I went around the houses on this one. My first choice was Copperhead by Moyra Davey. She photographed 100 one cent coins, the head side, and cropped the result to the profile of Abraham Lincoln. I struggle to document just how intriguing I find this work. She took the lowest denomination US coin, at a time when the economy was in recession, and she photographed 100 of them, all the same way. Originally the work was presented as prints. Some of them were printed, folded and mailed, which is another aspect of her work that I find mesmering. Later on she reworked the series as a 10 x 10 grid.
I was very inspired by this work and it was on my shortlist of ideas for A2 Heads. My plan evolved into following Moyra’s methodology but working with counterfeit round pounds. At the time of writing our round pounds are in a 6 month phase-out period. They have been replaced by a different design partly because of the high levels of counterfeit coins in circulation. I first thought of photographing some of the fake coins several months ago when my purse was full of them, but somehow I failed to follow through. I thought it would be interesting to photograph the head side of these coins, in macro, and that way I could pay homage to both Moyra Davey, via the coins, and Taryn Simon, via the collection of counterfeit subjects. I drew a blank on collecting enough (any) duds though, after approaching friends and retailers. The next step is to talk to my local bank but I didn’t want to slow the exercise down any more.
Drinking coffee at the local climbing wall, I picked up a dilapidated penny from the floor and was once again reminded of Copperhead. That evening I tipped out our bowl of loose change, sorted coppers from silver, domestic from foreign, and then sorted the pennies according to the portrait of the Queen on each one. The penny is our smallest coin, but unlike the cent it features a subject who is still alive. All cent coins have the same portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the obverse – the same person, the same portrait. Our Queen has been depicted via five different portraits on our coinage (the first was pre-decimalisation so is not on any current coins). So we see her aging through the portraits, and on a much smaller but more personal scale we see her aging physically on every single coin in circulation, each instance of each portrait becoming unique as it ages (and wears) differently. This appealed both to my curiosity about objects that we think are all the same but that are actually all unique, and also my curiosity about front/back of objects, and of course the idea of image as object. In this case the image helps to identify and validate the currency object. So there were my subjects, how to show them? Context is a huge determinant of what these photographs could show, as well as the coins themselves. Each US coin shows an aspect of their presidential tradition, each of ours shows a monarch at various stages of her long reign. She’s actually reigned for so long now that all the coins from my childhood featuring her father have been decommissioned. Unlike the presidential portraits she is not necessarily shown at her best with one portrait chosen from a lifetime of images, unlike them she can not handle a bit of change without seeing random reminders of her public persona. Will Obama ever grab a few coins and see his own portrait? Apparently not:
“The program was to issue coins featuring each of four presidents per year on the obverse, issuing one for three months before moving on to the next president in chronological order by term in office. To be eligible, a President must have been deceased for at least two years prior to the time of minting.” (source Wikipedia).
The more I think about it, the more interesting it seems, this use of portraits on a tactile object. In the US you have to be a dead president to see your profile on a coin, in the UK you have to be a living monarch. Indeed, George Washington was reportedly against using presidential profiles on coins as he felt was too similar to the British monarchy.
Moving onto the photos, I worked with a tripod, a macro lens and a plain paper background. I was set up in my north facing kitchen and although I did have flash set up I didn’t use it in the end. Exposures were round about a second, at ISO100. Moyra cropped her photographs to include solely the profile, I decided to crop mine to outside the circle so the wear to the outer edge of the coin was visible. It is tempting to try a tighter crop, I am confident my lens would allow this and I think it could be interesting to abstract the work out a level. Her context was about “filthy lucre”, the nature of money whereas mine was about profiles, people, wear.
So there were my subjects, how to show them? Context is a huge determinant of what these photographs could show, as well as the coins themselves. There’s a variety of different ways to present this work and the context is different for each. All images below can be clicked to view at full size.
Topical – comparing pennies from the year Britain joined the EEC to those from the year when Britain voted to leave the EU.
Faithful – use one cent coins (I had a few).
Who cares – any mix of pennies regardless of the portrait (this bothered me). I actually couldn’t bring myself to do this – I felt that if the grid featured different portraits then its “the same but different” ness would be compromised.
Pennies sorted by year. I couldn’t face this level of sorting out, but you can see it in the EEC set above.
Organised – same year? same portrait? line by line? This set was the best compromise for me. It’s of UK pennies only, and features 3 lines, each line showing 3 instances of a different portrait of the Queen. If I was going to redo it, I would take a bit more care to make sure that all the profiles were lined up. Edit – the last row was removed because it had a mixture of profile pictures. I will reshoot when I have 3 pennies with the most recent profile and then update here.
So what context do I think my work demonstrates? Well, all of them really. I think it’s hard to have an image that only has one context. The internal context here is the Queen, and the coin. That identifies the work as about British pennies from the 1970s to the present day. The external context is the explanatory text that I’ve included in this blog post. To get the third and final layer of context the viewer needs to be familiar with me as a person or me as an artist. Some reading this will know that I collected coins as a child. Others will be reading this and thinking of the work that I’ve made as grids, from Katebook and Contraband in the Foundation course, to the grid of telephone boxes for A4 Language of Light. Still more will know of my strong feelings on Brexit and the changes that it is likely to give rise to across our economy, our society, our arts, our science….
16 May update
Following a conversation on the OCA Forum I’ve been working on improving this exercise. The main issues with the original were consistency of position, framing, white balance, and colour. I reshot once with flash, which went so badly it’s not worth posting the images. Following some guidance from Clive, I then tried to set up a light box which despite a promising start didn’t help. I returned to my flash units but took rather more care and the results are promising I think. They are however a bit dark. The technical side of my skill set is lacking for the kind of work I want to do – I need to continue working on this.
I posted again on the OCA forum and had a stunningly helpful reply, link is here and will work for OCA students/staff: https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/post-your-just-because-photograph-here-ver1-1/4302/353?u=kate513940
The post guided me to what I needed to do without too much detail of how to do it, and I learned a lot. I used selection, levels, masking, exposure and drop shadow techniques to refine the work further, and I created a paper background in Photoshop. The next step is to photograph the coins again with better lighting and focus, and then repeat the post processing with slightly sharper selection. I didn’t get the gradient to work at the end so I need to do that again.