An audition with Anna Fox @ UCA, Farnham

A group of OCA students with Anna Fox, (second row centre) with OCA tutor Sharon Boothroyd to her left and OCA CEO Gareth Dent at the University of Creative Arts in Farnham. I made three tripod mounted exposures of which only one was used for this image.
The audition with Anna Fox which went on for a couple of hours owing to the frequent questions that fellow students as well as myself came up with. One of my questions concerned Anna Fox’s use of cotrolled lighting resulting in her using assistants and quite a complicated set up. Was she doing this just to make technically proficent pictures or was she also making a statement by doing so? Her answer was that it was partly out of necessity and to avoid lower light levels yet it was also part of the statement she was making; it seems that Anna, perhaps because she is a woman, is working intuitively rather than in the more calculated way of more technically orientated male photographers. Her intuitive approach was something I became increasingly aware of.
What interested me and also surprised me was her use of multiple images. Although her work is documentary, she is not a journalist for a newspaper providing hard fact and likes to create composition post-camera; images may be joined together while objects within the frame might be removed or just moved. Not surprisingly, her ethics were called into question by at least one student to which she replied that although she does not advertise this practice neither does she hide it. In fact, it is widely recognised and often discussed among photographers. For some of us, Gareth Dent the OCA CEO also admitted to surprise, this aspect of her work was part of the hidden nature of her work that she had said she would discuss.
She digitally joins images when necessary and although this is not mentioned in books, she happily talks openly about it. This approach allows for a range of composition; she keeps a camera on a tripod. Creates compositions that are not direct representations of reality as objects can be moved within the image!
She uses a lighting crew on location with director which means several people helping; digital post-production follows. Document and documentary are different terms. The critic Grierson coined the tem documentary which means telling stories about what is real!
Another interesting aspect of Anna Fox’s work is her use of image and text which she combines to create new meanings. This is very evident in one of her first books, Workstations, where quotes from various sources such as publications about business, are used to add depth to the stark images of people in offices during the 1980s. I asked Anna about the people in her photographs; did she obtain formal permission from these people to use their images. She replied that today she would probably have to but this was the 80’s and she knew the people involved. In fact, she never photographs people without making some kind of contact with them even when working in public spaces.
AF runs a two year course at The University of the Creative Arts in Farnham including both a BA and a PhD. Her father was a keen photographer and so she was exposed to “great photographers” early with a lot of books around the house by photographers like Tony Ray Jones, Brassai and others. She did an undergraduate course then started working and exhibiting; she failed her entry to the RCA but 15 years later was teaching there! She studied at Farnham where she now teaches, learning directly from Martin Parr, Karen Knorr and Paul Graham. There is a broader vision of photography nowadays.
She has done a number of books, a number of which she shows us. They are passed around the seminar room. One ??? is mentioned in the 3’rd volume of the Parr/Badger series on the Photobook which gives it a certain authority.
When doing a book, one needs to ask if the work fits into a book? Publishers of photobooks are getting harder to find. Design is important as is working with someone who understands you. It is hard to promote a book you are not happy with. Apart from her own artist’s books, she has also done an academic book “Behind the Image” which is about researching photographyand aimed at undergraduate students; she is doing another one about careers in photography. She has jointly edited Langford’s Basic Photography, a publication she tries to update regularily. There is a book about her called “Anna Fox Photographs 1983-2007” by Val Williams, a writer about photography, and is published by Photoworks; Val wanted her name on the cover of the book and Anna was happy to oblige. This book contains an essay on Anna Fox and a selection of her work; it is surely worth reading if one wants a deeper insight into her work.
I have a copy of her first major book, “Workstations” her first book. She received help from the Museum of London. She photographed in offices, collecting quotes from newspapers, magazines and books including novels then combining the two. She sees text and image together with an imbalance resulting if there is too much emphasis on one or the other. The lay out of text and image in this book was a conscious mirroring of magazines and other productions. The text works as a kind of critical commentary and it’s combination with image
At the time she was working, a remark that occupied her mind was “No such thing as society!” by Margaret Thatcher; society was growing to be much more selfish. Her main equipment was a Makina Plaubel, a camera like a Mamiya 7; it was used by both Parr and Graham, it being a lightweight camera with toylike appeal which helps in social situations.
When doing Workstations, photographing people was not such an issue as nowadays when permission to use another’s photograph more important. One comment made about one image poses the question of whether an individual pictured is really looking at the legs of a woman!! In one photograph, there was trouble with one woman who wanted her skirt aibrushed to cover more of her legs!
She once refused to allow a photo to be used for advertising because it had people in who had not given this kind of permission; it was also would be against her documentary ethic in which she is not looking to the short term but creating something of historical reference.
She became interested in the subject of leisure; Tony Ray-Jones was a major influence as well as Parr. People expect to be photographed when having fun. In looking at leisure, she is examining a structured part of our society.
She needed to get permission to photograph in Butlins. Her medium format camera did not feel appropriate while she was wandering around Butlins so she decided to use a 5by4 camera instead. She asked for permission from people to photograph them; they warmed more to the idea of a set up camera and the ritual of photography.
There are no captions to the Butlins photographs unlike Workstations; an overtly political text might give wrong idea about Butlins. She feels an affinity with and is not attempting to create satire although she considers the place a bit over-priced.
Butlins is very multi-cultural, disabled friendly; however, Butlins do not want to promote their business as such. The Red Coats very friendly! Butlins are concerned over the way their business is portrayed hence photos of adult parties not good for encouraging families with children to come.
Has her photographs manipulated by people “elsewhere“; she would like to do more of this but does not have the advanced skills necessary. OK to have others Photoshop one’s work! It is another skill but not every photographer has to have them. Lot of people behind scenes of master photographer. Lot of stylists, assistants etc One can always override work of Photoshopper if one does not lie what they have done.
Not every image in a project is made up of different images an there is always room for strong images that work. People look for joins in images … !!! Sometimes a lot of images used e.g. 24 yet often just a few such as 3.
Documentary is a story about truth; selective, printed on flat paper … it can never be true! Photojournalism suggests otherwise yet often not as true as assumed.


2 thoughts on “An audition with Anna Fox @ UCA, Farnham

  1. A really useful write-up, thank you Amano. I couldn’t make the talk, but it sounds like it was really interesting. Your writing has given me a good idea of what to expect when I watch the recording.

    I take slight offense an early statement you make though: “it seems that Anna, perhaps because she is a woman, is working intuitively”.

    I would suggest she was working intuitively because she is an artist, rather than a women. Many women, myself included, are technically oriented, and many men are very creative and intuitive in the way they work.

  2. I take your point Lucy!! Thanks.
    There has been quite a bit of discussion recently about women and photography and my suggestion that Anna Fox’s intuitiveness might be a feminine quality was responding to this.
    Of course, intuition is found among artists as a whole and also sometimes among scientists. Marie Curie for instance and her discovery of radium.
    I think women do intuition better than men as a rule but this is not a hardfast concept.

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