Tag Archives: John Myers

Assignment 2 – Those Who Do

It is a modern axiom that 90% of people complain about their local services and only 10% try to do anything about it. This is a series about Parish Councillors, who are part of the 10%. Each of these people has been formally elected by the people of their parish to an unpaid group whose aim is to maintain and improve services, activities and open spaces in the village. It is the lowest rung of government, making decisions that affect communities are the level of villages and very small towns. Until recently, the role was fairly low key, but the current financial pressures on town and county councils is forcing them to delegate service to parishes across the UK under the Localism agenda, and groups  like this are taking on more and more work which was previously undertaken by larger local authorities. The role is often practically difficult and thankless (see the comment about complainers above) and each person’s motivation for becoming involved is different.

The series looks at some of the people who are sufficiently interested in their local environment to take up the challenge of being a parish councillor. I am a member of this particular group myself, and am therefore photographing them as an insider;  they all know me, although not necessarily very well. I am interested in the diversity (or perhaps lack of diversity) visible among the group, although it is fair to say that they are a realistic reflection of the community they serve, in terms of age range, ethnicity and economic situation. This part of rural England has little of the multicultural flavour of the big cities.

The journey towards making the series has been documented in the series of posts here. Particular photographers who have informed this selection are Joel Sternfeld, and especially his series Strangers Passing and American Prospects,  John Myers’ series Middle England and David Hurn’s Tintern Photographic Project. The aim was to produce a series of images where there is a clear interaction with me, the photographer, but which also indicates how they relate to their home environment.

The images are shown full size below.

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Reflection

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

Technically, I think this assignment is better than my first one. The subjects are in focus and their positions in the images are pleasing. Each expresses something about their personality in their faces and the way they are standing and also something about their relationship with me, the photographer and a member of their group. I have learned a very useful lesson about how to interact with my subjects during the shoot too, as it became clear through the early ones that they all needed time to relax into the situation, and to chat with me about what they would like to show in their images. Finally, the idea of using some of the as yet untaken images as pictures around the Parish Office was a mistake, as it meant that I was trying to combine two separate ideas in the same project, which was confusing for me when deciding how to shoot the subjects. I have a tendency to overcomplicate the scope of my assignment ideas, and this was a lesson learned for me. Simplicity of purpose is best.

Quality of outcome

I believe the series achieves what I was looking for. Admittedly, this turned out to be some distance away from my starting point, but the final result is a truthful portrait of some of my fellow Parish Councillors and what interests them, albeit that not enough visual information is given to firmly pin down their areas of expertise. The series also hints at some of the issues that exercise my local community, and I leave the viewer to decided what they might be. None of the subjects has seen the results of their shoot as yet, and I must show them, as I would be interested to know whether they feel comfortable with the results.

Demonstration of creativity

This has been the part of the assignment that I have found most challenging. As can be seen from my previous posts on the preparation work, there were several false starts which did not achieve the effect I was looking for, and I think I was probably too focussed on showing  a sense of place in each image, rather than allowing the subjects time to relax and inhabit their space. Unlike assignment 1, the location is Home for all the subjects and they feel at ease in their environment, which shows in the final images. For my next unit, I intend to spend more time researching the idea of spaces and places and how one can express these concepts through images.

Context

Returning to my original starting point of study for this assignment, I see that I have not in fact strayed too far from my original ideas. The difference has been more in how I interpreted them. The work of John Myers and David Hurn was useful in setting the scene of current life in rural Britain, but my final creative choices were more informed by the work of Joel Sternfeld, and particularly his Strangers Passing series. Upon reflection, other more subliminal influences should include the series Sleeping by the Mississippi and Broken Manual by Alec Soth, which | saw last year and which I found very affecting, particularly in terms of how the subjects were photographed in their personal environments.

I have visited a number of exhibitions this year in support of this assignment, not all of which I have written up as yet. They include Made You Look at the Photographers Gallery, An Ideal for Living at Beetles & Huxley and a number of shows at the Brighton Biennale, the most relevant of which were The Dandy Lion Project and ReImagine. So far, I have not written up all of these as yet, but I intend to do so over the next few weeks.

 

Assignment 2 research – John Myers

My research on the subject of photographing Middle England came up with the work of John Myers, and specifically his series of the same name. This interesting video explains his motivations and how he went about the project.

