art

Brainchild

I spent last weekend at Brainchild Festival, a DIY festival of art, music and performance in the arcadian grounds of the Bentley Wildfowl and Motor Museum in Sussex. It’s a volunteer-led festival with few attendees outside of the 20-26-year-old-creative-persuasion demographic beside the woman who owns the land. And her small fat dog who hates men and barks at them if they get too close. I took up the option of putting in 10 hours of work across the festival to halve my ticket price, doing everything from deep-frying in the kitchen to litter-picking to bar-tending to guarding the showers. It was a lovely three days, even if I came across even more art students dressed from their own childhood 90s wardrobe than I might in an afternoon on Dalston High Street.

One of the best parts of the festival were the myriad art installations to interact with (and mainly sit on). A giant cereal box that opened on the second day to spew giant foam Lucky Charms; a maze of hula hoops and coloured yarn that over the course of the festival become more and more complex and difficult to navigate when drunk; a rainbow-painted wooden living room complete with wooden pond, pot plants and window out onto the rainbow sunsets. Our favourite was the giant colouring wall by illustrator Betty Woodhouse, complete with pots of felt-tips and excited gaggles of 20-somethings. Performances ranged from the usual bands and DJs to stand-up comedy and short film screenings to group yoga classes and interpretive dance. Too much of the music featured wailing ghostly female vocals for my taste, but there were some real stand-out acts; drum and saxophonist duo Binker & Moses stole Sunday evening, and Jess Murrain’s spoken word mixed in with double-bass accompanied vocals was a highlight of Saturday. (She was followed by a puppet show called “Miss Clitoris and the Bejazzles”.)

Mid-festival we ventured round the corner to the Bentley Motor Museum itself. It’s a strange combination of a warehouse full of chronologically exhibited cars (and some scary mannequins challenging stereotypical gender roles), displays of questionable of history, a dolls-house workshop, and a gift shop selling seemingly completely non-related items. Mainly soap. MORE exciting is the Bentley miniature railway, which everyone from completely spaced-out students in harem pants to off-duty security guards hopped onto at some point over the weekend. It’s run by retired men in train conductors’ hats, and a small dog in an official uniform. Your ticket is stamped at both of two “station” stops, in a journey that lasts approximately 15 minutes. Puffs of smoke from the tiny steam engine remained visible above the trees for the whole weekend, reminding everyone where the real fun was happening.

Although there were plenty of fab acts and DJs and workshops happening across the weekend, the best part for me was being able to spend time with good friends and interesting new ones in a beautiful setting. The weather held and I took a fantastic book to sit and read on a cushion under the light-up jellyfish, or on a sofa under the giant central tree, or in The Steez Cafe in front of some strange piece of performance art. The sunsets were glorious and the loos weren’t even too horrible by the end, and I’d recommend it as £35 very well spent.

Show Me Your Ink

“I got it in Paris when I was living there. Loads of us who were there at the time were getting tattoos, everyone was getting really random stuff. I spent ages thinking about meaningful things I could get tattooed on me… I doodle loads, and in the end I just doodled it and thought “I’m going to get that tattooed on my body”. At the same time one of my friends had a square tattooed on her, so I didn’t feel so meaningless.”

I’m working on a photo series of tattoos and their bearers. I’m keen to photograph as many people as possible, so if you’ve got some ink and you’re not camera shy please do get in touch. The project is still evolving, but the basic concept may be best explained by the fact that none of the above portrait, tattoo or quotation come from the same person. Show me your ink.

Film vs Digital

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From my first ever roll of film, and still a favourite

I’ve been taking photographs as a hobby for about five years now, and up until recently all on film. This was never a conscious artistic decision; the cameras that lay around my house were all analogue fossils used by my father, a man who never embraced the digital revolution and who simply stopped taking pictures roundabout when Kodak stopped making film. Age 16 I bought new batteries for his Canon EOS 500 and ignored his disparaging grumbles of “expensive” and “outdated”, pointing my new weapon in the faces of all my friends and skipping to Boots for the pricey development process. Over the years I acquired my own cameras, experimenting with films and lenses until I found my favourites, and semi-learning the technique to take a good picture. Although I still think it’s mainly luck. But it’s pointless to deny that my father was indeed right in his typically pessimistic proclamations; film is costly, time-consuming and old-fashioned, and noone is going to pay for your processing when “any other photographer can sling a preset over a digital shot on Adobe Lightroom and produce the same effect” (quote from a prospective client). In July I caved to modernity and bought a Canon 5D Mark II, some of my first attempts with which you can judge over here.

