Category Archives: Deborah Parkin

Nervousness and questions of interpretation

I should be finishing the first page on wind farms (or working on a lecture for tomorrow!), but I wanted to share some reflections that I have found I can articulate quite clearly at the moment…

There are good reasons not to publish photographs. Some are very good reasons – the best reason of all probably being that the photograph in question is rubbish! Rubbish? Is that too harsh? How about “does not correspond to the pre-visualisation”?! (By the way, Alan Ross has just written an interesting post about Ansel Adams’ first moment of real pre-visualisation, if you’ve not come across this story before.) Of course, some are just rubbish! ūüėČ

However, many are not. Many might even be rather good: they are technically fine, they are reasonably well composed, and the exposure is sufficiently on target for it to be usable. And yet… and yet…

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

… I don’t then click that “Export” button in Lightroom – the first step in moving an image onto my website and making it available to others to see. It’s not that I worry about what people will think of it: there are a select group of friends, particularly on Twitter, whose opinion I greatly value, but I wouldn’t not publish something just because I thought someone might not like it, nor would I publish something just because I thought someone might like it! Those who know me personally will know that I’m not really that bothered by what it is that others think in this kind of context.

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

No, the problem – if problem it is – is that I am not happy to share the image. My finger metaphorically (and sometimes literally) hangs over Lightroom’s “Export” button, and I study the image once more. And thoughts appear, almost as involuntary spasms in my brain: “it’s just another hillside”, “haven’t I photographed XYZ frequently enough?”, “what do I think I’m really adding to the world with this?” – and so on. Whilst some of these stop me, none of them necessarily do so. But there is another thought that does. So I don’t then click that button – and then nothing appears for others to see. Others being people like you, reading this. What is that thought? Before I come to that, it’s worth taking a step back.

The problem – if problem it is – is simply that in the meantime I know I have sufficient technical ability to be able to produce a certain kind of image and for it to come out reasonably well. I have many technical skills still to learn and don’t deny that, but I have come a long way from relying on the ‘auto’ setting! Now I’m wanting to inject more into the image, more than compositional ability, exposure, and so on. Now I seek to impart meaning through it.

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

However, the problem – if problem it is – is that this meaning is not just down to me. Yesterday, the wonderful¬†Deborah Parkin released this photograph, which I interpreted as the child (Deborah’s daughter, Fleur) being content and self-assured; Lucy Telford, another talented photographer, said that it “Captures that self-contained feeling – poignant – signs of growing up, going inside oneself, inevitable but somehow sad.” Deborah responded to us both, noting that we saw the image differently, but with some commonalities. It is stating the obvious, but so much of the interpretation of an image is down to the viewer. Sometimes this chimes with the intentions of the photographer (for example, I understand from their interaction on Twitter and the comment she left that Rob Hudson’s interpretation of Lucy’s recent new image corresponds closely to her initial vision), but sometimes it does not. And what makes me far more nervous than someone misinterpreting an image, is someone interpreting it correctly.

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The problem – if problem it is – centres around how I deal with that. On the one hand, as I said, I am rather stubborn and that means I don’t worry about what other people think of what I do, but there is another side to that. I am aware that I see some things differently to others. In Assynt in autumn 2011 Bruce Percy looked at images I had made in one of the workshop’s critique sessions, and said something like, “ah yes, you see differently” – not as a judgement, just as a comment.¬† What I see, and what I want others to see, varies, of course.¬† All the images in this posting come from a morning last December, spent on the shore of Loch Leven, watching the sun come up – except that I wasn’t that bothered about seeing the sun itself, of course – and they communicate something for me. Should I give them titles that simply say “Loch Leven, 2012”, or should I give them titles that point to my mood at the time? Obviously, I have done the latter, but it takes effort. I was reflecting on a particularly difficult autumn teaching semester at the university – difficult not because of the students, of course, but because of management, and I was wanting to reflect on those experiences. Whether they communicate the same thing for you as they did for me, I don’t know. Do I want to explain what they do for me beyond what I have done here? No, I do not. But do I want to share these images in case you work it out? Of that, I’m not always sure.

