photographic index

ba digital photography london south bank university

Mark Westlake

Photographs of contemporary artists taken in and around the Southbank Centre area. This series is to show the bleak surroundings that contemporary artists are reacting against when they create their work.

When asked to choose and document a youth subculture for this project, I was unsure at first of what to choose. There are so many subcultures around, which have been covered to varying degrees, that I didn’t know what to go for. However, when I thought about it more, the one subculture that seemed to lack any form of coverage was the photographers and artists who are actually the people documenting everyone else.

Art and “Higher Culture” has always been highly revered by our society, so it is interesting to see the changes between art and fine art as it used to be and contemporary art culture. Artists generally used to be trained at their chosen discipline for years to truly be considered artists, even as late as the 19th Century. For example, regarding 19th Century Romantic painter Delacroix, we are told: “In 1815 he became the pupil of the French painter Pierre-Narcisse Guerin and began a career that would produce more than 850 paintings and great numbers of drawings, murals, and other works.” [WebMuseum Paris, last accessed 17/05/07, http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/delacroix/%5D Again, when refering to Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, it is said that “He grew up in Christiania (now Oslo) and studied art under Christian Krohg, a Norwegian naturalistic painter.” [WebMuseum Paris, last accessed 17/05/07, http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/munch/%5D Although there are obviously still people studying at schools or art and universities to become involved in the arts, there are contemporary artists who haven’t. Materials and resources are now more readily available too, meaning that even more people are involved with art and the arts than ever before.

For my project, I chose to follow the part of the brief referring to the concept of subculture/lifestyle as a theoretical model to interpret photographically the cultural sensibilities of contemporary youth. Specifically with my project, I chose to try and capture the way that young people relate to art, and the art world. I wanted to capture the fact that nowadays, relatively unassuming people can be artists, and aren’t necessarily known just as artists simply because they are involved in art. I also wanted to try and keep to photographing female artists to highlight the shift away from a male dominated art world. This shift is a relatively recent thing, as the work of the “Guerrilla Girls” shows. The Guerrilla Girls were formed in 1985 in New York to try and change the perceived sexist art world. For example, they revealed that in the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, they had “found that less than 5% of the artists in the Met’s Modern Art sections were female, but 85% of the nudes were female.” [Wikipedia, last accessed 17/05/07, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guerrilla_Girls%5D Although female artists are being represented more equally today there are still disparities, as The Guardian points out – “women artists working today still earn the most shaming fraction of what men earn.” [The Guardian Newspaper Online – The Guardian Unlimited Arts, last accessed 17/05/07, http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,,1808429,00.html] It’s not only in the role of artists that women are under-represented, even in previous documentation of subculture, “Girls have till quite recently been relegated to a position of secondary interest, within… photographic studies of urban youth.” [Hebdige D., 1988: p27] However, my project wasn’t specifically to raise awareness of the plight of women in the art world both as artists and subjects, I also wanted to show how young people are today creating art from some relatively bleak surroundings – the people I ended up photographing all came from estates in boroughs like Hackney that people might from the outside consider to be ‘dangerous’, or fairly oppressive.

My next decision came when I tried to work out how I wanted to photograph my subject. Having seen The Visible Girls archive, I knew how Anita Corbin had worked with her subjects. Her portraits of the Girls tends to be in a fairly documentary way, although not in a fly-on-the-wall sense, as the subject always knows they are being photographed at that instant. Equally, some of them were even taken in their own homes, not just out on location in clubs and so on. As I had already realised I wanted to show how the artists in question were creating art in spite of their bleak surroundings, I knew I wanted to find some modern surroundings that would epitomise the ‘concrete jungle’ persona of London. I decided to follow the part of the brief relating to remaking photographs in a similar style, although I knew I would potentially end up using slightly different methods to Anita’s original work, which tended to be done with lenses of similar focal length, and generally lit with a flash pointed at the ceiling, bouncing light down onto the subject in a more natural way. Because of the nature of my decision to photograph my subjects on location in various parts of the city, I knew that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to bounce light off a surface above them, so a separate slave flash would be necessary to light them.