I have been finding the digital transition very difficult. I have always subscribed to that Cartier-Bresson cliche of “the moment” – a photograph as a method of solidifying a moment in time, a way of capturing a memory in tangible form. It requires spontaneity and not much forethought. When I’m heading out of the house I can’t bring myself to sling my DSLR in a bag as I would one of my film cameras – partly because it’s the most expensive thing I own aside from my violin, and it would not survive the appallingly haphazard treatment my Olympus OM-10 is used to – mainly because I know that I won’t enjoy using it. It’s large and unwieldy and rather daunting to have shoved in your face; its shutter sound is enough to make you jump; I’m not comfortable enough with its settings to just point and shoot without the result being rubbish. By the time I’ve whipped it out and set it up, the image of laughter/sunlight/cat that I wanted to capture is gone. I become a joyless perfectionist, examining my work as soon as it has entered the camera, adjusting the aperture a notch and becoming frustrated when it doesn’t produce the expected result. And sure, shooting digital gives me a more concrete assurance of at least a couple of quality snaps than shooting on film does, but where’s the pleasure in three fantastic photos when you’ve had to sift through seventy mediocre ones to find them? It’s so hard having an expensive toy you don’t yet understand.

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I have written a lot about why I like film photography on various platforms, and in particular film photography. In this post for one of my favourite analogue blogs two years ago, I talked about some of my favourite quirks of 35mm film. Light leaks, double exposures, looking cool in selfies – the usual deeply intellectual commentary you have come to expect from me. But despite my confident assertions on the superiority of film – both in results and in influence on the artistic process – I had always questioned whether the justifications were nothing more than excuses for my failure to give in to modernity. I didn’t have the funds to invest in digital, or the confidence that I would stick out from the crowd once the quirk of analogue wasn’t on my side. Since entering the digital arena, I do realise my claims were justified. The process itself is what has defined my photography; when you have 36 exposures to last an entire week of holiday then the consideration and effort put into every shot is tantamount. Photos are fewer, but better. I revised my technique and learned much faster on a film camera because everything is in manual, and fucking up was expensive and disappointing. Getting physical copies of every roll changed the sort of things I wanted to photograph – it made me really think about what I was taking pictures of, and – particularly when it came to holidays – what I wanted to remember and how I wanted to remember it. I do think film is the best recorder of an instant in time, and it is often the flaws – the dust granules trapped in the lens, the light leaks and lens flares, the slight overlap of frames – that can make a film photograph so much more real and emotive than something digital. Anything can happen. Film has even penetrated my usual tendency to WANT EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW, and the anticipation of picking up a packet of photographs from the lab remains one of my favourite feelings in the world.

I will admit that I am being unfair to digital, and that a lot of my resentment of my new camera is down to teething problems. I’m still learning how to use it. When it comes to portraiture and head shots it has indeed proven a blessing – I have been able to track my progress and improve markedly over a matter of weeks as opposed to the years it took me to establish a style on film (see if you agree). But I’m still very thankful that the majority of my development as a photographer was done through the medium of 35mm. 

Over three years ago I was interviewed by Norwegian blogger Hei Astrid in her regular segment on analogue photographers. I said many of the things I have said above, but the final sentence strikes me as the most appropriate summary of why film, for now, remains my favourite way to photograph:

“I shoot film because when it comes to really capturing a moment, I would rather something I cannot retake.”

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A Good Portrait

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Ever since finishing my finals and committing to the unpaid internship game for the conceivable future, I have been considering my options for making any form of money before the age of 23. It has led to finally biting the digital bullet and deciding to invest in a big old fancy DSLR, and one of the most lucrative uses of a big old fancy DSLR is making people pay you to photograph them. People bloody love pictures of themselves. During my my last few months pre-finals I decided to give some portraits a shot; a Facebook status appeal for subjects elicited so many responses that I managed only about a quarter of respondents. At this time in our lives where we’re all so painfully aware of change and transition (and job applications), the appeal and value of a good picture of self can’t be over-estimated, and it got me thinking: what exactly makes a good portrait? Or perhaps more importantly, who?

For me, posed portrait photography is somewhat new territory. I like to take candid pictures, and most of my favourite personal portraits are in no way posed – something a lot of photographers from Diane Arbus to Brassai would denounce as a terrible way to document others. (I prefer Susan Sontag’s view that “there is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do… their expressions are private ones, not those they would offer to the camera”.) It’s something I often get flack over from my friends – “can you please WARN ME NEXT TIME” – but I take photographs in order to record my life and create physical moments that I want to remember, and most often those are not the ones where you’ve all lined up in your most flattering positions and smiled for long enough that you look dead inside. It’s gotta be natural, man, it’s gotta encapsulate the moment, evoke an emotion, tell a story, blah blah blah – but I will insist that it’s the candid photos that you look back on with fuzzy sentimentality, not the bared grins into the iPhone selfie camera. When I look at my favourite portraits that I have taken over the years, they are almost without fail of people who mean the most to me; my very best friends, romantic interests, my family. It’s easy to argue that that’s mainly because they’re the people I spend the most time with and therefore photograph the most, and perhaps that’s true, but there’s also a question of intimacy and trusting someone to record you at your most relaxed and most natural. What I appreciate most about photographing my closest friends is that they have come (been forced) to accept that the camera is just there as a part of the conversation, and it doesn’t need to be posed for.

