Assessment results

A very solid 68%. It’s exactly the same as my EYV result, however I’m resisting the temptation to view this as a lack of progress as they are two different courses. I do find myself wondering, once again, if I am on the best pathway for me – if the Fine Arts degree had a photography stream I would be there in a heartbeat. I need to have faith I think that the photography stream can accommodate me and the way I use photography. In the meantime I am enjoying this result – I have wanted to do the Context & Narrative course for some time now and it feels as if I have done the course, and myself, justice.

Screen shots below.

Considering C&N in the light of EYV Assessment feedback

It has been on my mind for a while that I should be revisiting my EYV feedback. Of course I should really have been considering it from day 1, but it’s never too late to take a chance to learn.

There was one sentence in the feedback that really made me think.

There are several techniques at play within the work here and greater understanding of why you’re using them and how they relate to the subject matter is required.

I am confident that my research on C&N has been both broader and in greater depth. I thought it would be interesting to consider each assignment in the light of the comment above, as there has again been a broad range of techniques involved in this body of work.

Assignment 1 was I think one of my more traditional pieces of work. I used a digital SLR to make the images and they are presented as plain vanilla prints. This decision was made because it seemed to be the best one for the work – it’s a diagnostic, introductory assignment and there seemed to be neither need nor benefit in making a more complicated presentation.

The main presentation for Assignment 2 is a Viewmaster, chosen for a variety of reasons. It makes the invisible visible – the tiny transparencies are hard to read until you put them in a magic viewer, and then they are visible to you alone for that moment – no-one can look over your shoulder at the same time. So the invisible becomes visible but is still private. The toy reference ties in with childhood and the childhood gaze. It takes us back to a childhood without phones, without internet, with levers to press rather than screens to scroll. The images were made using a child’s toy torch, and are viewed with another toy. On a practical level, pointing the ViewMaster at a light source provides an element of backlighting to the images which helps to lift them from the ambient darkness. This was the case when seeing the images on screen and it was useful to find a viewing device that retained that backlighting. Most of the images were made on my iPhone for two reasons – firstly I was working in confined spaces in the dark and the iPhone handled this far more conveniently than my dslr, and secondly because if the Cottingley Fairies were to be made today, teenage girls would be more likely to photograph using their phone rather than a camera. This is also why I opted for the square format – those fairies would end up on Instagram today.

Assignment 3 was another new technique for me. iPhone self portraits, layered with personal data from my period tracking app Clue. So we have selfies – which tend towards the public, combined with highly personal information that we regard as private but which is aggregated (anonymously) on an industrial scale and shared or sold in accordance with the Clue privacy policy. Menstrual cycles, on the whole, are not largely visible and art about them tends to be confined to the period itself rather than any of the other parts of the cycle. I wanted to explore the whole thing and combining selfies and data went some way towards blending the subjective and the objective. As well as the three individual prints I made a large grid showing images from the entire 26 day cycle. This showed not only the scale of the work but also how my menstrual cycle overlays the normal calendar.

Assignment 4 was the essay. My tutor’s comments allowed me to open my research and thinking further still, and find answers to my questions. Approaching the research and the writing turned out to be far more creative than I expected.

Assignment 5 was probably the most traditional work I’ve ever made, in that it’s photograms made in a dark room, but the subject matter was not traditional at all. Lace and Fox Talbot have never been far from my mind since A5 EYV. The photographic heritage of lace is fascinating, beginning with Fox Talbot’s salt prints. Lace, not withstanding male dalliances with kerchiefs and shirt ruffles over the centuries, remains a predominantly female fabric closely associated with underwear and intimacy. I wanted to make this feminine baseline mesh with the Fox Talbot photographic baseline. I felt that the use of photograms lets me “strip” out all extraneous detail – from colour to location to brand to size. The design of lace often fits with the representations of flora in early photography and natural history illustration. I wanted to work at life size too, in the same way that Anna Atkins and Fox Talbot showed their plants and objects at life size.

Concluding reflections

“Out of all the topics covered in this course, which felt the most comfortable to you? Why?”

I find “comfortable” an odd word here, I didn’t find any of them comfortable. Inspiring, challenging, frustrating, rewarding… but really none of them felt “comfortable” at all. Nor would I have wanted them to feel comfortable. I think I’d have learned less if the course had felt more familiar.

