A5 Research: Denis Thorpe – The Shepherd’s Year

Harvest - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Harvest – Steve Middlehurst 2016

I have been broadening my net looking for photographers who have produced notable studies of farmers. My tutor suggested looking at Denis Thorpe’s 1979 book The Shepherd’s Year (1) on which he collaborated with the journalist Alan Dunn. I was luckily able to find a second hand copy of this compact but interesting book.

The Shepherd’s Year was commissioned by The Guardian as journalism with Thorpe and Dunn assigned to follow a hill shepherd, Ray Dent, and his family for the full cycle of a farming year. I have found no record of whether the project was conceptualised by the editors or the two journalists but the very existence of such an extensive series on a single subject is historically relevant. Ross Collins, a photojournalist who became an educator, believes that 1975 was the end of the golden age of photojournalism, a time in which not just picture magazines but daily newspapers would run “many photo-pages with minimal copy, stories told through photographs” (2); by the mid-1980’s newspapers began to use a single photograph to illustrate a story.

From the series A Shepherd's Year - Denis Thorpe

From the series A Shepherd’s Year – Denis Thorpe

The Shepherd’s Year therefore comes right at the end of an era in which the photojournalist was story teller, reporter and documentarist, set into the field with the license to study a single subject over an extended period of time. As someone who grew up when the great picture magazines were in their heyday and who remembers the launch of the Sunday Times Colour Supplement my instinct is to be nostalgic for this, so called, golden age of photojournalism but there is something very soft about Denis’ series.

Artillery Range, Mynydd Eppynt from the series Land of My Fathers - David Hurn 1973

Artillery Range, Mynydd Eppynt from the series Land of My Fathers – David Hurn 1973

In trying to understand why this was my initial reaction I turned to David Hurn’s Wales Land of my Fathers (3), a series of around one hundred photographs of which about half were taken in the seventies. Even ignoring the industrial landscapes Hurn presents rural Wales as a hard land, often beautiful, but an unforgiving environment whose inhabitants look worn down by life. Both Hurn and Thorpe are faithfully documenting an inhabited landscape away from the “soft south” of England but the photographers have chosen to frame a quite different perspective of rural life.

In Perspectives on Place Jesse Alexander discusses the term “pastoral” in the context of visual culture.

“Pastoral imagery is essentially a performance of the “countryside” a generally idealised representation of uncomplicated rural life.” (4: p.143)

A description that fits well with A Shepherd’s Year; there can be no doubt that to be a hill farmer in North Yorkshire was and is a hard life but despite the inclusion of snow covered hills and photographs of physical labour overall it presents as a perpetuation of what Alexander calls the “myth of a countryside idyll” (4: p.143). Hurn has a self declared emotional relationship with Wales, his choice of title makes this clear, and his photographs express this deep-rooted bond. When discussing Brandt’s landscapes Liz Wells talks of pictures that “crystallise the emotional dimension of our relation with land” (5: p.166) and I feel that Thorpe’s work falls short of this.

This is not intended as a judgement on Thorpe’s work,  it is merely a comment that his instincts appear to lean more towards pictorialism than the depiction of, what one assumes are, the harsh realities of hill farming. Thorpe’s work is not readily available on-line and I am at risk of appearing to judge his work on one series of about fifty photographs and that is not my intent.

From the series A Shepherd's Year - Denis Thorpe

From the series A Shepherd’s Year – Denis Thorpe

In fact I like many of the individual photographs included in the series, particularly his quite abstract pictures of sheep which combine movement and pattern. The series does document a family at work and at rest and is effective in doing this, there is a sense of the year unfolding and the agricultural milestones of mating, birthing, shearing and showing that punctuate the seasons. As a historical document it has real worth.

From the series A Shepherd's Year - Denis Thorpe

From the series A Shepherd’s Year – Denis Thorpe

Each time I look through the book I return to the portrait of Ray Dent holding a lamb, in the same way that Mohr’s final portrait of Marcel the herdsman (5: p.39 & discussed here) seems to summarise his whole persona, this single image captures more of Dent’s nature, or at least my reading of it, than all the pictures of him walking or working with his sheep.  It includes perfect details like his shepherd’s crook hanging on the fence, his well worn hat that seems personal and carefully chosen in the land and era of the flat cap and his shirt and tie which reminds me of my Yorkshire born father whose only concession to the weekend was to dig the garden in a soft shirt and tie as opposed to the pressed white shirts he wore during the week. But, more than any detail it is the look in his eye, the critical stare that suggests a mind analysing livestock despite the distracting presence of two reporters from London.

