This will be a post that’s regularly updated as I make my way through A5 Photography is Simple. A5 feels as if it needs to be something a bit special. It’s my finale to EYV and my overture to whatever I choose to do next. It needs to not be safe, it needs to be a celebration. It’s when I can take advantage of the comparatively loose brief and can deliver what it is that I want to make, in a format of my choice.
I’ve had this on my back burner for some time. I had two ideas for development and have done a bit of work on them both, as well as discussing them with my tutor as part of my A4 feedback skype call.
My first idea grew out of the death of my Uncle David last December. A retired Manchester Fire-man, he had an acute love for life and fun. Speaking at his funeral, my cousin asked us all “to go away and do something silly, he’d like that.” Several hours later, exhausted and tearful I got off the train home at Chippenham and made a photobooth portrait of me and his order of service. My cousin and my auntie loved it, and somehow it helped with the grieving, and there’s a little series of them now. Somehow it still seems a little intimate, a little raw to be an assignment out there for scrutiny, although I am quite sure that my family would be fine with it. It is the oddest feeling to be developing a series of work featuring someone who died three months ago.
Over the last few months I’ve been exploring die-cutting and embossing prints, and extended this to Polaroid prints. I posted about it on the OCA discussion board and the feedback was very positive. That was encouraging of course, but what thrilled me was the potential for adding another dimension to something that was notionally “finished”, the potential for working with the back of the print as well as the front, the inside as well as the outside, and the sheer unpredictability of the results. My tutor was very positive about the samples that I showed her, so I have decided to continue with this work for A5 whilst continuing to develop my Uncle David series as a plan B, and of course as a personal piece of work.
Making a decision should have been where things got easier, but no such luck. Below are the questions I’m considering at the moment. We are mid-Easter school holidays which means my attention is all over the place. I’m hoping to crack on with practical experiments once school goes back. In the meantime I am catching up on blog posts.
What format will the submitted work be in? Can I submit in a mix of formats? Current contenders are a photobook where the Polaroids comprise the actual pages, prints mounted in double-sided acrylic blocks (this has the advantage of supporting all the separate elements of die-cut photos but the disadvantage of losing the tactile experience of a Polaroid), or Polaroids presented in their original box. I’m also going to do some emulsion lifts and mount the lifted images on other media such as the acrylic frames, paper, or backings cut from Polaroid boxes.
What size of print do I want to use? Choices are Polaroid or Fuji Instax – each offers a different size that handles differently during manipulation. My Polaroid is in pretty rough condition compared to the Instax, but I can do more with the prints. The Fuji prints are perfectly sized for small acrylic frames whereas the Polaroids leave space for a border. Do I want to use one size or submit a mixture?
Do I want to use colour, black and white, or a mixture? Bear in mind that colour on a Polaroid is not the same as we normally expect on a print. Linked to this is a decision about framings – there’s a far wider choice than the white borders that we grew up with, and I like the fine edge of colour that you can get on the back of the coloured mounts (see above). To some extent this decision will be dictated by my choice of subject (see below).
Finally, I need to choose a subject, something that can hold good for ten images, provide a natural progression and that can survive the physical manipulation that will happen to each print. It needs to be a subject that can hold strong as a concept even when unrecognisable. I know that technically I could make the format the subject. Much as I like working conceptually I’m not sure that I’m ready to abandon a subject entirely though, and it needs a subject to hold the set together and acknowledge the brief of “Photography is simple”. I believe I have such a subject, but it’s not ready to show itself publicly yet. Fortunately I can do the technical tests on pretty much any Polaroid print so I can continue to work even if not fully decided on my subject.
For my subject I decided to photograph at Lacock Abbey, home of William Fox Talbot and immortalised in many of his early photographic attempts. I thought that the “home” (well, UK home) of photography sat well with the “Photography is simple” brief, and also worked with the limits of the Polaroid. That said, given that the images are going to be all about the manipulation, and largely about the “back” – is a subject actually needed, or even relevant? After all, there are images of nothing more than unexposed film that was passed through an airport security scanner a few times and then processed and printed as normal. In that case, does the original process count as the subject? Can you have a concept instead of a subject? Can the material of the photograph become more important the “subject”? I could work with a random set of polaroids, yet that would somehow feel as if I was missing the point of the brief. However, if I have a set of 10 images of Lacock Abbey but the image is subordinate to the processing, what’s the point? I keep thinking that somehow the choice of Lacock is apposite, but I can’t get my subconscious to tell me why and will probably have to rely once again on tutor feedback to tell me what the heck my own work is about.
