Photography is often used as a tool to document the specificity of visual appearances. We’re all familiar with this use in passport photography, anthropological photography and crime photography. There’s no pretence at aesthetic quality: the photographer points the camera at the subject and tries to take a neutral ‘visual document’ which stands as visual evidence for what it represents. This mode of making pictures can be useful to all photographers as a means to research their subject. Whether this results in ‘finished’ pictures or not doesn’t really matter; it’s a means to gain visual knowledge. Take a look at Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh – a collection of family portraits originally taken as visual research for a painting project. It’s important to make a distinction here between what we can know through experience and verbal language and what is specifically visual. Thoughts aren’t visual and neither are emotions, although you can photograph the physical manifestations of these. Just look at Billingham’s telling pictures of his dad to see this at work. Political ideologies aren’t visual either but you can photograph people and events that illustrate them.
Brief: For this assignment, you have two choices:
To make a staged photograph OR To make a narrative sequence.
The key to narrative photography is observation. Watch people, the way they interact, the way things happen, events unfold, and you’ll see that there are telling moments like a ‘stand-off’ between a wilful child and its parents, or an awkward defiance when a ticket conductor on a train finds someone without a ticket. These may not seem like Hollywood situations, but the point is to find situations that are near to you. It may just be a frozen pause during a meal with friends or the cyclist sitting by the road after coming off his bike. What you’re trying to recreate is a telling expressiveness, that quality that shows you’ve noticed how people behave and how their character is revealed in their actions, postures, facial expressions.
1. A staged photograph A staged photograph is like a snapshot from a movie. It’s a ‘scene’, an event which you have constructed and captured at the perfect moment as a still photograph. It can be a simple ‘moment’ like a glance between two strangers on the street (Jeff Wall’s Mimic, 1982) or an elaborate recreation of a dramatic event (Jeff Wall’s A Sudden Gust of Wind, (after Hokusai), 1993). It can start with a simple event, like the postman peeping through the letterbox, an old lady jumping over a fence or someone tripping over a paving stone. But you should explore it conceptually and make it weightier in meaning by embellishing it; monumentalizing the event even though it’s small. In this way, you could turn the postman picture into an allegory about privacy or the old lady picture an allegory that challenges perceptions about old age.
Start by researching the work of Gregory Crewdon http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/p/ gregory-crewd- son/ and Hannah Starkey.
2. A narrative sequence
A narrative sequence can be like a storyboard or comic strip that tells a story in a series of images. The story may be mysterious or humorous like Duane Michals Things are Queer (1973). It can be a fleeting moment or a monumental event. But there’s always the sense of time passing and an event unfolding. Research the sequences of Duane Michals online. http://www.carnegiemuseums.org/cmp/cmag/feature.php?id=463
Use your own life and work experiences as a source of ideas. Or use your dreams. Here are some key elements to think about:
Event – Your aim here is to express a situation or event. Perhaps it’s something you’ve noticed, like someone sneezing in the high street or two people arguing. You don’t need to encapsulate war and peace.
People – It will almost certainly involve people that will need to be rehearsed and directed like actors. But they can be themselves, they don’t need to pretend to be other people and they don’t need to be actors. Try to just let them be themselves and see what kinds of images you get. If that doesn’t work, ask them to think about a memory which reflects the one you’re trying to portray.
Setting – Every event has a setting, it happens somewhere. So think about places that would be accessible and telling. If you can, use environments you have access to, like your workplace, your home or back garden.
Props – Objects you use are important for setting the scene and expressing meaningful and telling narrative points about the situation.
Send your work to your tutor. Negotiate a time for a telephone or video tutorial (around 30 minutes) with your tutor. This kind of tutorial is your chance to speak about your work. You can respond to your tutor’s feedback about the assignment and clarify other issues your tutor has brought up previously. You can explain to your tutor:
- the narrative you wanted to communicate
- the way you tried to achieve this with people, props etc
- any difficulties you had with the assignment
- things you have realised about photography and changes you have witnessed in your own understanding over the duration of the course so far. If you’d prefer a written report, just let your tutor know.