Sources

Books

(1) Thorpe, Denis and Dunn, Alan (1979) The Shepherd’s Year. Newton Abbot: David and Charles

(3) Hurn, David (2000) Wales Land of My Fathers. London: Thames and Hudson

(4) Alexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography. London: Bloomsbury

(5) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury

Internet

(2) Collins, Ross (ND) A Brief History of Photography and Photojournalism (accessed at North Dakota State University 22.8.16) – https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~rcollins/242photojournalism/historyofphotography.html

() Archives Hub (ND) Denis Thorpe Photographic Collection (accessed at Archives Hub 22.8.16) – http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb2726-dth

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A5 Research: John Darwell – Dark Days

Farm Entrance, Southwaite from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2007

Farm Entrance, Southwaite from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2007

The Emperor Nero is rumoured to have fiddled (i) as Rome burned, some suggest it was an act of disinterest, others argue that he set the fires to clear the site for his new palace or as an excuse to persecute the Christians. Whatever the truth of the story the Emperor practicing his scales with Rome in flames beneath the Palantine is a powerful and enduring image; it has become a symbol of the delusional ruler ignoring the realties of an environmental and human disaster unfolding on his doorstep. How easy it is to find parallels two thousand years later, politicians fiddling as their constituents suffer. In John Darwell’s Farm Entrance, Southwaite it is “Blair Fiddles as Cumbria Burns”

Young activists probably see environmental issues as a contemporary political movement but as far back as the late 1940’s scientists began to report that we were poisoning the planet. In 1962 Rachel Carson published the Silent Spring, a book condemning the unregulated use of pesticides and the catastrophic damage they caused; it arguably became the catalyst for the creation of the modern environmental lobby. Pressure groups, the scientific community and journalists have all worked to keep environmental issues on the political agenda but it is often the role of the photojournalist or independent documentary photography to put the issue in the public eye, to create pictures that stick in the mind, force us to think and bring the issue to our door.

Many writers argue that we have become a social-media-led society dependant on pictures as our main means of communication but the change from the pre-internet world to now is only in volume and ease of distribution rather than a switch from spoken or written word to pictures. Apart from their ability to communicate complex information quickly and efficiently, photographs have a remarkable ability to implant themselves in our memories, some argue that we remember photographs of people better than direct visual memory, and it is this attribute that makes photography such a powerful documentary and journalistic tool.

The concerned photographer is a long tradition in photography, men and women who have harnessed their skills to expose atrocity, injustice and suffering. Many would associate this form of documentary or photojournalism with foreignness, the war in Syria, famine in Africa, civil rights in the USA or in terms of environmental disasters the Mexican Gulf oil spill (ii) and melting ice caps. However, Britain has its own tradition of purely domestic concerned photography; Don McCullin’s studies of the social and economic divide (3) or The Exit Photography Group’s (iii) study of inner city poverty in the seventies come to mind. The intent behind this work is the key to understanding documentary, the concerned photographer is lobbying for change without expecting a single photograph or one series to change the socio-political landscape, they recognise their contribution as part of a steady flow of information, ratcheting up public awareness, the drip of water that finally creates an impression in the rock below.

It is in this context that I want to review John Darwell’s Dark Days. Darwell describes himself as an “independent photographer” (7) a description I rather like with its undertones of a political statement, perhaps a necessary one in the world of environmentalists. Darwell’s practice has explored a wide range of social and environmental issues from the eerie emptiness of the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station to, my personal favourite, Indian Ocean; forty photographs of discarded drinks cans washed up by a storm onto the coast of Western Australia and A Black Dog Came Calling “An allegorical, first hand, journey through the experience of depression” (8)

Robert, After Pressure Washing Sheds from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2001

Robert, After Pressure Washing Sheds from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2001

Dark Days is an extensive study, undertaken over a year, of the impact of the foot and mouth epidemic on Cumbria in 2001. In a world when politics, business and the media communicate in thirty second soundbites this is a book that forces the viewer-reader to pause and reflect. As now I was living in a rural community as the crisis developed, I recall the disinfectant troughs on local farms, the closed footpaths and the news feed videos of cattle being incinerated but until reading David Black’s essay that accompanies Dark Days I cannot pretend to have understood the extent of the crisis and its impact inside the exclusion zones that were created around livestock farms. Nor did I understand the Government agencies’ slow and misguided response and how resolving the crisis became subservient to the need to project the New Labour Government in a positive light inside the Westminster and media bubble. The farmers and their animals became yet another victim of the sophisticated spin-doctors operating out of Number 1o.

Darwell doesn’t tell us this, his series is not obviously about national politics, it is a moving study of the unfolding of the crisis, the closed off landscape of Cumbria, the brutal response to cull livestock and the depressing aftermath as farms were “sterilised”. Liz Wells describes it as a “Critical Scenario in Three Acts” (6: p.9).

