This post is a log of my path through this assignment which was slow and convoluted. It’s not been edited to any large extent but is provided to give more documentation. My OCA thread for peer feedback can be seen here: https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/context-narrative-two-sides-of-the-story/5880
I had thought about this assignment for a while. I wanted to show a couple of truths about the same place rather than constructing a fake truth. Imber village seemed like a strong candidate.
It’s an isolated village on Salisbury Plain which was evacuated by the Ministry of War in 1943 to train US troops for the European invasion. War went, the US troops went, and the village remained in MoW hands with no access available to civilians, apart, allegedly, from those who were in the right social circles to ride through the village with the local hunt. The council houses, built a year before the village was evacuated, were vandalised and damaged by military activity. Many protests and a court case later, the rights to the land were decided to remain with the MoD with provisos that access be permitted to the church and the two graveyards for up to 50 days each year. These religious sites were not part of the training area and had to be kept secured and untouched. The roads through Imber are closed to civilian traffic on all days except the open days.
So you have a village, closed to the public/open to the army most of the time, homing a listed 400 year old church which is closed to the army and the public most of the time. And the contradictions abound. The gardens grew over decades ago, but you still see crocuses, daffs, and violets growing through every spring. You walk past manicured lawns and grassy areas with well-maintained fences surrounding shells of buildings, but with empty smoke grenades on the trimmed grass. Then you walk into a civilian graveyard that has seen no gardening for 3-5 months. Verges and surrounding fields abound with flora and fauna, including several rare and endangered species that flourish on the relative lack of interference found on an MoD training estate. You can have tea and biscuits in the ancient church, but the water is from bottles and power is from a generator. No landlines, no mobile signal, no telephone box, no toilets, no internet. The pub’s not served since 1943. Yet, the roads are packed on the days when the checkpoints are open. The last few years have seen a relatively gentle touch from the military, and hence a relatively feral approach from civilians ignoring the danger signs and exploring and playing in the buildings. This year, with training increasing again, there has been a strong presence from land patrols and uniformed staff, and every single access taped off except to the church and the graveyard.
I was pretty sure I could get two sides to a story here. Photography is not straightforward and is restricted to the very brief opening periods at August, Christmas/New Year and Easter. The place is rammed every time, and the weather is frequently dire. So I discussed the idea with my tutor who thought it worth pursuing, possibly with the angle of comparing the military side of the village with the plants and flowers. He made the good point that the British Army is very keen on conservation which does contrast with the idea of destruction and death. Other themes are apparent too – barriers, buildings, church and faith, a day out… Next step is to talk it over with the TVG OCA group at the weekend. Rework is possible, but at the Army’s convenience rather than mine, meaning that future shoots will be restricted to Christmas and Easter.
I didn’t talk about it on the TVG group – the work was still too big and unevolved. I’ve edited two shoots down to about 70 images, and had them printed as 4 x6 prints and put stickers on them according to roughly identified themes. I need to spread them out again and consider the narratives they present to me. I will put the contact sheets in a separate post.
When I did the shoots I tried to do so with an open mind rather than looking for shots to fill the brief. Looking at the prints, there is a narrative of barriers clearly apparent, and one of growth. I wonder though if my growth images are slightly too “camera club”, although perhaps it’s important to show that the nature here is abundant and healthy. I think I need to take more at Christmas and Easter. Some images show both barriers and growth, in some the growth is the barrier. These two sides seem more like a Ven diagram with a common area of overlap. Even the church has barriers too. There’s another narrative of the “day out”, the bank holiday trip to a remote village. Plus the narrative of faith; with the church and the two graveyards, although that narrative could overlap with the day out one. Then there is another set which intrigues me because it is basically an “un-set”, the fact that none of these images fitted into the other groups to me makes them look like a set of their own because of their difference. That set has some houses without barriers, a discarded used smoke grenade, a map drawn up on the tarmac. Looking at the prints, it’s interesting how the themes run across both the military and civilian contexts – plants and flowers in both for example, but better tended in the military environment; tape barriers across the defence estate and wool tied across a pew. It could be interesting to take a view across these two silos, looking at what they have in common rather than simply a top down binary view.
… Working with my setted prints it became appararent that many of my images relied upon text. I suppose that signage is one of the things about Imber, but I didn’t want to photographs to be a collection of signs. I explored selecting images with no, or minimal text, and sought guidance on the OCA board.
The following guidelines emerged:
any text should be visually in scale with the rest of the image
it shouldn’t be the sole focus of the image
For this assignment, it’s best left to captions. As my tutor has already indicated that he’d prefer the work uncaptioned that’s a fairly clear steer.
