Monthly Archives: April 2013

Feeling Faint, Rather than Faint-Hearted

Sometimes you get more than you have bargained for. And I really shouldn’t complain, considering that I am continually blasting bland photography exhibitions on the ubiquitous topics of the isolation of the highrise-dweller, urban monotony and human misery. Yes, I cannot stand insipid photography projects on the blandness of suburban supermarket car parks. And I think there is nothing more tedious than another solo-show on the ghost estat-ism of current-day Ireland. But whoa – I certainly didn’t see what was hitting me when I recently went to see an exhibition called “Skin” in the Royal Hibernian Academy.

To be fair, I had been warned. My friend D___ had mentioned that “it was not for the faint-hearted”. But since he had also told me that there were two prints by a big-name photographer in the show, I chose to ignore his warning and see the exhibition, anyway. “Skin – an artistic atlas” sounds harmless enough: Skin makes an appearance in all graphic art. Well, whenever there is a person in it, there will be skin. And this largest of all human organs is obviously a wonder in itself, can be quite beauiful and is certainly something we encounter ourselves on a daily basis. On the basis of “every single moment of our lives”, more like.

Maybe I should’ve taken heed of the fact that the exhibition in the RHA was organised in conjunction with the launch of the Irish Skin Foundation, a newly-formed charity to support people with skin conditions. Can you see where this is leading? Yes, it led to some art that was quite hard to stomach. Even a stoic like myself had to acknowledge that. It was mostly the painted and drawn art that had me clutch my stomach to stop it from reeling (or worse) in the face of growths, discoulourings and gaping abysses. Particularly the video piece Barbed Hula by Sigalit Landau had me shudder – a video sequence of the artist doing the hula hoop with a hoop of barbed wire that left scratches, lacerations, and bloodied marks every time it swirled around her body.

Thank goodness the photography was nowhere near that level of self-harm. Even looking at the project “The Morgue” by Andres Serrano was not as harrowing – and did not feel like an act of self-harm when looking at it. Granted, one of the images was violently evocative – a detailed look at the bloodied corpse of a stabbing victim. And yet there was a strange calm and peace in the images, despite the violent deaths of the victims. (Ok, probably evident in the fact that these were dead bodies in a morgue…) Cara Phillips used infrared photography to show the vulnerability of the individual sitter in their portrait. This made for interesting effects when the sitters sported freckles on their skin – mottled with black spots, the usual interpretation of freckles as a sign of a happy, quirky appearance took on a slightly sinister feel. I just wished Phillips had shot her models with their eyes open – I think the “human vulnerability” that she was aiming to visualise would have been more obvious in their “window to the soul”. I did enjoy John Coplans exploration and documentary of his own ageing. With close-up images of his own body – from hairy toes to (also hairy) torso – he is challenging the depiction of beauty and youth in modern media. Maybe this is something that speaks to me as I am inhabiting a decaying body myself – people, I feel it every day that I am not a spring-chicken anymore. But despite sagging skin and sallow tones, this was not off-putting at all, but a fascinating, close-up look at the reality of age as represented in skin.

An exhibition about Skin can hardly omit Spencer Tunick – especially in Dublin, where Tunick organised one of his mass-nudity scenarios in 2008. The photograph entitled Ireland 3 was new to me. I found myself looking at this for several minutes. How consistently pink they all looked, those faceless body, lying face-away from the camera on South Wall. Hardly any dark skin in sight, interestingly. The massive scale image made the back-to-back human bodies look like loads of Dublin Bay-prawns, picked straight from the boiling pan and neatly arranged on a massive serving platter. (Slight rap on the knuckles for the RHA: The image was presented as a massive wall-paper directly on the wall which was a great idea. However, it slightly distracted from the overall impression that it hadn’t been smoothed down properly and sported air pockets here and there.)

The reason I wanted to see the exhibition, however, was the presence of two Robert Mapplethorpe prints. Noone to aestheticise the human body as Mapplethorpe. (Let’s draw the veil of silence over some of his more *ahem expressive *ahem works which I saw in London a couple of years ago.) His stylised depictions of the human body transform flesh into stone. Like marble sculptures they seem ageless and perpetually perfectly beautiful. Well, it obviously helped that Mapplethorpe only photographed highly aesthetic bodies, all sinew, muscle and abs. No flabs and rolls there. But however unrealistic that may be – at least this is easy on the eye and perfectly executed photography. In the context of this exhibition Mapplethorpe certainly provided an aesthetic and easy-to-look at highlight. Whether his marble statues really represent “skin” is another matter – they seem stone-cold to me.

Talking of stone-cold – the exhibition everything but left me stone-cold. You may think, based on my disparaging citicism at the beginning of this post, that I did not enjoy this exhibition. I did. Because it certainly matched one of my own personal criteria for exhibitions: It certainly made me react emotionally to what I was being shown. Some of the reactions may not be pleasant – seriously, who likes to shudder, retch and feel nauseous for fun? – but I will certainly say that “Skin” was one of the most evocative exhibitions I have ever seen. And that is a compliment in its own right.

To Compete or Not to Compete

What is your stance on photography competitions? I have just sent off one of my projects to a competition. No, not an open call for submission to an exhibition, but a competition where you can win something, apart from exposure. I thought long and hard about it. Was it worth it? After all, there was a hefty entrance fee. For me, that is usually the big turn-off. Charging for a competition to me reeks of a money-making exercise with little benefit to the participants. Or is there?