Last year my mum and I went to the David Bailey exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, where his iconic celebrity portraits of everyone from Diana to Johnny Depp were displayed in the context of his wider body of work. It was a decent exhibition, but at the end my mum commented that having now seen all Bailey’s other photographic efforts she wasn’t so sure that he was actually such a fantastic photographer after all; his portraits are indeed fantastic, but even more so in their contrast to the distinctly average nature of everything else. A good portrait is not as entirely dependent on equipment and technique as the kind of relationship a photographer can foster with their subject, whether they’ve known them for a day or a decade. The very best pop culture photographers – Bailey, Leibovitz, Testino – often achieve the results they do from being fun, interesting people that their subjects can relate to, that people want to spend time with, and who can make those they photograph as comfortable and enthusiastic about the presence of a camera as if it wasn’t there at all.

My highest mark in my degree was an elective essay on the impact of photography on 19th century painting (pick what you’re interested in, right?), and I particularly focussed on its impact on the style and process of portraiture. Instead of staying in and actually reading for the essay I went to a party a few nights before my deadline – all in the name of research – and interrogated a friend halfway through an oil painting degree at the Florence Academy of Art; what extent are they encouraged to use photographs as an aid when producing oil portraits? He told me that they avoided it as much as possible; that a successful painting process was painfully dependent on your sitter being present in the flesh; that it was the visual interaction between artist and subject that entirely defined the finished product. And I thought that a very succinct summary of a good portrait – in any medium.

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#NewMayDays Days 19-21: Cezanne and the Modern

0316-0230_stilleben_fruechte_in_einem_korbAnother couple of days of failed trying new things – my first ever yoga class fell through and a new dish I was trying out turned into an unparalleled disaster – so here’s a selection of very boring first-times that I happened upon organically:

  • I ate three bananas in one day – pretty crazy am I right?
  • I went out of my way to buy sports clothing.
  • I wrote a song on my ukulele – not a feat to be sniffed at I feel, but I refuse to share it with the internet so it can’t really count as having happened.

One thing I did manage was to finally go to the Cezanne exhibition at the Ashmolean. My last visit was for a coin-handling session with my Viking World class last term, and at the time I told myself that I really should hang around the Ashmolean more often seeing as I can access everything for free and it’s got such a gr8 spread of arts and artefacts. And two gr8 cafes. The exhibit was made up of deceased American intellectual Henry Pearlman’s private collection, and although Cezanne was billed as the headliner he was mainly limited to one watercolour-heavy room. I can’t say that I swooned over anything of his in the collection, as my favourites ended up being the above Pisarro (look at that delicate wallpaper!) and Modigliani’s portrait of Jean Cocteau (that the subject hilariously HATED – you can see why, it’s very Modigliani-ey). I also very much enjoyed Lipchitz’s big ole brass sculpture of Pearlman’s head, which was comically enormous.

I always find myself slightly underwhelmed by Ashmolean exhibits, although they do get big names in there. I wasn’t very impressed by the curation of the last Bacon/Moore selection either, which I resented myself for as Moore is a personal favourite. Never fear though, as clearly I am the exception because everyone else raves about them. Definitely worth a poke around.

#NewMayDays Day 2: Castle Exhibition

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetToday was not only my first visit to Oxford’s castle complex (yeah alright, I have great difficulty leaving the 100m radius from my front door), but it was also my first time seeing a friend’s photography exhibited in a public space. Julia was in the year below me at school and shares a love of travel and analogue photography, and her work was exhibited at Oxford’s O3 Gallery as part of one of their Art Weeks – more specifically an exhibit of lo-fi photography, sculpture, and student artwork. There was an interesting variety of art on show but call me biased, Julia’s came out near the top. (Who is going to pay £500 for some under-exposed pinhole panoramas? Questionable.) She produced a fab variety of lomography: from red-scale images of Vietnam and Thailand to snaps of New College and west London, with the additional excitement of some boiled and whiskied 35mm film. #experimental. I’m an eternal fan, and although it’s hard to find her work online a brief google does yield this – which is almost as good.

I really enjoyed this exhibit, as well as catching up with Julia and her also-a-photographer boyf Ed over drinks afterwards. I’ll definitely be re-visiting the castle quarter – maybe I’ll even shell out the £1 it costs to climb the mound next time, who knows? Although to be honest why would I when back at New College we’ve got our very own one that even deigns to quack at you.

