Monday, 30 April 2012

Francesca Woodman

The social network site Flickr has over 2 million entries under the search term "self portrait", under the term "me" it has 84 million. Facebook has approaching 1 billion users - all are encouraged to put a image of themselves as part of their signature. The first photograph that Woodman is purported to have taken is this. It shows someone - the gender of the subject is only derived by the title "Self portrait at thirteen  Francesca Woodman" as it is written in the artist's hand - turning her head away from the camera, her hand is seen holding the shutter release cable, thereby connecting her to the viewer. I am interested in this image and juxtaposing it with today's generation of thirteen year olds and their predilection to put themselves in the frame. The current generation of social media savvy youth who continually turn their mobile 'phone onto themselves usually in an expression of ecstasy, whether fleeting or sustained, do so with a similar perspective. The arm extended, as in Woodman's photograph, and then turned on to the "self" to capture the image, the critical difference is that Woodman turns away in contemplation from the viewer, whereas the "me" is all to keen to represent themselves as ecstatic in the moment (of course I generalise). Woodman uses her face as a descriptor in her images, deliberately including or removing it dependent on the context or narrative she was concerned with at the time.
Most, if not all, of the photographs in the Phaidon "Francesca Woodman" book, edited by Chris Townsend, pose questions both of what was Woodman's intent behind the staging of these carefully constructed images, and, of the viewer of these photographs. Townsend is at pains to point out that Woodman was steeped in art history, particularly photographic art and, among the essays printed in the book, there is one relating the influences of American Gothic to her work and another on her fascination with Surrealism. There doesn't seem to be a demarkation of development, of Woodman taking different roads in terms of her art; dying as she did at 22, her progression as an artist took on more influences from the time she was at the Rhode Island school and also her time in Italy, but there appears to be a remarkable consistency in her aesthetic.
Woodman's self introduction into the frame wasn't about "me" to me, it was more to do with her questioning the meaning of life. As with most pubescent lives, Woodman seems concerned with her own burgeoning sexuality and also her place in the environment - there seem to be as many of the images that are taken inside as outside.
There is a level of sophistication of image making that I am still unable to fully fathom, this maybe due to the need to exhibit all, or at least as many as possible, of her now limited stock of images which could not be curated by the artist. It maybe therefore that the series of images in this book are incoherent from an artist's perspective, but I think it maybe my lack of visual comprehension that limits me.
I do find the images compelling and I have to say that I wasn't looking forward to thinking about the images too deeply, as I think I was wary of what it might uncover about me. I have been aware of her work for some years and had seen small collections or individual images, but I knew that she died tragically and that she explored emotions in photographs of raw visceral intensity and I have always wondered about the connection of the emotional strength of her images and her tragic death. I am no wiser on that point, but the photographs still have the power to disturb me.
The book is a fascinating collection of photographs and essays into her influences, Siskind, Meatyard, Michals, Serra and many more that I intend to follow through with. It also has copies of her hand written notes on the construction of some of the images and her thoughts which are fascinating, showing the processes of creation. Here are two paragraphs from one of her journals:

"I am interested in the way people relate to space. The best way to do this is to depict their interactions to the boundaries of these spaces. Started doing this with ghost pictures, people fading into a flat plane - ie becoming the wall under wallpaper or of an extension of the wall onto the floor. Closer to what I am doing now is my beginning last spring of [M] or myself enclosed by a glass coffee table. Also video tapes - people becoming, or emerging from environment.
        Glass makes a nice definition of space because it delineates a form while revealing what is inside it is also a cold and somewhat harsh material. I want to do two series of pictures using the glass box in waterman."

And another from when she was just 15:

August 9
"I think when I get home I should take pictures of objects: purse, hand, etc "clues to a lost woman," also objects with flesh. Touch up highlights on objects or flesh with vaseline, tint nipples for nudes. Picture of foot and egg backlit ward - salmagundi"

These are very real references to several of Woodman's photographs here, demonstrating that these images were composed firstly in her mind, as part of her investigations.There have been some criticisms of this book in that some of the images have been reproduced larger than actual; but it is a formidable introduction into her work, albeit tragically curtailed after just a few short years.
An extraordinarily brave and free artist, one wonders what might have been.

Here is a short video by the artist and the film "The Woodmans" is available for download here and provides an extraordinary level of background to the artist's life from her family and student colleagues, and is very moving.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The start of the Sheldonian series

An update to the post here.

