Yesterday was the end of my year 3 (of 4 years) at the University of Westminster where I’m studying for a BA Hons degree in Photography on a part-time basis. In the first of two semesters this year, I had to choose between making a short video or making a photobook – I chose the latter. I posted the finished book in my previous blogpost, and for me it was the best module on the course. The idea of creating a book, thinking from the outset about taking photos for a book was challenging. I knew what size I wanted the book to be, so knew I needed to take photographs in a landscape format.
I would describe myself as a slow and careful photographer, I don’t normally take hundreds of images and then delete most of them. I prefer to shoot as you would with an analogue camera, being aware of only having a small number of frames available on a film. For this project though, I took around 700 images digitally and then edited them down to around 25… an arduous task!
I decided to take the images through the window from a moving train between London Bridge and Charing Cross. Madness I know. I couldn’t use a tripod because the train was constantly moving, so the photos were a serendipitous selection of happy or unhappy accidents. Obviously a good number of them were terrible as the train lurched laterally and vertically without any forewarning. My intention and concept for the finished work was to use ‘motion blur’ as a metaphor for time passing quickly, and many of my images were blurred in two ways simultaneously – side to side, and then up and down with bumps on the tracks! I quite liked some of the more abstract ones though.
Still, for the purpose of my book I wanted to create images that were decipherable to some extent. I made many journeys over a period of a few weeks in different lighting conditions to come up with the final selection. The saving grace was that it didn’t cost me very much. Some of you may know that this journey is achievable on an internal change of platforms at London Bridge train station, so there is no need to go through the barriers and therefore I only paid once per day. Most trains leaving Charing Cross stop at London Bridge, which is less than 10 minutes away. So I just meandered up and down the line, getting on the train at London Bridge and then staying on it when it reached its destination at Charing Cross. Then I would travel back to London Bridge on the same train, get off and get back on another train destined for Charing Cross… I did get some very odd looks but I was never challenged. I also got odd looks on the train as I pressed the camera to the dirty window and shot images almost constantly for the 10 minute journey. In fact the journey is not possible to do now, and won’t be possible again until at least summer 2016. As part of the upgrading at London Bridge station, the Charing Cross trains no longer stop there. So I managed to finish my project in the nick of time, with just a couple of weeks left before the London Bridge platforms closed.
Many of the images contain similar views en route such as the Royal Festival Hall, the Millennium Wheel by the River Thames, the 3D IMAX cinema at Waterloo, Borough Market at London Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. On one occasion I overheard a youth telling his friends that that woman had a posh camera but obviously had no idea how to use it!! Hmm… he had a point, and the whole business was far more difficult than I had anticipated.
After each session my tutor, Andre, would say that the photos were interesting and ‘getting there’, but how about doing a few more, which seemed unbearable at the time, but I was grateful in the end. I guess the role of a good tutor is to push you out of your comfort zone and to do more.
I made my photobook in InDesign, which I had to learn from scratch, but which I love using now. It’s not too difficult if you’re already familiar with Photoshop, it’s from the same Adobe family. I enjoyed thinking about the whole graphic design of image display, typography, layout etc. I designed the cover by zooming in on a section of one of my photos. I had the book printed and bound at BookWorks in East London. We had already been on a one day course there as part of the module and made a few of our own books, including a small hardback one.
I dedicated the book to my son, Oscar, who gave me the idea for the accompanying Latin narrative as he studies Classics. I chose the letters of Seneca the Younger, a 1st century stoic and philosopher. Seneca was a tutor to Nero, but my guess is that he’d rather have not had that job, as Nero instructed Seneca to commit suicide in his old age when he fell out of favour with the Emperor. The narrative was about ‘discontent with oneself’ – we still worry about the same issues today. The Latin dedication was an approximate translation of a real event I heard about recently. As a train arrived at Crystal Palace Station, the driver announced over the tannoy:
“When you alight, please mind the gap between the timetable and reality!”
A familiar gripe for London commuters.
Alongside all this of course, at Westminster there is a strong emphasis on theoretical knowledge, critical thinking and writing. We have weekly theory lectures from our amazing professors in visual arts and there is at least one 3,000 word essay to complete for each semester. In the first semester this year we studied a module in philosophy which was fascinating and I couldn’t believe that I wrote and essay on the 17th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume! I also had to prepare a 10 mins presentation and powerpoint for the rest of my group on Claude Cahun and tried to show how her work related in some way to the thoughts and ideas of David Hume, who of course was around long before photography!
The second semester was a difficult but enjoyable one. I just felt that there were too many balls to juggle at once. Our ‘practice’ work consisted of preparing our final portfolios and creating our websites. This may sound easy enough, but a lot of detail was required for this work. For example, it was suggested that all the projects in our portfolio boxes should be of the same size, A4-A3 preferably, and have a connection running through them. This wasn’t too difficult with digital images, but much harder with analogue images, many of us having to reprint in the darkroom. I spent ages anguishing over the portfolio box and whether or not I should get it embossed, before realising that I couldn’t afford a bespoke box. I eventually bought a beautiful, simple black clamshell A3 box from Silverprint in London, it was perfect. Each project in the box required high quality printing, its own introduction and the whole box required basic details and an artist’s statement. I included my photobook in my portfolio. We also had to provide a 1,500 word self-evaluation.
Next came the creation of a website. Whilst I already had a website, I realised that the images were disparate and lacked cohesion. I created a new one with Stevon Ritchie from goGowebspace, who taught us the basics of good website design and a fair sprinkling of HTML and CSS if we were interested. Once again I loved the attention to detail and all the graphic design and typography. The main problem for both these pieces of work was what to leave out – the temptation to include everything was quite strong. Anyway, the result of my efforts, pruned and paired down, but which I’m now pleased with, can be seen at: martinatierneyphotography.co.uk
We also had two essays and a presentation to do this semester. The 10 minutes powerpoint presentation to the group highlighted what we hoped to do for our 10,000 words dissertation in year 4. In my case I’m hoping to investigate the resurgence in production and increased sales of photobooks this century, despite or maybe because of the existence of the internet. I’m concentrating on the work of two contemporary documentary photographers – Mark Neville and Martin Usborne, both of whom have developed interesting ways of contextualising their work. I also did one 2,000 words essay outlining my plan for my dissertation and another 2,000 words essay on the hybridity of photography using a theoretical piece of writing by George Baker on ‘Photography’s Expanded Field’.
Alongside all that we also had to decide whether to mount a small individual or group exhibition or participate in some work experience. I chose the latter, as I will be mounting my own exhibition in year 4. I’m currently doing some teaching practice at Kensington and Chelsea College. I’m working in the photography department on the BTEC level 3, a course, which I did there myself in 2011/12 before applying to the University of Westminster. My teaching practice will continue for 2/3 days per week until mid July. I’m enjoying it, as I now know all the group and I’m so impressed with the work they are creating. I’m also hoping to assist them with setting up their own exhibition in July. The course lasts for one year, but attendance is three days per week and it is very intensive, not a ‘walk-in-the-park’ by any means. It is headed up by Bruce Tanner, who also taught me, he seems to know everything about photography, both analogue and digital! The college also runs a series of short courses in photography and experimental processes such as liquid light, pinhole cameras, lith printing and cyanotype.
So now it’s the summer holidays, but not much time to rest. My good intentions include spending significant amounts of time on my dissertation research and my final major project amongst other things. The photography degree show for this year’s graduates from the University of Westminster will be, as always, organised by Free Range at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, East London, from 11th to 15th June. This show includes exhibitions by universities from all over the country and is well worth a visit.