Having worked out which subculture I wanted to photograph, and how I wanted to do it, I searched for a bleak, concrete area I could photograph people in. After looking around various places in South East London, I found an ideal place ironically close to a current gallery and theatre, on the South Bank, near the Hayward Gallery. Built in 1951, the Southbank Centre is a mass of concrete architecture. When talking about the Centre, About.com’s Architecture feature author wrote: ”Although still a thriving arts centre, South Bank Centre is criticized for its cold, harsh architecture.” [About.com, last accessed 17/05/07, http://architecture.about.com/library/ucsouthbank.htm%5D This desolate backdrop would, I thought, be an ideal candidate for photographing my subjects in against, not to mention providing a nice contrast between the artists I was going to photograph and the massive, imposing architecture around them.

When it came to choosing people to photograph, I initially had 5 artists from various places in London scheduled to be photographed. They ranged from people in art schools at present to people I knew who had an active interest in art. Unfortunately, the majority of them pulled out nearly at the last minute, and so I ended up using a friend of mine at the Byamshaw School of Art to help me find female artists there to photograph. After confirming dates and places, I had 3 subjects to photograph – Laura, a fine art student from Byamshaw School of Art; Jade – an artist hoping to get into Byamshaw School of Art; Jen – an artist and photographer who runs her own site, http://www.IfSheCouldSpeak.com. Although all 3 of them use different techniques, they are all currently documenting youth subculture in different ways. Jen’s main business is photographing bands and London’s music scene, Laura frequently does projects based on youth subculture in London in general, and Jade draws and photographs her peers and friends in their day to day lives.

With each of the different photographs, I tried to ensure I generally followed Anita’s style of lighting from above (which is especially obvious in the photograph of Jen standing in the stairwell), although the actual angles varied. This is perhaps where I could’ve more closely followed Anita’s work, just by maintaining a similar angle and pose for each subject. However, at the time of shooting, I felt that capturing different areas would highlight the different backgrounds of each of the subjects, and that different angles might help give a greater feeling of the imposing architecture around them. I also wanted to try and not do just a straight, clear portrait as I wanted to try and give the photographs a feeling of the way that female artists are marginalized and as such aren’t seen fully in the art world, hence some of the shots only featuring part of the body, and the others not showing the details of the subject incredibly clearly.

Although I got close to achieving the ideas I had in my head for my project, I would’ve preferred to have not only created a more archival feel by simply having more photographs of the subjects, and a wider range of artists, but also I would perhaps try and more closely mirror Anita’s style. I also realise now the importance of over-compensating when it comes to getting models/sitters for a project, simply to cover the possibility of people being unable to commit to the project at the last minute before going out on location. Overall, having not attempted to photograph a subculture like this before, I’ve found it to be a useful tool to get more ideas for future projects, but also to get a greater awareness of the art world itself, both through my research and meeting people actively involved in it. Even if this project doesn’t fully highlight to people what artists are doing in London in the present day, it has at least helped me gain a greater understanding.

Bibliography:

Webmuseum, Paris (Unknown) Edvard Munch [WebMuseum Paris, last accessed 17/05/07, http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/munch/%5D

Webmuseum, Paris (Unknown) Eugène Delacroix [WebMuseum Paris, last accessed 17/05/07, http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/delacroix/%5D

Zoe Williams (2006) On women artists and the Guerilla Girls [The Guardian Online – Guardian Unlimited Arts, last accessed 17/05/07, http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,,1808429,00.html]

Wikipedia (2007) Guerilla Girls [Wikipedia, last accessed 17/05/07, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guerrilla_Girls%5D

Hebdige D. (1988), Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things. London: Routledge.

About (Unknown) The South Bank Centre, London [About.com, last accessed 17/05/07, http://architecture.about.com/library/ucsouthbank.htm%5D

One Response

  1. Charlie Jennings says:

    Nice shots dude.

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