A beginning, of sorts

November 26, 2009

Behind the scenes in any artistic practice is not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to reading something ‘interesting’. An artist will spend a lot of time exploring avenues, making work, researching, journaling and recording his or her process before realising that the avenue should be abandoned to explore a side-avenue that might be more interesting and relevant. Mostly interesting. In my own case, the avenues that I go down and research are all relevant, it’s getting the right slant on the project, or what will be the right ‘ahhh!’ from an audience when looking at the work. I tend not to complicate my work, not to smother it with critical art theory that, in my mind, does nothing except baffle 80% of viewers. I certainly am informed by it, as every photographer should, but I don’t allow it to be bigger than the work itself. I don’t find anything problematic or wrong with that. It’s just not for me.

I’m about to begin a project that is slightly related to my Wearing Purple work. Related in that I’m going to continue to photograph people over 65 years of age. The process however, will be quite different. For one, I will not have met these people before. This is quite significant because in order to make a portrait a successful one, there has to be an element of trust between the photographer and the subject. For me, it all comes down to that one word – trust. Where it is not there, it will be as apparent as what the person is actually wearing. They will wear it on their face and in their body language. Of course, it’s more than trust, it’s also how I approach them, how I interact with them and how comfortable I am with them and the project I’m working on. Portraiture is so easy!

Let me illustrate this by an example of work done in Wearing Purple, but not before digressing a little. I began the project Wearing Purple for my degree show, my final year in IADT, Dun Laoghaire. I had wanted to explore the area of old age and the older body. My work prior to that had focused on the younger body in various projects. The reason? I guess it was me exploring photography and for some reason or another, the body always was my point of focus. Naively, the only body to photograph was the obvious more youthful body, because this is what society tells us to, isn’t it? I should only speak for my own naivety however. So on one of those avenues of research I talked of earlier, representations of the older body cropped up and it got me thinking. Representation of old age is something that I find completely lacking from consumer culture, the culture that promises us eternal youth, but for obvious reasons, will always fall short of delivering. The youthful body sells products, and it is this obsession of youth that was the premise of my thesis Old Age: A bitter Aftertaste which was in effect, my research for Wearing Purple. My own relationship with older people has always been positive. I would have loved to have photographed my own grandparents, whom I had a very close relationship with, and it is perhaps that which spurred me on and made the final photographs at home that little bit more poignant.

So enough digressing and back to some evidence. Before I decided to move the project back to Carrick, I volunteered with a great charity in Dublin called Friends of the Elderly, helping out on their Wednesday meeting session, where they would meet as a group, dance, sing and have a bit of fun. About two percent of that group probably fitted into the stereotypical image of an elderly person. The vast majority were full of life, fun and high spirits. Out of this I met a woman who fitted into that category, called Celine. She said she would be delighted to take part if, in her own words, ‘that would help your college exams in any way’.

Celine (unused) from Wearing Purple

Incidentally, I only photographed one person out of my visits to Friends of the Elderly, because I found it a little manic to meet people and introduce what I was doing to them in a few hours, which was really their few hours a week. It was generally quite manic, in a very good way. Visiting her at home on the day of the shoot, which was my first of the series, was very pleasant. She seemed comfortable with the process and I, perhaps not so, as I fumbled with lights, chords and the paraphernalia of a mobile studio. I’ve always found this photograph to be lacking in something, and what I’ve put it down to is trust. The relationship between the photographer and the person photographed needs to be one based on trust. I didn’t have any reference photographs to show her of previous shoots, as she was the first. I met her through a charity, so my background to her was completely unknown. Apart from these obvious reasons, the person being photographed needs to be comfortable in a shoot such as this. It was my fault entirely that this wasn’t the case. But on a positive note, this made me stop on one of those avenues and reconsider. The road I took then, took me to Donegal where I grew up.

Kathleen McGinley, 1943 from the series Wearing Purple

Going back to Carrick in Donegal to photograph people I knew as a child, who are now over 65 and therefore categorised as senior citizens, was one of the most positive and pleasant experiences of my life. I made contact with my very first teacher again, after 20 plus years. I met and spent a lot of time with neighbours, whom I only had vaguely known.

The element of trust I talk about was implicit, as I knew all these people, and they knew me. I feel that this is why the project worked so well. It has made me realise the amount of work which is required when photographing people I don’t know for a project such as this. Which is where I will finish on, as this blog is really about my next body of work.

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