The structure of the book is interesting, it opens with a short preface by Roger Breeze (iv) who presents a personal perspective on the crisis but it is not until his closing paragraphs that he highlights that the mass slaughter of livestock was a solution first devised in the 17th century, a thought that supports his closing argument that the photographs are a record of the “constant failure of governments to defend Britain, and the British rural way of life.” (6: p.5)

This is followed by a much longer essay by Liz Wells, three quarters of which describes the history of British rural documentary photography before describing the structure of the book in terms that speak to the student of photography but are unlikely to appeal to the more a general reader. The inclusion of this essay as a preface to the photographs suggests that the publisher sees the audience for this work inside the academic photographic community which questions its intent as concerned documentary; an internalisation of the argument it contains rather than it being directed at the general public. There is no doubt in the quality of Wells’ essay or of the power of the photographs that follow it but in terms of contextualising the imagery, it is a weak opening. At the end of the book there is a much more revealing personal account of the crisis written by David Black, a Cumbrian vet who was directly involved in the crisis. This essay makes it clear that the Government failed to react promptly and effectively but falls short of expanding on those short comings. (v)

In Stuart Franklin’s review of Eugene Richard’s Cocaine True Cocaine Blue he argues that: “The impact of the book was diminished however by the relegation of a brilliant explanatory text by medical doctor Stephen Nicholas to the back pages.”  (9: p 71) And, I feel that Dark Days falls into the same trap, I would have preferred to have seen Breeze’s foreword immediately followed by Black’s personal account with Wells’ more academic text after the photographs.

Closed Footpath, Kirkstone Pass Looking Towards Ullswater from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2007

Closed Footpath, Kirkstone Pass Looking Towards Ullswater from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2007

The photographs open with the beautiful landscape of the Lake District, an idyllic pastoral scene, but in the words of Cream’s song SWLABR

“You’ve got that pure feel, such good responses, But the picture has a moustache.” (10)

The “moustache” is the emptiness, neither humans nor sheep can be seen on the hills of Kirkstone Pass or in the stone walled pastures above Patterdale; it is agricultural land without agriculture; a national park without tourists; footpaths without walkers. Disinfectant mats and tubs, warning signs, black-bagged footpath signs, police incident tape and a solitary political poster (see opening image) begin to unfold the narrative, the explanation of desertion.

Darwell is a Cumbrian resident and understood that the impact of the epidemic was felt far beyond the farmers; the general absence of tourists, closed caravan sites, pubs, cafes and petrol stations denote the scale of the economic suffering and speak to the totality of the rural community effected.

If the emptiness is the “moustache” the next set of photographers represent Cream’s final chorus

“You’ve got that pure feel, such good responses. You’ve got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard.” (10)

Darwell’s picture postcard landscapes are injected with plumes of smoke, the pyres of some of the six million animals destroyed in the cull.

Eden Valley, March from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2007

Eden Valley, March from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2007

The narrative builds as a chronological series which brings the viewer in slowly from the great landscapes of the Lake District to the details describing the impact on the economy, the plumes of smoke, the pyres and finally to the slaughtered animals. In this sense the narrative references film documentary, Darwell has been given a generous publishing space within which to work, there are nearly 150 photographs in this series, allowing Darwell to introduce changes of pace in different parts of the narrative, a slow buildup of landscapes followed by quick fire shots of dead sheep brings a sense of drama to his presentation. It is at this point that Darwell brings the first farmer into the story, a tired and distraught man in a stereotypical flat cap that contrasts with his crime-scene disposable overalls. As the human impact is introduced the caption adds a further layer of poignancy “They’re my brother-in-law’s sheep. Mine all one went last week. He won’t come out of the house until it’s all over.”

The series develops in this manner to record the whole story from cull through clean-up to the footpaths being reopened, field gates left open, a handful of tourists reappearing and concluding with the “For Sale” signs on rural cottages and farms.

As a Cumbrian resident and a documentary photographer already exploring environment issues and their impact on communities, Darwell was not only sensitive to the drama unfolding around his home but had a professional understanding of the imperative to document the event. In his excellent book The Documentary Impulse (9) Stuart Franklin writes at length about the history and motivations of  documentary photographers; in the opening chapter he summaries his thoughts as:

“The driving factors behind this impulse throughout history have included curiosity, outrage, reform, ritual, self-assertion and the expression of power. These factors encompass the search for evidence, for beauty, even for therapy – and always the search to make memories immortal.” (9: p.8)

We can instinctively see many of these motivations in Dark Days; especially the search for evidence, the sense of outrage and a desire for reform, perhaps the process of photographing the event was therapeutic for Darwell, a sense of doing something positive when feeling helpless in the face of a crisis. This could not have been an easy project; to achieve the images of farmers, pyres and slaughtered animals meant working close to both the human victims and the vets trying to complete an assignment that went against all their instincts and training to preserve life. Farmers have an unique and complex bond with their livestock, to photograph their grief might fall short of photographing a funeral but, as photographer it would be impossible not to feel a sense of intrusion into a very private situation.  It is testament to the man that the vet, David Black, describes how they became friends in the course of that year (6: p.188).

Farm Gates, vale of Lorton from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2007

Farm Gates, vale of Lorton from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2007

As a book this is an important record of a significant historical event, as a photographic series it is an emotionally charged narrative that slowly but eloquently unfolds across nearly two hundred pages, as a political statement it is a sad indictment of successive Governments who exhibit a minimal understanding of rural issues and whose policies in that area are typically pitched for their urban constituents rather the people directly impacted.