In my first assignment, I had captured some images of the widespread slums that are scattered all around where I live and practically all across big towns in India. The juxtaposition of these alongside the high rise urban towers, that houses so many middle-high class society people have become an almost accepted part of the urban landscape in our country. I had taken some long shots and I was encouraged to go inside of these slums and try and capture the activities up close.
A reality so extreme that most of us cannot even imagine a life like that. The constant influx of immigrants from neighbouring states as well as neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, give rise to these slums. Working as daily wage labourers in a city that never ceases to grow, maids and drivers to the nouveau riche or the corporate power families that these growing towns attract, these slum dwellers live below the poverty line and the things that we take for granted as necessities of basic living are luxuries or just fantasies for these people. For my final assignment, taking the learnings from the coursework so far, I had planned to visit one such slum for capturing some real-life scenes as well as get an opportunity to capture my “narrative photograph.”
Change of ideas: Due to the wide gap that I had due to some personal family commitments, I had to restart this assignment and this long gap did result in some rethinking on my part. Although I did plan an entire morning visiting the slum area and shooting there, I changed my mind mid-way to attempt doing a staged photograph.
I was quite averse to the idea of a staged or constructed photography until now. I always felt more at ease capturing natural moments and would run away from the very mention of staging something. I never thought I will be admitting to this let alone be doing it, but all this research of the various photographers made me change my mind. I was not only intrigued by looking at these iconic staged images but also couldn’t help but make a few of my own. Despite having visited the slum area and getting some great narrative images, I decided to redo this assignment as a staged photograph after I had this sudden idea in my head.
Photography as a visual research:
My visual research and learnings for this assignment can be seen here – https://archnasingh.blog/2018/03/03/project-3-photography-as-visual-research-reasearch-learning-from-photgraphers-and-coursework/
Planning: The men in my family have been great fans of the mafia and love watching movies like Godfather, Scarface, wise Guys, etc. All their young years have been spent in watching and rewatching these movies over and over again. Also their dialogues and accents have been influenced by the Italian mafiosi. They revered these actors all through their younger years and it often brings a smile to my face listening to them deliver a dialogue in their thick Italian accent. Now much older and wiser, I thought that it would not only turn out to be a great assignment idea but also would be a great tribute to capture these lifetime memories of the two brothers. Hence began the preparation for my staged photograph.
Costume & Props: We decided to narrow down to some leather jackets, long overcoats, scarves, hats, heavy duty gangster watches, a bottle of Sambuca (an Italian liquor) and a couple of glasses, cigars and the mysterious briefcase. The highlight of this shoot was the Glock pistol though. I was really lucky to have gotten to use that as a prop.
My inspiration board:
I looked at stills and images from various mafia movie posters, though I have seen these movies so many times that they are entrenched in my brain. Here are some visuals that I collected on the net for the kind of ideas I had in mind.
Location: The locations I had in mind consisted of both outdoors and indoors, but I restricted myself to do this entirely indoors at different locations within the house as I had limited time with my models. Doing this at home gave me more control over the lighting as well as the freedom to create my sets without interference or unwanted attention.
Lighting: I have used a single source of light in this and the kind of light modifier used is a barn door. I wanted to create a very dark and dingy, den kind of looking atmosphere with a strong single source of light, highlighting the subjects. Because I wanted to focus strongly on one of my subjects and the other to blend into the background, in most of my images, this light worked best for the vision that I had in my mind. It gave strong harsh highlights to my primary subject and enough spill light to make the second person in the background visible enough but not taking the attention away from the main focus.
These are my top 5:
I had great fun while shooting for this assignment. I shot for about an hour and a half. The contact sheets of my entire work can be seen here –
Conclusion: I allowed my models to try and be themselves most of the times – their awareness about the mafiosi expressions, behaviour, postures was clearly greater than mine and I really didn’t have to direct them much. Even though there is so much more that I have in mind in terms of location, settings, scenes, etc. I am happy with what I achieved in a limited time. To get out of the mindset of being against staged photography or anything related to people and planned images, is the biggest milestone achieved for me. It has opened up avenues that I never thought would be an option that I will be exploring happily and I think I was able to achieve what the brief was for a staged photograph.
References: Photography as visual research