When I was informed that I could take pictures in the Sheldonian theatre I had assumed that I was been allowed access outside the normal public access times. Never assume anything. I had said that I wanted to depict as many of the various perspectives public/private etc. I was told to come was between 10:00 am and 12:00 noon, I had assumed that because I wasn't told otherwise that my request would be granted. It wasn't told that this time was public access time! Well, because it was a public viewing time - of course I could go in, however because it was open to the public all the galleries were closed, most of the internal accesses were closed, only the very narrow staircase to the cupola was open, so my options were extremely limited and the planned shots were unlikely all to be fulfilled! I had decided to get there early, as the time inside was going to be limited! The shot left in the quadrangle between the Clarendon building to the right and the Bodleian Library to the left and a detail shot, right. The view from the cupola was one that I was looking forward to, but the windows  were locked, which limited the shots as reflection on the glass restricted the photographic opportunities.

Inside the theatre. The main door is at the performance end. The grey "carpet" leads in from this point, unfortunately the access restrictions didn't allow me to get a more balance view of the auditorium from above the door - see later. The scale of the building is seen quite well on the shot right, the couple discussing are viewing before a concert they are are sponsoring in June help "size" the building. Wren's design of the building that didn't use supporting columns in the main body of the theatre helps considerably with the acoustics and the sight lines.

Streater's ceiling painting on multiple panels was one that I wanted to try and depict, this is the best I got. I'm not totally happy with it and the detail shot of the central panel gives an impression of the quality of Charles II's court painter. I had also hoped to get a closer view of the organ (or rather the new electronic organ that was used to replace the old worn out one), but was again frustrated by the lack of access on a "public" day. This shot, right, connects the organ pipes to the celestial bodies, I hope to get closer to the organ at a later date.

Some ornamentation shots to get the feel of the place. Significant seats and interesting texts.

The chap in the centre and to his left his assistant were discussing with the management of the theatre details prior to them holding a charity concert in June. Sometime after this discussion finished I fell into conversation with them and it turns out that they will sponsor a concert with the Cape Town Opera as a fund raiser in June at this theatre. I wondered whether he had a photographer for the event and on finding that they hadn't, I volunteered. Assuming there are no complications I will join the event on the afternoon of 11th June to record the rehearsal, the subsequent champagne reception and then the evening performance. I have been told that I will have "access all areas", which means that a private function will enable me to obtain shots that were barred due to this being a "public day".

Up into the loft which had a couple of interesting features, firstly the model of the roof construction detail that Wren, with the help of Wallis, had convinced the University would provide the current unsupported roof and, secondly, access to the cupola, where I had hoped to gain some shots of the "dreaming spires". Well the windows and rain put paid to the idea of capturing the spires in any great detail, but the model of the roof construction, which seems to float below the roof supports was one that I was able to get. I used flash to help decouple the model fro the background.

A couple of shots to help give colour to the set. The first being a statue of a "player" holding masks to denote an actor and another which I took a like to due to the play of light coming through these very large windows.

To be continued

The First Playhouse Pictures

These are the digital shots, more shots were taken using film and will be added as they get developed and scanned. An update to the post here.

I had understood that I had a reasonable time to be able to take shots both in the auditorium and back-stage, I was a little taken aback when Hester told me I would have only thirty minutes - "it should be enough, shouldn't it?". Well it would have to be I thought and after confirming that I did indeed want to take some shots on-stage and back-stage my host went to speak to "the crew" and, on returning, informed me that I had more time, though she couldn't say exactly how long. Hester not only let me wander about the stage but also suggested other places that might interest me and offer different perspectives, for which I was and still am very grateful. 

The Auditorium

The view from the stage "down front" i.e. the view from the actor's perspective. Some of the stage light can be sen clearly on the balcony structure and the "technical" box centre and rear of the theatre. The shot left is of a row of seats, the theatre is justly proud of it's boast of clear sight lines from all seat. The shot clearly edicts the raking of the floor and the reclining angle of the seats.
The view from the balcony clearly depicts the limited view - almost like a television. This shot is taken "head-height as if from the third row; the first two rows does have a slight visual impediment with the safety rail. The set for the current production "Barefoot in the Park" can be seen - more later. The exit, again on the balcony floor has a high contrast design which I think is to aid direction in poor light.

