Advanced Studies Initial Concept and Aesthetic/Practical Considerations

Posted on November 25, 2011


I realise that I need to take a decision on the subject for my Advanced studies. I believe now that I can proceed with the Advanced work in parallel with Understanding Visual Culture. My main subject area will be Portraits in Series. I will undertake a critical review of the genre and conduct several projects on this theme in parallel. The main project will however be a portrait series on Ironman triathletes. This is not intended as a series of portraits of sports personalities rather a critical study of individual and group identity. I hope that it will also raise issues of gender, nationality and ageing. The work will be titled I am an Ironman. I have yet to define the additional project areas but for the moment I have set out below a first draft artist’s statement for I am an Ironman and some aesthetic and practical considerations.

Artist’s Statement – I am an Ironman

Ironman triathlon is an endurance sport which involves swimming, cycling and running over 140 miles. The athletes have 17 hours within which to complete the course. When crossing the finish line every athlete is announced with the words, “You are an Ironman”. The sport is open to men and women of all ages and nationalities, although I accept that it is really only open to the relatively wealthy of the developed world. Events take place on every continent and those who are successful in their age group or professional category win the right to compete in the Ironman World Championships which is held each year in Kailua Kona Hawaii. Getting to Kona is the ‘holy grail’ of the sport.

I am an Ironman triathlete myself and I am fascinated by why so many apparently normal people want to take part in such a brutal event. Some people do it to compete with others. Others do it out of a sense of adventure or to achieve life goals such as losing weight or getting fit. A few have very personal and highly emotional reasons such as celebrating a recovery from a life threatening disease, honouring a bereavement of someone close  or overcoming a disability. All of these reasons however are fundamentally about personal identity and self esteem. Ironman is a ‘right of passage’ –  a ritual event that marks a person’s progress from one status to another.

After their first finish, athletes often go on to complete many more. They become part of the ‘family’ or ‘cult’ of Ironman and are driven by the desire to remain part of the ‘family’. They adopt modes of dress and appearance and tokens such as tattoos to signify their membership. There is tremendous respect between all  Ironman athletes to the extent that the professionals who win the races always come back to cheer the late-comers over the line.

My aim is to explore the phenomenon of Ironman through a series of portraits of  athletes. I want the portraits to be large so that the viewer can better relate to the subjects represented. I also want them to be in a consistent style, so that the viewer is invited to make comparisons and to consider the group of portraits as a cohesive whole. The work will explore issues of individual and group identity, and questions of race, gender, age and membership of the Ironman ‘family’.

The key photographic influence on my work is August Sander, who might be regarded as a founding father of typological photographic studies. However, there are many antecedents in photographic history and contemporary practice. Amongst them are: irving Penn’s celebrity portraits and Small Trades  work; Richard Averdon’s Portraits of Power and In the American West;  Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street; Rineke Dijksta’s Beach Portraits; Thomas Struth’s Family Portraits; Nadav Kander’s Obama’s People; Vanessa Winship’s Sweet Nothings  and  Dancers and Fighters. There is a rich source of influences for my work but clearly I will need to make my own voice heard.

Aesthetic and Practical Considerations

I plan to use a Medium format camera for the work and to shoot on film. I will also create a sense of occasion about the making of the photographs by inviting the subjects to stand on the spot as it were, by using a tripod for the camera and by asking them to think about what ironman means for them whilst I am making the pictures. As I will be working in many locations around the world, I will need to decide on my modus operandi i.e. location (open shade, direct sunlight etc) , time of day, background etc, in order to create my desired level of consistency throughout the work. I will not be able to use artificial lighting for the portraits given the severe restrictions I have on carrying heavy equipment on airlines. These are issues which I have been sweating over, to the extent that it is causing me to hold back from moving ahead with the work. I have now decided that the only way to sort this out is to go ahead and work it out through experience. There are a number of issues to resolve here:

Colour or Black and White images – Colour is more realistic and is a big part of the sport with lot of colourful bikes and clothing but it may also deflect the viewer attention from the real subject. Black and White is an abstraction which will help the viewer focus on the subject, but misses out on the colour of the sport. It is also possible that shooting in Black and White will add gravitas to the work and move it away from the genre of sports photography.

What should the subjects be wearing – The options here are to photograph them in their everyday clothing or in their triathlon outfit. As many triathletes are fastidious even superstitious about their race clothing, I favour shooting them ready to race.

Text alongside the photographs or no text- I need to decided whether to include text with the photographs. It would be simpler not to but I am inclined towards including brief quotations from the subjects in which they say what being an ironman means for them.

Plain Background or Environmental Background – I could carry a plain white or grey sheet with me and shoot all the images against this. This would eliminate any distraction forcing the viewer to focus on the subject. It would also remove any context or sense of place. Place is important in ironman. Kona is the Mecca. An alternative would be to capture the image against a real background thrown into relief by the limits of depth of field. This would add context, but if done well not distract from the subject. Naturally this route would result in a less consistent series, but one that adds more information.

Artificial Lighting or Natural Light – As I have mentioned above I plan to use natural light but need to remain open to the use of lights if I am not satisfied with the results.

Framing – Here I will need to decide on whether to shoot full length, from the knees up or from the waist upwards or a combination of these. The format I am likely to be using is 6×7.

Lens –  I will use the same focal length lens for all the portraits. The final decision on this will be based on my selection of camera and framing.

Film or Digital – Because I want the subject to realise that I am not simply taking a digital snapshot and because I want to be able to produce high quality large prints I have decided on medium format film. As with other aspects I will need to confirm this decision as I get into the work.

I am sure there will be many others but these are issues which I need to decide on soon to make a start. There is always the possibility of reversing some of my decisions but practically I will not be able to easily redo the photographs.