I read David Campany’s essay Safety In Numbness and that has made me think hard about this work. I suspect that this work edges towards Late Photography – even though there was no possibility to photograph the actual evacuation in 1943. There has been no one single event that wrought the changes on the village – those changes are down to time, wear and tear, neglect, and new construction. I’m uneasy about the sense of remove that Campany describes, and how he discusses that we can never really make a photograph that’s devoid of creativity. This makes me question why I’m making this work, I need to be clear in my head at least, of what the work is about.
Another issue is people – I had decided when shooting not to collect street photography images of the many visitors. I still had some shots with people though, and I am tempted to include one or two to help make the images less “late”.
The growth images present a couple of challenges. I’m not sure if they are a bit too generic, but then again part of the idea is to show how nature is flourishing and diverse even in the unusual, military setting.
I need to be aware of my tendency to create typologies and allow each set to be similar enough without having to be compulsively similar (ie all military images to have tape, no images to have people, no/all images to have text) and so on.
Below is a rough cut of three sets. I need a military set and one other – either the church set or the growth set. There has been no post processing applied to these images as yet.
Set 1 – military. On the whole I’m happy with these and it’s a big set to choose from. There is no text in this set apart from the house number. The buildings are either original buildings that have suffered with time and assault, or part of a “new” purpose built estate built by the MoD in the 70s for training. In a way it seems very fair that council houses, farm buildings and manor house alike suffered the same fate, although the manor house is rather better secured. I think I have some similar to the last one but without the person. The point was gently made on the OCA board that if I were to shoot with a wide angle lens I would have a wider choice of compositions and of depth of field. This is a great observation and one that I will try out at Christmas.
Set 2 – church. This set was taken in and around St Giles Church which is a listed 16th century church located in the middle of the training area. It is the only building in the village which civilians can legitimately enter during the open days. Outside of the open days it is closed to everyone, including Army personnel. Hence it serves not only as a preserved church (it is decommissioned so only has two or three services a year) but also as an information hub, a retail centre, a café, and when the weather is good, a picnic area in the graveyard and church yard. I think this is probably the ropiest set. Ideally I would add in a shot of tea/coffee or something that shows slightly more a human touch. The dog bowl is incongruous but shows the volunteers’ attention to detail for all visitors. The bus stop sign is I fear too incongruous and I’m not sure about the fire image, it shows the barrier between the two sides.
The third set is growth. This set was discussed with my tutor, who talked about the current initiatives within the MoD to ensure that training areas comply with their obligation as steward for the conservation areas, protected species and heritage that they control. This is the set that’s made me think that I’m not much of a nature photographer. I don’t think the bee photograph is very good, but it makes the point that Imber is not a barren location in terms of nature. I would need to bring this set down by one or two images if I used it. There is an abundance of other growth images.
4/10. The thing is, this work didn’t feel as if it hit the brief and it didn’t really feel right at all. The narratives were too closed down, there was nowhere to go. I went to Lacock to do the street photography exercise and became intrigued by the net curtains, the efforts at securing some privacy in a gold-fish bowl of an unspoilt village. So I went back and shot again, and then again after seeing the Mat Collishaw Thresholds exhibition. I posted about it on the OCA discussion board, and I’m now at the point where I have one side of the story, the nets, but I still need to make the other side. I have some ideas and will continue along this one. For Imber, I will continue to shoot at Christmas and Easter, but I think that Lacock offers better opportunities for me on this brief, not to mention easier access. Link to OCA discussion here – https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/context-narrative-two-sides-of-the-story/5880
So I’m happier because there are more narratives possible. Lacock is owned by the National Trust and tenants live their lives in an unspoilt village that has a constant flow of tourists and filming. Net curtains provide some degree of privacy, but almost act as a screen onto which the reflections of the buildings, the tourists, their cameras all appear, as well as giving tiny glimpses into the house and the people behind the curtain. Whereas the retail windows are unobstructed, giving clear views into the premises and an invitation to enter. Interestingly, many of the residents sell goods too, with plants or bric a brac displayed on the outer side of the net, with instructions as to how to pay. The photographs that I took facing into retail premises didn’t work so well, again there was less space for narrative. I am wondering about photographing details of the nets perhaps, or close ups of the items for sale on windowsills. It’s that other side to the story that’s proving elusive.
12/10 still going around the houses on this. My set on net curtains is fine, I’m happy with that. I’m struggling to present the other side of the story though without descending into photographs of things, that look like a generic day out and don’t add to the story.
Photograph at twilight/night – somehow this seems even more intrusive to me, and technically the village is closed to tourists after dusk.
Photograph from the inside of retail premises outwards – again I couldn’t get this to feel right.
Long exposures of large groups of tourists – possibly. It still feels a little generic though.
I had a look at extracts of John Urrey’s work on the tourist gaze and am following up on some other reading via Holly Woodward’s work for the same assignment two years ago. This has felt me look at the village slightly differently. Holly also suggested looking at how the residents benefit from the tourists via the sale of produce and artefacts via their windowsills and doorsteps. This felt like it had potential, but was once again very far removed in terms of style and metaphor from the net images.