First visit – colour film, 1 pack, 8 exposures. This was really a recce, to work out good places to shoot and to establish if I could take photographs inside the house (I can’t switch the flash off on my Polaroid, so would need sticky tape). I was reasonably happy with the images – they weren’t true colour images as the film was expired and many over-exposed slightly.
Next visit I took two packs of unexpired b&w film, and a sandwich toaster bag so that I had somewhere dark to put the developing prints. I exposed both sets, and was able to photograph “that window”. About 48 hours later I die-cut and embossed these images as well as various test polaroids.
It might be better to tamper with the images sooner than 48 hours.
The blue tone to the emulsion fades on exposure to light. Mitigations are to put the prints in a dark room after cutting, which keeps some of the tone, or to take digital photos straight away. I used my macro lens and I think this approach has a lot of promise.
So in my head I have the idea of a photobook, of hole punched polaroids so that both sides can be handled. I am thinking about including prints of digital photographs of detail of the back of each Polaroid, taken immediately after each polaroid was tampered so as to preserve the colour and fluidity of the emulsion. Another option could be to trim the diagital print to size and glue it either to the front or the back of the relevant polaroid.
Embossing – I tried out a couple of new embossing folders. On the whole, irregular patterns and scenes worked better than regular patterns, with a couple of exceptions. There’s also the possibility of embossing only part of a print – perhaps the handling border, or a diagonal section. Remember to use the thinner shim, position the print the correct way up in the folder, and put the print through border end first so the emulsion is squeezed out and over the print. After embossing, traces of emulsion are left on the folder and I put paper in the folder and embossed that, thus getting a trace of the polaroid on an unrelated piece of paper. This has potential, I think.
Die-cutting – the more involved shapes give better squidge. The simpler shapes have more scope for manipulating the image, but require either fixing with tape or thread, or mounting in such a way as to lose the tactility. Embossing does a better job of spreading the emulsion.
Impossible Project book – unbelievable number of ideas.
Let’s return to those original questions, in an attempt to lose the feelings of going round in circles.
Format of deliverable? I think this will be a “book”, plus one, maybe two, works in acrylic mounts (book ends?). I saw the Sophie Calle exhibition “My All” at The Photographers’ Gallery this weekend, and was taken by the way that 54 postcards were simply hole punched in one corner and held on a metal ring. This presentation took the minimum amount of real estate away from the image and allowed for easy “turning” of the pages. I love the acrylic blocks, but I don’t really want to submit 10 of them and whilst they allow for the display of loose, cut elements and give an easy way to view the work from both sides (and even look through the work), they don’t allow the tactile feel of the Polaroid to be experienced, and that is part of the whole transaction of Polaroid, being handed it, holding it, viewing it, handing it back. I need to consider whether I will punch the hole as part of the manipulation, thus incurring a new set of change associated with the punching process, or whether I will wait for the images to fully dry and just get a clean hole with no emulsion bleed.
I did consider making an accordion spine and adding the Polaroids to that, but that would lose a portion down the side of each print, and would somehow render them less mobile, more fixed. My tutor suggested that I look at the MMU Special Collection of books online and I am in the process of doing this.
Size? Polaroid. The Instaxes have some advantages in terms of colour and sharpness but they don’t have the same scope for manipulation. Polaroid is an instantly recognisable format and has much scope for manipulation. I am now planning on including some digital prints in the book, physically cropped to the same size as the Polaroids and included within the sequence. I think I will also include some separator sheets, ideally made of a fibrous and translucent paper, as this will prevent any of the prints from sticking to each other.
