One of the areas that has changed the most for me during EYV has been research. I’ve learned to be braver about just starting the work, rather than researching extensively before even picking up the camera. Part of my learning is redefining exactly what research is. It’s not necessarily a search engine inquisition of the internet looking for similar work. It can be exploring tutor suggestions, or just starting the work and figuring out the influences later. I did wonder if I had done any research at all for this work, then remembered the hours spent reading, wondering, and trying things out. Research can be about your influences, but it can also be about testing out gossamer thin threads of logic between things that you think are relevant. Even if I choose not to follow up every artist who’s worked with Polaroid, every Fox Talbot image, every use of a die-cutting machine, I still need the ability and knowledge to place my work in the canon of work that is out there now. I came to the decision that my work is in large a tribute to Fox Talbot but through a vernacular lens – the architecture of his ancient home, captured with a camera typical of the 1970s, processed through a manual system used for die-cutting and embossing that is used as much as a diversion today as watercolours were for Fox Talbot’s family and friends.
Photographing modern day Lacock is by no means unusual and it’s a location that appears in the blogs of several local OCA students, including my own. What I hadn’t seen elsewhere though, was the location photographed with a simpler camera, or a focus on windows, which with their associated frames seem to me to be a very photographic concept and construct. One of the photographs that Fox Talbot is most famous for is the one he made of a window in the south corridor of Lacock Abbey.
Fox Talbot deserves more attention. He is essentially Chapter 1 in most books about the history of photography and it is easy to take him, and his work, for granted. Living just down the road from Lacock Abbey I am also guilty of viewing the ancestral home of British photography as a convenient excursion when the child needs wearing out. Photographing his home with a basic camera gave me some idea of how exciting it must have been for him. Part of this was down to the Polaroid too – for sure, thousands if not millions of photographs are taken at Lacock Abbey every year, but how many of these photographers get to hold their prints in hand, at Lacock, as William and I did? To stand in front of a photographed window, holding its likeness? I do somehow feel as if I understand him, and his legacy, better, as a result of the reading and visiting that I did. I spent some time looking at the Bodlean Library Fox Talbot before photographing, and that helped me to determine what I wanted my Polaroids to “be of”.
Similarly, die-cutting and embossing are very popular techniques with card-making crafters, but I hadn’t seen the techniques applied to photographs, and particularly not to Polaroids, where they allow the exploration of the print, and its integral mini dark-room – as an object. Finally – Polaroid emulsion lifts – again a well-used technique in the field of Polaroid manipulation, but I wanted to explore the link between this fragile, elastic translucent image and the window that it represented. Could I get a Polaroid of a window to actually be see through? Could I mount it in a transparent medium?
I did a fair bit of exploration. I think my key research was looking at the work of Fox Talbot on the Bodleian website, the Fox Talbot Photography Museum and in visits to the Abbey, repeatedly taking Polaroids in colour, in black and white, of everything, of the windows, with people and without people. I talked to the volunteers, taped over the flash on my Polaroid, talked to them again, and kept going. I looked at calotypes, I tried making some ( with the slightly discouraging result that the best ones were of my pants). I drew encouragement from everyone who looked at my Polaroids and said they looked like old photographs (rather than modern photographs of something old).
I read OCA DIC student Stephanie d’Hupert’s critical essay on images as objects. Her work embraces the print, the physical, the old, the cherished, the broken and the repaired. You can see the assignment that bewitched me here – https://stephaniedhlearninglog5.wordpress.com/category/assignment-2/assignment-2-si-tu-veux-que-je-taime/. Her essay can be read here – https://stephaniedhlearninglog5.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/assignment-3-critical-essay/ I also followed fellow EYV student Alan’s exploration with a found suitcase full of found images the suitcase. Again, he was inspired to explore both fronts and backs of the prints, despite being completely unfamiliar with both the context and content of this case of prints. Finally, I looked at Anna Goodchild’s experiments with Polaroid print., where she manipulated them in her work about prisons. You can see some of her trial prints on the OCA discussion board here Despite us both working with Polaroid 600 prints and manipulating them, the results are very different.
I collected all the Polaroids that I was happy to sacrifice and tried out techniques on them, varying the film type, the colour, the age of the print, the shape, the pressure….
I discovered the heartbreaking story of the Polaroid collection – around 1200 images by esteemed artists that were auctioned following the conviction of Tom Petters with large-scale fraud. He had “rescued” Polaroid from an earlier bankruptcy but then used it as a front company for a £2.4billion Ponzi style fraud. He was jailed in 2010 for 50 years, Polaroid went bankrupt again, and the creditors moved in. Artists had often donated work to Polaroid in exchange for film, on the understanding that the works would be maintained as a collection but sadly this was not honoured and the works were sold, despite many believing that the works were not actually the collection’s to sell. You can read a summary here and there’s a detailed set of blog posts on A.D. Coleman’s blog here.
The physical side of the work took some research. The embossing work was all hands-on experimentation. I found various tutorials online on emulsion lifts and accordion spine books, but was still inexplicably nervous about trying out the spine (it was still untried as I drafted this blog post, some seven days before the work was due to be with my tutor). Recommendations and suggestions were made on the OCA forum, which I followed up. I bought a discounted book on different things to do with Polaroid prints, which punched way above its not insignificant weight and got me thinking that experimenting with Polaroids really is nothing new. Somehow, that was comforting. Much of what I wanted to do didn’t seem to come up in my research, from embossing a Polaroid to using the film carton to make a book outer. It’s unlikely that I’m the first person doing these things, but it does seem to be the case that I’m the first person documenting the work on the searchable internet.
Other influences are still formative. My tutor has spoken twice to me about Walter Benjamin’s writings on the aura. This is the idea that mass production of a work somehow destroys its essence, its one-ness, it’s specialness. Perhaps Benjamin didn’t think this was a bad thing. I’m still undecided, if mass production destroyed the emotive wrench of an image then surely there would be no reason for charities, for campaign groups, for press to use photographers? I do however agree with his comment about how subject matter, in art, can be a ballast that you discard “during contemplation” (Benjamin, 1979 p66-67 cited Campion in (Berg and Gronert, 2011)). I wanted the use of Fox Talbot’s windows to be a simple jumping-off point for my work, something that provided a relevant and cohesive theme that viewers can use to access the work, then make their own explorations, circling back to the familiar if needed. Then there’s Barthes’ Camera Lucida, and his comments that you can’t deconstruct a photograph. “The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities we can conceive but not perceive….” (2000, p6). Clearly you can separate the leaves of a Polaroid, separating out to the negative, the emulsion, the transparent mylar and the strips that form the borders. Separating them does destroy the unit, but I think the component parts take on their own meanings even when separated. Similarly, I would disagree with him on his view of Polaroids. “Polaroid? Fun, but disappointing, except when a great photographer is involved.” (2000, p9).
References and bibliography
Barthes, R. and Howard, R. (2000). Camera Lucida. 1st ed. London: Vintage Books.
Benjamin, W. and Underwood, J. (2008). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Berg, S. and Gronert, S. (2011). Through the looking brain. 1st ed. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.
Cotton, C. (2015). Photography is magic. New York: Aperture.
The Impossible Project, Kelnreiter, M (2012) . 101 ways to do something impossible. Germany: The Impossible Project.