Assessment Number Two

It has been some time since my last posting due to preparing for the second assessment of my MA in Photography by Research Project at Nottingham Trent University that happened on the 8th of January 2014. Besides working towards the assessment I have continued work on the edit of the work, printing of photo books, fixing light leaks on the 8x10 camera I built last summer, researching and writing new essays, trying to make new photographs in the awful weather we have had over the past couple of months and starting to make a new website for my work. All of these items I shall deal in depth in later postings but in this post I thought I will show what I submitted for my assessment, a 20 minute session that included a fifteen minute presentation and a five minutes end session of questions and answers from the three members of the assessment panel.

The first part of my submission and presentation was a short statement about the work I have been doing, some call it an artists statement, I just called it a photography statement.

Photography Statement: Ben Dolman | 8.1.2014

How to photograph the ordinary stuff of life

The original project proposal for my MA in Photography by Research Project was ‘Between Spaces: Traces of England’ the title was vague by design, giving enough guidance and structure without being dogmatic and restrictive. The reason for this transient title was no matter how good the original idea might have been when you go outside to photograph the world it changes, one has to accept this and adapt, be intuitive with the given subject. These spaces and traces in the landscape I sought were not just defied by the subject and how I observed, responded and photographed them but it was also to express a state of mind, to be an outsider in another land, a landscape at the edge of things, unnoticed and in flux.

The intention was to photograph, observe, experience and reflect upon these found in-between spaces over a period of time to see how they were used or misused by humans, returned back to nature or absorbed back into the human activity be it in industry, retail, transport infrastructure, leisure or housing. Revisiting the same location again and again allowed for a deeper understanding of the subject as it slowly revealed its secrets.

The engagement with these spaces was a strange one, they are not always of a conventional beauty but they appealed to me in their very ordinariness, they are spaces that generally go unnoticed, islands in an overcrowded country. They are passive and slightly indifferent that lends to an abstracted view of them, an otherness.

The journey to these islands in the land has become part of the work, the passage through the landscape provides the thread that has created new narratives and structures for the work. These passages have become the foundation of the output of the course of study and are being sequenced in three books where the hope is to pull the bits of the puzzle together to make for an interesting visual distraction.

Supporting Notes | Ben Dolman | 8.1.2014

The Second document from the presentation were my supporting notes that I referred to and submitted to the assessment panel.


Background - I have been a practicing artist, designer and maker for the past 27 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 and Carpentry, Book Making, Web Design, Model Making and Prototype Design. By nature I am curious about making, inventing, ideas, concepts, processes, subjects, communication, the creative act, the human condition, the world around us and that has led me to photography as a creative 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, 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 film 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 that I enjoyed, to get outside and see what the world looked through a camera. After I got a taste for photography I started using large format cameras working initially in the urban-scape and then moving into the landscape. 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 with my camera hunting and gathering subjects and images, a practice that perhaps is not dissimilar to that of William Eggleston’s ‘Democratic Photography’ though I do not claim to his eye. Over time the images would fall 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, a more professional and academic grounding in this new practice, so I signed up for a part time MA at Nottingham Trent University.

Projects - The Fens, Three Rivers and Short Stories

The original project proposal for my MA in Photography by Research Project was ‘Between Spaces: Traces of England’ the title was vague by design, giving enough guidance and structure without being dogmatic and restrictive. During the course of study of my MA my work has developed into two major projects and a collection of smaller side projects that were develop upon my original project proposal. The working titles for the two major projects are ‘Three Rivers’ - A journey from the Midlands to the sea, ‘Melancholia’ - A journey through the flat lands of the Fens and the smaller projects are compiled under the working title ‘Short Stories’ .

The ‘Three Rivers’ project is based on my journeys along the rivers Soar and Trent as they lead into the Hull Estuary and then onto the North Sea, a journey from the landlocked shires of Midlands to the open sea, from the inner to the outer parts of England. There is still additional work to be done on this project with some vital locations that need photographing so the book making will not start until late spring. The three main locations that I need to work in are where the different bodies of water meet each other, these locations are the most difficult to work in due lack of access, flooding and the lay of the land but nevertheless I will try to find a meaningful vantage point of where I can take photographs.

The collection of ‘Short Stories’ is based around smaller projects I did whilst doing the major projects that gave me the chance to look at other subjects in short but intense busts of creativity, this kept me visually alert and fresh, one can become blinded looking at the same thing to long. The collection of short stories are the A46, The Field, The Reformation, Absence, Winter Garden, Encroachment, Obsolescence and Shit and Straw.

