The Trent - A, Ben Dolman 2013

In this post I have included support notes for my recent MA assessment which was held at Trent Nottingham University on the 1st of May.

MA Assessment Presentation: Supporting Notes

Part One: Introduction

The slide show above was played towards the end of the introduction section of my presentation.

Background: I have been a practicing artist for the past 25 years since graduating with a BA Fine Art Hons from Nottingham Polytechnic in 1988. My original specialism was painting but over the years I have worked in Digital Imaging, 3D CGI Animation, Video, 3D Visualisation, 2D CAD, 3D Rapid Prototyping, Furniture Design, Book Making, Web Design, Model Making and Prototype Design. By nature I am curious, curious about making, inventing, ideas, concepts, processes, communication, the creative act, the human condition, the world around us and that has lead me to photography as a practice.

I initially came to photography by accident, I have always had an interest in the medium and used it to support other media to produce reference images or to document a process or completed artwork. I work with an inspirational colleague Alan Duncan who has been a photographer for over 20 years and he inspired me to look at photography in greater depth. I brought myself a Mamiya 7 medium format camera and started working with black and white film. During this initial stage I saw myself as an accidental photographer, it was a sideline activity which I enjoyed, to get outside and see what the world looked through a camera. I got a taste for photography and started using large format cameras initially working in the urban-scape and them moving into the landscape. During this time I started to experiment with colour chemistry that seemed to suit the subject I was trying to capture, the land. The first two years of my photographic practice was experimental learning the technology and refining my eye, my engagement with the medium and subject.

I had no defined projects, I just wondered in the landscape with my camera hunting and gathering subjects, a practice was not dissimilar to that of William Eggleston’s ‘Democratic Photography’ though I do not claim to his eye. Over time the images would drift into very general themes, subtle connections and associations were made between photographs and I slowly refined my eye. The work was impulsive and sometimes vague which is not a bad thing but there came a time when I wanted a bit more clarity and definition in the medium of photography, and a more professional and academic grounding in this new practice so I signed up for a part time  MA in Photography at Nottingham Trent University.

Part Two: The Single Image

Sugar Beet, Ben Dolman 2012

The beginning of my MA can be defined by a single image, an image plucked from the deluge of imagery I have made over the past year, an image that marks a particular point in my photography practice. The act of making photographs has not changed greatly during the initial part of my study but the awareness of what I am doing and what is photography has. By choosing one image from my archive I had to find something that could define what my relationship  was to the medium of photography and more importantly what it could be in the future. This is not an easy thing to do but by undertaking this selection process it marked a new way I started thinking about my practice, the concept, the subject and the process I captured light, edited, selected and presented my work. The single image ‘Sugar Beet’ came to signify not only what subject I wanted to engaged with but also what type of photography I did not wish to engage with at this point of my practice, it became a means where I learnt to focus, to narrow the subject matter, to look at one singular genre within the field of photography but at the same time making sure I do not closed down other possibilities that might lay in the future. The problem with photography is that one can easily be overwhelmed by the sheer number of options open to the medium from subject, concept, process and to find definition in one’s practice rejection and selection becomes a critical important element. The single image marked the point when I started to make selections in a new way, to look at my practice anew, it was also the first entry in my Reflective Journal.

Part Three: The Reflective Journal

The reflective journal has been pivotal in the development of my MA in undertaking a course of study that has no defined course work one can easily get lost, distracted and drift, the journal has acted as a focal point, a keystone that I could anchor my study and practice. Th reflective journal has allowed me to look at different issues, expand ideas, question things, bring up concerns about photography, art and life in general. It is an ideal platform to communicate and share one’s practice and thoughts with others, 500 plus a month are looking at my online reflective journal blog now and the audience continues to grow each month. The blog is ideal for me as I loathe the usual social sharing websites like Facebook, I have little interest in ‘friends’ and ‘likes’, the cult of the ‘self’ but I understand the need to make a presence on mine in this day and age and to communicate to a wider audience. In the future I would prefer to develop the discussions into the third person and/or develop conversations from interviews with other people and their work.  The blog helps me develop my writing which I struggle with, images come easily to me but words often fail me but by knowing that others might be reading my ramblings one has to become more focussed and put in the extra effort to shape those words into something meaningful, honest and thoughtful and hopefully script something of interest and relevance. The reflective journal is also being made into a book [example of rough draft presented] and will be printed at the end of the part time MA in 2014.

