My girlfriend and I have been planning a year long, round-world trip, having secured career breaks from our respective employers. The trip is something we’ve talked about doing for many years. Now that we are on the brink of its realization, I’m regularly reminded by a concerned, yet cajoling colleague, of various scenarios which could scupper our plans, namely, pregnancy. While my begrudging colleague laughed, it occurred to me that his hypothetical vision of my demise was a strong idea for this assignment. The idea of an unplanned pregnancy is far from original, but I think it presents a challenge with scope for an interesting image.
“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ MenGang aft agley”
The above lines are from the Robert Burns’ poem, To a Mouse. The modern idiom, best laid plans, which is derived from Burns’ poem, sprung to mind as I considered the prospect of a character on the brink of a great and carefree travel adventure, only to be informed that the plan must be sidelined in order to accommodate the complexities of fatherhood. Burns’ poem tells the story of a farmer who ploughs up a mouse’s nest, but is apologetic for his actions. The farmer knows the mouses steals his corn, but agrees he cannot begrudge the mouse this small bounty, especially as he reaps a rewarding harvest from the land each year. The poem ends with the farmer telling the mouse that he is not alone in failing to build for the future, and that failure is a fate shared by all mortals. John Steinbeck was inspired by Burns’ poem, and wrote, Of Mice and Men, which explores similar themes of loss, struggle, powerlessness, uncertainty and the human condition.
In a blog post on Jeff Wall’s Insomnia, Sharon Boothroyd described how “we must recognise this deliberate intertextuality” in his work (Boothroyd 2012). Wall deliberately creates work that allows for it to be read in relation to the original work to which it refers, which in turn confers a richer meaning on both, and indeed subsequent works. With the aim of contributing to the rich tapestry of intertextuality, I decided that I would acknowledge and reference Robert Burns’ poem, To a Mouse, in my photograph.
A blog post I wrote on Sharon Boothroyd’s deconstruction of Jeff Wall’s Insomnia is lined here.
The above image, entitled Ploughed (after Robert Burns) 2016, is my stand-alone photographic submission for this assignment. The word ‘plough’ as a noun refers to an agricultural instrument for cutting and turning earth. As a verb, ‘to plough’, refers to the actions of the same instrument, but it can also be used to describe a forcefull movement or impact. The title, thus creates ambiguity while also referencing Burns’ poem.
Since my idea is essentially based around a fictitious interruption in an otherwise real and unfolding part of my own life, I decided to use my own home as the location for the shoot. Following a photographic scouting mission, my sitting room proved to be the strongest location in the house. I had originally set the scene up so as to include the door at 90 degrees to the camera, but had to switch as I was severely restricted for space behind the camera, making it’s operation difficult. By changing the room layout, I found that I preferred the position of the door, in that it provided more empty wall space, including an empty picture hook on the wall behind the chair. This has the effect of rendering the room into a transitional state, as if the man was in the process of moving. The overall starkness of the scene conjures up a sense of unease created by the man’s position on the edge of his seat.
The above contact sheet reveals a sequenced addition of props in their final position. The pregnancy test was not included in this sequence as its position was found organically, while posing the narrative’s character. The packaging from the pregnancy test is placed rather haphazardly so as to demonstrate the sense of urgency at which it might be used in the quest for a definitive result. The travel books appear in an untidy manner, as if only just sidelined. Their position within the photograph is crucial to the theme of best laid plans going astray, and they are very much representative of the mouse’s nest, destroyed by the farmer in Burns’ poem.
The warm toned lamp alludes to the man, reading his travel books, while the cooler tones appear to move across the frame like a wet blanket to extinguish the man’s dreams and aspirations for travel and adventure, adding an element of tension. My intention was to keep the scene evenly lit so as to enhance the plain surfaces and enlarge the room around the man. I originally lit the scene with natural light from the window behind the camera assisted by a diffused lamp, but as the day marched on and conditions changed, I supplemented the natural light with a diffused flash. I like the pattern cast on the wall by the lamp in the scene, and I’ve always found this to remind me of an egg-timer, an idea that has a place in the narrative, since the man is powerless to prevent the end of his carefree living.