The ‘Melancholia’ project has enough work for me to warrant start making the book and editing the project into some kind of narrative that reflects my journey through the flat lands of eastern England. Initially this was a small self contained project based on four trips I made through the Fens last autumn and winter on clear still blue sky days but I decided to add additional work that I have done in the Fens to give the passage through the land greater depth and show the passing of time in the land in a more complex narrative.

Reflective Journal

The reflective journal has been pivotal in the development of my MA as the course has no defined structure as it relays on the student being self directed and one can get lost, distracted and drift, the journal has acted as a focal point, a keystone that I could anchor my study and practice. It 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+ a month are looking at my reflective journal 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, to communicate.

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 maybe reading my ramblings one becomes focussed and puts 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 either in two parts, one for each year of the part time MA or as a collected journal towards the end of the course in 2014.

Technical Adventures

Throughout the course I have used a variety of different analogue, chemical and digital workflows from the different cameras I used to take the photographs, developing the film and then the processing and editing of the photographs in the digital darkroom using PhotoShop and Lightroom. The use of film photography in the day of the digital is not some reactionary conceit but it is grounded in the wish to fully understand the medium in a historical prospective, to see if the choice of film results in a different form of photography in the way a subject is framed and captured to that of digital, there is also the issue of cost as high end digital medium format cameras that now equal 4x5 in terms of resolution are still prohibitory expensive. When setting out to photograph the landscape I wanted to create an image of the highest resolution and detail so after the photograph is taken the subject could reveal things that were not noticed at the time of the capture, I am not after an impressionistic photograph but a kind of hyper realism, an intense observation of nature as seen in Michelangelo Caravaggio’s still life painting ‘Basket of Fruit’ 1599 [see below] or the northern renaissance painters who sought to make the ordinary magical in the age of the reformation and enlightenment, understanding through scientific observation to reveal the hidden secrets of life that has been re-imagined today by Rob and Nick’s real time high definition CGI animations. High end digital medium format cameras are capable of capturing the detail I desire but the cost is beyond my means but in the twilight of film photography I could just afford to use large format photography in my work and it gives me the resolution, clarity and dynamic range I desire. I use 4x5 and 8x10 colour and black and white negative film that I process and scan myself, the resulting images are stunning but there is a high rate of failure which I do not mind, it seems to add to the practice as it mirrors the fragile nature of my subject, the land.

Half way through my course of study I decided to take a break for a month or so from taking photographs, I needed a time to reflect what I had done and put it into some kind of context within the discipline of photography and also reference it in wider cultural and social concerns. In this moment of respite I decided to build a couple of large format cameras, one was a 8x10 large format camera that would be used in the second part of my two year part time course, the other a 8x20 large format camera was for after the MA, a nice treat to look forward to. During the making of the cameras I began to work out what I wanted from and what I could give back to photography and I came upon the notion that making rather than just taking a photograph was central for me in the medium of photography, the technical element of photography appealed to me and it was where perhaps I could contribute most to the discipline.

The technical has always been central to my practice as I always saw it as an enabler in creativity and it is also part of my day job as a technical tutor. The understanding of the technical allows for experimentation, to push the boundaries of what is possible and also to create new dialogues with other disciplines such as chemistry, engineering and physics as I have found in my photography practice so far. I have explore film and alternative processes as they are the most accessible but in the future I wish to deconstruct the digital camera, fully understand how it works from the sensor to the firmware and make my own, a hacked digital camera custom made for the type of photographs I wish to make and tailor it so that the engagement with the subject is more akin to that I have with traditional large format film cameras, the slowing down of time and the distillation of the moment. Digital will be my future combined with alternative and experimental processes, using film has been fun and I will continue to use 8x10 black and white negative film, it has been madding at times especially colour negative but it has shown me another way to take and make photographs that I might have not known to be possible if I had only used digital from the onset of my photographic practice.

The other technical element that I have been investigating is printed photographic output using a variety of different printers, papers and profiles to see which works best for the photographs and bring out the detail and convey the place and time where they were taken. Initially the tests have been done for book making which has been useful as when printing the photographs at a small scale one can see if they hold their own and keep they presence, you can get away with murder printing large.