The technical area is situated at the back of the auditorium and has a clear sight of the stage. This shot (right), taken at head height, shows a slight limitation in the sight line due to the balcony bridge above. The "set" is clearer in this shot. An additional shot of the technical area shows a greater extent of the technology in use.

A view of the view of the auditorium from the perspective of a orchestra conductor. The gantries are quite visible from here where spot lights and other lighting affects might emanate from.


Two shots of the "set" from one of the "lofts. The backcloth of the New York cityscape is clearly visible. This touring production starring, amongst others Maureen Lipman, has very robust scenery and can be seen in construction here.

In the shots above and here can be seen niches on stage that serve as changing areas, collection points for props etc. It was difficult to determine what wasn't, appearing as an untidy collection of random bits and pieces, it was best to try and not disturb anything. I remember once going backstage a the Festival Hall and seeing the scenery there for a production of "The Nutcracker" which had liberal helpings of "Kellogs", soap powder as the scenery had a lot of cardboard and didn't need to be that sturdy, whereas this set needs to be strong enough to be assembled and disassembled multiple times reliably as it tours the country.

Some further shots of "quick-change" areas just "off-set". I found it interesting that the "back-cloth" extended all the across the full width of the stage, maybe this helped to maintain the characterisation during the moments off-stage.

Shots here depict the solidity of the set and the clear instructions as well as entrances/exits
Backstage Technical

The workshop, where all the majority of the sets for Playhouse productions are made. This shot on the left depicts the height, which must be over twenty feet. The loading entrance is depicted right - Hester waiting patiently.

This loft (left) is the fly loft where the back cloths are controlled. It was very ordered by comparison to the "lx" loft - see later. There were two accesses to the lofts, the one I took via the stairs back-stage and as depicted right via a ladder, another shot to portray the height if the stage area.

The "lx" loft, which stands for lighting effects looks incredibly complex - I wasn't allowed onto the platform, I think because of health and safety issues! I prefer the tighter portrait version.

Private area

One of the dressing rooms, these articles of clothing and other pieces belong to the current cast, I was conscious that Hester was looking at me as took the shot - not sure what was on her mind, maybe "hurry up", maybe "just keeping an eye on the personal belongings"? Either way it was an interesting insight, if somewhat voyeuristic. The "Green Room" on the right isn't a pretty place, perfunctory with some facilities for refreshment and relaxation before, during and after shows. I thought it was interesting to have prints of very successful actors on the wall, as if to say "follow that"!

This room, which was marked Laundry held costumes, wig stands and other costume bits and pieces. A small room which meant there was a lot of lens distortion which I have tried to compensate for

And finally...

And finally Hester, who whilst waiting for me to complete the back stage shots was reading a newspaper on stage - actually a stage prop I think. The softness came about because I was working in very low light back stage when I saw this opportunity and I didn't change the film speed for this very quickly grabbed shot. I think the softness gives it a wistful quality.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Ashmolean

Elias Ashmole donated a good deal of his collection of manuscripts and artefacts to the University of Oxford to become the Ashmolean Museum, which claims to be the oldest museum in Great Britain. After moving from it's original site on the upper floor of the Bodleian labrary it has had a few reincarnations to form it's current metamorphosis in 2009 when it re-opened after massive renovation.
I have been granted permission to use a tripod, provided I ensure, by signing a waiver, that any images will not be for commercial use. I have already looked around this site - see here and I will have the chance to wander more freely as "I will have a piece of paper in my hand" authorising and legitimising my presence.
The atrium and escalators are fast becoming iconic views of this new Ashmolean, there is a very pleasant cafe area with views over roofs of Oxford, indeed there is a roof terrace that might be worth a look at. The objects d'art are beautifully presented and in the main there is no restriction on the use of cameras within the exhibition halls.

A straightforward choice

I have been granted permission to photograph the Holywell Rooms, I had the choice of either paying the hire charge or allowing them to use any photograph I take - I didn't investigate the hire charge! Handel and Haydn have both played at this venue which has a seating capacity of 250.
I have been surprised at the level of access I have been allowed to all of the venues I have requested, so far I haven't been refused anything that I've asked for. However this place has surprised me more than the others; to gain access I thought I would have to report to the entrance (or somewhere similar) and would then be accompanied around the building, not so. I am to report to Wadham College Lodge, where I will be given the key that I will be asked to return after I have finished. What was it Blanche duBois said? "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers".