Probably the biggest benefit of all competitions is the fact that they motivate you to get off your arse and *do* something. That was certainly the case for me. It is now nearly a year since I finished college, and I have not worked on any project consistently since then – apart from the higgledy-piggledy commercial jobs that I have done here and there. There are ideas floating around in my brain for various projects, but without a tangible goal in mind – such as an exhibition submission, or a college deadline, for that matter – I have been slow on converting the ideas into practice. Paying for competition entry or not – submitting to a competition at least made me rake through my previous work to identify worthy projects. Having just sent my submission off, I feel a slight buzz of energy. All is possible – maybe I could be the winner? Participating in a competition fills you with hope and motivation. And is gratifying in itself as you have at least accomplished fulfilling the competition criteria and submitting your work. You have made the conscious decision to get your work “out there”. That’s one step better than just shooting and then leaving your images on your hard drive.
Which brings me to benefit number 2: That is the beauty of a competition, anyway – you are often allowed to draw from older work that has been created within a given time-frame. And thus you do not need to produce something new and original, but can submit from your archive. There is no excuse *not* to take part, I guess.
Are these intangible benefits worth a € 60 entry fee? Depends on whether you are an eternal optimist like myself, or not. But even then I am not so foolish to submit my stuff to any old competition. I *do* take a look at the competition before I decide to enter. The cost seems to be the main concern. In general, I would not pay more than € 20 for a single entry. With limited funds at my disposal, I have to choose wisely. Apart from cost, there are other determining factors

I doubt that you can get rich with competition victories. But I do think it makes sense to have a look at what you *might* win, if your photography convinces the judges. After all, what use is it to be considered the winner – and then receive a piece of equipment that you already own? Likewise, it is a good idea to check how many prizes there are in relation to the pull of the competition. If a popular contest draws in thousands of submissions but there is only one prize on offer – the already-slim chances are even slimmer. Also check whether there is at least some sort of exhibition/publication part of the prize. A bit of exposure is the least you would want to expect when winning or running up in a competition.

It is also useful to check the requirements first. How much work is involved in getting your images into the format that the competition organisers want to see? A simple resize or a conversion from raw to jpg is just a matter of seconds, but anything beyond that may not be worth your while.

Lastly – the judges
There are a great many competitions out there. I tend to go for the ones that are either organised by institutions that are involved in photography or art in some shape or form – with them you have an idea what the expectations are. You can check what kind of photography they have awarded with prizes previously, you can see the style that they prefer. Check the names on the judging panel. I trust those competitions that have managed to attract judges from the industry – they will know what they are looking at and can tell the fluke from the carefully planned project. In a slight show of arrogance I will admit that I would prefer to be judged a winner by a renowned photographer than by the CEO of the sponsoring coffee emporium – but hey, that is me being a total snob.

As regards  my own submission to the competition today – I followed my own advice (…): there are a good few valuable prizes, an exhibition, and a distinguished judging panel from the industry. What’s more, part of the competition entry funds a charity. Even though I will most probably not be successful with my submission, at least I can rest easy – I have done some good while fulfilling my fantasy.

Boutique Photography

Fresh back from a little shoot. Thank Cod for my friends who keep me busy with “jobs” – and who help me when I encounter problems. The job came courtesy of my friend M___ of Locks and Lashes who needed some of her make-up work documented for her portfolio. I jumped at the chance and offered my services. After all, I need the practice and the fun of photography. Or should I say “challenge”? Because shooting on location is never straight-forward. Especially when you know you will be shooting in a petite shop – or is the correct term for that actually “boutique”? Never has a job sounded so fancy and yet so adequate…

So location work. In a shop full of colourful items, choc-a-bloc with distracting and space absorbing articles. Now imagine not only a fat-arsed photographer in that, holding a massive camera, but also a set of lights avec soft box, not to mention the model. Yeah. Tricky. But this is where my friend K___ comes in, who is my saviour when it comes to equipment and who jumped into the breach, presenting me with what basically amounts to a portable studio. K___ lent me a collapsible soft box that folded down to a black bag the size of a yummy layer cake which came with a contraption that you could mount on an equally collapsible stand and which was operated with a speedlite. Thank the gods of photography for my Yamaguchi no-name flash! At least I had that on my own. But add to that two triggers from K___’s stash, and I was good to go.

Good thing I practiced at home first. (One of the lessons of photography that I have learnt through bitter experience – never use unknown equipment without trying before. Let’s draw the veil of silence over the fact that I nearly crashed at the first hurdle – inserting the batteries the wrong way ’round… *duh* Took me aaaaages to work that one out. I was already on the phone to Yamaguchi, complaining about their “500 ways of wonderful”…) But after that it was a cinch. Even in the confined space of the shop, I was able to set up my make-shift studio in a corner of the premises. With a few test shots under my belt with a massive stuffed cheetah as stand-in, the lighting was sussed and the scene was set. The challenge – as anticipated – proved to be the background. With clothes horses full of vintage costumes and a wild array of furniture and bric-a-brac lining every surface and wall space of the shop, I had to commandeer a portable screen from the furniture corner as a backdrop. With my models sat in front of that, I was finally able to shoot the ladies and their 1940s style. Mind you, I had to hunch down underneath the soft box-beauty light – my thighs were killing me with the strain and it is a miracle that the shots did not suffer from camera shake, so wobbly did I crouch and slouch.

Locks and Lashes (107 of 124)

Styling/Make-up: Locks and Lashes

Amazing what a little portable studio can do. I will put it to the test again tomorrow on a sweet little shoot. Meanwhile, I’d be obliged if anyone could recommend me some thigh-strengthening exercises. Ouch.