Myers, who was a lecturer at Stourbridge College of Art was well-known in the 1970s and 1980s, often featuring in Sunday supplements and photography magazines. He was quite open about the fact that he saw his work as documentary, albeit about what we think of as normal. In the video above he says that almost every image from his Middle England series was taken within walking distance of his home, so are very local, in a similar way to Jim Mottram.

Myers is interested in how a subject relates to the environment of the frame. He feels that the size and location of the subject in the images can subliminally give viewers and insight into the inner lives and horizons of the sitters. I want to use this idea in my assignment series, to indicate something about the subjects’ breadth of interest and whether it is detailed or strategic.

In the article referenced below, Frances Hodgson describes Myers as someone who refuses to exploit his sitters. There is a transparent honesty about the images, and a feeling that they were a cooperative activity between the sitter and the photographer. One can contrast this attitude with, for example, the work of Bruce Gilden or Martin Parr, where the subject is used, perhaps quite cynically, to illustrate the photographer’s opinions. Take for example, Parr’s 1980s Cost of Living series, which focused on the middle class people around Bristol and Bath. The images tell a truth about them, but it is a very politically charged truth, and not a complimentary one. Myers work is much more sympathetic, and that is what I am hoping to aim for in this assignment.

Myers says he often uses flat light and an eye level view for his pictures, as he wants others to see them as if they were behind the camera. Most of his subjects are full length and shown in the middle of the frame. He also says that he looks back at these images now and feels no personal connection to them – they are from another person, i.e. the man he was when he took them, not the man he is now.

Below are three images from the series which give an idea of how he liked to pose his subjects. In all three, the subjects are gazing back at the camera, blank-faced, but the background has a wealth of information about their space, as does the way they occupy it. In all cases, he said that he used the same 4×5″ camera, so that everything about the composition and pose was considered before the shot was taken, with the active participation of the sitters. For example, the image of the couple gives so much away about their relationship in their relative positions and stances.

References

Hodgson, F. (2012) John Myers – middle England. Available at: https://francishodgson.com/2012/03/09/john-myers-middle-england/ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).
IkonGallery (2012) John Myers: Middle England. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FXwUeXERZQ (Accessed: 24 October 2016).
2014, J.M. (2014) John Myers photographs of middle England. Available at: http://www.johnmyersphotographs.com/sales.php (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

 

Assignment 2 – The final idea

It has taken a long time to get to grips with this assignment, and until now I have had no sensible ideas of what to photograph. However, yesterday morning I attended a vitally important local event in my capacity as Acting Chair of the Parish Council – the opening of a new playground in the north of the village – which was to be featuring in the local newspaper in the Saturday morning edition , on page 25, so it was hardly headline news. Here is a screenshot of the page.

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A motley crew of people turned up for the opening, including representatives of the waste management company which helped pay for it, the Parish’s paid staff and a couple of other councillors. I didn’t take my camera, thinking that I would be too busy to use it, but there would have been several opportunities, including elderly and overweight people trying out the zipwire and candid shots of the interactions within a very disparate group of individuals, etc. There was one image that stuck in my mind though, and I dearly wish I had had the forethought to take at least my phone. One of our Borough Councillors (who must be in his late 60s) turned up on his motorised bicycle, crash helmet askew, and with his paperwork extruding out of a pannier, but brimming with enthusiasm. It was a classic example of the reality of local government at its most grassroots level, and I decided I wanted to work with it for my assignment, which is nominally called The Foot Soldiers of  Local Government – Portrait of a Community in Flux.

In particular, I am interested in the ideas of belonging and community and how these can be portrayed through the work of the Parish Council. Photographers I intend to reference will include Tony Ray Jones, Martin Parr, John Myers and David Hurn, although there may be others.

My initial thoughts are to make a series of portraits of some of the Parish Councillors, standing by the elements of community life that most concern them, individually. Some would be close-ups and others shot in the middle distance, to indicate something about their relationship to their subject, and all will be aware, but with the subjects not necessarily looking at the camera. So far, I am thinking the following:

  • Anne – potential new housing projects – outside, Wichelstowe – large scale
  • Chris – planning – in the office, looking at plans, or bus service, at the bus stop
  • Hannah – childrens’ amenities – at the playpark, or renewable energy, at the solar farm
  • Talis – closing services – outside the library with a placard
  • Dave – youth sport – at the Saturday football club
  • Steve – in the Parish office, with the staff

At last, I have a plan that I feel will work, and about which I have a sense of enthusiasm to put into action.