Colour, black & white, or a mixture? I’m still not sure on this one. I suppose partly because each Polaroid is a bit of an enigma here. Black and white Polaroids bleed an emulsion that is blue, but turns white as it dries in the light. Colour Polaroids bleed a slightly pink toned emulsion that dries white. So pretty much all Polaroids so far are black and white on the back, which renders the colouring of the actual exposure rather less relevant. Colour Polaroids tend to be “faded” compared to modern film and jpgs, and black and white Polaroids fade to sepia rather fast. Then you get to consider the frame of the Polaroid – I have a mix of white, black, and coloured. This has more impact on the front of the work than the back, it appears as a very narrow border around the back. Just to add a further layer of complication, my next pack of film is black/pink two-tone in a black frame as TPG had sold out of black & white. I’m pretty sure it will still bleed white however. I think the over arching question is How much does consistency matter here? It’s not a comparative set, more an exploration of a format, a variation on a theme…
Subject. I think I’m settled that the Polaroids will be of Lacock Abbey, purely because I think the set has to be “of” something, and this fulfils both the “photography” and “simple” elements of the brief. I think this subject is purely something to get started with though, like the head of a 12 bar blues before you take the changes and make it your own.
What to do next? I need another pack of b&w film, possibly two. I need an empty dry day when I can:
- Photograph at Lacock in the morning
- Keep some photos back for trying out transparencies/emulsion lift.
- Manipulate the photos the same afternoon. Include punching holes if decided.
- Make a test piece with the hole punched as part of the manipulation
- Photograph the backs of the images immediately after – will need to set up tripod etc for this. I think photographs showing the bleed around the punched hole could work well too.
- Do the emulsion lift/transparency.
- Wait for everything to dry, get prints of digital images
- Selection of Polaroids, selection of prints
- Write blog post.
In slower time:
- Do a test run on emulsion lifts/transparencies (I picked up instructions in TPG). Can I use older images for this? – update, emulsion lift works fine, follow mods in notebook.
- Make a test piece with the hole punched as part of the manipulation
- Test run for setting up the camera to photograph the backs. Tripod, backing paper, macro lens.
- Look at Stan Dickinsen’s book video again.
Later that day…
I used a 3 week old image to attempt an image transfer using the instructions on the postcard. It was very straightforward. I was a bit rushed as I should have been making dinner, so on the next one I’ll spend more time brushing off all the chemicals to get a more translucent result. Getting it lined up on the watercolour paper was fiddly too, but entirely possible to improve. I could do emulsion lifts onto this, then cut them to size, mount on either paper or a digital print and include as a page in the final book. My partner tells me that mounting them on acrylic will be easier as I can add enough water onto the block to allow me to move the image without the risk of it floating away. This is something that he learned as a child when adding transfers to model aeroplanes.
I am also keen to try the transparency approach, when the image stays on the transparent plastic layer to give an illuminated result. I need an image that’s no older than a day to do this.
Update – see notebook for details on process.
Film still not here. Thinking about making the images actually *of* Lacock in the made of sense as well as depicting.
- emulsion lift onto photogram paper/paper, leave in sun?
- die-cut polaroid placed on photogram paper/fabric to acquire silhouette? would work as book page after the polaroid itself
- photogram of die-cutting plate onto fabric. This one at home? Use to wrap acrylic frame
- emulsion lift onto paper from book from Lacock 2nd hand photography bookshop
Influences – rhubarb drawing on OCA forum, Susan Derges (via Robert Enoch)
13/5 dreadful week in which most of my brain was a spin cycle of polaroids. A climbing session with friends cleared my head somewhat. The film arrived today. I’ve made a dummy set of cards and I have an idea of the progression between each print. I’ve reread the Polaroid book. I’ve looked at the MMU Special Collections page, which was interesting. I’ve also looked at the OCA Pinterest page on artists’ books which was very helpful in collecting my thoughts.
I am thinking about cutting a Polaroid film box to make a slip case, and submitting the work in that possibly ring bound on one corner to maintain both the order and the tactile nature. Some images will be mounted on watercolour paper, partly because FT came to photography via painting. Digital prints will be cut to the size of the polaroid image square, and mounted on paper the size of the whole polaroid.
15/5 – I made some test cyanotypes in the back garden. This one is on cloth, inspired by Fox Talbot’s Lace. My plan is to make one on card with a transparency from a Polaroid.