Part Four: The Virtual Exhibition [Ten Images]

Work can be viewed at past posting:

The virtual exhibition project was devised for me by Professor Lei Cox my MA supervisor, the purpose of the project was to look at How I make a selection images, how to edit them and then look how they were displayed and titled, what narrative and themes were offered and developed. The selection process was hard work but rewarding, narrowing down a selection of images that could work by themselves and together, each playing off  one another creating new relationships and narratives. After the selection was made I looked at the titling of the work and their groupings and how they would hang together. To test the hang I use Maya a 3D visualisation piece of software to construct a simple ‘white cube’ to place the work into. Once the space and the images were placed into Maya I could then start looking at the scale of the work in relation to the space, the viewer and to one another. The scaling of the work is critical for me when it comes to exhibiting, it can offer a dynamic that can make or break an exhibition, it can excite viewer senses or offer a mediative experience, it can be expansive or intimate. Maya offered a non linear method of working, things are interchangeable, scale can be quickly changed, arrangements and juxtapositions of images can be quickly and intuitively altered, view points adjusted and redefined, narratives can flow freely. The 2D is taken virtually into the 3D, spacial relationships modified and reordered, it allows one to see if an exhibition can be justified, tested and does the work warrant display.

For me some photographs are best left in the book, the newspaper and the magazine and to take them into a space that was once the preserve of media a like painting into the gallery just for the sake of it often falls flat as a viewing experience. Small scale photography in an intimate gallery space is fine but I feel it is pointless hanging small work in a large space as it would be like I would be lifting images from a book and just pinning the images onto walls of the gallery space for the sake of it and the resulting exhibition could be an indifferent viewing experience, it might be best to choose work that is best suited to an installation hang that affords the viewer an interesting and dynamic interaction with the displayed images.

I have recently been going a lot of photography exhibitions to see what picture hangings work and more importantly what does not, most have been hit and miss especially the photography festivals which may be due to lack of funding, ineffectual curatorship or just the quality work submitted but quite often they feel stretched and patchy. I recently went down to London to see three exhibitions, Landmark: The Fields of Photography at Somerset House, ManRay at the National Portrait Gallery and the Deutsche Prize at the Photographers’ Gallery. One exhibition was in a purpose built gallery and the other two exhibitions where converted spaces, all exhibition spaces where professional laid out and show cased the work well with Somerset House adding extra glamour with it’s ornate fire places and elegant windows, an amazing place.

The Land Mark exhibition was in my mind the most successful, it used the space intelligently, the hang was interesting and the juxtapositions and arrangements of the photographs lent interesting narratives and visual delight. The most successful elements of the show for me was scale, large next to small, a single image filling a whole wall next to an intimate selection of smaller work in a secluded niche, the interaction of the hang, and the variety of subjects and artists selected. There was a range of scale, theme, colour and subject that kept the eye inquisitive.

The Man Ray exhibition was a failure for me, it added no more than what a book of the photographs would have afforded me, the scale of the work and the layout was conservative and repetitive, and the narrative was linear and lacked any counterpoints. It felt mean spirited after seeing the Land Mark show which displayed ambition and delight in the medium of photography, something you would think of Man Ray’s work but the hanging denied it.

The third exhibition The Deutsche Prize 2013 was a mix bag, two of the photographers chosen was because of their photo-books which in their original context were both excellent, Broomberg and Chanarin ‘War Primer 2’ choose to display their book in a series of glazed plinths showing the different pages of the book, why they did that was beyond me, just print off some extra copies and let me leaf through the pages, stop being precious. Chistina De Middel ‘The Afronauts’ decided to at least expand upon her book with a wall installation of the work that was reasonably successful. Another short listed photographer Mishka Henner whose work ‘No Man’s Land’ used Google View as the source of the imagery and he just made prints from the road views of prostitutes plying their trade, again why, the work is more interesting at its source, interactive on a computer. The last photographer on the short list is Chris Killip ‘What Happened - Great Britain 1970-1990’. Chris Killip is a traditional black and white photographer whose work was mounted in a vey conventional way, all the same size with identical framing, it worked because of the limited selection and number of photographs displayed [eye fatigue], the groupings and also through the sheer brilliance of the work.

Part Five: Current Work [Between Spaces - Traces of England]

During this part of my presentation we used my online portfolio for reference:

At the moment I am continuing with technical developments and experiments in my photographic practice, currently working on horizontal shift movements on large format cameras to expand the format of the image whilst keeping distortion to minimum. I am also working on refining my colour film processing in tandem with my digital post production workflow. The biggest issue I have at the moment is getting the greatest dynamic range in the photograph which is always a challenge with landscape photography especially so when the subject is illuminated under the English weather, not so much of an issue with film but digital struggles.

