Assignment 6: Ironman Family – Submission and Feedback

Posted on January 7, 2013

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Just before Xmas, I completed my selections of photographs for this long standing project, prepared my accompanying text and sent these off to Jesse Alexander my tutor for his feedback. “Ironman Family”  is a series of portraits of  friends who compete in the endurance sport Ironman Triathlon. My idea was to document this group of people and to do this  in such a way that avoided self conscious posing by my subjects.  My approach as set out in my covering text was as follows:

“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.  My overall aim was to unsettle my subjects by adopting a highly formalized approach to making the portraits. This I believed would be very different from what they might expect when being photographed by a friend. My hope was that the self-conscious posing (even clowning around), which very often occurs in ‘family’ portraits, would be replaced by uncertainty and introspection.” 

A contact sheet of the photographs I included for this assignment is shown below:

Ironman Family by Keith Greenough

Ironman Family by Keith Greenough

 I have presented a full ‘artists statement’ for this work previously in this blog here. The main changes between this and my final submission to Jesse related to the influences I quoted. I narrowed down my references to August Sander, Rineke Dijkstra, Albrecht Tubke and Richard Avedon. This made the document more focussed and I believe much clearer. The full text of my submission for the assignment is presented in the pdf below:

Assignment 6- Ironman Family

Jesse got back to me very quickly and I am pleased to say his comments on the work were highly complimentary. In his introductory remarks for the feedback he commented that  ‘The work is technically accomplished and you’ve got here a very strong and professional body of work which I think would be of real interest to a gallery-going, as well as an athletic audience”. His major suggestions for improvement related to the accompanying text and captioning of the photographs.

In the accompanying text I had indicated that I did not consider my work to be a typology as per Sander. He disagreed with this and felt that this is exactly what I had produced. I guess when considering whether my work could be classified as such I had in mind the fact that significant typologies by the likes of Sander and Taryn Simon (see here) are so much more exhaustive. I will revisit this section of my text for inclusion in my reflective account.

Another aspect which Jesse felt that the photographs did not and because of the approach I have adopted could not portray is the compulsive nature the people taking part in this sport – you have to be compulsive to train for upwards of 20 hours per week!  Jesse suggested that I think about how I might allude to this in the captioning. He also questioned whether I was presenting too much information in the captions and wondered if I might leave the viewer more room to use their own imaginations. The captions I had used are shown on the contact sheet above and include my friends first name, age group and occupation. I am now considering using just the first name and the number of ironman races completed, leaving the viewer to ponder on the age and background of the subjects. This approach, which I have illustrated in the photograph below, also emphasises the common bond between the subjects rather than highlighting the differences between them:

Mickie, 20 time ironman finisher

Mickie, 20 time ‘Ironman’ finisher

For the full text of Jesse’s response to the assignment click on the link below:

Greenough_K_417177_Adv_5

I had also passed one of the photographs from the Long Exposure Diptych’s to Jesse with a brief outline of my idea. He felt that what I had presented to him was “accomplished and intriguing” . This is just as well since I have been pressing on with this work.

Reflections on this assignment

Looking back on this assignment I am very pleased with the outcome. The truth is however that this success has been hard won and there have been ups and downs along the way. One of my key learning points has been that it is very unlikely that an initial conceptual idea for a project will be exactly the way things turn out in the end. It is vital to recognise that setbacks will occur and that it will be necessary to reassess and then move forward in a modified (and hopefully improved manner).

In the early stages of the work I pursued a number of different formal and technical approaches to the work, in terms of the background setting and camera format. I looked at shooting outside with no lights using the landscape as the backcloth. I looked at shooting indoors with no lights using a ‘found’ plain wall as a background. I started off using my Canon DSLR and thought about using medium format film. Eventually I came to an approach which resulted in the quality and consistency of production I was looking for – shooting indoors against a grey background with  a single soft box light using a medium format digital camera.

At the outset I had not consciously thought through the dimension of ‘family’ within the work and how this would impinge upon the response of the subjects. This I learned through the experience of doing the work and my continuing research into the photographic practices of other photographers. The more photographs I took and the more I researched the stronger and more influential this dimension became apparent. So it is clear also that the conceptual basis of a project must be allowed to develop as the work progresses.

In terms of working with portrait subjects I have learned much. Perhaps my most significant revelation has been that if one is looking to make a portrait in which the subject appears thoughtful and unguarded, less is more in terms of directing them. The very fact that the subject is left to think about the situation creates a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability which comes through in the final portrait. I have no desire in my portraiture to make people look bad. I hope and believe that I have been empathetic towards my subjects throughout. But by the same token I do not want to make them out to something they are not – which is what much contemporary portraiture in the popular media does. I think I have learned more about how to achieve a good balance between these factors during this project, but I have much yet to learn.

On a technical level I have moved forward a great deal. Working out how to create a studio set up which I could transport around the UK and indeed the World was challenging and eventually satisfying when it worked. I have photographed mostly in the UK but some of the work was undertaken in Hawaii and in Lanzarote. The challenges of mixing studio and ambient light quickly in completely new environments, such as my subjects dark living room, is something else which has taught me valuable lessons. And finally taking on the challenge to move to a different camera platform, from 35mm to medium format, has taught me much and has given me the confidence to develop further. This is why I am now working with Large Format on my Long Exposure Diptych project.

Overall this has been a very satisfying project. It is not yet over. I have a few more of my friends who I would like to include and so I will continue with the work over the next year or so. Some of them live a long way away!

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