Captions play a vital role in this series, having criticised the layout of the book above it is important to say that Darwell’s captions add immense value to the pictures; the photographs and their accompanying captions plus the sheer scale of the series creates an unusually complete record of an event but as Paul Trevor said of Survival Programmes “To document a condition is not to explain it” (4: p17). This book represents a unique first hand account of a devastating environmental and human disaster providing  a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the food chain, of agriculture and of rural economies as well as being an important historical record of an event with significant social consequences.

As a life-long countryman with close connections to farming my viewpoint is biased, I came to this book with a broad understanding of the impact of the foot and mouth epidemic but I remain frustrated that, apart from David Black’s excellent but too short essay, I left the book without a full understanding of why the crisis was allowed to happen. To protect our farmers and their herds is arguably a greater imperative now than ever before, the dairy industry, if not on its knees, is in a state of crisis and at a time, in the aftermath of Brexit, when the whole future of British farming is unclear we can ill afford a repeat of the 2001 or 1967 foot and mouth epidemic.

Notes on Text

(i) The violin was not invented until the 11th century but why spoil a good story with too many facts. The historian Tacitus, who was alive at the time, places Nero 60 km away in Antium at the time of the fire and dismisses the story of him singing about the fall of Troy when he heard the news as a rumour. 

Sunday afternoon, Mozart Street, Granby, Liverpool, 1975 from the series Survival Programmes: In Britain's Inner Cities - Paul Trevor, Exit Photography Group 1975

Sunday afternoon, Mozart Street, Granby, Liverpool, 1975 from the series Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities – Paul Trevor, Exit Photography Group 1975

(ii) The Exit Photography Group comprised Nicholas Battye, Chris Steele-Perkins and Paul Trevor. According to Amber Online (1 &4) “Between 1974 and 1979, against a backdrop of rising concern about the converging issues of race, poverty, Exit Photography Group captured the growing crisis in the inner cities. In London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Glasgow and Belfast Nicholas Battye, Chris Steele-Perkins and Paul Trevor documented the scale and complexity of the situation, and the different responses to it.” 

Oil Spill #12 A ship drifts amidst a heavy band of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, May, 2010 from the series Spill - Daniel Betrá 2010

Oil Spill #12
A ship drifts amidst a heavy band of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, May, 2010 from the series Spill – Daniel Betrá 2010

(iii) Daniel Betrá’s aerial photographs are a shocking study of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. (2 & 5); the perfect repost to the argument that photographers should not make tragedy beautiful, it is the very beauty of these photographs that makes their message so powerful. It not only asks us to question how man can be so casual when harvesting oil in the natural environment it challenges us with the paradox of aesthetic beauty arising from an environmental and human disaster. His series on the Amazon rainforest is equally powerful and quite brilliantly conceived, amongst fifty five aerial photographs of the impact of deforestation he includes just two grown level shots, one of the perpetrators and one of a human victim.

(iv) Roger Breeze is a Lancashire Farmer and academic working with government agencies to address the threat of biological weapons and the spread of disease.

(v) I refer any interested reader to the BBC’s chronological record of the outbreak. (11) To my uneducated eye there were a number of significant errors made by not just the Government of the day but their predecessors.

  • On 19th February signs of Foot and Mouth (FMD) were identified at an abattoir in Essex. According to BBC “It is now believed that the virus had already spread to 57 farms nationwide in the days before the discovery”, the Government’s contingency plan was based on the assumption that only 10 farms would have been infected before the disease was identified. This suggests the plans drawn up after the 1967 outbreak had not been revisited and updated in 34 years. 
  • On 20th February the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) confirms that the tests have proved positive.
  • On 23rd February the government introduces a ban on the movement of animals from affected areas.

Between the 20th and the 23rd a livestock market was held in Longtown Combria. Because  an export ban was already in place there were more animals on sale than normal. Cumbria suffered worse than any other area of Britain, 41% of all cases identified, the layman might conclude that the failure to ban all animal movements on 20th February was a significant contributory factor.

