I arrive early on a pre-booked train for the OCA study day with Sharon Boothroyd since the time of meeting appears to have changed; spend a while walking around Oxford before heading for the Jam Factory, our meeting place. When I arrive, Sharon is already there – a mix up means that everyone is now coming at 12 rather than eleven.
I chat a little with Sharon who has only been a tutor at the OCA for only a few months. She asks me what I have been up to and I briefly relate my short visit to Switzerland to photograph the inauguration of a Buddhist centre. No fee but I was not charged for accommodation and food while there; what I actually got out of it was some photographs of Tibetan Sacred Dance taking place in Europe rather than the Himalayas.
Sharon shows me a fascinating article in The Guardian Weekend magazine (28.7.2012) in which different photojournalists discuss their feelings about photographing people in distress when they might actually be helping them. The words of one photographer, Ian Berry, seem particularly relevant when he says … “When you are working with a camera, you tend to disassociate yourself from what’s going on. Your’e just an observer!” Sharon’s own blog is called Photoparley.
As the midday hour approaches, people start to arrive although only 7 of a possible ten eventually turn up. We start chatting and Jose Navarro’s blog “Why” about the recent shooting inside a cinema showing the launch of a new Batman film; Jose’s main objection seems to be with the BBC using unsubstantiated and poor quality video of a sensationalist nature that has been shot on a mobile phone.
The day starts with us introducing ourselves by name and saying a little about our involvement with photography and/or the OCA. One student echoes my thoughts when he says he is doing the OCA course to try and inject meaning into his work rather than just make cliched images. Most of us seem to have been photographing for sometime, at least a couple from childhood and the spectre of the Box Brownie is raised. The support offered by the study days is a relief from the isolation some of us feel in our studies. Eddie, a frequent attendee to such days, remarks that he thinks the days are more about art than photography and I guess he has his point though exactly what he understands as art and photography is not something we start to discuss. One student says he is setting up a wet darkroom and plans to go back to analogue ways of workng.
We discuss blogs and their possible content. There has recently been a post on the We Are OCA website about “learning logs” and the different levels of interest they might evoke. I do not completely agree with the sentiments expressed since the occasional out of context remark such as “the coffee was good” can help to create a wider sense of context even though the subject does not in any way demand it. Blogs need to be well organised on the site so one can navigate to what one might want to read or look at. Someone expresses the need for privacy on their blog and not wanting to share it with others since it contains ideas and thoughts that are not necessarily valid points rather conjecture.
Why do we love photography? Eddie, by whom I find myself sitting, loves photography but feels frustrated by his lack of technical ability in actually making photographs since he would rather be developing the aesthetic side. He is attracted by the challenge and so am I.
I do not love photography! I see it as an almost organic approach to life, a way to see the world and understand it intelligently. There can be an obsessive side to it as cameras become objects of desire, adult toys, that we like to play around with. A Freudian interpretation is that the camera represents the phallus and for the middle aged man who no longer has the zest of a younger man, it maybe a welcomed substitute. Cameras can be seems as phallic objects and photography as a kind of totemism.
Photography can give a sense of the aesthetic, the freedom of expression. I find it can help me to stay on my own two feet and not become too dreamy or philosophical.
Who are our favourite photographers? I mention Raghu Rai, the quintessential Indian photographer, who no one seems to have heard of although he is an associate of Magnum. Sharon mentions photographers such as Hannah Starkey who think a lot about the images they create, making a lot of time to produce finely constructed images that also possess narrative. Jill, a new student who has only been with the OCA for about 5 weeks but has done a foundation course in photography, mentions a diverse range of photographers; Jeff Wall and his constructed images, Robert Frank and his use of the frame and text as well as Sebastian Salgado who produces such interesting work with themes such as migration and work. There is someone who doesn’t have a favourite photographer seeing photography as a means of data collection that can later be used; Sharon mentioned Geoffrey Crewdson to him. The name Salgado crops up again as others express their views as well as Geoffrey Crewdson with Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson being inspiring photographers from the past. Someone has seen an exhibition by Anna Fox about Butlins that they liked; Martin Parr is mentioned in connection with this, his images being worth looking at out of interest even if one does not like them very much.
