Sunday, September 4, 2011

Concept, Context and the Body of Work

I've been thinking about writing on this topic for quite some time, certain that writing about how I make art is of great benefit to myself but not quite sure if such a post would be of general interest to others. Just the same, if I'm not clear on how my projects are conceived, developed and brought to finality then I'm working in the dark and asking viewers of my work to take what they see on faith. I think asking that is not fair to them, and avoiding thinking (and writing) about my process is a poor decision on my part.

Two things prompted me to take some action now. One was a thought-provoking comment Lauren Henkin  added to an online discussion on the differences in viewing photographic images online vs. viewing physical photographs. The discussion was started by Andy Adams in a Facebook group called Flak Photo Network. Here's what Lauren wrote:

I think we have tendencies to try and classify - black and white vs color, film vs digital, silver versus pigment, it goes on and on. As a population in general, I think we're uncomfortable with ambiguity, with saying, "everything depends on the context." But truly, that's how I see it. There are stunning examples of people using online mediums for communicating their stories while others are using objects only. It ALL depends on how it's executed. I think if we (including me) spent more time writing about how work is executed and the merits of it both conceptually and in craft, we'd all learn a whole lot more (bold text emphasis mine)

Once I read Lauren's words, I started to think more seriously of writing about my work. As it turns out, some of my projects develop organically (i.e. there is no concept at the beginning) and others develop from a specific concept. What to write about? The answer came to me while I was reading some comments posted by Diana Millar of Lúz Gallery on Twitter after she had been to an artist talk. Diana tweeted:

The question of how many rolls of film did you shoot? Gets asked at every single photography talk I attend, I still can not figure out why..

Why or what is the answer that you are looking for?? Does it change your opinion of the photograph(er) if it was 2 rolls vs 20 rolls??

I found this interesting because artists often seem to be concerned with variations of this question, which in essence is how hard was it to make this body of work? I think many artists have little faith in work that comes too quickly and/or easily. Thinking about this apparent conundrum has prompted me to write about my body of work about childhood memories of summer vacations, That Summer at the Lake.

Silver gelatin prints from That Summer at the Lake

So, how did I go about this project? Well, the first "confession" is that I did not set out to make a project, much less one specifically about childhood memories of summer vacations. In essence, my art practice is largely process-driven. By which I mean that generally when I make art, everything begins with decisions about the physical process of the making: if I'm painting, I may decide to take a large piece of watercolour paper, soak it until there is water standing on the surface and begin to pour diluted paint on that surface, moving the paint around with a hairdryer to create organic lines and shapes while the paint dries unevenly. I haven't set out to make a painting of a specific image, I've set out to experiment with different ways of diluting paints and different ways of pushing them around a wet surface. As such, I choose to follow the process where ever it leads me.

With my photography practice, I'm often concerned with ways to push a method of making images. In the case of That Summer at the Lake, everything started with a question I was curious about: what would happen if I took rolls of 120 film, first making images with a Holga camera with a 4.5X6 cm mask, then re-rolled the film and made images overtop of the first exposures using a Holga with a 6X6 cm mask? I wanted to see how the imperfectly overlapping images looked, and what kind of story they might tell. So at this point, I was just setting out to try a somewhat crazy idea with no idea if the resulting film will be printable, much less interesting. Another crucial part of the puzzle was my decision to go to a nearby lake to test out this idea.

So far, this doesn't sound like much of a project (in fact the idea of doing a project was far from my mind). However, there is a very fundamental basis to much of the photography I do. I'm consumed with exploring the landscape, not it's grand vistas but the intimate spaces the landscape consists of. I grew up in an industrial steel town back east, but since the age of 8 I have spent a great deal of time exploring whatever forests, woods, rivers, streams, ponds, lakes (and more recently oceans and the sea shore) I could find near where I live. Strangely, this was just something that I was intuitively comfortable with even as young as 8. I was alone but not lonely, I was untutored in natural science and history, but endlessly inquisitive. I sought out quiet places in the woods, and there was a favourite pond I would spend hours at, catching tadpoles and bringing them home to watch them metamorphose into frogs. As I've moved around the world since adulthood, I've still sought out these places, making photographs of them and always finding comfort in them. Living on the west coast, I've become accustomed to rain forests and the shore line. But I have a special place in my heart for lakes and the woods that surround them.

