Monday, 30 January 2012


A short stint at the set building this week. What I noticed was the amount of teamwork, although there were only four of the Group there for this session, I thought there was a lot of clear "togetherness" in the work they took on, and it's this that I have tried to portray, whilst trying to get expression, and activity into the photographs.

 Ken and Martin seem to have "teamed up" a lot in this set building session; they are focussing on completing the side flat and ensuring that the door is hung appropriately. Doors are the bane of every production from amateur to professional! I have seen doors swing open after being shut on an entrance or exit from our Hall to the West End, from Chichester to Stratford. Get it right and the players feel comfortable and can relax into their roles. Get it wrong and the players feel tentative all the way through rehearsal to last night. Martin and Ken spent the whole session on the one doorway - well it is the only entrance they need to build. Whilst the photograph left has them (ostensibly) discussing the work, they are working together and again the shot right has them focussed on the issue to be resolved.

I particularly like this shot (right)- the light works from Martin toward Ken, stepping down and linking them, the next photograph has them in synchronism as they cut the wood to length.

The "sync" shot above brought this shot (left) to mind. I took it last week where both Ken and Martin were teaming again and they appear to only have one head; their bodies are inclined to the workspace in a very similar way, albeit from different sides of the bench, but the shot captures them as though they had one head, one purpose and a great exemplar for teaming. The shot on the right shows the four at break and surveying the work done.

I took some other shots at the session, just because I saw them. The first couple are about one half of the Directorship - Kevin. I have him retrieving some "stuff" (not sure what it was) from the attic in the changing room. I thought that it was an amusing metaphor - the "headless" Director! However I do think he (and Emma) are doing a good job at the moment. I deliberately de-focussed a second shot to drive home the metaphor - not sure it needs it.

And some more shots; one about pattern and the other about nostalgia.

Friday, 27 January 2012

4th week - expressionism

Talking to the players during their tea break at this rehearsal it is clear to them, as much as it is to me, that they are progressing (with the words) a lot faster than normal. There is general feeling of calm, which probably won't last, and, whilst there is still a long way to go, not least the scenery/costumes/lighting they all seem pleased with themselves. This has caused me to rethink how I approach the sessions. I had envisaged a much slower transition through the initial pain of line learning and was planning to record that more deliberately, but seeing as they are now starting to feel comfortable within their roles I have decided to focus on their characters. From a people unaware perspective I am doubly blessed, as I know them they will not be fazed as I take their photograph under normal circumstances and when in character they will portray a different person for me to capture as well.

This rehearsal I have decided to try and depict expression, both from a character in development perspective and from a "normal" viewpoint. Again there will be some additional shots that will "colour" the entry. I have reverted to monochrome and none of the images have been cropped - I do feel that cropping them would add to the dynamics of the photographs and will look into that later.

 Looking at the people as opposed to the characters first; I have tried to capture and portray expressions that depict strong concentration, fun and engagement. The first two shots are very similar and taken moments apart. I like the way that the co-Directors are working together. Kevin is listening intently to Emma as she explains her thoughts about the scene. I am concerned about the blur and this is partly due to the lighting and partly to do with technique which is to do with the camera (Fuji X100) that's new to me.

Here (left) Emma is listening to Karen, I am interested in Emma's body language, her head is tilted away from Karen, which tends to suggest that long used expression "I hear what you're saying..." but it is only a moment and it passed. Again, blur interrupting the information flow from image to viewer. The shot on the right deliberately has Kevin in focus during the break as the whole group gets together to talk. He is very clearly happy with the state of play; although I have always thought he would make an excellent choice for the part of "Smiler" in Wesker's "Chips with Everything"!

Here are two photographs of Kevin giving direction to Karen, both portray intent from Karen and both would benefit from cropping - see later

Here are some images of the Directors working together and, in the forth shot, with Michael, the SM. Emma likes to be next to the radiator, so Kevin needs to come to her. I don't think this has any bearing on the way in which their directorial relationship is developing. Interesting to note that their meeting with Michael is with both of them.

A couple of contemplative shots. Both Emma and Kevin are spending a good deal of time "looking" at the players "seeing" and how the players interact on stage. No sign of any concern at this stage - they must think this is easy!

I think these crops (from the earlier shots above) dramatically affect the interpretation on the image. The shot left has Karen intently listening and I have cropped it in a benign way i.e. without any "angle". In the second shot, literally a moment later" Kevin has extended his arm (already in motion on the first shot), Karen has modified her expression slightly and I have "shifted" the crop by about 10 degrees. The interpretation has also shifted from a benign to...well something different. I know that Karen hasn't changed her view, but the edit moves the viewer to another place. Something very interesting to consider.