Then I started thinking about looking at net as an object and seeing if I could find a second side to the story there. Of course – Fox Talbot’s early work included salt prints of lace, as I was reminded by the Mat Collishaw VR installation about the first exhibition of FT’s work in Birmingham. If FT hadn’t lived in Lacock and made so much of his work there it’s unlikely that the residents of today would need net curtains on the windows of their homes. My first idea – photographing the village through a piece of net curtain – was discarded after realising it would draw too much attention. I am fascinated by the idea of a constructed archive however, such as the Fae Richards archive and the Leasingstede Museum, and in the past I have made sun prints of lace. I always wonder if Mr FT asked Mrs FT for a bit of lace from her repair/smalls drawer or if he just sent someone out to buy some. So my current plan is to make some more prints and collect them into a fictional archive or collection. The Constance Talbot Lace Project? I had been going to work with sun prints of discarded lace underwear for A2 Photographing the Unseen but I’m not short of ideas for that assignment so am happy to re-deploy the principle for A1. This idea also has the benefit of at least being a fabrication too, both of the project and the fabric.
16/10. I made a couple of test sun-prints. Larger paper is due to arrive tomorrow. It’s not quite doing it for me at the moment but once the sun comes out I will try again with larger paper. The scale of the net curtains is a bit big for the smaller paper and fabric. I found the local fabric shop sells a range of nets including some that are exactly the same as the ones I photographed at Lacock. I think I will rephotograph the prints and invert the colourings. This is making me have a whole new set of respect for Fox Talbot’s work with lace.
Other ideas that have come to me are:
Constructing still lifes with the net curtain in the background, the idea of the inside out rather than the outside in. Exploring window sills and what we put on them. Will need to construct a set indoors, with the light behind the net curtain.
Photograph the view from standing in front of each of the Lacock windows, facing away from the window (roughly what you would see from inside the room). Then, at home, project that image onto the net curtain for that house.
Taking the nets outside and viewing the world through it
Was it Sharon Boothroyd who photographed views into peoples houses? She saw possible images from the street and asked the householders for permission to photograph. I suppose there’s a similarity in photographing from the outside in, but I like to think that my work was more about the barrier than the interior but I might be wrong.
17/10 Returning to the Lacock lace curtain set I wondered about constructing a second set at home, using similar nets to the ones in the village, and perhaps with similar objects. I set up small still life set in kitchen. It occurred to me that we use the phrase “casting a veil over” something when we want to gloss over something, be that because it’s something that’s been neglected or that we actively don’t want to discuss. When I thought of the kind of things that me (and others) might want to cast veils over I was no longer stuck for what to photograph. I wanted to keep a still life feel so some of the images contain a jug. I’m not yet decided on how to process these images. Holly Woodward (an OCA peer) said the work reminded her of Nigel Shafran’s series about washing up.
22/10 onwards. Returning to the Lacock lace curtain set I wondered about constructing a second set at home, using similar nets to the ones in the village, and perhaps with similar objects. But I couldn’t get the two sides to feel related. I moved onto the idea of domestic stories, and that moved to more of an indirectly self-portrait set. Firstly I photographed the one side of the story in front of the net, then I removed that side and photographed the other side, behind the curtain. This did have promise, but suffered from a major colour cast. That said, and fixed, it felt more like my work and like a story that could have two sides. But I couldn’t get the two sides to feel related when I put this set with the Lacock set. I took the work to the OCA Thames Valley Group and Monica Pritchard suggested that I positioned the “virtuous” side object in front of the curtain and the less “virtuous” reality on the other side, obscured by the curtain. All of a sudden it started to feel like a cohesive whole. I followed feedback on the OCA forum suggesting that I assemble sets to include both sides of the story at once, taking two images and using differential focus to separate the two sides. This worked better, but other feedback suggested using a longer lens and slightly different positioning which allowed better focusing on the net and the back object simultaneously (by having the object further separated from the curtain, but the longer lens “brought it forward”). I experimented with the nets and chose a different one that allowed better visibility. I had found the source of the colour cast (accidental setting in camera) and fixed it. I took a lighter touch with the post processing, and kept the colours truer but chose to boost the object behind the curtain in the second shot of each pair. This is where I have chosen to “pause” the work for tutor feedback.
Other trials: a friend looked at the sun prints and suggested scanning and inverting them. Actually, that’s a pretty good idea. Then I realised that I could just scan the net curtains directly. So I tried that, but they looked like photographed quilted kitchen roll. I also have a set of images taken at a derelict care home that I thought about working up and presenting, but decided that these are better candidates for A2 Photographing the Unseen.