So every time I go out into the landscape with a camera, these connections drive what I see and what I make images of; this in turn provides for the opportunity to produce a cohesive series of images even when everything begins with a process-driven "what if" question.

On the day this all began, I went to the lake and first made images with four rolls of film in the Holga with the 4.5X6 cm mask, choosing views and subjects that reflected my concerns and specific affinities for the lake. Everything did not go smoothly - the re-rolling of the 120 films was problematic because the end of the film is not taped to the backing paper, and tended to bunch up when I re-rolled the films. However, I carried on with the idea by overlaying fresh images on top of the exposed films using the 6X6 cm mask in the Holga. Once I developed the films, I could see they were very dense but likely printable, and I could see that there were interesting things happening from the overlapping frames.

One of the decisions I made about two years ago was to stop scanning black and white negatives in favour of producing silver gelatin prints. I am far from being a great darkroom printer, but I love making hand-crafted prints and enjoy the time I can spend in the darkroom. It was only as I started printing the images that I became excited by the possibilities for meaning that they held, and after a few prints were made I began to see a connection between what I was viewing and my memories of family vacations from my childhood.

My dad preferred a vacation where we either rented a cottage (rarely) or camped beside a lake with a sandy beach. He would sit out in the sun all day for two weeks, and I remember playing in the water, on the beach and going off into the woods to make up stories and adventures. As more of the images were printed, this connection became stronger and stronger. The physical process of producing the prints and being able to hold them as physical objects to ponder over, strengthened the meaning of the work considerably. In the end, those four rolls of film yielded 15 images that formed a cohesive body of work.

When I first saw the developed film, my inclination was to plan to make more images this way -  after all, four rolls of film couldn't possibly be sufficient to produce a strong series of images. One day, four films - not possible. Yet my decision to hand-print the images instead of scanning the film slowed everything down. I work full time, so I'm lucky if I can get into the darkroom twice a month. As the images unfolded slowly during the printing process, I had the time to see the series build up and to "be" with the images. By the time the printing was finished, I completely understood that this project that wasn't a project was complete - I could not honestly see any gaps requiring new images. In fact, I have not gone back to use this method of double-shooting film for any other project so far.

Naturally, this was not the end of the process of completing the body of work. Works were titled as they brought to me fragmentary memories of those childhood vacations mixed up almost certainly with other experiences and stories I had made up for myself when I was a child. I scanned the prints, wrote a brief artist statement about the images and posted the work and statement on my website. I haven't had to make decisions about exhibiting this work yet, although I know that if it is exhibited I will keep the prints small and intimate. I suspect that the best presentation of this work will be in the format of a book that can be held and pondered over for a longer period of time.

Coming back to the title of this post, this body of work came about from a concept that was all about the process of making the images - re-exposing film, using a toycamera, using different film masks. To understand the meaning of the resulting images requires some knowledge of how they are positioned in the context of my continuing exploration of the landscape and my connection to it as a place of intimate spaces, an exploration that spans from my childhood to the present day.


1 comment:

J. M. Golding said...

Paul, thank you for posting this. As you know, I've found enormous inspiration from this series - inspiration that seems to move in ever-widening circles - and as I look at it again, I'm deeply moved.

I can't help imagining that those "what would happen if...?" questions (whether essentially methodological as they were for you here, or more content-driven) are, at least sometimes, our unconscious calling to us, our right brains speaking in their not particularly verbal way. I find that I feel more of a sense of completeness, and often do the work that means the most to me, when I can stay out of the way of that part of myself.