The next set are mainly from the floor of the Hall and show the expressions of people there during the evening rehearsal.

 Dave (on stage) at a pause in the proceedings reverts to his normal self to check his script and notes.
 Two different perspectives of Sharon and Michael - from the "heads down" to the "heads up". One intensively serious the other reacting to the script as played out on stage - good to see this reaction so early.

The three shots of Pat, Jean and Sharon. Pat reads the play, Jean watches the stage and Sharon on a break - only Sharon seems to be less than fully focussed - I think she has reacted to me taking her photograph.

The next set of photographs are from the stage:

Jeff and Ken during a early scene that "sets the scene" for a passage later in the production

 These four shots all contain a great deal of expressive action and at this stage I didn't want to cull. The last shot is full of movement, as Jeff "moves" to Ken. This "movement" is expressed both physically and metaphorically as Jeff's character is depicted early in the play as "inferior" to Ken's character. The audience is allowed to challenge this proposition later in the play.

 I have been considering a "focus jump edit" type shot and this is my first attempt. Clearly (left) is a failure as there is only one shot! What I wanted to depict was two people in conversation and capture two photographs; one having the one character in focus conversing with the other player and the reverse for the second shot. However I took this shot and someone else, not Martin (out of focus here) carried on the dialogue. I am due to get a script shortly and should be able to plan this shot before hand. The shot on the right depicts a physical interaction conjured by the handshake and the expressions of all three players.

Two individual portraits. Karen left, in character, contemplating the reason she has joined her husband on this night out at a "Reunion". Ken - her fictional husband and organiser of the reunion is clearly happy at the prospect of being able to impress his school chums from may years ago. We shall see!

They didn't order a disco! But they got one! Here are Karen and Martin having trouble hearing themselves think above Jeff's "golden Oldies. There is a lot of movement. The wall stays still but just about about everything else in the shot is reverberating to the sound system. Martin right, is an expressive and verbose character

And here are a couple of shots of the shoes: They made their entrance at this rehearsal and despite a "coy" entrance they are anything but. A couple of shots, both on and off stage.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Tina Modotti - a life less ordinary

Imagine, if you will, that you are walking along a suburban street with your loved one; this other person in this case is a man, it is January 1929. You consider him to be no ordinary man and you would be right. He is Julio Antonio Mella and is a young Marxist revolutionary leader in exile from Cuba. You are no ordinary woman. You are Tina Modotti. Here they are in a mural (detail below) by Diego Rivera.  As you walk and talk, as lovers do, someone - probably a man - comes to the side of you and shoots your lover dead at point blank range. The Mexican Government is keen to implicate you in the assassination  and you are arrested and put on trial. Rivera is instrumental in obtaining an acquittal.

Tina is portrayed distributing arms to the people. She looks up at her lover Julio Mella wearing the light hat, they have only recently become lovers and shortly will decide to live together which they do for the last few months of 1928. Rivero, recently returned from Russia as a guest to celebrate the 10th anniverary of the October revolution, has captured the passion in Modotti's eyes (not so Mella). Interposing compositionally between them, with the arched eyebrows, is Vittorio Vidali an Italian communist and assassin. Rivera would have known about Vidali, they were both communists, as were all in this mural,  though there were differences in their ideologues.  There are several versions of the murder of Mella; but what is consistent is that Modotti and Mella were walking arm in arm in a downtown street in Mexico City and Mella was shot at point blank range. Some witness statements have Vidali walking with the lovers, others have them on their own. There are reports that Vidali pulled the trigger. It is also documented that Vidali was enamoured by Modotti, but no confirmation of this exists, though there is evidence that Modotti came to hate Vidali. There is a theory that Rivera knew about the danger to Mella and had warned him, whether he knew that Vidali was the agent of the terror is not known, but with the benefit of hindsight, Rivero's portrait of Vidali is telling I think. This same assasin was also accused of being involved in the first (though not the second and ultimately successful) assassination attempt on Leo Trotsky whilst the erstwhile communist revolutionary was in exile in Mexico. Trotsky had become a lover of Frida Kahlo, the long term term lover and partner of Diego Rivera who painted the mural. It is Kahlo who is central to the mural, central to the life of Rivero and maybe central to the whole set of plots and sub-plots. Confused? Well Trotskyism versus Stalinism was the defining schism in post revolutionary Russia. Joe won out and was remorseless in dealing with his adversaries. In searching out dissident voices, Joe's reach was truly global and Central America was the same to him as the Caucus. This introduction paints a tiny, but brilliantly lit, period in Tina Modotti's life. But, in my view, serves to suggest that whilst Weston, and to a lesser extent his circle, created a photographer out of Modotti, the photographs that Modotti created were mined from a deeper well than Weston could have imagined. By comparison, whilst Weston is still lionised as one of the "great" twentieth century photographers, his oeuvre pails significantly when compared to the short but incandescent power of Modotti's  photographic life, which was fed by, and in turn fed her political life, all of which was cut short at the age of 45.

