoff large format camera, some with exposures of up to 8 minutes. The long exposures mean that people disappear from the captured image. Bialobrzeski quotes Walker Evans at the opening of his book " I am interested what any time present will look like as the past". My original concept that started me on my project was a desire to capture something of my life for those left behind when I am gone; I thought they might be interested in how my home looked, or what I had for dinner. I soon found that I was unable to enjoy these subject matters. What I have created is my personal view of the area where I live. Devoid of people, but with human presence acutely evident in the neatly trimmed hedges and pollarded trees, I have, in essence shown how 2011 suburbia might look like as the past. Like Bialowbrzeski I have shown the urban dwellings as a back-drop to the vegetation. His images are described in the commentary as "very beautiful" by Alex Ruhle. He seems drawn to the chaotic element of the vegetation in the same way that I am drawn to nature's chaos in most of my photography.

But behind this beauty he has a point to make; he is concerned with the environmental impact of all the bright lighting that is used in these urban spaces, and how much longer this can be justified. When the time comes for sensible restraint in the use of urban lighting and energy supplies, then comes the time when his images become "the past". He comments that "decadence and stupidity almost always look quite pretty", and that " the pictures will become historical as the responsibility requires us  to resort to technologies that put a halt to this waste".

Paradise Now Nr. 18, page 45, C-Print, Größe 60 x 75 und 126 x 160 cm
Paradise Now #18 by Peter Bialobrzeski
 These words get me reflecting on what underlies my "Springtime in Suburbia", and what message will be conveyed. Will viewers understand my preference for chaos over order, and does it matter if they don't? What will the images say to people in the future? Do they give a fair comment on my locality or am I giving a false view of reality. Walking past the subject of my "magnolia" image today on a dull morning, when the blossoms have faded and there are now leaves instead of flowers, I realise that the view I have created was only there for a moment. I had to stop and think how I had achieved the perspective that I used. I created a momentary reality and that is so often what photography is all about. If suburbia were suddenly devoid of human habitation for any reason, the trees and plants would rapidly regain control and break into the chaos that is their natural tendency.

Since most photography is about a moment captured, we can never hope to truly to convey what is "now" for those who chance upon it in the future. What we are doing is giving our own very perspective on the world around us, and that leaves me quite content, even if I don't have a deeper message to convey.

As for when is the right time to do research,  sometimes it might be before you start on a project in order to find a starting point, and sometimes, as in my discovering Bialobrzeski , it is near the end, when you start to reflect on what it all means. Having seen his work, I now want to try some shots with movement in, to contrast with the very static, formal images I have been collecting...........

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