“Did you discover anything completely new to you? What was it?”

Again, pretty much everything was new to me. I really enjoyed exploring the artists referenced in the self portrait section of the course, Anne Noggle was a huge inspiration to me. My photoshop skills continue to evolve and I was very happy to work increasingly with alternate formats to my dslr – including I-phone, film and photogram. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed putting the essay together and hope that this enthusiasm will continue into UVC.

“Which area enabled you to come closest to finding your personal voice?”

I’m fortunate in that my personal voice is well on its way – I look at the familiar, the forgotten, the domestic, from an essentially feminine and feminist perspective. This voice allowed me to do each assignment with a consistency of approach and as such as I was able to tweak my response to each assignment so that they all fitted with my approach and nascent voice.

“Which area seemed furthest away from who you want to be as a photographer?”

Part 2 was the part where I managed to miss the most exercises off my blog. But then again I was very engaged with the assignment right from the start of that part. Part 1 produced probably the most disappointing/least rewarding assignment, but my A5 would never have happened without that step on the ladder, so I’m reluctant to dismiss it. Besides which, it hit the brief and that was all it was required to do.

“What were the main things you learnt? Were there any epiphany moments?”

Although I am grateful for the steady learning on this course, I think three of the biggest learnings were outside of the course notes. The first one was choosing, buying and using a printer. I have a Canon Pr0-10S and am insanely proud that every single print that went in for assessment was made by me either on that printer or in the dark room. I can’t even start to list everything that I had to learn from paper to profile to soft proofing, but now I can make my own prints, straight away. I had a lot of help from the OCA discussion board during this process and I am very grateful for that. The second one was continuing and expanding my commitment to interaction with other students. I started a small peer group with the aim of mutual support and challenge with the plan to build connections that will endure outside of the academic framework. This year we have added accountability to that too and I look forward to seeing how we grow both individually and as a group. I participate in the Forum Live fortnightly hangouts and am a regular host, as well as taking part in the photography reading group hangouts (though I’ve been slack in documenting those). As well as participating in the regional Thames Valley Group I have also been welcomed into the South West regional group. The third learning came directly out of my small peer group – when discussing the imbalance across genders in big exhibitions such as Arles, one member commented that it would only change if women like us started routinely submitting work for exhibitions, to deal with the oft quoted return “there weren’t enough submissions from women artists”. That lit a fire under me, and I am proud to have entered and shown work at OCA Showcase, the SW OCA Osmosis exhibition and the forthcoming Open Art Collective at Woking in February. I tried, and failed for Format, but at least I tried. Each time is a learning curve.

“Will you return to any of the assignments from this course at a later date? Did you feel as if you were on the cusp of anything?”

Most definitely. Assignment 3 has run its course because of my impending surgery, but I’d like to explore the concept into the menopause, somehow. Assignment 5 will continue – the lace photograms will be a side project for me through UVC, I have some plans already. The initial A5 (the pink images) will I believe be resurrected on Digital Image & Culture, there’s definitely something there.

Looking back on this course

I have wanted to do Context & Narrative since I was on the Foundation course and came across Rob Townsend’s C&N blog. I loved the wide open creative spaces conjured by the assignment briefs. I still think that C&N has far more kinship with FiP than with EYV.

It has been a magical course for me, on the whole. The first assignment felt clunky and out of step with the others. I tried repeatedly to rework it, and hey presto, the phoenix of my A5 arose from my A1 problem child as the net curtains in A1 led to the lace underwear of A5. I think where I have drawn the most benefit is in realising that the “narrative” in the course title does not refer solely to the narrative of an individual image, or even a series, but to the continuing arc of my own development. From A1 to A5 certainly, but now, with three courses under my belt, I can see the stepping stones of my own work leading from FiP to now, and to some extent from now into the future. I can see how my light painted portraits for FiP A2, in a pitch dark derelict dairy, led to my Nick Turpin inspired night time red telephone boxes for EYV A4, which then led to my after dark housework fairies for A2 and most recently to the darkroom for the underwear photograms. I can trace my passion for the everyday but unacknowledged from FiP through to C&N, particularly in regard to the  social and sexual aspects of being female – from miscarriage in FiP to pregnancy tests in EYV through to underwear, periods and peri-menopause in C&N. As I write this I can finally concede that my tutor had a point when he commented, on my A5, that the work had a sexual aspect to it.