The door was deliberately left ajar. I had thought about this long and hard, and even sat down and spent some time viewing the door in various positions. Open, didn’t work as it created an escape route. Closed, added a sense of claustrophobia and was too definitive. Ajar, created the right sense of confinement and restriction, but also allows a possible dialogue with whomever is behind the door, i.e. a female character, after all somebody had to have taken the test. On the mention of a female character, I had taken a few photographs with my girlfriend also in the frame, but not with satisfactory results. Two people in the scene seemed to eliminate any sense of anxiety (a problem shared is a problem halved), and so I chose to relegate the female character to another part of the house and leave the man to his thoughts.
Finding the best position for the man was very much a case of trial and error. I would shoot a batch of photographs and then review them on the computer before going back to shoot more. This process was repeated several times. The final image selection was more or less made as soon as I saw it on the computer. However, I printed contact sheets (see below) and went through my usual annotated editing process just to make sure I didn’t miss another for the shortlist. I (the man) was originally wearing shorts during the shoot, but discovered that my bare legs were too relaxed a fit for the narrative. Jeans, and slippers seemed to add enough comfort to again hint towards relaxation-interrupted. The man sits on the edge of his seat, staring at nothing in particular, suggestive of some inner turmoil. His expression betrays a sense of resignation and worry, that appears relatively subtle and quite natural. I’m not much of an actor, but when it came to the expression of emotion, less was definitely more.
The pregnancy test has an important role in the narrative, however I was unsure where to position it. The argument was whether it should be handheld or placed elsewhere in the frame. Placing the pregnancy test in the man’s hand would be akin to putting a gun there, instantly drawing the viewer’s attention, and prevents any notion of subtlety. I took quite a few photographs of the pregnancy test handheld but ultimately, my editing decision was heavily influenced by earlier research of Elina Brotherus’ series, Annunciation. In the series, Brotherus documents her personal journey as she underwent five years of IVF treatment which eventually proved unsuccessful. The pregnancy test is instrumental in Brotherus’ narrative. As Brotherus was regularly testing in the hope of a positive result, she includes the test repeatedly across her series, which poignantly illustrates her plight. My photograph on the other hand, has to stand alone to tell its story. My one-off inclusion of the test is more suggestive of a positive result, especially set against the untidy pile of travel books. Simply dropping the test on the floor delivered it’s most satisfactory and subtle placement within the frame. On the floor, the pregnancy test is in many ways representative of the farmer’s plough which destroyed the mouse’s home.
A post I wrote on Elina Brotherus can viewed here.
Research influenced my decision to limit any text to the photograph title. Duane Michals uses text to draw questions from the viewer, and while this is an interesting idea, I feel that my image contains enough information for a fair reading. In referencing Robert Burns’ poem in the title, I’m using the linguistic message to invite the viewer to consider his poem, which in turn has the effect of adding depth to the reading of my image. I created this image by accessing what Barthes (1977) refers to as my idiolect, and now lose control as each viewer interprets and finds meaning in my image based on their idiolect. By understanding how images are read, I have to the best of my ability tried to steer viewers toward intended meaning.
Throughout this course I have discovered that I’m more motivated and produce better work when I use personal experience, or subject matter that has some personal relevance. Although the specifics of this narrative are fictitious, the overall idea is not far removed from my current circumstances. As with all my assignments, I began with one idea which then changed and evolved into the finished article.
Overall I am pleased with my submission for this assignment. The photograph I made has been my most painstakingly conceived yet, and about time considering this is the final assignment in the module. I laboured long and hard over each and every element I added or subtracted from the frame, questioning the repercussions of each adjustment. I feel that this approach to creating images has been born out of the previous section of the course, Reading Photographs. The skills I learned on the deconstruction and analysis of photographs have proved invaluable in this assignment and I believe that it shows.
This section introduced me to Greg Crewdson, whose work I really enjoy. Whether you like his work or not, most would agree that the method by which he works, i.e. film size productions crews and actors, is nothing short of remarkable. I found that the work of Greg Crewdson and Jeff Wall have great appeal for me. I believe that their work has converted me to the idea of referencing the work of other artists in my own, and I would like to continue using my own work to contribute to the intertextuality of art.
I was very interested in the chapter on photographic archives. The idea of creating new work and indeed fictional work from existing archives is something I’ve touched on before. For Assignment Three, I incorporated old family photographs with newly captured images, and in some ways wished I had seen this section of the course prior that assignment, as I would probably have gone in a different direction if I had the time over again.
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