Sources

Books

(3) McCullin, Don (2007) In England. London: Jonathan Cape

(4) Battye, Nicholas. Steele-Perkins, Chris and Trevor, Paul (1982) Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

(5) Betrá, Daniel (2010) Spill, London:Gost

(6) Darwell, John (2007) Dark Days. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

(9) Franklin, Stuart (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon

Internet
(1) Rigby, Graeme (2009) Survival Programmes by Exit Photography Group (accessed at Amber On-Line 19.8.16) – http://www.amber-online.com/exhibitions/survival-programmes-by-exit-photography-group

(2) Betrá, Daniel (2010) Spill (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.8.16) – http://danielbeltra.photoshelter.com/portfolio/G0000N9uDgKewQWk

(7) Darwell, John (ND) About John Darwell (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.8.16) – http://johndarwell.com/index.php?r=page/default/view&id=1

(8) Darwell, John (ND) A Black Dog Came Calling (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.8.16) – http://johndarwell.com/index.php?r=image/default/category&alias=a-black-dog-came-calling

(10) Bruce, Jack and Brown, Pete (1971) Cream – SWLABR (accessed at Song Meanings 20.8.16) – http://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3458764513820556084/

(11) BBC (2011) Foot and Mouth Outbreak of 2001 (accessed at BBC 20.8.16) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-12483017

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Assignment 4: Self Assessment

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Introduction

This assignment series comprised two separate sets of photographs; a shoot undertaken on 23rd June 2016 of polling stations and a portrait shoot two weeks later. The weather on polling day was dull and grey with intermittent rain and the polling stations were surprisingly deserted. These conditions dictated the overall aesthetics of the series and early in the day I decided to use the flat grey skies and the lack of human presence as a consistent theme for the pictures. As this suggested a deadpan aesthetic I also kept the compositions simple looking for angles that, where possible, included the polling station signs which were the key to the series.

The portrait shoot was conducted on a large balcony in early evening and, in contrast to the polling station shoot, the weather was generally bright. However I wanted the portraits to stand out from the polling station background when the images were combined so I used a single diffused flash gun as a fill in.

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills

I cannot suggest that this series was technically challenging. The photographs themselves are straight records. The polling stations are post processed to bring out as much contrast as possible from what was very flat light and the portraits were cut out from the original background and layered into the final pictures; fiddly and time consuming but not difficult.

It was important to this series that the portraits in particular focussed on the subject, this was a collaboration and my approach needed to be objective, non-judgemental and neutral. I had no influence over the signs written by the subjects so my editing is reduced to the selection of six examples from each shoot. I assume that an assessor would have no desire to view more than six images but I have included all twenty-six polling stations (here) and twenty-six portraits (here) as part of my backup research to show that the series could have been extended to the full twenty-six.

Quality of Outcome

I believe that there was a strong concept for this series as explained in the assignment. Elections or referendums are reported and analysed at a national level, we remember television coverage from sophisticated high-tech studios, interviews with politicians outside Westminster, live feeds from Downing Street or, in this instance, the European Parliament; yet, the decision has been made in obscure and banal little buildings that become political institutions for the day. The contrast between the origin of the decision and its implications was so great that I wanted to record the other side of the politics, the places of decision and then combine this with people who may or may not have voted but who had an opinion, interestingly everyone I approached did have an opinion, even if the priest struggled to make his statement neutral and one woman thought it all irrelevant.

Demonstration of Creativity

I have commented in the assignment that to adopt Gillian Wearing’s Signs as a reference point is fraught with the risk of plagiarism as the idea itself is so powerful that any reprise appears to be a copy. The idea is quite obviously not my own but, despite its effectiveness, it has been used so infrequently  that I believed that it was the right vehicle for capturing and recording stranger’s opinions.

The use of a simple montage was experimental and I had originally intended to take this much further but all my attempts to piece together several components ended in disappointment. Perhaps not a revelation but my attempts did highlight the fact that if one wants to follow in John Goto’s footsteps the final image needs to be preplanned and all the components photographed to order.

The most interesting aspect of this project was the idea of working to a set number of subjects. For both shoots I set out to capture exactly twenty-six images and needed to work within specific and inflexible timetables. This is clearly not unusual in a studio setting but I normally collect pictures of outdoor subjects over an extended period of time, taking time to reflect and re-plan between shoots.

Context

This project is strongly contextualised and influenced by a spectrum of very different photographers and artists. This included re-visting practitioners such as Mark Power, Gillian Wearing, Ed Ruscha, Paul Seawright and Eric Tabucchi whom I have previously studied and others that I looked at for the first time on the advice of my tutor such as John Goto, Joel Sternfeld, Henrik Duncker and Yrjö Tuunanen. I thoroughly enjoy the research element of these courses; look closely at the work of any established photographer and you will inevitably find something new and exciting.

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Assignment 4: The Architecture of Democracy

Introduction

On June 23rd 2016 voters in Britain were asked “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”, in the lead up to the referendum the public was repeatedly told by the press and politicians that this was the most important political decision we had made since voting to join the Common Market in 1975.

At 07:00, on what was a damp, grey day, polling stations opened across the country; the only common link between them being the pre-printed posters with the words “Polling Station” in a simple black font.

Just after seven I began to visit and photograph twenty-six stations in my local area (here). In the course of the day I visited churches, schools, a Territorial Army headquarters, village halls, community centres and a village hall that doubles as a cricket pavilion. In architectural terms none of these buildings are notable, substantial but bland Victorian structures, post war primary schools, a colonial-style wooden bungalow, contemporary and brutally ugly low rise blocks, a modernist concrete school, medieval and modern churches. For fifteen hours they acquired the status of political institutions, centres of power, part of the apparatus of democracy; a status conferred by a cheaply produced poster that was variously pinned to a door, propped on a chair or lodged behind the windscreen of the Returning Officer’s car. Paradoxically the decision made in these banal and innocent buildings would impact the greatest political institutions across the capital cities of Europe and would be reported on the front pages of newspapers across the world (here).