I have learned more about persistence and patience, about how work evolves over time rather than just popping into existence over a couple of shoots. I’ve learned that I need to spend time scrabbling around in the tiny details to make the big breakthroughs. The essay, for A4, was an example – although the first pass that went to my tutor was perfectly serviceable, it was in following up his pointers on how he would he have done it that I was able to make the links that made it all make so much more sense, and that actually made me think that perhaps Understanding Visual Culture was a feasible choice for my next course. A3 (self portraits) was the only assignment that did not evolve significantly conceptually but did require images to be made every day for an entire menstrual cycle; and taking plenty of them each day has afforded a generous set of images from which I can tweak the edit even now. A3 also saw me picking up pencils, charcoal and markers and sketching an apple every day for a month as the diary exercise – something that took me far more out of my comfort zone than writing would have done. It terrified and intrigued me in equal measure and I am falteringly continuing with occasional sketching because I know that there is something there for me, even though I don’t know what it is yet.

The course did not turn out how I expected in terms of technical skill development. I used my DSLR for A1 only – A2 and A3 used my iPhone, A4 is the essay and A5 is photograms made in the darkroom with no camera involved at all. That said, my Photoshop skills have come on significantly as assignments 1, 2 and 3 all required some post processing. I have definitely done far more in Photoshop than Light Room this year. A huge developmental win for me has been buying my own printer (Canon Pro-10 S) and learning to use it, opening up the worlds of soft proofing, screen calibrating, printer profiles, setting borders within images, resizing and resampling images and working with different paper sizes up to A3+. I was very happy to be able to print all my own photographs for assessment, for the first time. I feel far more in control of how my work is presented. I am very happy with how my darkroom skills are progressing, I enjoy working in the dark.

I have developed in my interactions with other students too. I have always been active on the OCA forum but have extended this to regularly hosting the Forum Live Sunday hangouts. I participate in Emma’s monthly photography reading group but see that I have been lax in transferring my notes to my blog. I take part in the Thames Valley Group and OCA South West regional groups and have also set up a small peer collective which provides mutual support and challenge.  I have also benefitted significantly from the support and challenge provided by readers of this blog, and am very grateful for their time and comments. I also have relationships developing with Fotospeed who are fairly local to me, Devizes Darkroom and a local vintage/antique clothing store.

I have attended workshops including darkroom skills, handmade books and alternative darkroom techniques and feel as if I have a broader and more secure technical and creative footing than at the start of C&N. I suspect that I am less a photographer than a wannabe Fine Artist using lens based media as a tool, but as long as I’m making work I’m happy.

After resolving to start exhibiting my work I have shown work in the OCA Showcase exhibition and the OCA SW regional exhibition. I also have work showing in the Thames Valley Group Open Art Collective show next February. Each of these exhibitions has required different preparation and I have learned a good deal. I submitted work for Format 19 and was unsurprisingly unsuccessful, but again it was a worthwhile exercise.

Going forward, I am enrolled on UVC for my next course as I very much want to acquire a bigger context for my work, a broader range of inputs and a wider understanding of work and improved critical thinking skills. I will however be continuing work on the photograms through UVC. My work on archive photographs including pink (my original path for A5) will I think be resumed on Digital Image & Culture as it still has plenty to give. I am very happy to be at the end of C&N and very excited about the as yet unknown future work that will build on my work here.

wrapping stuff up

both for under the tree and for this blog.  I’m finishing off reflection blog posts and even by my standards of never regarding anything as finished, there’s not much left to do here other than topping and tailing for assessment.

So thanks everyone for reading and commenting here (your comments are so valued in helping me build the work). If anyone is local to the south east and fancies seeing Big Girls’ Pants in the flesh, I’m showing two photograms at the Open Art Collective show at the Lightbox gallery Woking in February 2019.

My next (and final Level 1) course will be Understanding Visual Context. I am somewhat nervous, but very positive about the growth that this course will enable for me. It’s theory, but I am quite sure that I will continue to make work. I am definitely going to continue with Big Girls’ Pants; that work has more to give. If you would like to follow me at my (shiny empty)new blog you can find it at the link below. I’ll start putting content there in a week or two.