The Edit - Three Books

For some people photography is used to illustrate an idea or a concept, a project is formed and constructed and photography is merely used as a tool to document, the conceptual is paramount which is fine, sometimes it yields interesting and thought provoking work but this method does not appeal to me. I like to adapt and respond intuitively to the changing world in which I find photography well suited, the camera is not just a tool but an extension of my eye and my mind. The problem with adapting and responding intuitively to a changing subject is that the original idea you set out to produce a body of work can become irreverent so one has to form a new project from the resulting work, new ideas have to be generated to make sense of the work, one has to put the bits of the puzzle together to form new narratives and understandings, I call this the edit.

To edit my work I employ a variety of different techniques, the raw digital and scanned film photographs are brought into Adobe’s Lightroom and filed into rough collections in the library module. The photographs then undergo an initial clean up which can be quite extensive with colour negatives to remove dust and sort out white balance issues. The work is then left for a period of time so as to refresh the eye and to see if it is good enough to be submitted to the next round of editing where the work is narrowed down into more defined themes and to see if new interesting associations and narratives can be constructed. The second edit continues in the library module where the collections are refined over time but now the photographs are printed to see how they sit on a piece of paper, this usually involves more image processing to get the best out of the photograph. After the proof prints of the photographs have been done I go onto a third edit where the photographs are further narrowed down and variations are made of the project using the book module in Lightroom, using the book layout mode of editing seems to work for me as the sequencing allows me to fit the puzzle together, I need a thread and the flow of the pages of a book assist me. At the final edit of a project rough books are made and from here a body of work fully reveals itself, certain individual images rise to the fore and act as corner stones for the project to hold together. The reason that Lightroom works for me is its non-linear approach to editing, one can be quite experimental and fluid in the edit and it does not all fall apart and collapse in a chaotic pile, the library and develop modules are designed for non-destructive editing and instant backups are made into an archive, one is allowed a controlled failure.

At the moment the themes of my work have grouped into three collections that will result in the output of three books covering the three projects mentioned earlier in the presentation support notes Melancholia, Short Stories and Three Rivers. The books will be hand made and printed at two sizes, one portable the other as a self contained exhibition. If they work I may look at self publishing but if not they will be of a lesson well learnt and I will move onto another project.

The Final Stage - The to do list!

  • Continued writing on the reflective journal blog, current essays that I am writing and researching at the moment are ‘The iconic, the monumental, the sequential and the digital deluge’ and ‘To take or make a photograph’. Further writing will also include the documentation of new photographs made, reflections on process and practice, further research into historical and contemporary photographic practice. The journal will end with an in-depth critique of the course of study over the two years and look at future possibilities. Another area of the blog I need to update is the references and reading list which will be done over the next couple of months and added to the printed book version.

  • Between assessment and easter will start on putting together ‘Short Stories’ book, this will involve rescanning work, post production in the digital darkroom, selective editing and developing interesting sequencing of images to create tight visual narratives.

  • Planning a redesign of website over Easter to reflect developments in the latest work and the realisation of new projects and collections, as I am putting together the books the photographs are being corrected and cleaned up and they will be used for the new updated website.

  • After Easter I will start putting together the ‘Three Rivers’ book, this book is being left until last as I still have work to do out on location that will be hopefully be completed by May - June.

  • Create larger versions of the books.
  • Print out final version of Reflective Journal, this will be done via Blurb Books.
  • Do some large scale prints and prototype framing systems.
Life after the MA
  • Start on a new project
  • Find an outlet and market for the photographs made during the MA, this could be competitions, galleries or direct selling.
  • Finish off 8x20 large format film camera and start using it in the field
  • Research high-end and experimental digital photography, look into the possibility to create a hacked digital camera, see if it possible to design and build my own digital camera perhaps using a low cost multi sensor array for example, this may form the start of a MPhil or an enterprise collaboration with an industrial partner.
The other items submitted for the assessment was a keynote presentation of the different projects that I have been working on which played in the background, a video version of the keynote is at the top of this posting. The prototypes of the photo books were displayed along with the 8x10 large format film camera I built that can be seen in a previous post 'Confession of a Technologist'

The final submission was a printed draft of the reflective journal that has been laid out in InDesign and will be printed for the final assessment this coming summer using Blurb Books.

Now I enter the version part of my part time MA and it will be all over this summer that will be shame as I have enjoyed the course of study but I also welcome a break that I have not had for two years.