I have been working on location across the east of England working on different strains of the central theme of my project, Between Spaces - Traces of England. I am currently working on a range projects from the A46’s new dual carriage way, the River Trent and the surrounding land, the North Fens, the Humber region and also fringes around local urban areas. The reason I have a large number of locations that I concurrently work in is to keep my eyes fresh, open to new possibilities, and also depending on weather conditions some are more suitable than others.

I have started to look more closely at my editing process, how I archive photographs and use an archive in an inspired way. Besides traditional negative and print storage and archiving I have been developing how I use Lightroom’s Library module in my workflow for digitally archiving both analogue and digital photographs. This has extended to my website where I am trying to create a non-linear workflow of selection, deselection, groupings and themes of images. This is at the early stages of development and over the summer I would like to do so serious coding and develop this resource so it can be used in a more creative way.

Besides the major project I have done some quick one day projects and created some short photographic essays; Smoking Places and Melancholia being examples. The photography is loose and free, something I have enjoyed away form my usually carefully composed photography.

For further details about the subject and concepts behind the work see ‘Project Proposal’ post:

Couple of comments about my current photographs from the past seven months;

The altered or changing landscape of England runs through all of the work, the photographs capture how new technologies, industries and humans impact and reshape the landscape. Outwardly there seems little sentiment in the changes, some subtle, some dramatic, the future is encroaching and history is bypassed, mutilated or erased.

Examples of this change can be seen along the River Trent Valley and the surrounding land, coal power stations take hug the banks of the Trent, to the west the coal fields of North Nottinghamshire that once feed the turbines of the power generators cooled by the water of the Trent. The River Trent Valley use to be called Mega Watt Valley , a valley that once powered the nation’s industry but now the coal mines have been closed, re-landscaped with new industrial estates and warehousing planted on top of the re-sculptured spoiled tips. The coal power stations are now being replaced by new gas fired power stations, decommissioned and demolished leaving only trace of their past presence in the pylons crisscrossing the landscape that once carried the  generated electricity. Across the landscape new wind turbines are sprouting up like weeds, sowed in a wishful hope that they will save our future, planned as a tax break, they seem to appear overnight, the once empty sky filled with a sea of blades turning in the wind.

Passages through the land continually appear in my work from the River Trent to the A46, both are defined by an unceasing movement, both are as one and yet removed from the land they pass through. The Trent is hemmed in with man made embankments to stop it flooding the surrounding land, in the northern stretch before it enters the Humber Estuary you cannot see it, it becomes a hidden river. The A46 is hemmed in by barriers to stop trespass onto the road so as not to impede movement of vehicles, it by-passes and ignores it’s surroundings, it is a self contained efficient machine devoid of emotion.

The land at the fringes of our settlements is continually under encroachment from the spread of terracotta banality of commuter developments and modular industrial estates, the seepage of humanity at it’s most indifferent. There is a horrible beauty in this, a tragic yet comic beauty that exists in our land as we destroy the very thing we declare to love, our countryside.

The final impact on the land that keeps on catching my eye is industrial farming, where our food comes from. During the autumn the fields are full of harvested crops and one of these crops sugar beet has become one of my subjects, now it is spring there are piles of manure to renew the soil and the green shots of the new crops. These fields of green seem to have an unreal green against our overcast grey skies, an unnatural heightened vigour.

Part Six: Future Work

Slide show above was shown as I discuss possible future work for my MA.

  • Continue working on location and developing major research project in conjunction with quick intensive one day shoots.

  • Continue work on the Reflective Journal.

  • Look at photography competitions and exhibition opportunities.

  • Over the summer I am going to make a short film based on my major research project, it will be a sort of ‘road movie’ and it will be composed of still and moving images with a voice over or sub-titles. The video will be shot at different locations I work in and of the journeys themselves passing through the landscape.

  • Returning to do a series of photographs using the ultra large format camera I have built, I will also be making a video of the process of using the camera from set up to final print.

  • I will be undertaking a series of print tests on a HP Z3200 large format printer using a wide range of media to see which is suitable for the printer and my work. The chosen papers for testing are Somerset Enhanced Velvet, Hahemuhle Gloss Baryta and Matt Bamboo, Harman Gloss Baryta and Breathing Colour Matt Optica Rag. I am also looking at framing and presentation options for exhibiting photography.

  • Finally whilst at Landmark: The Fields of Photography exhibition, Somerset House I came across a book by Simon Norfolk. The book made up of a series of double sided A2 mounted photographs bound into a hand made book. It was one of the most beautiful things I have seen and I liked the concept and execution of what was a self contained portable exhibition. This got me thinking that it would be interesting to develop this method of presentation further and create a pop up book, one that could display ‘virtual exhibitions’. I do not think I will have time to create a book but I will research if it is feasible and do a virtual mock-up in Maya and make a 3D animation of it.