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Despite what some may think, I’m a fairly reticent kind of person and do not like to give much away. Clicking that “Export” button in Lightroom is the first step not only to others being able to critique an image (“it’s just another hillside!” being an entirely fair response!), but more importantly, it gives others – that’s you – something of me. You get to see something of me, and I’m nervous about showing that, giving something of myself away. I’ve described a related issue in connection to photographing a model (the first image on this page), but my photography is also giving something of me. What you see might not be what I think I am showing, but… it might be. The danger – if danger it is! – is that you see what it is that I am seeing, as happened in the Lucy/Rob example given above, and that makes me nervous. My stubbornness means I don’t mind what people think of my images (good/bad/indifferent) because – as I don’t yet tire of saying – I am making photographs for myself, nobody else. They explore things for me, they explain and dissect and reassemble thoughts, they reveal hidden depths to me, and make me reflect on who I am and what I am doing. And now I’m supposed to share that with others, with you? Are you surprised I’m nervous about doing so, that I often can’t quite make my finger click that “Export” button?

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

And yet – getting over that and sharing images, sharing myself, is also a privilege. So thank you for taking the time to read this posting, to look at the images, to think about them. Now, I had better click “Publish” before I change my mind and delete this posting…

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Exploring Deborah Parkin’s photographs in ‘Childhood Narratives’

Deborah Parkin's 'Childhood Narratives'

Deborah Parkin's 'Childhood Narratives'

As previously mentioned, I’d ordered Deborah Parkin’s 2007 Childhood Narratives a few weeks ago.¬† I found some of her images of children online, and her book – a self-published collection from Blurb – of 24 photographs with another two on the dust jacket, is well worth spending time with.

As a bibliophile, the visual and tactile details of a book are important to me: it matters how something like this is put together.¬† A computer or camera manual, for example, just needs to be functional, but with a collection of pieces of art, either individually or forming a narrative whole, the quality of the book itself is also important – there needs to consonance here.¬† If the images are meant to be beautiful, the physical form needs to be beautiful, if it’s meant to be arresting, then the shape and texture of the book should ideally also be in some way arresting (with an attitude like this, you won’t be surprised to hear I don’t get very excited by e-readers with their stupid names and uniform shapes!).¬† I wasn’t very sure what to expect of a one-off self-published book from Blurb.¬† I had ordered the hardcover version with the dust jacket, and I like being able to say that on the whole it looks and feels pretty good.¬† The paper used is quite thick and of a good quality; it’s a little glossy, and depending on how the light is reflecting on the page, one can sometimes almost see one’s own reflection on the page – quite an eerie experience the first time it happened to me, even more so given the image with which that happened (more on that in a moment).¬† So on this front, the book scores fairly well.¬† I have only two minor gripes: (i) the dust jacket is too loose with the folds in the wrong places (this irritates me with some professionally bound high-volume editions too, so Blurb is not alone in this!), and (ii) the binding is suitably tightly stitched (which is important, as will become clear below), but the connection to the hardcover is a not as neat and clean as it could be.¬† I suspect this is a result of printing just single copies.

But, more importantly, Parkin’s content: this is a really stimulating book.¬† I think there is only one adult in these images (Man and Boy p33), and whilst it is not clear to me whose children they are (though I’d guess they are her own), this doesn’t really matter.¬† In fact, most of the time, the identity, gender, age of the children themselves is hard to discern: there are quite a few silhouettes, sometimes hair obscures the face, in other images the face is out-of-focus (see the cover above, for example) – in general it is perhaps possible to guess approximate ages from relative heights, but most of the time it is not particularly important.¬† Her aim, after all, is not to depict children, but to depict childhood: on the title page she provides a longer subtitle: ‘Exploring the emotions of childhood, the joys, adventures as well as the fears and vulnerabilities.¬† Not all is apparent, you will have to look deeper.’¬† She doesn’t directly offer a story, but leaves that for the viewer: ‘A photograph is not just a record of [a] moment… there is a story that preceeds [sic] and succeeds it – it is the viewers [sic] job to ask themselves what that story is’.¬† Giving this context is what makes the images rather unsettling, as well as beautiful.

For beautiful they are.  Her ability to frame and process her images is clearly evident throughout the book Рtechnically, these images are pretty much flawless.  She presents monochrome images that show children in various, completely normal settings Рsitting on a bench, opening a door, sitting against a wall and so on Рbut there is always a sense that something more needs to be told, and that is what makes them unsettling as well.