In the summer of 1998, the Holywell Music Room celebrated its 250th anniversary. The oldest custom-built concert hall in Europe, it opened its doors to the public for the first time in 1748. Designed by Thomas Camplin, Vice-Principal of St. Edmund Hall, the building was probably the brainchild of William Hayes, then Professor of Music at the University. The project was funded by public subscription (established in 1742). The room continued as a concert venue throughout the eighteenth century and until 1836, from which time it was used for a number of other events, including auctions and exhibitions. By the 1870s, it was being used for weekly rehearsals by the Oxford Philharmonic Society and its future as a musical venue was further secured after 1910 when the Oxford University Musical Union obtained a lease on the building. The Holywell was restored and refitted in 1959-60 and since that time has been the location for many hundreds of recitals and concert series featuring prestigious visiting musicians as well as many local groups and student performers.
While Wadham College owns the Holywell Music Room, the use of this room is divided between the Faculty of Music and the College. The Faculty makes use of the room during University Term Time and Wadham during vacations, with each using its own discretion regarding policy and charges.  – source University web-site here 
Reprinted by kind permission of the Oxford University music faculty

The Holywell is a very nice place to listen to music, though the range is limited to chamber and small ensemble pieces. I have been to many concerts here mainly piano music as well as jazz, there is a resident Steinway and harpsichord.
The entrance is designed on classical lines is another shot to help situate the feeling of the place. The box office is appositely named, it is small and the perspective here of the entrance will be worth a look. The view into the auditorium from the Hall entrance is very balanced and I will look from the back of the Hall which is raked at a significant angle. As with other performance venues that I am looking at the perspective from the stage - an elevated platform - of the Hall is one that will try and capture. I have never been in the "Green Room"and that will provide another perspective.
My overriding memory of the Holywell is one of contemplative calm, despite the passion of the music, which I would expect to able to convey in what I suspect will be an empty facility for my purposes.

Susan Hampshire painted our toilets

The Playhouse Theatre opened in Beaumont Street on 20th October 1938 and has become one the foremost theatres in England. The actors who have entertained from this stage are amongst the most feted stars of the English stage in the times since that opening night. It has played a significant role in the cultural life of not only Oxford city life but also that of the University, with OUDS productions, Oxford Theatre Guild (the leading amateur group in the city) and the Oxford Operatic Society as well as a great deal of national touring groups. I was fortunate enough to be a sponsored theatre critic whereby I received two complimentary tickets to any professional theatre outside the “West-End” and visited the Playhouse many times as part of that role. I have been given permission to take some photographs after contacting their management who appear to have placed no restriction on where I go; I will find out soon when I meet Hester.
Of interest for recording this building would be the foyer – it is the first experience when coming to the theatre and is therefore likely to affect the experience of the evening. It is small and, as with all amenities, the management have taken every opportunity to “market” themselves to raise funds. The ticket desk shares the space with programme sellers, a confectionary counter and a coffee/bar area – I will try and depict this. The second major experience in the theatre is the perspective or viewpoint of the audience member; the theatre was completely renovated in 1990/1 and has very good all round viewing. The stage area, through the proscenium arch, is one that I would hope to be able to capture as well as the aspects from the side-lines and changing areas. The Stage Door (I’m not sure if there is one) and theatre staff offices.
Susan Hampshire was an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) in 1954 and, as most people will know, an ASM is likely to get any job, I think though, she was provided with a brush for the purpose – I suspect the facilities have been renovated more than once since then. 