In the weeks that followed the vote to leave the Union we appeared no clearer on the implications of our decision than we had been before the vote when lost in a fog of opinion, mis-information, scare mongering, claim and counter-claim all filtered through the leave-orientated press and the vested interests of career politicians.

Exactly three weeks after polling day I set up a make-shift studio in Salisbury and asked twenty six people, mostly strangers, to express their thoughts on the result (here).

The buildings were selected at random, a set of twenty-six that I could visit in a day, and the twenty-six subjects of the opinion poll effectively selected themselves by wandering into my studio. I value the random nature of both series, the opportunity to edit the results was removed by strictly working to the number twenty-six in both cases. By relinquishing some of my editorial control I have distanced myself from the result; one element of subjectivity has been removed.

The series explores a major political decision made, not in Westminster, but in banal and mundane places by ordinary people. In effect it records a revolution; politicians on both sides expected Britain to vote to remain but their constituents imposed their will in a decision that impacts 750 million Europeans.

The Architecture of Democracy

Dockenfield 23rd June 2016 - Steve MIddlehurst

Dockenfield 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Farnham 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Farnham 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Guildford 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Guildford 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Holly Lodge 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Holly Lodge 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Thursley 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Thursley 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Rowledge 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Rowledge 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Notes on Contextualisation

The influences for this series have developed over a long period and as such, apart from the very obvious reference to Gillian Wearing’s Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say, (discussed here and here) the key references that were in my mind included Mark Power’s 26 Different Endings (discussed here) and John Goto’s Ukadia (discussed here).

Wearing’s Signs is an awkward reference, it is difficult to use this idea without creating a pale imitation of her significant 1992 project. As discussed previously (here) it is such a powerful idea that, rather than inspiring photographers to head for the streets equipped with a marker pen and white card, it appears to have closed off the approach. However, because it is a collaboration between subject and photographer it will always achieve an unique result. Wearing’s black policeman holding the sign “Help” is an enduring image of the nineties and to a much lesser degree the Asian man with his “I’m Confused” sign defines my series.

John Goto’s influence is probably less obvious. I set out to collect sets of building blocks and had visualised one or more montaged images using flags (here), polling stations (here), people (here) and background details (here) but when starting to plan the final images I realised that I wanted a far simpler end result. In practice Goto’s approach is technically challenging with each component of his complex images planned and photographed in staged shoots, an approach that was impractical for this project.

The number twenty-six is a reference to two photographers; Ed Ruscha for introducing both this empty number and the concept of seriality and neutrality in a photo series (discussed here); and Mark Power who adopted the same number in his 26 Different Endings. Power but is more relevant here for his banal subject matter which helped me set the aesthetic parameters for this project.

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A4 Process: Background

Thursley 23rd June 2016 - Steve MIddlehurst

Thursley 23rd June 2016 – Steve MIddlehurst

I planned assignment 4 as a series of montaged images based on four sets of building blocks, these detail and background pictures being the forth one of those components. The main surprise on 23rd June was the deserted nature of the polling stations, I had expected to see and photograph activists from either side or to find some leave and remain posters outside the perimeters of the polling stations, but in practice the stations were generally deserted with no lobbyists or advertising in sight.

The fact that the locations were not as expected changed my approach to the day. I had hoped to be introducing colour into the dull grey day by using the leave and remain posters and, what I expected to be, colourful supporters of either argument. By the time I reached the third location I was actively avoiding including people in the shots and had few opportunities to include colour in the way I had originally intended.

Ash Vale 23rd June 2016 - Steve MIddlehurst

Ash Vale 23rd June 2016 – Steve MIddlehurst

It rained throughout the middle of the day and many of the locations entailed wet shoots which I particularly dislike; however, at Ash Vale a voter arrived with a bright red umbrella at the perfect moment.

Holly Lodge 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Holly Lodge 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

And, at Holly Lodge Primary School, a building with an art-deco feel to it, the playground was imaginatively and colourfully decorated. Otherwise June 23rd was not a colourful day. However, there were occasional details that attracted attention.

Pirbright 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Pirbright 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Pirbright spoke to dual functionality of these buildings, the polling station signs interrupting their normal routines.

Vote Leave June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Vote Leave June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

The printed sign became the consistent element of nearly every photograph and naturally led to the use of signs in the two components that I finally decided to use.

23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

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A4 Process: The Portraits – Twenty-Six Opinions

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

When Gillian Wearing asked strangers to write their thoughts on a card before being photographed it appears that she closed off the idea for other photographers. There are a small number of practitioners who have explored similar ideas (here) but its most common use is for selfies posted on line becoming something of an internet cliché.