Deborah Parkin's 'Childhood Narratives' - The Locked Room p41

Deborah Parkin's 'Childhood Narratives' - The Locked Room p41

For example, in my favourite image, ‘The Locked Room’ (p41) a small child of indeterminate gender stands in front of a large wooden door.¬† This looks like a door in a castle, with massive stone walls and a very small, rather sinister-looking archway to the right that would be just the right height for the child to walk through.¬† The child, in a light jumper and with blond hair (or lit in such a way as to make her/him look blond), is so small, s/he perhaps couldn’t even reach the door handle.¬† Like all Parkin’s images, there is a lot of dodging and burning here: the ground immediately behind the lighlty-coloured child is very dark, and the darkness of the image as a whole gives the image an aura of threat, of danger.¬† If the door is locked, and the darkness is behind, is the small archway the only way for the little child to go?¬† I want to know… and that puts me into the narrative too.¬† What made this image even stranger for me is that the first time I looked at it I was sitting by a window and saw an outline of my own face reflected in the door – it looked as if I was stopping the child!¬† Of course, we can reasonably assume that an adult like me had locked the door, and that is also part of the narrative.¬† It seems natural to ask about the boundaries between childhood and adulthood here.

Most of the children are in similar kinds of positions to this child – Parkin clearly likes the narrative power of thresholds, doorways, windows, closed off spaces, interruptions.¬† These are elements that signify things we don’t know about in the immediate past, but also: neither we nor the children know what the immediate future holds.¬† What will be through the door, around the corner, past this wall?¬† We don’t know, but these images are trying to capture just that wondering moment in between.¬† This liminality points to what in other contexts might be ‘third spaces’ of a kind (greetings from Homi Bhabha…).¬† These are places beyond what we know, where the standard dichotomies of (in this case, say) knowing and emotion, power and defiant curiosity, adulthood and childhood, splinter into broader understandings.

One of the things that is really quite striking about the images is the amount of editing Parkin carries out.¬† I often try to make my own edits of portraits fairly unobtrusive – I usually want people to look at an image and not immediately notice that there has been much post-processing.¬† Parkin shows no such restraint, and dodges and burns with wild abandon; also, most of her images use very heavy vignetting to draw attention to what she regards as the key element of the image.¬† And all of it works, and works really well.¬† This can also be seen as part of the narrative – after all, it’s a reminder that this is an adult weaving narratives about childhood.¬† Having looked at quite a few of her images online and having studied this book, I think this kind of thing works better in print than it does on a screen: there is something about looking at these images on a piece of paper using reflected light that makes them more engaging than seeing them in the unpleasant harshness of a screen’s lighting.¬† And perhaps that is also something to do with the process: I’m sure she has used real film for these images, and it just does look better on paper than on screen.

I mentioned the binding being important: many images are printed right into the binding, so to properly view the left side of some of the photographs requires opening the book quite far and peering into the binding area.¬† This hardcover version allows that easily, though I’d expect the spine of a softcover to be damaged if this was done too often.¬† This is an interesting technique, because she always leaves a border on the right side of the image – it’s almost as if she is intending the viewer to look for more in her images, even in the shadows hidden by the binding.

In summary, do buy it (probably better in hard-cover)!¬† Parkin’s photographs have an elegant style and a narrative to share that is worth returning to and reflecting on repeatedly.¬† Her current work builds on all this, and she is developing (ha ha!) her skills at old photographic techniques, with a particular fascination for the wetplate collodion process.¬† As with using real film for the book, the great thing about her engagement with the wetplate process is that she doesn’t seem to be doing it for the sake of the process (though her blog indicates that she does also enjoy the process itself).¬† Rather, the process is an integral part of enabling her to say something that she wants to say, something that is important to her, that needs to be communicated.¬† And from looking at her book, she has plenty to say, and it is worth engaging with her about it.

Photography books

I’ve very excited…. shortly after my accident, I ordered some books from Neil McIlwraith at Beyond Words, and he is bringing two of the three books by tomorrow, perhaps even the third one, if it arrives before he leaves!¬† (He normally posts, but since I live nearby, it’s easier for us both for him to drop them off.)¬† One of these is the new Michael Kenna book.

And, through a recommendation on Twitter from Alex Boyd, I began to follow Deborah Parkin.¬† Her images are stunning: I think her photographs of children are really interesting and I want to see more of them and in more detail than a computer screen will allow (though the images on RedBubble are good to look at).¬† So I’m also ordering her book this evening.

On my inspirations page, I say that ‘I learn far more from other photographers‚Äô photographs than from seeing lists of their equipment’ and so I’m hoping to do lots of learning from these books, as well as enjoy the photographs!¬† And at least I’ll not get too bored as my arm gradually heals…