The Custodian

The building that Gilbert Sheldon commissioned for “the enactment of university business” cost him £14,500 and was the first commission of Sir Chistopher Wren who was the then Savilian Professor of Astronomy at the University; though what the real estate that the Sheldonian Theatre occupies now is worth can only be guessed at, being as it is, part of the wider property portfolio of Oxford University. The original plan was that Sheldon would deposit some seed money - £1000 and then others would jump in, well no-one did and so he stood the cost himself; he did become Chancellor of the University soon after, he was already the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The design brief was to develop the ceremony of the university, to aggrandize the pomp and circumstance to celebrate it's position at the heart of learning for the establishment, the country, early Empire and the ruling class that comprised it's natural entrants. I have witnessed of how successful this is at first hand when, as do all Oxon students, my wife received her degree there (my wife is not a member of any of the aforementioned categories above!), as well as attending many music concerts.
Apart from highlighting the architectural features that were designed to meet the challenges set to reveal the above, there are other interesting aspects to the building that I shall try and capture, such as the roof support structure. Wren had originally designed a set of columns to support the roof which was vetoed by the University as dance - a principle design consideration then, but no longer a requirement now I think - would have been limited, this gave Wren an issue as the length of the required beams would have been longer than any trees in England at seventy feet or more. Wren turned to his fellow Savilian Professor of Geometry John Wallis, who devised what was then the largest unsupported roof structure in the world. The roof has been replaced, but the supporting structure is still extant. This roof offers a view of the “Dreaming Spires” which, depending on time and weather, might offer an interesting perspective. Additionally there is Roger Streater’s (Serjeant painter to Charles II) ceiling painting (32 panels) depicting the “Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences to expel Ignorance from the University” painted in 1668/9.
Another potential point of interest is the organ. Wren did not envisage a permanent organ in the original design and one was added about twenty years later, the first of three naturally aspirated organs. When, in 1989, the latest of these, designed by “Father Willis” was deemed unfit for purpose Robert Venables QC donated a “digital” organ, which comprised some eighty speakers and the ability to mimic other famous organs such as Salisbury Cathedral, Pembroke College Cambridge and St-Clotilde in Paris and all with the press of a few push buttons. This gift, said by Venables to be “the most difficult donation of money” he ever made caused a considerable consternation and significant debate from music aficionados at the time.
To gain permission to photograph inside the the Sheldonian I made contact through the "contact" email address of the Sheldonian, the response came from custodian@sheldon... I thought that the address was interesting when I first saw it, I now feel it entirely apt that this Grade 1 listed building should have a custodian. I like that.
I have been granted two hours, so my list of shots need to be explained early and clearly to the custodian in order to make best use of the short time.

Fun with postcards

John Egerton Christmas Piper 1903 - 1992 was a painter, printmaker who lived relatively local and, in collaboration with Patrick Reyntiens created stained glass windows, the most famous of which is probably for the new Coventry Cathedral. This partnership was also responsible for the window titled "St Martin sharing his cloak" 1973 which is at the north end of Sandford St Martin Church in North Oxon.

A short while ago I was asked to create some postcards that would be used as part of the church's fund raising and that may be used at a convention where the topic of this and other Piper work would be the focus. I took a number of views including detail shots and after discussing these with the relevant people I then chose a company to print the cards. The detail shots were digitally printed and the small number of these (50 off) were fine and matched the proof copy that I sent with the CMYK files. However I ordered 500 Litho print copies of the shot below.

The original CMYK file was accompanied with a proof copy for colour matching - image "Proof copy sent" below. The printer sent the "non-proof copy" along with the digital proofs, saying that it was information only and that the printed copy would be checked against "Proof copy sent". To my surprise I received 500 of what I title  "Printed version", below centre!
After some conversations with their sales people and their Managing Director it was agreed that they would re-print the whole batch and that they had "mis-judged" the colour control adjustment needed.

So, I have 499 copies of a very green church interior that I have been told I could do what I like with, I shall dispose through the county paper waste facilities, I have been paid for the work though.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Rousham and the new camera

William Kent (1685 - 1748) landscaped the garden of Rousham House and introduced some interesting features and statuary as one his last major projects before he died. I took my new (to me) camera to look at a "Place". I won't be using it as part of assignment 3 as I have other sites in mind that have "life"in them. The house is only a couple of miles from where I live and over the years I have spent a good deal of time there taking pictures. The first shot I took with the Bronica was:

This statue overlooks the "Arcade" which was designed by Kent, there was a good breeze blowing and the trees show a deal of movement. Moving down and into the "Arcade" I took these shots:

Very quiet, very still, very static shots. Here is the house which has been in the same family since it was built in 1635:

Timeless, this shot could have been taken at anytime in the last four centuries and more.

I include this as I am interested in movement, how it alters the narrative of the image; but this is about generating technique as much as depicting something particular. I have done some work in the digital domain, but closing the aperture down and using slow film (Ilford Delta 100) enables reasonable lengths of exposure to help with controlling the content. It does provide a contrasting feeling to the staid facade of the above.