Tina Modotti only really had about seven years (1923 - 1930) as a dedicated photographer, so it might appear unusual to want to recommend her and her work in a photography student's learning log. Modotti's life though informed her photography, she had it in her blood - her father and uncle were photographers -  additionally she and Edward Weston were lovers and he taught her a lot about the technical side of photography, composition and a little about life and love. Modotti's photography mirrored her emotional and political life and eventually it was her life outside photography that drove both her image making and, eventually, her giving up photography for her political and emotional life.

Tina Modotti, 1924 (platinum photograph)
Weston, Edward Henry (1886-1958)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA - Bridgeman

Born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini on 17th August, Udine, Italy. Her father, a socialist, left the family home, to help the families fortune and went to California via Austria. Tina started to work at the age of twleve and when her elder sister followed her father to the USA she became the sole breadwinner from when she was 14. She also followed her father to San Francisco when she was 16 and started working as a seamstress in a department store - I Magnin, then started to model for them. Tina soon became embroiled in the local Italian community, joined the amateur theatre group prompting her move to Hollywood and starting a short film career. Her involvement in "little Italy" exposed her to some radical political views which compounded the leftish position of her father, views which stayed with her for the remainder of her life and which, eventually, may have caused her early death, but it certainly consumed her to the point of dedicating her life to it over her art. She married "Robo" a middle class bohemian in Los Angeles before meeting Weston in 1921 when she was 24 (and within 2 weeks they were lovers, changing her life and her direction completely).  Robo, who had introduced her to an artistic set in Los Angeles, preaching amongst other things "free love" when hearing about Weston promptly upped sticks and left for Mexico. Modotti, for some reason, decided to follow, but within a few days of reaching him he died of smallpox. Her father also dies a short time later and she returned to California and to Weston and it was he - rather dupliciously I think - who suggested that the social mores of Los Angeles life was stifling him and they should go together to Mexico and, at his suggestion, engage in a contract that permitted "free love". There is some evidence that Modotti didn't particularly want this "contract" but nevertheless she agreed and they moved in 1923 to Mexico. It was therefore rather ironic that it was Weston, who later regretted this arrangement. Modotti ran Weston's studio and in return Weston taught her photography.

The stylisation of Modott's work in these early days in Mexico was perhaps rather derivative of Weston, who was still in thrall to Stieglitz as well as Sheeler and the other Precisionists; until 1922 Weston had been bivouacked in the Pictorialist camp under the influence of Steichen. Modotti however quickly developed her own style which was soon to reflect her political leanings.

Weston went back to California in 1926 after three years leaving Modotti to a large circle of artists. She met D H Lawrence amongst a host of other luminaries early on but most influential were the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and, by association Frida Kahlo these two met at a party in Modotti's house. Kahlo, who was bisexual had an affair with Leo Trotsky whilst he was on the run from Stalin. It is interesting to note that Modotti, when she went to Russia, had a problems with Stalinist Russia and the Stalinist approach to her photography. It is suggested in the film "Frida" "Frida and Tina" that these two were very close.

Halfway through her photographic career, she joins the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. In 1930 she is framed for the attempted murder of the Mexican President and deported from the country.  On the ship that she is deported on she finds herself accompanied by Vidali. Whether she has any idea of Vidali's possible involvement in the murder of Mella is not know at this time. Vidali attempts to get her to go to Moscow, but she goes to Berlin and finding it not to her liking she accepts Vidali's invitation and travels to Russia where she meets with Eisenstein. Her photography is viewed with some contempt by the Stalinist regime and by 1931 she has practically given up on photography. Modotti then travels to Spain, backing the communists against Franco's regime. When Franco wins she reluctantly has little option but to return from Spain in 1939 to Mexico and lives under a pseudonym. Tina Modotti was found dead in the back of a Mexico City taxi cab in January 1942. It was reported that she had had a heart attack.

When Tina Modotti was expelled from Mexico a young photographer by the name of Alvarez Bravo was given her camera - a Graflex - and, whilst not treading directly in her foot steps - continued the brave photography that was the passion behind Tina Modotti's work.