Having collected twenty-six polling stations to represent the banal locations where the referendum was decided on June 23rd (here) I wanted to bring at least an equal number of voters into the project. Wearing’s signs offered the opportunity to include not just this minuscule sample of the electorate but to also enable them to express an opinion on Brexit now that the result was known.

I selected a neutral and common setting for the portraits with the intent that the repetitive background would not influence the viewers reading of the photographs, having the effect of focussing attention onto the subject and their hand written statement.

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Each subject was asked to document their feelings towards Brexit. Apart from asking them to stand in the same corner of a outdoor space they were given no direction regarding their pose or expression. The intent was to capture an emotional reaction to their own statement.

The great strength of this approach is that it enables collaboration between photographer and subject, I made no attempt to manipulate the written statements and by photographing each subject in the same way I have endeavoured to remain neutral. The series has some attributes of documentary journalism, an open questions is asked and the interviewee’s answer is faithfully recorded.

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

The subjects reacted in a number of different ways. Some “leavers” gleefully reported their part in the result; they generally look more cheerful which suggests that both “leavers” and “remainers” instinctively adopted expressions that reflected their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the result.

Looking at my overall project and the idea that twenty-six polling stations (here) are linked together by a piece of white paper printed with the statement “Polling Station” there is synergy with this component of the same project; a group of subjects who effectively selected themselves for the project by wandering into my makeshift “studio” are linked together by a white A3 card.

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

If we consider this series in the context of August Sander’s classic study of his fellow Germans in People of the 20th Century which provided a “simple description” of his subjects (1) this series becomes a typology but by not offering any text to describe the subjects profession or, in Sander’s terms “class” I intend the natural ambiguity of the photographs to be retained. By not guiding the viewer with my text the subject controls the message, it becomes a democratic form of communication and therefore as an objective documentary portrait as it is possible to achieve.

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Notes on Text

(i) Mathematically orientated observers may argue that the series represents twenty-seven rather than twenty-six opinions but one is a self portrait and only included to balance the nine by nine grids.

Sources

Books

Internet

(1) Sander, August (accessed at Atget Photography 18.12.15) – http://www.atgetphotography.com/Selection/sander.html

 

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A4 Research: The Handwritten Sign and Gillian Wearing’s Legacy

Salisbury July 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Salisbury July 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

“When you are working with strangers there’s that chance element which is a way of finding things that you don’t think are there. It dislodges the perception of what is in front of your eyes.” (1: p.45)

In 1992 Gillian Wearing created her series Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say, (discussed here ) and in doing so not only announced her arrival as one of Britain’s most influential conceptual artists but also nearly created a sub-genre of portraiture, the idea of anonymous subjects expressing an opinion through the medium of a written sign. I say “nearly” because Wearing’s Signs project is so recognisable that is seems as if photographers are frightened of using it as a reference point.

Bob Dylan Subterranean Blues 1965

Bob Dylan Subterranean Blues 1965

Wearing herself presumably felt that she owned the copyright to the idea when she considered suing the BMP DDB advertising agency in 1998 for using people holding signs in a VW Golf advertisement. (2) The advertising agency argued that they had taken inspiration from a number of sources including the promotional video for Bob Dylan’s 1965 Subterranean Blues in which he holds up signs including key words from the lyrics and an earlier Levi advertisement.

As far as I can tell no other well known photographer has adopted the same approach as Signs which suggests that the idea was so powerful that it has closed off this particular avenue for exploring strangers’ inner thoughts. However, the concept is so established as a form of advertising, protest or social commentary that the internet overflows with stock images of models holding blank signs ready for the licensee to add their message. Additionally a small number of contemporary practitioners  have based series on the same concept.

From Project Unbreakable - Grace Brown

From Project Unbreakable – Grace Brown

Grace Brown was only nineteen in 2011 and a photography student at New York’s School of Visual Arts when she started her blog, Project Unbreakable (3). After hearing a friend tell her story Brown began photographing women who had been victims of sexual assault; each victim holds a handwritten sign documenting a quote from their assailant. When Brown began to post the portraits on-line the project rapidly expanded both in terms of its scope by including photographs of child abuse and domestic violence and by accepting contributions from victims across the globe. (i) Brown’s role evolved from photographer to curator whilst the nature of the photographs change from social documentary by a concerned photographer to deeply personal statements expressed through self-portraiture or assisted self-portraiture.

Wearing took over 600 photographers when working on Signs and has revisited the concept on other occasions. Reviewing the many images that are available in print or on-line there is a wide spectrum of the type of comments she captured. They range from confessional statements to what I would see as conscious cleverness, a desire to be saying something meaningful for the camera. In either case the request by a photographer to speak (write) ones mind often seems to extract something that would otherwise remain unsaid. In that sense it is a powerful concept, the still photography equivalent of a fly-on-the-wall documentary or the confessional.

