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Rethink Project

Project submitted for Unit 2.1 – Documentary Practice with Research Methods, MA Documentary Photography and Photojournalism, LCC, UAL.  Slide show set to The Night Bell with Lightning, by David Lynch.

Critical report:

Beginnings

By the end of 2011, I was growing increasingly frustrated with technology: I was unable to upgrade my camera and I felt I was lacking behind in my development as a photographer. A day-long visit to the Canon 2011 Expo opened my eyes on an over-saturated market and I seriously started questioning myself in regard to how much technology influences not only our ability to take photos but the reason why we do it all. While I understood the necessity for increased specialised machinery, photography seemed increasingly bound to gadgets rather than craft in a sort of race against time for the latest development. I started contemplating the idea of going in the exact opposite direction, ditching the digital and going back to basics with analogue photography. In many ways, I idealised the old analogue process: I had come to realise that I was indeed missing holding a tangible proof of my picture-taking, be that just a roll of film or a fully developed photo, and possibly the different pace at which analogue photography seemed to run.

I decided therefore to start experimenting with film. I wanted to learn how to work in the darkroom and develop my own photos but as a ground rule I decided that I had to use the simplest and cheapest resources available.

My interest in developing this concept had been partially spurred by the study of the art movement Arte Povera. This movement took shape in circumstances of dramatic socio-economic change and political conflict, between the 1960s and 1970s mainly in Northern Italy. It “espoused a radical skepticism towards technology and modern utopias” and designated a kind of art that, in contrast to the technologised world around sought to “achieve a poetic statement with the simplest of means”. If Futurism had romanticized the machine age and its vision for the future, a growing awareness of the costs of economic growth created a desire for the subversion of conventions in art as well as in society and I felt a strong correspondence between this and our present times. Like the artists of Arte Povera, I too was attracted to the physical, chemical and biological possibilities offered by the use of different elements. I too wanted to “return to simple materials to reveal the processes deriving from the power of imagination”. I did not just want to “speak only with things but through the medium of things”, working within the limitations imposed to go beyond.

Materials

The first step in my process was to find ways to get hold of cheap cameras and cheap films to use.

To my amusement, I found that my local Poundland stocked Kodak film rolls at a pound each so I bought three cases of rolls. At the Elephant & Castle 99p Store I found disposable cameras at 99 pence each. These cameras, which are sold as new, have obviously been recycled, repackaged and re-sold. My father sent me his old Kodak Instamatic and while I tried to get hold of some 110mm film, I built my own pin-hole cameras out boxes and duck tape.

While taking photos was obviously an important aspect of the process, I was also extremely curious about film development. I did not have a clue as to where to begin so I started researching into the basics of the technique. I managed to get a second-hand developing tank off E-Bay for a few quids and 500ml of fixer. I made a film changing bag out of an old leather jacket.

I then bumped into a recipe that allowed me to make my own developer at home with three simple ingredients: instant coffee, vitamin C and carbonate soda.

This is known as Caffenol.

Having tested and developed the first rolls, I looked into ways to print my own photos but it was clear that I would not be able to do it. I was sorry not to be able to carry on the process as I had previously envisaged, but I decided to scan and edit the photos digitally and then eventually print them later. I built my own ‘lightbox’ and photographed the negatives with the digital camera trying different light sources and materials to achieve the best results.

First Results

At first I took photos without a precise aim. Unencumbered by expensive and bulky equipment, I carried the disposable cameras everywhere I went. Their simplicity and immediacy of use allowed me to shoot whatever I found interesting and since I had very low expectations in terms of camera performance, I felt I did not have to worry about ‘getting the photo right’.

Most of the first images had in no way value in themselves: I had simply captured a ‘moment of surprise’, when it seemed that all the elements had concurred within the frame to make perfect sense.

As I started to gradually understand how film reacted to light and how well (or badly!) my cheap cameras worked, I began to instinctively know how a picture would form and foresee the final image. When I became more confident with the entire technique, I started adapting it to my needs. For example, I modified the Caffenol process to make it more effective and played more with editing during post-production.

Developing film was an all-round sensorial experience that filled me with excitement and left me with a feeling of great accomplishment.

The resulting photos spoke softly, real and yet surreal; Caffenol gave the film a grainy texture and the Black and White hinted at nostalgia. The white halo around the subjects –  the result of my rudimental digital ‘scan’ – made them seem to exist in a vacuüm, as glimpses of visions that had occurred in total isolation. These images, it seemed, started to reveal more of an inner picture than an outer reality and I was determined to further my research in this direction.

Final Project

A few months after starting the process, my grandfather sent me one of his old cameras. It was a brand new Ferrania Veramatic, made in Italy in 1966 which he got by collecting point at the local petrol station. I adapted the film reel in order to use 35mm film instead of the required 126mm.

Because of the different film format and with the possibility of rewind the reel at will, I noticed how photos could overlap within a single frame. This allowed me to create collages made up of different images merged into one.

I decided to photograph the Heygate estate and its ‘urban’ forest. I have researched at length the history of the Heygate; it is a constant sight for me and always a forced passage in whichever direction I travel. It has become in time a personal metaphor for many of the issues I reflect upon even in my photographic practice (the dichotomy between place and space, identity and alienation, memory, sense of loss) and an emblematic example of Huxley’s Brave New World, where ending is better than mending.

I decided to use the Veramatic to create a non-linear representation of reality, in which different elements coexist as they do within memory, where even the most trivial elements are combined to form a meaningful image regardless of the logic of the time/space continuum. I wanted to recreate and represent a space that has its roots firmly steeped in the visible world but that is invisible to the human eye. It is the space where the outer world collides with our inner world creating a familiar and yet unrecognisable picture, that portrays the pluralism and the relativity of what we perceive. I wanted not just to portray the landscape but dig deeper within it, adding layer after layer, using a dramatic rather than rational language.

***

This process has been a steep learning curve for me. It has helped me to reach a better understanding of the kind of photography I want to pursue and I consider this project only a first stage in the journey that I intend to undertake.

These photos speak in the first person, of my relationship to the world and my actions, embedded in each step of the process, from the concept, to the execution to the materialization of the final product.

I would like to encourage a silent observation, that may allow the viewer to question what he or she may be seeing, and try to make sense of it. I would like my photos to re-awake sensibility and stimulate the capacity to see beyond the layers of perception that make up our vision of the world, in a time when, I often find, “we are all [so] completely conditioned and alienated that we can’t see anything anymore.”

Bibliography

  • Lumley R., Arte Povera, London 2004, p. 10-11
  • Christov-Bakargiev, C. (ed.), Arte Povera, London 1999, p. 226
  • Levi-Strauss, C., The Savage Mind, Chicago 1966, p. 21
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