We walk to a nearby gallery to see Sharon’s exhibition. The Art Jericho Gallery as it is called often shows photography in it’s constantly changing programme.
“Representations of the Real” is the title of Sharon’s talk which focuses on her work. She is a full time mother as well as a photographer and her blog Photoparley is worth a visit.
She made her first series of images while a teenager when she was visiting the USA for a summer holiday camp. The images are of people she encountered and shot in black and white. Later on, while doing a degree in photography, she photographed women in Kazan (one of the largest cities of Russia situated in Tatarstan). These are of women in their environments such as their place of work or home and also includes girls. The approach is documentary.
The title of the exhibition that we see on the walls around us is “If you get married again, will you still love me?” and is about the relationship between children and their fathers who have moved out of the family home owing to divorce. The work was done for her masters degree. This kind of break up is not something that she has experienced directly in her life but something she has been aware of particularly through the Fathers for Justice movement which has highlighted the trouble men have faced by being separated from their children. She initiated the project by interviewing fathers who had gone through divorce and ensuing separation from their children; it took about 6 months of talking with such men to make notes on the kinds of situations they experienced since actually photographing the real situations felt like an intrusion. Instead, she created her own sets roping in friends who were given prints in return for acting out the parts other men had experienced. The style of these images is documentary and yet Sharon uses a tripod mounted medium format camera with colour negative film for it’s richness of colour and detail, along with a couple of lights. Fathers portrayed in these photographs have been generally supportive of what she is doing. The images accurately convey a certain breakdown in communication that is characteristic of these kind of situations as one OCA student who has been though the experience of divorce recalls.
Sharon shows us other work that includes “Disrupted Vision” which involves photographing people using a relatively inexpensive polaroid camera, showing the result to the person photographed and making a note of their reaction to their image and writing it below on the polaroid itself; she initially, had people write their own comments but their writing was often illegible or over-filled the space. Sharon is interested in the kind of dialogue that photography can create.
Another body of work is called “The Glass Between Us” and is a series of photographs made looking through the windows of people’s houses; before making these images, she asked the owner’s permission and this was usually granted.
A present body of work is called “Edelweiss” and is about the world of the child seen through adult eyes. For this, her children are the subject. She has also been using other people’s or found photographs and creating montages; this has attracted interest but she is at present unsure of the legality of this work.
Sharon answers questions from the group of OCA students who, along with a few members of the public, are gathered in the gallery space. Someone wonders why she does not use black and white (or to give it another name, “black and shite”) photography as this might help create a much more moody look to her photographs which in many cases are of emotional situations; Sharon however, likes the nuances offered by colour and more expressive of what she is communicating. She does not go for digitally constructing situations either, her work being more performance related with actual people playing out appropriate roles. I am struck by her sense of composition which tends to be informal; this is not really deliberate on her part since she takes many photographs of each situation and what is important is the facial expressions and other body language rather than the arrangement of elements within the frame. What strikes me overall about these photographs is that they are of intimate situations and yet constructed so the sense of intimacy is false; this generates a feeling of awkwardness.
On the walk back, I meet a new OCA student called Gill who obviously has a good insight into the nature of photography; we chat a bit about the OCA. Her blog of the event is here.
There is another exhibition running in the same gallery showing images from an abandoned mental asylum but I only look at those from Sharon’s exhibition since this is what interests me; I want to understand what that is all about if I can. Before taking the train home though, with a couple of other students, I visit another art photographic exhibition in what looks like an old factory. This is a simulated video made from various digital sources; I need to catch a train and so do have time to see it the whole way through. It is eerie and intriguing yet the relevance of U.S. soldier training is questionable.