Happy Christmas and Happy New Year! Thanks for being here in 2018.

Reflections on Part 5

Looking back through my blog I see that I started Part 5 in July, approximately 6 months ago. That makes sense though. There weren’t really any massive delays – the usual school holiday pause, a delay for feedback while my tutor was working outside the UK – this was simply a part of the course with exceptionally rich pickings for me and I was able to take the time to make the most of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the archive and found this part of the course very inspiring. There is something almost tangible in the archive, and it’s certainly very accessible. I especially like the idea of a constructed archive, like the Fae Richards archive – an exercise in making a different truth.

I had two passes at A5. I eventually paused the Pink work when it became apparent that my re-work attempts for A1 were getting big enough to be an assignment in their own right. The photogram work had significant potential and I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to do both. I was confident that if the photogram work wasn’t successful I would be able to substitute the pink work instead. It was however very reassuring to read my tutor’s feedback on the pink work and I shall be returning to it. The photogram work was immensely satisfying on a number of levels. It allowed me to tie up my various mental loose ends about lace and Fox Talbot. I have learned a raft of new darkroom skills and am very grateful for the generosity and kindness of the darkroom owner who is terrifically helpful and supportive of my work.

A5 has felt like a culmination, so much has come together. My learning has been truly iterative, a step at a time both conceptually and practically, and I think that’s why it’s rarely felt overwhelming. I actively sought as much feedback as possible, via the blog, the OCA board, OCA Hangout, two regional groups, the collective that I’m part of, my climbing group… The feedback wasn’t always what I expected or wanted to hear, but the diversity of it once again made me realise that the work had merit and was worth persisting with.

Parallel with Part 5 has been preparation for three exhibitions, two of which have been held so far. I made a handmade book with test images from my photograms for the OCA Showcase exhibition at OXO London, and made some of my pink images into diptychs for the OCA South West exhibition in Bristol. I am also showing two framed 12×16 photograms at the Thames Valley Group exhibition in February 2019, the work is already framed and ready to go. It was a challenge balancing the exhibition prep with the coursework. I am happy that I did it though and satisfied with the results.

Notes for hangout 2/12/18

My main issue is with my A2 Photographing the Unseen, final presentation thereof for assessment. I photographed projections of fairies and unicorns in a domestic setting – title is currently “the Housework Fairies” although I know my tutor thought I could improve on this. The thing I need to consider is the feminist aspect of the work – although I presented it as about fairies there is a substantial aspect to the work too which can be strengthened without becoming didactic. Tutor feedback is provided at the end of this post.

I have been following a two-pronged approach for presentation. First off was prints. I’ve made these on 8 inch square lustre paper, the actual images are 5 inches square so there’s a deep border all around. I’m very happy with how they are turning out. The second prong was presenting images as a viewmaster reel in a viewmaster machine (it’s a contemporary version labelled Retro-View). I understood from a question posted on the OCA board that it was ok to submit both as long as it was clear which was the primary.

Un-bordered print
Contemporary version of View-Master

However, I preferred the prints to the viewmaster. They seem to carry a surprising amount of authenticity as documents., surprising given that they are not authentic documents. I think they must inherit that authenticity because they are prints. They carry detail, the Retro-View images carry novelty, a toy like quality. The prints referenced the Cottingley Fairies. The Viewmaster felt shiny and temporaneously confused by comparison.  I think both approaches are valid but neither can tell the complete story on its own. I wondered about the prints as family vernacular archive, and though about how we present the archive, and ended up with a 1950s biscuit tin.


So we have prints in a biscuit tin, but that’s not adding a lot to the feminist reading. Then I looked at the tin and its foregrounding of choirboys, with women tiny in the background. I looked on ebay at vintage View-Masters, saw this image and for the first time appreciated the gendering implicit in the name, reinforced by the packaging.

ebay viewmaster
Vintage View-Master, image credit @timewarp14 on

From there it was a short mental leap to Berger’s comments “Men look at women . Women watch themselves being looked at.” But then I wonder if I’ve added 2 and 2 and made 5, or if I’ve simply identified the male gaze in very clunky terms. Then I think of that common female experience of being watched doing the housework and I see how the open feminist loop can be closed here.