London in 48 Hours

London. Capital of culture and pigeons. I grew up in London, and I feel that makes it inherently difficult for me to make the most of it. When you’re given one of the greatest cities in the world on a plate, can hop on the tube and be in the largest centre of freely accessible museums and galleries within half an hour, it’s an effort to actually make the effort (#firstworldproblems). But what I have found is that if I give myself short bursts of exposure to my capital I tend to cram in a lot more than I otherwise would have done.

Friday

Spent the morning doing very boring things like seeing the dentist and getting my hair cut, before visiting Hammersmith’s Polish Centre’s cafe for a beverage and a questionable piece of cake. Sometimes the joys of the suburban west need to be savoured too. My proper Londoning began at midday when my mum and I headed into town to check out the National Portrait Gallery’s Vivien Leigh exhibit, and lunch at a new favourite restaurant just off Trafalgar Square.

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Les Deux Salons is by now right up there in the list of my top London eateries. The food is always delish (and not even that overpriced), the setting unpretentious, and the cocktails carry a kick and a half. This time round I had a fantastically smoky butternut squash and chorizo soup, followed by grilled chicken and delightfully nutmeggy gratin dauphinois. Perf.

After lunch we had a leisurely stroll through some of our favourite Covent Garden backstreets before heading towards the British Museum and our goal of the relatively new “Vikings: life and legend” exhibit. With a British membership card at hand we flounced right in, to be met by a crowd of such vastness that we instantly turned tail and ran, promising to return the next day at a more favourable hour.

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At this point we went our separate ways, and I caught up with a friend over porn star martinis before fighting through the crowds at Leicester Square station. Literally the worst. Finished off my evening with a pint and a pal in a Chiswick pub that I had never tried before (we all have our regulars) but will certainly be patronising from now on. The Bollo is full of dusty paperbacks and pineapple shaped table lamps – the only things I look for in a drinking establishment.

Saturday

We dragged ourselves out of the house at half 9 to avoid the same nightmare of tourists (surely the collective noun) that had plagued our afternoon the day before, and were rewarded with a slightly less crowded exhibit. Although inherently a little disappointing (I complain in full over here), I got to gawp at some objects I’d previously only seen in my books, and also acquired a longship necklace as accessorising is the sole way of expressing academic rigour. We went up to the members’ lounge to revel in the birds’ eye view of what remains one of my fave Norman Foster constructions (and that’s saying something), and discuss funding options for my summer internship over tea and scones. It was unashamedly middle class and I loved it. We then wandered off to Lincoln’s Inn Fields where my mum went and did something at the Royal College of Radiologists’ HQ and I went to look at things floating in jars at the Hunterian Museum. Things floating jars are my favourite sort of things.

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Having stared at preserved bits and pieces for long enough we indulged ourselves in a wander around quiet Bloomsbury squares and then hit up Les Deux Salons for the second time in 24 hours (we are nothing if not creatures of habit); I had an amazing pea and mint soup and a killer burger and chips. Treating ourselves continued after eating with a viewing from a BOX of Jeeves and Wooster at the Duke of York – although much as I love P.G. Wodehouse and the episode of the cow creamer I was not particularly impressed. It was rather too slap-stick for my liking, and Stephen Mangan’s normally impeccable comedic timing was rather muted by the self-aware script, all the more obvious through a fantastic piece of improvised banter with an audience member halfway through. We did luxuriate in our fancy seating though, and followed it up with a cocktail at Joe’s Southern Bar and Grill. It’s a surprisingy fantastic underground affair off Covent Garden where we were met by a friend briefly in town from Berlin, before it was time to battle solo into Leicester Square again and head towards Caledonian Road for dinner.

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My friend Rosie lives in a fab little house just off the Cally Road, almost always full of great housemates and loads of food. She cooked us a roast chicken with her trademark sweet potato wedges, and we discussed our travel plans around the US of A this summer and re-visited her stick and poke tattoo from a drunken evening with sk8er bois in Seattle on her gap yah. What a pleasure it is to have interesting friends. We finished off the evening by watching the whole of Beyonce’s new album videography, and then strapping on the house supply of roller skates to attempt her impossible choreography. A rare treat.

Sunday

A morning spent enjoying my coveted double bed and then meeting some gal pals at a Mexican restaurant in Victoria for fajitas and sangria. A long weekend well spent; when I know I have such a limited time in my home town it really jump-starts me into seeking out everyone who’s around and enforcing my company upon them. It’s nice to live in an amazing city, and it’s nice to have nice friends, and it’s nice to take the time to appreciate all of these things all together.

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