I am an Ironman Latest Thinking and updated Artists Statement

Posted on July 30, 2012

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In the light of my developing understanding of this work as documented in my last post on the subject I have updated my artists statement for this work. ‘I am an Ironman’ remains the working title for the work which most likely will now be called ‘Ironman Family’.

Artist’s Statement – I am an Ironman (Version 3)

BACKGROUND

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.  The sport is open to men and women of all ages and events take place on every continent. 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.

The reasons why people take  part in such a demanding sport are many and varied. Some 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 completing a first Ironman many go on to compete again and again.  People become part of the ‘cult’ of Ironman and are driven by the desire to remain so. They adopt modes of dress and appearance and tokens such as tattoos to signify their membership. There is tremendous mutual respect amongst Ironman triathletes. Professionals and amateurs compete alongside one another and the race winners often return to congratulate the last few finishers as they cross the line. 

INTENTION AND PROCESS

I am an Ironman triathlete myself and I have made many friends in the sport over the last 8 years. ‘I am an Ironman’ is series of photographic portraits of these friends – a photographic survey of my extended ‘Ironman Family’. 

I wanted the portraits to appear natural and unmediated, and to be capable of convincing  those viewing them that they are seeing the subjects as they really are. The process I followed was designed to achieve this.

I elected to use a fairly deadpan style avoiding overt signs of photographic authorship. The subjects are pictured against a plain grey background, centred in the frame, standing square to the camera. The portraits are either half or three quarter length. The lighting is plain with a single studio light and soft-box for the key light, and ambient light for fill. 

The photographs were made with a manual digital medium format camera. The process of setting up the camera and lights was slow allowing the subjects time to consider how to present themselves and adding a sense of gravitas to the proceedings. I gave my subjects little direction simply asking them not to smile, to think about what ‘Ironman’ means for them and to look into the lens of the camera, not at me. When taking the photographs I used a cable release and stood to the side.  

Beforehand, I asked each of my subjects to wear something which signifies ‘Ironman’ for them. This could mean dressing up in race kit, a team jersey, or simply wearing finisher’s bracelets or their ‘Ironman’ watch or heart rate monitor. It was their choice.  By asking them to choose what to wear, giving them the time to consider and decide on their pose, and providing only limited direction I tried to make the process collaborative. 

In practice, my subjects were highly cooperative and thoughtful about how they should present themselves. Each responded in their own way. Some seemed uncertain, perhaps even nervous. Others were more confident and focused. Others were quite impassive. Most were surprised by what they saw when I showed them the photographs. This brought to mind Diane Arbus’s concept of the gap between how people think they look and the way they actually come over. I discuss this further below in the section on influences. 

The presentation of the photographs as a series, with each photograph having the same compositional structure, invites the viewer to compare the individuals portrayed and to identify similarities and differences. At the same time placing my subjects against a plain background forces the viewer to confront them as individuals, challenging any preconceived ideas viewers might have of what endurance athletes should look like. Whilst the series represents a particular group, i.e. my Ironman friends, it also invites the viewer to speculate on the general nature of people who take part in endurance sports such as Ironman Triathlon, and about why people challenge themselves in this way.

INFLUENCES

My work has been particularly influenced by the work of August Sander, Rineke Dijkstra, Nadav Kander, Judith Joy Ross and Bernhard Fuchs. All of these photographers have worked on series of portraits which seek to represent their subjects naturally, appear to be collaborative undertakings between photographer and subject,  avoid overt photographic artifice and are made in a consistent compositional form which invite comparisons between portraits in the series. As I have explained above these are all elements which I am aiming to incorporate into  my work.

August Sander’s People of the 20th Century,  is a seminal work. Sander’s was seeking to represent the make up of the German people in the period from 1922 up to the second world war. His work is typological with the individual portraits intended to represent particular ‘types’  within German society at that time, each strictly ordered by social class. My work is not a typology, rather it is  intended as a document of a particular group – my Ironman friends. Nevertheless there are many qualities of Sander’s portraits that I would wish to emulate. Sander consciously avoided overt photographic ‘style’, seemingly using the camera as a recording device. As such variations from subject to subject depend only on the raw information in the photograph – the setting, the subjects expression, clothing and posture. Despite this objective approach, his portraits remain both sensitive  and dignified. 

Rineke Dijkstra has produced many series of portraits each characterised by her application of a consistent formal approach. Her subjects are photographed frontally against neutral backgrounds, looking directly at the camera. They are lit plainly and a minimum of photographic artifice is evident. So in the same way as Sander does,  she presents the subjects to the viewer in an objective manner. The consistent nature of the compositions invite comparisons between the different subjects.

