Monday, 7 May 2012

Seeing without a camera............ IPSE in the rain

pinhole camera in the kitchen 

"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera"

This was my favourite quote from a very wet, but extremely productive weekend spent at Micklepage in the company of a number of members of IPSE ( Independent Photography in the South East) and our leader, Graham Murrell. The quote is from Dorothea Lange, and was presented to the group as part of a stimulating workshop led by Graham over two days.

The aim of the weekend was to create a photographic record of the house that has so many happy memories for IPSE members, being the chosen location for workshops for over 20 years. Expertly and gently led by Graham we first enjoyed a morning learning about his own work as a prelude to thinking about what the group wished to achieve in their celebration of this very old house with accompanying cottage and chapel.

Graham was a lecturer in photography at Central St Martins for 35 years. Prior to that he studied fine art painting and ceramics. He describes ceramics as combining  earth, fire, water and mechanical intervention, and photography as combining light and mechanical intervention. Recent bodies of work have focussed on the subtle architectural details and the play of light within historic houses such as"Light Spells" for Kettle's Yard in Cambridge and "Blackwell Within" for Blackwell in the Lake District. 

His monochromes are tranquil, calming and  beautifully constructed. Influences include John Charity, Andre Kertesz and Paul Hill amongst others. John Charity's work was described as being about "lining things up", something that is a regular feature of Graham's work. Graham describes his approach to a scene as reductive,  being a way to cope with the fact that "you open the lens and the whole world falls in". He emphasised his need for "a hook" on which to hang one's work when working in a given place. His recent work, "Silence" for Snape Maltings at Aldeburgh used silence as the hook; aiming to convey the absence of sound visually. A powerful image of the empty auditorium at Snape Maltings presents "walls dense with residual sound". 

Graham has a passion for balance in his compositions. He frequently divides the frame in equal halves, with vertical or horizontal. By adding weight to one or other half he creates a visual dynamism. He encouraged us to think first of breaking down the elements within the frame to  a series of charcoal marks on paper and to ask ourselves "do they work"? If the answer was "no"then it was back to the drawing board. Another method that he has used  to analyse the structure within his images is to make drawings from the negatives in order to see the structure without being distracted by content or detail.
His attention to detail in framing and mounting adds to the beauty of finished pieces, with hand made wood frames and carefully planned mounts that consider the work within the context of their final resting place.

Having seen Graham's work and considered his approach we spent a day and a half making pictures, reviewing them, and then re-making them. We were encouraged to use a small sketch book to make line drawings/marks on paper to represent our compositions, accompanied by any words that came to mind when drawing or seeing the building in this contemplative way. For many the house has memories that go far back. I was there for the first time and therefore had less of a story to tell; more a series of "first impressions".

view from the games room © caroline fraser 2012

It became clear from our first images that we had focussed heavily on the detail of the building, but failed to put the details into context. There was also a lack of emphasis on the conviviality of the place, and a human connection. By trying to emulate or consider Graham's approach a bias had crept in as is often the case when we have been influenced by another's work. We were encouraged to consider what had led us to take certain images and what the image represents. My personal hook was written words around the house. Others focussed on draperies, the stonework and beams, brickwork, the garden,  windows and reflections in a mirror. Being world pin-hole day on the Sunday there was a lot of exciting pinhole activity, the fruits of which are eagerly awaited. 

Reviewing the work gave us the opportunity to spend several more hours working on expanding our chosen themes, and to consider new work in the contest of previously created work that was shared throughout the day. Those who enjoy photographing people stopped trying to work outside their comfort zone and captured images of photographers at work in the garden. A welcome relief from the almost continuous rain allowed us all out to play for a little while, to capture the swing, the bonfire, trees and barn chapel.

The next task is to edit these images down to create a cohesive body from the parts that each photographer has created, and to consider how these might be presented as a book or memory box of images.

I mustn't forget to mention the wonderful meals provided by Jill's daughter, Sarah. Spending time as a group at the long dining table with good food and wine was a wonderful way to get to know the group as a newcomer; I now feel that I know people and will look forward to learning from them. Conviviality was a notable feature of the weekend, and one that can hopefully be conveyed in the finished output from the workshop.


For IPSE website see here

Details of Micklepage house and its history see here

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