On Photography 
by Tina Modotti
(Mexican Folkways, Vol. 5 No.4, October-December 1929)
Always, when the words "art" and "artistic" are applied to my photographic work, I am disagreeably affected. This is due, surely, to the bad use and abuse made of these terms.I consider myself a photographer, nothing more. If my photographs differ from that which is usually done in this field, it is precisely because I try to produce not art but honest photographs, without distortions or manipulations. The majority of photographers still seek "artistic" effects, imitating other mediums of graphic expression. The result is a hybrid product that does not succeed in giving their work the most valuable characteristic it should have, - photographic quality.
Whether or not photography may or may not be a work of art comparable to other plastic creation has been much discussed in recent years. Naturally, opinions differ. There are those who do accept photography as a medium of expression on a par with any other and there are others who continue to look myopically at the twentieth century with eighteenth century eyes, incapable of accepting the manifestations of our mechanical civilisation. But, for us who use the camera as a tool just as the painter does his brushes, adverse opinions do not matter. We have the approbation of those who recognise the merits of photography in its multiple aspects and accept it as the most eloquent, the most direct means for fixing, for registering the present epoch.
To know whether photography is or is not an art matters little. What is important is to distinguish between good and bad photography. By good is meant that photography which accepts all the limitations inherent in photographic technique and takes advantage of the possibilities and characteristics the medium offers. By bad photography is mean that which is done, one may say, with a kind of inferiority complex, with no appreciation of what photography itself offers: but on the contrary, recurring to all sorts of imitations.
Such work gives the impression that the photographer is almost ashamed of making photographs and tries to hide what there is of photography in his work, superimposing effects and falsifications that can only please those of perverted taste.
Photography, precisely because it can only be produced in the present and because it is based on what exists objectively before the camera, takes its place as the most satisfactory medium for registering objective life in all its aspects, and from this comes its documental value. If to this is added sensibility and understanding and, above all, a clear orientation as to the place it should have in the field of historical development, I believe that the result is something worthy of a place in social production, to which we should all contribute.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Train your gaze - Assignment 2

Putting on a face.

The assignment calls for a self portrait without showing your face, but "face" has many meanings, many connotations and even many lives. We show different faces to different people and to differing versions of our lives - home, parent, work, friend, spouse, lover. Usually these "faces" are the outward expression of the various personalities expressed through our face - diligence, care, compassion and love. Our faces can change with emotion - "I love that look", "I almost didn't recognise you", "I hardly recognise you" - are expressions that work from the face and the "face" that the inner self wants to express.

Make-up, still largely the realm of the female especially in western society, seems to be as much about how to present oneself to the public, and therefore about self worth or lack of self-loathing. In the theatre, the use of make up has a double use. The reliance on lighting on stage has evolved, but essentially it is used to enable the audience to "see" the play (it has the added benefit for the players as it erects a "fourth wall"), but, especially as the strength of electric light has grown, the face needs to have help to find "colour" as the light washes the face with it's incandescent power. The actor also uses make-up to paint a mask, to change age, to become a baddie, to be a goodie, to change gender and so on. In other words the use of make-up as a mask to better become someone else.

It is with this in mind that I looked at how I could make a self portrait without showing my face. I thought about what it is that defines wife, my family..., the books that I have read and am political lack of aspirations?? I thought about these and thought that with these metaphysical elements I would be the only one to recognise me from them - this type of portrait would be so personal, so introspective as to probably be impenetrable to anybody else. So I decided on a physical model and then I thought about a mask and how I could adopt a mask to present myself, faceless. Women often say I need to "put on a face" before going out and meeting with their public, are they really saying I need to "put my mask on"?

The theatre is again where I have gone to find a route into this assignment. An actors wears the metaphorical clothes of another person in the character that they are portraying. An actor can feel the personality of the part they are playing by a number of means, not least of which is the donning of a costume and the wearing of make-up. Make-up erodes the personal identity of the actor, decouples them from the audience and alleviates some of the pressure to create a character. Being "made-up" readily allows the actor to move to a character displacement, to allow this other character to inhabit their body. When the actor looks into the mirror they are likely to see the character they are playing - not themselves. More difficult is when the character/writing leaves the actor without modification in any way, other than a little dusting and everyday clothing to make that transition, they tend to feel "naked"; a term that is used quite often behind the 4th wall. The pantomime Dame is a role - with its own mask - that I have adopted every other year for a little over a quarter of a century. Interestingly my first role in a Panto' was as the beast in Beauty and the Beast where I had to wear a full head mask! But it is as a Panto' Dame that I have thought about for this assignment. I asked the same make up lady who normally prepares me to make me up, although I always apply my own lipstick, and asked our costume supplier if they would loan me some costumes. Both obliged and the following photographs are the result.