Dijkstra talks about capturing her subjects at a moment when  when their minds had moved on and they are no longer posing. She refers to this as “ a moment when [the subject] display[s] a certain introversion”. Dijkstra also refers to the concept of  ‘the gap between intention and effect’, which was first articulated by Diane Arbus, who has been a key influence on her work. Arbus described this as follows: “Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that’s what people observe.”.

In 2009 Nadav Kander produced a series of portraits of 53 members of the incoming administration of Barack Obama. Kander chose to “remove the context of time and place” by placing his subjects in front of a plain background. By so doing he believed that “…the viewer clearly sees the small details that we often unconsciously ignore…”. 

Judith Joy Ross has produced several series documenting particular groups of people. Easton Portraits and Portraits of the Hazleton Public Schools are examples – both are series of groups of children from particular locations. She also made a series of portraits of soldiers waiting to be deployed in the first Gulf war – Living with War. Ross captures her subjects with an 8×10 camera. She believes that  ” With a view camera we are doing something together. Definitely together. I am fumbling around under a cloth over the camera and myself and the person is arranging themself. ” In other words she believes that the nature of the  photographic process she uses engages a more collaborative response from her subjects. 

Bernhard Fuchs produced a series of portraits of people from his native Austria in their familiar surroundings. Yet even though the subjects were photographed during their everyday activity the background remains is somewhat neutral and the focus is on the individual who are placed in the centre of the frame, most often standing square to the camera and looking directly at the lens (viewer). The subjects are captured in a moment of calmness and there is an introspective quality in their gaze. This seems to reflect a sense of trust between subject and photographer. In this regard, his photographs have much in common with those of Rikeke Dijkstra.

There are many other photographers who have produced series of portraits in a documentary mode. Amongst them, Irving Penn (celebrity portraits and Small Trades); Richard Averdon  (Portraits of Power and In the American West); and Thomas Ruff (Portraits) are particularly well known. Whilst relevant, these artists/photographers embody elements in their work which I do not wish to emulate.

On a technical and compositional level, Avedon’s work has no doubt influenced my thinking. His work is, however, highly confrontational rather than collaborative. It is as if the subjects are trying to resist the advances of the photographer. Some of his subjects stare back aggressively. Others seem to be withdrawing into themselves.  

Penn’s work also shares the unifying aspect of a common style but quite often strays into the theatrical, which is something I was seeking to avoid in my work. Perhaps this is not surprising as many of his subjects were celebrities from the world of the stage and cinema.

Penn’s ‘Small Trades’ series, on the other hand, is an altogether more objective representation of his subjects who are tradespeople form London, Paris and New York in the 1950s. They are pictured in his studio along with their tools. However, it seems to me that his use of  high contrast side lighting dramatises the portraits somewhat.

Thomas Ruff created a series of portraits of his fellow students between 1981 and  1991.Ruff’s contention is that he can only reproduce the outer circumstances of his subjects and never the inner state of the person. He emphatically demonstrates this assertion through his portrait series, which resemble the ID photographs used for passports. The portraits are all head shots and it is apparent that Ruff has instructed his subjects to pose as they would for an ID photograph. They are distinguished from such photographs by the monumental scale in which they are presented in galleries. Whilst I largely agree with Ruff’s assertion that a photograph is just a representation of the surface of the subjects, I nevertheless feel that facial expressions and body language indicate how a subject might be feeling both consciously and unconsciously. I wanted to capture such responses from my subjects. This is why I allowed them greater freedom on how they presented themselves and made three quarter and half length portraits revealing more of their body language at the point of capture.

PRESENTATION

I have visualised the photographs from the outset as large exhibition prints (close to life size) to be viewed ‘on the wall’. The large size and gallery environment are intended to encourage viewers to spend time with the photographs. In this way I would hope that the viewer would relate to the subjects as individuals, consider the small nuances of expression and pose and to think about what motivates this person, and indeed many others,  to take part in endurance sports.  The large format will also enable detailed motifs within the portraits to be revealed, providing the viewer with yet more food for thought about the individual before them. Placing a number of the portraits side by side in a gallery setting will also invite the viewer to compare and contrast and to appreciate the diversity of the subjects. 

 

The above represents my current thinking and is very much work in progress. To date I have made 20 portraits. I expect the work as a whole to comprise of around 30. Here are the portraits so far.

‘I am an Ironman’ series by Keith Greenough – status 29th July 2012

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