This is a condensed blog post for assessment. Please refer to the original posts for more information if needed.
“The light emanating from a red phone box in the evening was once a symbol of refuge, a beacon and a place of connection to the world.” (Heathcote, 2016).
The phone box light is part of its identity. For many of us the boxes are landmarks in our personal landscapes as well as our environments. They act as mini-landscapes, often colonised by mosses, insects, plants. They’ve seen us join Europe and now witness our departure, they survived the de-nationalisation of British Telecom and the massive proliferation of mobile phones, yet they live on, albeit in dwindling number.
Nick Turpin was my over-arching influence; I was entranced by his candid, bus-lit passenger portraits (BBC London Radio, 2017). I loved the glow of people behind the windows, and the way the glass was often fogged by condensation and/or rain drops. I wanted to try to capture those same qualities, but without the people. I wanted to show the experience of being inside and outside a red phone box at night in the same way that Turpin captures that night bus reality, both inside and out. Here are my original images.
My tutor was very positive about the work. She felt that my photograph first research later approach, combined with my use of peer feedback via my blog and the OCA discussion worked well for me. She extracted more from the work – referring me to Barthes Punctum and Proust’s Involuntary Memory, both of which I have read into a little. She recommended visiting Wolfgang Tillmans at the Tate and Deutsche Borse at The Photographers’ Gallery, both of which I subsequently visited. We discussed Catherine Yass and Stephen Gill, and how if I wished I could follow a similar approach by returning my prints to phone boxes.
Actual rework has been minimal. I chose to remove one image – 6199 – as I wasn’t as happy with the focus and alignment. One of the phone boxes has now been removed by BT, I wondered about removing those images from the set. I do quite like the idea of pinning a photo where the box used to be..
In reflection, an assignment that I was quite nervous about turned out very well. I am pleased with this work. It feels delicate, understated, original and effective, and it starts conversations. It took me out of my comfort zone – it felt odd to be dealing with fixed structures in the landscape and a whole new set of environmental constraints, plus photographing only at night and finding and interviewing phone box experts. I learned to have confidence in my creative hunches, and I now think that maybe the Landscape L2 course isn’t entirely out of my reach.
I need to say first that the system of Skype call + written notes works very well for me. It is good to have the chance to ask questions or request clarification face to face.
I am thrilled with this feedback. I did take some risks on this work, from researching after starting shooting rather than before, to working with a subject that I couldn’t move, rearrange or change in any way and taking a completely different approach whilst still hoping to render the work recognisable and to stimulate memories and discussion. It started out as an exercise that gained critique feedback from the cautiously positive to the downright interesting. Thanks to further helpful feedback it evolved into work of which I am genuinely proud, even though sometimes I still can’t believe that I made it.
As it is now time for a G&T on a very sunny Friday afternoon I shall wrap this here and return to it over the weekend to add in details. I will then revisit it over time with updates. I feel the need to mention that no re-work is needed on this one, although there is a pathway for me to explore should I wish to do so. Many thanks to everyone who was a part of this work – from suggesting boxes, offering encouragement, offering critique and sending me mobile images of boxes that they saw.
A few days on…
I remain thrilled about this feedback, not just because it’s reassuring and complimentary but also because of the doors that it opens to other avenues of exploration and the opportunities that it gives me, through rework of other assignments, to close the loops between starting the course and finishing the course.
Genuinely thrilled with comments such as “strong and cohesive series of images” and “the edit is held together through its tonality and inside-out exploration”. It is great to realise that the ambitions I had for this work translated into reality via all those dark wet evenings photographing phone boxes.
Thinking about rework, Action I am going to get all the images printed and decide at that point which, if any, need to edited or reshot. Moira made some interesting suggestions about ways I could develop the work further. These are around returning the prints to their source to see how they are changed by their environment. This idea reminded me of Stephen Gill’s work Hackney Marshes, and Moira told me about Catherine Yass, who returned her work to the canal and let the water alter it. I had wondered about making prints or postcards of the work and leaving them in the phone boxes. I know this would be interesting but I had two main reservations. The first was whether I would be taking a work that is fine in its current form and turning it to something more creative but less accomplished and the second the rather more prosaic fact that I would be moving away from the darkness and into daylight, and hence away from the brief. There are also practical concerns, ranging from would the photos simply disappear to the probably more likely scenario that they would just sit in the box untouched. I do wonder though, about printing them as postcards, adding a PO box and stamp, and leaving them in the boxes… Action: learn more about Catherine Yass’ work and write a blog post. Action: look into PO Box set up and costs.