In Brown’s collection whether we consider her pictures or the vernacular selfie stye snap-shots that dominate her blog we see the phenomenon of photography revealing a secret; a sense that  no one has previously asked to hear these people’s distressing stories and the opportunity to write a brief statement and then be photographed creates a tiny crack in the dam that humans instinctively build around memories of traumatic experiences.

Not Listening from the series What is Your Biggest Regret? - Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

Not Listening from the series What is Your Biggest Regret? – Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

Another young photographer who has used the hand written sign as a way to extract people’s inner most thoughts is Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi. For her series Which is Your Biggest Regret (5) Dragoi openly cites Gillian Wearing as her reference but there are distinct differences in her approach. Firstly, whereas Wearing retained a snap-shot aesthetic, a certain found untidiness about her pictures, there is sense that the locations and perhaps some of subjects for some of Dragoi’s photographs have been carefully selected and by using a square format camera we are often offered far more context than in Wearing’s tighter shots. This doesn’t necessarily detract from the series, arguably it puts Dragoi’s own stamp on the work.

Not Listening from the series What is Your Biggest Regret? - Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

Not Listening from the series What is Your Biggest Regret? – Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

The second significant difference is that Dragoi has narrowed the breath of responses so that people are restricted to naming their regrets. This narrowing often has the effect of encouraging the “lie” that “I have no regrets”, good in a song but otherwise hardly believable but it has also extracted some surprising confessions “Shagging Lee’s Mum” or ” When I stole my sister’s money” or, my favourite, “What I did last night” which not only creates an open ended narrative but, as a picture, is made more interesting by the sign  hiding the subject’s face.

You're Really Pretty for a Dark Skinned Girl from  the series Racial Microaggressions - Kyun Kim 2014

You’re Really Pretty for a Dark Skinned Girl from the series Racial Microaggressions – Kyun Kim 2014

The third example of Wearing’s work inspiring young photographers is Kiyun Kim, a Korean American artist with a degree in Visual Arts from Fordham University. Her project Racial Microagression (6) is a social critique on the type of background racism that rarely attracts comment, that may even appear to be acceptable to certain people, but that is, in reality is as racist as the “N” word given the intent is to establish racial superiority quite apart from being patronising, insulting and hurtful.

Putting to one side the depressingly familiar type of abuse this is an interesting photographic project. Like Dragoi and Brown the comment has been narrowed to a single topic and like Brown the subject matter contains a strong social critique. Kim modestly does not list photography as one of her skills but she should; I like the undirected nature of this series, I responded positively to Dragoi’s work but the sense of staging in some pictures runs the risk of detracting or under-valuing the text on the cards; in Kim’s case she has given her subjects free rein and the poses and facial expressions compliment the written statements and bring out something about the personalities of the subjects. For the hand-written text to have the right level of influence on the photograph it needs to be given equal status with the visual depiction of the subject so that the two work together, a third “artful” element is unnecessary.

I think it is interesting to look back at these four practitioners. Wearing is a conceptual art who uses photography as one of many mediums, Brown was a photograph student but through her work became a campaigner and curator and Kim is a graphic designer who surprinsgly doesn’t even list photography amongst her hobbies. Only Dargoi is a practicing photographer.

To return to my opening point it is surprising that Wearing’s idea has not been picked up and evolved by more practitioners. Photographer’s strive to tell the viewer something non-visual about their subjects and the hand written sign is one way to collaborate fully with the subject and to offer them the chance to close down the meaning of their portrait.

Notes on Text

(i) The photographs on the site are deeply upsetting and highlight the need for these issues to be far more openly discussed; one hopes that the recent focus on celebrity abusers has helped educate both the authorities and the public for the need to listen to the victims. Brown herself reached the point when she could no longer bring herself to read the victims’ statements and the project closed down in 2015.

Sources

Books

(1) Wearing, Gillian (1999) Gillian Wearing (2011 edition). London: Phaidon Press

Internet

(2) McCann, Paul (1998) VW Stole my Ideas, Says Turner Winner (accessed at Independent 7.8.16) – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/vw-stole-my-ideas-says-turner-winner-1164356.html

(3) Brown, Grace (2011 to 2016) Project Unbreakable (accessed at Project Unbreakable 7.8.6) – http://project-unbreakable.org/about/

(4) Stokel-Walker, Chris (2012) Project Unbreakable: Stories of Surviving Sexual Assault (accessed at Storyboard 7.8.6) – http://storyboard.tumblr.com/post/32733584157/project-unbreakable-stories-of-surviving-sexual

(5) Raluca Dragoi, Alecsandro (2015) Which is Your Biggest Regret ? (accessed at the photographer’s website 7.8.16) – http://www.alecsandraralucadragoi.com/which-is-your-biggest-regret-i

(6) Kim, Kiyun (2014) Racial Microagression (accessed at the photographer’s website 7.8.16) – http://kimkiyun.com/#/fine-art/microaggressions/

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