Update 27/05. Just over a week ago my film arrived and I went to Lacock and shot 16 exposures. About 12 of these were usable, the others were of too soft a contrast. I didn’t end up with a clear sunny day afterwards so did the manipulation some days later, having heated the prints with a hairdryer first to soften the chemicals. I now have a set of prints ready to be bound into an Impossible Project film box. I think I will make an accordion spine with some test images first.
Successes – embossing the prints, emulsion lifts onto acrylic, photographing the backs of the Polaroids with my dslr.
Less successful – die-cutting the prints (they won’t cut right the way through), making a sunprint from an emulsion lift (just didn’t work at all), getting a usable negative (the chemicals won’t come off the b&w film so I will use a neg from a colour shot instead)
It has been interesting to see how differently the b&w polaroid handles compared to the colour. The images are far better. Emulsion lifts are much harder though, the negative can’t be easily cleaned and the photos seem much tougher.
The acrylic mounting went very well. I just worked the emulsion onto one side of the frame with water and a paint brush, left it to dry, and then polished off the water marks and attached the other half of the frame. The high contrast emulsion worked very well, the low contrast one less so and I ended up soaking/scrubbing that one off and watching fascinated as slivers of image washed away down the sink. Eerily similar to watching the image wash off my sunprint card under the tap the day before, in fact.
Looking at them now, I wonder if I was a little hasty in ditching that first one. It might have been interesting to leave it in its partially destroyed state and frame at that point. Still, the silver lining is that the window isn’t going anywhere and I can buy more film. It’s probably a learning point too that I probably shouldn’t make snap decisions when I have about 10 free minutes before loading the car to go away for half-term.
It was interesting to take macro photographs of the Polaroid backs immediately after manipulation. The chemicals that emerge are blue at first, drying white after about 20 minutes. Using macro produced almost abstract landscapes with the chemicals flowing around the embossed surface of each print.
I started out planning to make a concertina fold book, with the Polaroids for pages, and the Polaroid film box trimmed to provide front, spine and back in a single piece. I looked at a couple of You-tube tutorials, made a trial and then did the maths and made a full-size one with reject prints. There were some problems however which resulted in my trying another approach.
The Polaroids are not glue-friendly, which is because they are pretty much all plastic (apart from the white insert at the bottom) and therefore non-absorbent. I tried a glue roller, a hot-glue gun and craft PVA glue, and none of them where much good. Superglue probably would work. That brings me onto the second issue which was that securing the Polaroids in this way somehow detracted from their Polaroidness, you could only turn them, you couldn’t hold them, and I found this more irritating than I had imagined. The plastic was too hefty to stitch, especially with folds of paper front and back.
I returned to an earlier idea which was presenting the Polaroids in a stack, hole-punched in an upper corner and held with a metal ring that can be removed to allow the images to be held individually. I could still use the box to provide a front and back. I can also use the backs of the Polaroids as the fronts. I used reject prints to find the best way to hole-punch the images. Again, due to their plasticity, Polaroids are too hefty a job for hole punchers which are designed for paper (I broke our home punch testing this). I bought eyelet pliers from the ironmongers and discovered that Polaroids are not quite hefty enough for these, so ended up using the pliers and a hammer (to get enough force). This worked, albeit with a sacrificed knitting needle to poke the holes through.
I wanted to have eight images/objects in the book and two images within acrylic blocks. The brief calls for a clear sequence. I’ve taken a slightly looser interpretation of this requirement. The book has emulsion lifts within the front and back overs for images 1 and 8, and then 2 through 7 start as an unaltered Polaroid then gradually show increasing amounts of manipulation. 9 and 10 are detached from paper completely and offer the chance to look through the windows and down the cloisters of Lacock Abbey, one exploring a framed construction mounted under the clear Mylar, and one wide open and unframed.
I was keen to explore everything that the Polaroid experience has to offer. I used the box. I used the whole frame, and I took images apart to make use of negatives, emulsions, mylar (the transparent front), the strip with branding, serial number, and the hidden number on an inside layer. Embossing and die-cutting added more possibilities to these components.