It was interesting to read Moira’s notes “Barthes notion of the Punctum is relevant here, and Proust’s Involuntary Memory.” I had been reading about Punctum in a thread on the OCA discussion board about whether a photographer could wilfully manipulate a viewer into seeing a particular punctum. One point made was that you can’t do this, since by definition the punctum is specific to each viewer and their reading of the image. I have done some quick research around Proust’s Involuntary Memory, which I hadn’t encountered before. It seems to be about how a memory can arise unbidden, often triggered by a taste, a smell, a word, for example. I liked this because I think that phone boxes are part of memory for so many of us, even if we don’t consciously realise it. Action: read and blog about Proust’s Involuntary Memory.
Research: action Set up a trip to London to see Wolfgagng Tillman and Deutsche Borse.
Learning log. I was very happy that my two decisions to work slightly differently both paid off. I felt slightly exposed with both choices – firstly because I had far less research upfront before starting and secondly because I opened the work to peer review right from the start. I will follow these approaches. I think that less research upfront meant more creative license for me.
Suggested reading/viewing – Catherine Yass (see above) and action watch Peter Greenaway’s Dear Phone. I haven’t found it yet but hope it will be on Amazon as a rental.
Pointers for next assignment – this was so exciting! I had two ideas for A5 and my tutor has been positive about them both. I’ve decided to work with altered instant prints. Action – write blog post on my choices. I was very inspired by Moira’s ide of using the physical prints themselves as pages in a photo book action read up on the Manchester Metropolitan University special collections. Action – revisit Walter Benjamin’s idea of the Aura, first encountered in my A3 tutor feedback. Action – learn about the Mobius strip, including Elizabeth Grosz Volatile Bodies . Moira mentioned this in relation to my Polaroid plans, but as soon as she said it I thought of A2 heads and my feminist reading of pressure on children to smile in photos. I don’t know if the concept will port successfully from a feminist/sexuality reading to photobooth strips of children’s photos… but there’s a way to find out. It might work better with women rather than children, however the inside/outside nature of the Mobius strip fits perfectly with my work.
Once again I feel as if it’s my technical skills holding me back. Composition and focus are two I need to pay more mind too. I’m happy with how I realised the work, it did what I wanted and didn’t look like a generic set of phone boxes in villages. It felt like a set and I’m happy with that, the colours and the light were consistent.
I am happy with the way my creative skills are developing, I’m learning to explore ideas with test shoots and just to keep on exploring until I find an area that works for me.
For context I took a slightly different approach on research, based on the feeling that I already had enough, and the curiousity as to how my work would turn out when it was informed by curiousity rather than scrabbling down the back of the internet. In a way this feels slightly as if I didn’t do enough… but I don’t know… what else would I have added?
I developed ex 4.3 The beauty of artificial light. I enjoy working in low light, I like the control that you get over exposure, the richness of colours and the sense of otherness compared to the same subject in daylight. My theme was red telephone boxes after dark. I considered (and tested) several approaches but the one that resonated with me was a pure study of the box and the light, using depth of field, focus, and long exposures to add an abstract quality. The work was read by peer reviewers in a number of different ways.
Andrew Hurley of the National Telephone Kiosk Collection at Avoncroft kindly agreed to talk to me about the some of the technical qualities of phone boxes. They have all had 12 watt fluorescent light fittings since 1969 due to vandalism, cost and high maintenance associated with the previous timer-triggered filament bulbs. The fluorescent strips last for about 5 years with the quality of light degrading over time. A new fluorescent fitting has been installed into boxes since 2000. Boxes in well-lit locations have one strip, those in darker locations have two. Power is drawn from the street-lighting grid. Many boxes have also had their glass replaced with polypropylene. This acquires a milky appearance after long exposure to sun, which does make for interesting behaviour with light.
My work process was as follows:
1.Identify local boxes using OS maps and social media
2.Daylight recce of boxes to check for functional light, functional phone and location/obstructions/parking. Noted with evernote and mobile photo. Rough schedule of shoots.
3.Shoot after dark, in manual mode, with tripod and cable release, spare battery and card, plus weatherproof and high-vis clothing where needed. I used a 40mm lens for the first image, others were a mix of a 50mm prime and a 100mm macro prime. There was no flash but a range of ISO settings. Work was processed in Lightroom with adjustments to white balance where needed.
4.Produce contact sheets, basic pp, review shots
5.Produce shortlist and place on OCA forum and blog for peer review
6.Do any follow up shoots after peer review (I did about 7 actual shoots, images were used from four shoots of four different boxes in three different villages).