It is as well I think to start at the beginning, or at least in this case, with the foundation garment. It is curious to note the gender reactions to this adoption of a "cross-over" role. I hadn't ever thought that this role was about playing a woman; whilst the role is a Dame, it is about a male playing the role of a male who dresses up as a woman (albeit very badly). For me the role is definitely not camp, although the role is generally one or the other dependant on who is playing the role. Men, in the cast, tend to treat me just as they would normally. Whilst the women seem to try and appropriate me into their camp, they tend to compare figures (always favourably against me), they often want to physically gauge the texture of my "falsies", 44 FF's by the way and filled with old tights. The women tend to view me in a queer halfway place. Whereas again, the audience know very clearly what I am and dish out all sorts of banter they would never dream of saying to a female. One other incidental piece of trivia associated with this piece of costume is about buying them. Marks & Spencer advertise within their lingerie section a personal measuring service. The first time I tried it, some years ago - I had my wife with me at the time - the flushed female shop assistant pointed to the tape measure as if to suggest I do it myself, whilst she beat a hasty retreat in the opposite direction. Two years ago when I went back there was a different shop assistant who was altogether much more obliging, she measured me and proposed several items for me to consider - she didn't though suggest I try them on in the changing room. One step too far methinks.

Left, post original edit. Pre-wig, pre completion of make up and use of blur to "de-capitate". Blur added as a post process.

Back to the assignment and back to basics. Technically I decided that I would light this with a couple of 1 metre soft boxes both slightly to the rear and each side of me. I then placed a white reflector on each side slightly in front of me, I knew this would provide some facial modelling, but it was always going to be a bit hit and miss as I was photographing myself. I set up the camera, a Nikon D3 and a 95mm lens set at f8 1/125th sec - found the focal area and moved between the two places after pressing the time delay shutter release. I did have a change of dress provided but decided that other than changing the wig I would keep it simple.

So what did I feel about the results and was I able to discover about myself?

It is clear that my face is there in the photographs, but I feel it is buried. There are some devices I have used to take my face and remove it. Firstly some of the poses are from unusual viewpoints, secondly I have tried to hide my eyes, always for me the most interesting facet of a face and thirdly, through post processing. The first few shots - with the bra and the side view have very little of "me", the first fits the assignment perfectly - no face - and the second it is not my figure, not my hair, not my clothes, I don't wear make up; they are another entity. But together they are the establishing shots, they put the rest into perspective. These photographs provide the viewer with all the information needed to assimilate the information embedded in the following images. The shot left where the eyelashes cover the eyes; as the eyes are for me the critical feature of the face, I decided to try and keep them from normal view as much as possible. Whereas the shot on the right has been ostensibly taken from underneath, in fact I am leaning back after trying to keep my head in the focus "zone". This is not an angle that many people would ever have of me and with the make-up it adds an additional remove to the portrait.

The most contentious are these, firstly they are the same shot, firstly one (right) being post processed and secondly it is a conventional portrait i.e. nearly full frontal face. But I am only considering the second as part of the assignment, the other image (left) is there to show the model would look without the edit. Deliberately I have clumsily "photoshopped" the image to make it more "beautiful", thereby removing "me" from the image. This subversion of the image and the political issues surrounding this type of editing has long concerned me. I know it is a process that has it's roots from the very dawn of photography, but never more so than currently with its association with self loathing and body fascism.

Both of these photographs have been added after the original post. Left, a view as if from behind, as if from the players perspective, looking to the audience. I had some problems to get the "face" in focus and allowing the back to be slightly out of focus. The hands are important and are part of the expressive tool set of the player and this Dame. Another advantage of these two additions is the emphasis on gender. Neither of these shots are in the least feminine.

And the paraphernalia of the Dame, important to bear witness to the encumbrances associated with me as a Dame to complete a portrait of this Dame. The shoes were second hand in 1989 when they made their debit on the stage and have been in every Panto since - they have been augmented since with other shoes; but these pinks get a new lick of paint every few productions. The other stuff being weighed down by the 44 double F's.

When I first read the assignment brief and thought about how I would go about fulfilling the requirement, I had thought that this idea would have had more profound outcomes. I feel a bit deflated now, maybe I didn't consider things widely enough. It is a portrait of the Dame not a portrait of me, but a portrait of the physical embodiment of me whilst I am the Dame. These two are so intertwined that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. I think I need to think this out all over again, but whether I get the chance (or the time) to recover this assignment I am not sure.