Moving back to the practical, I can put the prints in the biscuit box along with a vintage View-Master and a modern reel perhaps in an original sleeve. I can pack the box with tissue paper, and pages from old women’s magazines. We then have three elements – fairies, feminism/the male gaze and the family archive, that hopefully will feel less constructed in real life than describing it does. I’m still not sure though, I think I might just have to assemble the whole thing and see how it works in practice. Whatever I put together will have to work in the cold light of a Barnsley day at assessment next March, and anything more than a simple set of prints will have to justify itself.

Tutor feedback on this assignment : Kate Aston assignment 2 feedback.doc

A chemigram workshop

I went back to the Bristol Folk House on Sat 10th November to take part in a Painting with Chemistry workshop led by Sophie Sherwood. I went with Holly Woodward, we had both thoroughly enjoyed and engaged with a previous darkroom workshop there.

There were 5 of us on the workshop which is a comfortable number for a snug darkroom. We explored lumen prints (placing objects on fogged paper inside a contact frame, then leaving the frame in the sun/cloud for 15 minutes or so), photograms (making prints of objects onto photographic paper under an enlarger) and chemigrams (using substances such a Vaseline, sunblock, wax crayons) to create a “resist” on photographic paper that then affects the ability of the paper to take up the dev chemicals. The morning was spent learning the techniques, in the afternoon we could apply the techniques singly or combined as we wished.

It was good to work with negatives again – I’ve been making mainly photograms over the last few months and my skills had been neglected. I was reminded that the film and the paper go emulsion side together – so the dull side of the negative down (and back to front) and the shiny side of the paper up.

I have to say that I’m not wild about lumen prints. I’ve seen such beautiful ones made by Liz Nunn, but for me there was something wanting in the ones I made. I think that leaves are such a well-used trope in camera-less photography that you have to make something really special to make it stand out. I wasn’t that wild about the colours from the fogged paper, and then fixing them seemed to be an exercise in disappointment.

The chemigrams were interesting but I think something of a practical challenge. We used fogged paper again, and marked the paper with Vaseline, spray sunblock or wax crayons. The sunblock gave an almost gilded appearance but again did not last long going through the tanks. I think there is something here for me, but realistically it’s something to do in your own darkroom as you don’t really want to unwittingly disrupt other peoples’ images or chemistry. The chemistry fails fairly quickly when it has vaseline, sunblock etc floating in it and that resulted in fairly flat images when the chemistry was failing. It was quite hard to get proper dark blacks. I’ve spent so long on photograms recently that it felt a bit odd not to have the contrast.

I think that to make satisfying chemigrams I would need to stop thinking of them as related to the photograph. You need an awareness of the science, an ability to play, an ability to make the images by hand or by serendipity rather than necessarily by starting with a negative. You build an image from scratch. It’s very different. Pierre Cordier makes his in light. Look at some of his work here:

I didn’t really enjoy cleaning off the Vaseline from the prints either… I suppose I am conditioned to a dry side/wet side darkroom workflow, it felt like crossing the beams in Ghostbusters. Yet my curiosity is stoked. I wanted to explore disrupting the paper — I tried a scouring pad but it didn’t make a lot of difference. I am curious about things like thinners, nailpolish remover, bleaches… but was warned that I would need to be aware of possible reactions and the need to work in a properly air conditioned  darkroom. It makes me think of the Polaroid emulsion lifts that I did, the way that I can ruck up, stretch or tear the very fine emulsion layer containing the image whilst the background is unaffected. I am fascinated by the idea of physically moving just one part of the photographic object. I think there is something there too with solarising, perhaps in conjunction with die-cut stencils. This may be a case of parking the idea on my back burner and continuing to immerse myself in The Shadow Catchers book by Martin Barnes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the photogram work and took the chance to combine a photogram of a protractor with a print of my daughter looking through a telescope in the grounds of Lacock Abbey. It’s not a perfect exposure and the tones are lower in contrast than I would like, but it’s something that I can replicate on my next darkroom session to get a print that is suitable to frame. I find the combination of photogram and photograph endlessly inspiring.


