Reading & Research: Polaroids & Self Portraits


24th March 2018, Arts University Bournemouth

This week my son’s film tutor showed me around the photography department at AUB.  We’d been chatting about the work I’d seen a few weeks ago by Jarrod Thompson that I loved. It turns out that Jarrod is a good friend of my son’s tutor, so as we were talking about photography I was treated to a flying visit around the department; I saw the equipment stores, the darkrooms etc. It was all very inspiring; I would really like to study full-time or attend a university to study, but really it’s not practical for me at the moment.

I’d taken some polaroids this week so I looked at The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology by William A. Ewing and Barbara Hitchcock. Last week I’d looked at some photography by David Hockney and I immediately noticed the similarity with the work of Joyce Neimanas that is featured in the book. What really struck me while flicking through this book though was the range of creative possibility in polaroids. There were several images that really stood out, and on reflection I find myself trying to connect the themes or visual elements that are tying them together; there definitely is a similarity to the images that I liked but at first it’s not always clear to me exactly what that is. I suppose there is an element of nature in all of the images I liked. Perhaps it’s a mix of astronomical imagery with natural or more human themes, like a fusing together of the heavens and the Earth.

I had a quick look at Art Photography Now by Susan Bright. My favourite work featured was by Hannah Starkey. I suppose the idea that she’s really presenting a female perspective in a way that speaks to me personally is important, but also there was a quote about her work that I liked, that a featured image was alluding “to an aspiration for order, control and exclusivity, all of which are likely to be unobtainable or unsustainable.” That idea really resonates with me. I think it’s because for me, at least at the moment when life feels chaotic, there is a part of me that aspires to order and control. In that work I am reminded that this control I seek is unsustainable; it’s just not how life works.

Auto Focus; The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography by Susan Bright was really interesting to me at the moment as I am planning some work that involves self portraits. I found the work of Nan Goldin particularly important as the text talks about one of her images taken at the end of an abusive relationship allowing her to ‘reclaim both of those things that were so nearly taken from her’ (refering to her sight, and her identity as a photographer). That resonated with me as some of the work I am thinking of is really about allowing me to reclaim parts of myself that I feel have been taken from me or that I have been forced to hide or deny.  It’s not like the physical abuse that Goldin was subject to, but for me there is a feeling that I might have been colluding in something that is psychologically unhealthy and I feel a need to reclaim myself from the demands of caring for relatives, motherhood and marriage. There was also the idea that the self portrait offered Nan Goldin ‘a rare moment of quiet in the midst of her chaotic life.’

The work of Charles Latham using Cyrus as his alter ego/imaginary friend/ personal demon/ doppleganer also tied in with what I’m thinking of. It’s given me an idea that I might present two parts of myself in a single shot and has taken my initial ideas in a completely different direction, that I might consider two opposing parts of myself in the same image. I don’t know if this is work I can produce for EYV, but it’s certainly something that is generating a lot of ideas for me and that I feel quite excited about even thought I’m not sure yet exactly where it’s going.

A few days after I’d done this research I found myself looking up The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. I am not exactly sure why, it just seemed to tie in somehow. I’ve seen it, I took my children to see it and we’d all looked at the skull from different angles and played with it visually. I wonder if the portrait is really about the merchants, or the skull, or if it’s about the items between them? I suppose that thinking about self portraits makes me think about the way people represent themselves in art and the things they have around them. What would I have around me and what would those things represent? Things come to mind, but I find myself wondering if the symbolism I am thinking of still  works universally – do these symbolic ideas cross cultural boundaries? I don’t know. People put ‘selfies’ on Instagram and they’re representing something, they have something to say and I think that in general what they’re saying does cross cultural boundaries. I suppose on Instagram I’m seeing messages about ‘lifestyle’, usually an idealised western version, so maybe that’s a depressing realisation. But I don’t see how selfies on Instagram are objectively different from the rich of several centuries ago paying an artist to paint them in their finery. It’s just that the ubiquity of digital photography means you don’t have to be rich to communicate your visual message now.

Thinking about making an image rather than just seeing something that is already there that other people haven’t really noticed and taking a shot of it is unusual for me, it’s a really different way of doing photography. I find myself struggling with the mechanics of it as well as the idea that I have to be clear about exactly what it is I am trying to communicate so the message I want to convey doesn’t get lost in my own uncertainty. It’s a bit like starting photography from scratch really, so now I’m really finding the research aspect more relevant than I used to, more helpful and more inspiring. I’m just trying not to get lost in the overwhelming displays of talent and creative ideas that I see other people display.

Published by Sarah Cassin Scott


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