Contextual Statement for Mid-Year Portfolio

My work focuses on documenting the silent elements of dramatic performance, exploring the visual formations created within the frame of the image when photographing people acting. In doing this I am allowing a particular focus on the visible body language of people when they are playing a character, and looking at how adults and young people differ in this. In my work I also aim to investigate the wavering boundaries in the relationship between the performer and the role that they are temporarily undertaking; and the uncertainty between the real self and the staged, as the mask that the actor wears during a performance is often imaginary. The photographing of performance gives it a dual existence; there’s the viewing of the live action and the viewing of the imagery that follows. Phelan stated that when photographed, performance becomes “something other than performance” (Phelan 1993, p.146), my work investigates this ‘other’ existence that becomes of the photographed actor once recorded.

Initially last term I had the notion that I wanted to photograph people in a setting which I found them in, but was unsure who. Whilst researching an array of photographers that document people in some way in their found environment, I decided to approach amateur dramatic groups. My first influence for this was the work of Wendy McMurdo. Her photographs that I find particularly fascinating are the ones that involve children acting, such as figure 1.

The aesthetics of her images are particularly inspiring, and I was personally drawn to these as I find the mannerisms of children interesting. I felt that drama was an area that I would find interesting to explore myself, thinking about the character which these people become, therefore this inspired me to try a new style of practice. I hoped I would find that this worked better and excited me more than the varied styles of work that I have made in the past, and the experimental work that I did throughout the first term.
As well as the work of McMurdo, I am particularly drawn to the work of Mitra Tabrizian (figure 2), her use and composition of the subjects within the frame is a style that I think relates to the themes of my work; especially how the figures seem quite isolated and engrossed in the situation, as people often are when acting. Another influence is Clare Strand’s ‘Gone Astray’ series of work (figure 3), her placement and the stance of these subjects in front of a quite theatrical background, reminiscent of the 19th century, is interesting considering these are modern people of London. I have also looked at how French paintings from the 18th Century have been analysed in relation to the figures within them; in particular Fried’s discussions about absorption (Fried 1988), and how the actions of the figures in the paintings each work to influence its persuasive representation of a particular state, such as them being engrossed in their activity.

I have now gained permission and am photographing several drama groups. I’ve found that due to the type of production that the youth group are creating physically, the visual aspects of their performance are a lot more prominent in my images. Yet the lighting and background of the adult group’s location has provided a more pleasing aesthetic. I plan to develop the visual elements technically, and think more about the placement of the subject within the image and overall composition. I also may experiment with either using a plain backdrop, taking the figures outside in to a new environment or using an actual stage environment, in order to make the backgrounds less distracting and more relevant. I aim to photograph in a way that doesn’t make the camera’s presence too obvious to the subject’s whilst performing, but whilst also not relying solely on the subjects to create my images, which I found came across in my initial photographs.

As well as capturing still imagery, I experimented with recording videos of people in their character roles to see how this differs from documenting a single image of the performance, I eliminated sound and slowed the speed down to keep the focus on their visual body language. I may experiment with this further in my work, but now I want to think more carefully about the aesthetics of my photographs, and develop this to illustrate my ideas on capturing performance with the visual style that I aim to achieve, based on my influences. I also aim to think in more depth about the underlying themes relating to the performers and their act, and how this can be shown through photography.

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