Blythe at Lacock Abbey, combined photogram and photograph.


While I was writing this blogpost an email arrived from Sophie with some ideas on how to answer a question posed by one of the students during the course. In it she thanked us “for pushing the boundaries of chemigrams further and being such an engaging class!” so it is encouraging to know that we made Sophie think as much as she had us thinking. I do know that this class helped me to learn more about my practice and to see the directions that I would like to explore.

Peer learning – coffee, cake and home truths

I went to Avebury today to meet Liz Nunn and Holly Woodward and hand in some work for the forthcoming OCA South West exhibition. We took advantage of an empty café to lay out images and discuss presentation, then talk about our work and challenges over coffee and cake and enjoy the exhibition of portraits – Raising Horizons – by Leonora Saunders. It was great to spend time together, I had met Liz at OCA SW meetings but hadn’t had the opportunity to learn more about her and her work.

Cutting a long conversation short, Liz pointed out that my work is rather more feminist than I am aware of. Since she is now the third person to say this, and only one of the three was my tutor, I am willing to concede that she has a point 😉  Liz then talked about the “force field of discomfort” that I’d observed in front of my underwear photograms at the Showcase exhibition, and both her and Holly observed that my work often addresses subjects that engender discomfort and that we don’t talk about – periods, miscarriage, used underwear… and also that is a trait that I should consider as a positive. Somehow that felt like a very good use of a couple of hours.

I then had a quick look in the two museums on the Avebury site. I am increasingly intrigued by the presentation and labelling of museum exhibits, an interest which I think was sparked by Jane Williams’ Fibs & Fibulae exhibition of constructed museum artefacts that I saw a while back. I’m fascinated by the extra layer of context that is added when something is put in a glass vitrine and given a number and a caption. There might be something here for my photograms, but it needs more time to cook.


Preparing for the OCA South West exhibition

I had put my name forward for this exhibition on the basis that work in progress was welcomed, and because I’d said I was going to start saying “yes” to opportunities to exhibit.

I decided to show some of my pink work – the explorations of pink in my archive that were initially going to be my A5. I had talked to Anna Goodchild, who is organising the exhibition and decided to submit three A4 sized diptychs, two on landscape sheets and one on portrait. The title is “Archive pink”.

I decided to use pastel backgrounds, but had problems making the set look cohesive. I tried using pink for all the backgrounds but this wasn’t as interesting. I printed the pages as they were to get a feeling for the colours in print. The colours, although different, were too similar in shade and there was no feeling of structure to the set. After seeking peer advice I decided to restrict the background colours to just two. I wanted a particular ice cream/sugar almond/dolly mixture palette and searched online for hex codes, which turned up #ffffba, a very satisfying yellow that worked well with all the images I put it with. Finding a pink was harder, my first choice of #e9b1d1 did not work at all well with the image of the paperback book. I found another pink from an older image that looked promising – #f0c9ed – and indeed it did behave better with all relevant images. By this point the light was failing so I have edited all the images to reflect the new choices and tomorrow will print them and see how the colours behave in daylight.

The inspiration for the pastel backgrounds was Daniel Handal’s series Pajaritos, where he shows tropical finches perched against framed backgrounds in sugared almond colours.

Learning points – I am noting these here because experience has taught me that when it comes to Photoshop I will forget.

  • To add a new layer of colour – click on the layer below where the new layer needs to be. Layer menu, new fill layer, solid colour, then specify the hex code.
  • Name the layer with the hex code so you can easily tell which colour it is.
  • To position guides (for placing linked images accurately) use the View menu, then the option low down about placing guides. This is more accurate than dragging and dropping.
  • Use soft proofing options to check how the colours will appear. The most reliable option for me is to print a trial image on small paper.

This is how the work looks at the moment, except that they are all the same size. It will be hung via a strip of dowelling on the back top edge, and rose gold binding clips. I’m actually not sure about the clips, I think I will look for either plain silver or actual pink clips and see if those work any better.


I would love to know more about understanding colour. The hex codes are like Greek to me, and it’s challenging to look at two close shades of the same colour and try to understand why one works and the other doesn’t. I find myself using adjectives such as “clean” and “dirty” to express the kind of pastel I want, it would be good to have a tighter understanding of colour and how it works.