7.Make final selection and do post-processing.
Normally I research extensively before picking up the camera, but this time I decided to follow a suggestion on the OCA forum of starting the work first, then bringing the research in later. There were two triggers to this work – firstly Nick Turpin’s Night Bus series that shows passengers photographed after dark on the top deck of a London bus, and an article by Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times.
“The light emanating from a red phone box in the evening was once a symbol of refuge, a beacon and a place of connection to the world.”(Heathcote, 2016).
The phone box light is part of its identity, and seemed a perfect fit with the brief. For many of us over 30 the red boxes are landmarks in our personal landscapes as well as our environments, with memories of various activities conducted within their illuminated yet somehow still private shelter. The boxes provide their own landscapes too – mosses, weeds, brambles and insects all colonise them. Our red boxes have seen us join Europe and now witness our departure, they have seen the de-nationalisation of British Telecom and the massive proliferation of mobile phones, yet they live on.
Turpin was my over-arching influence; I was entranced by his candid, bus-lit portraits. He worked hand-held, photographing over three winters (BBC London Radio, 2017). I loved the glow of people behind the windows, and the way the glass was often fogged by condensation and/or rain drops. I wanted to try to capture those same qualities, but without the people. I also came across George Tice’s image of a telephone booth in New Jersey, taken at 3am in 1974 (via my critique thread on the OCA). This image I found outstanding because of the ease with which the different levels of light are captured, compositionally it is great too because all of the elements work together and there is no clutter.
It was difficult to consider which photographers in Part 4 had approaches that linked to my work. I enjoyed Sato Shintaro’s work but thought it was on a larger and less personal, less intimate scale than mine. I liked Rut Blee Luxemburg’s city reflections caught in tiny puddles and her jewel-like glowing tones, but again felt that many other images were on a larger, less personal scale. I agree with Bill Brandt’s words about photographing what the camera is seeing rather than what he was seeing, and think this chimes with my approach. It was interesting to move beyond “it’s a phone box” to consider the structure and the light more objectively. Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love (Dir. Wong Kar-Wai, 2000) was the work that I can best relate my efforts to because of how he casts light and lighting almost as protagonists in their own right, and the attention that he paid to tiny details. Everything was important and shown with careful consideration and lighting.
Developing this work from the exercise was a risk. The idea came from nowhere and I already had a list of perfectly good ideas for which my tutor had suggested relevant practitioners. Yet my test shots for these weren’t compelling or didn’t hold enough promise for a series, and I kept wondering about phone boxes. I felt they could nail the brief provided I could make a cohesive set that concentrated on the light and didn’t stray into broader landscape or documentary themes. It took me out of my comfort zone – it felt odd to be dealing with fixed structures in the landscape and a whole new set of environmental constraints. I felt the exercise set was a little “trippy” so I toned it down slightly and concentrated on light and details. I significantly increased the geographic scope to ensure that I had enough images, reflecting on my tutor’s comments from A3 about needing plenty of images to secure a strong edit.
I am pleased with this work. It feels delicate, understated, original and effective, and it starts conversations. There are some things that I would change – the image with the paint splashes needs to be retaken square on, for example and there’s scope for improving focus in some shots. The change in research approach worked in this instance, and I have been able to submit what I hope is shorter but equally effective writing.
Imagination – wanting to capture the light, the little details of phone boxes after dark, the experience.
Experimentation – taking many photographs over multiple shoots and multiple weather conditions. Trying out different use of ISO, focus, focal length (from wide angle to macro)and camera movement. Considering decommissioned boxes with other uses.
Inventiveness – rejecting the chocolate box views and light trails. Photographing the things that are remembered but not photographed (flies in the light, moss on the sills etc)
Personal voice – I like to explore the familiar and the forgotten and this work fits with this idea. I am sure there is a long way to go however.
These may take a few moments to download. Click to open full size. Contacts were made from Lightroom then annotated on my tablet and saved as jpgs. I tried a variety of approaches when shooting – boxes in the wider landscape, interference with boxes, intentional camera movement and documenting the phone itself.
I put these images on the OCA Critiques for review. Link is here for OCA students and staff. The thread covers from initial attempts onwards. As it is a closed forum I am not reproducing replies here.
I am including the same set of draft images here and would value comments. Thank you. I have chosen the brief “The beauty of artificial light”.
Following Simon’s comment below, here is the unedited version of the ceiling shot to show the colours as the camera captured them. I desaturated the yellow and orange channels and made small adjustments to the tone curve to return the colours to closer to how I saw them inside the phone box.