Constructed Photography artists’ talk @ City Gallery Wellington

Today, I hopped on a bus to the city to attend a talk on “Constructed Photography” at the City Gallery Wellington. It was chaired by the City Gallery Curator, Aaron Lister. He introduced the topic of “constructed photography” – a concept-driven kind of photography – referencing Gregory Crewdson’s work currently on display at the gallery, as a good example of this kind of photographic work. He then introduced the photographers, all 4 of whom are graduates from the Elim art school. Here’s a summation of what I can remember. All tangents in parentheses are my own!

James Lowe took us through the process of one of his photos – a shot of multiple cars and people in a landscape setting at night which took a lot of careful planning on paper, pre-shoot testing for lighting, then the actual arrangement of cars and lighting. He had a crew to help him on the shoot which was a full day from 5am to 4pm. He also briefly introduced an idea of the snapshot photo (which seems to be the opposite of the elaborate photo shoot but anyhow). He also touched on the need to establish rapport with the portrait subject which is why he usually uses friends for portraits, as there’s already a rapport there.

Roberta Thornley described her start in photography as unplanned as she has a background in painting and sculpture. Though, because of her background she always had a very hands-on approach to photography – e.g. she spent 3 days duct taping the net of a tennis court to change it from black to white. She keeps journals of her photography ideas. She showed us her photos taken near a town with a lot of rivers in it where she’d planned to take a picture of a waterfall and ended up with a photo of a fence after rain which looks more like waterfall than a waterfall. She often works with young people in her photos for portraits. She says she plans all her photos and then often nature interferes. (This reminded me a little of the Impressionist painters who were always trying to capture light on the subject of course and how they too would have been subject to nature’s whims painting outdoors.) She shared a funny story about a shoot she’d planned in painstaking detail with balloons in her back garden that did not work at all. Then, overnight a storm blew them all over the yard and she had to collect and trash them. But, 3 weeks later found a remnants of some half deflated balloons, which turned into a superb photo on a black background (they reminded me of old grapes which the oil painter, Tretchikov, said all aspiring artists should first master when the start out).

Kate Woods talked about her work which is a bit different to the others in that she doesn’t use her own photos as art, rather she takes other works, mostly colour retouched old land photographs and makes geometric paper sculptures which she then attaches to the art work – usually to reconstruct a real scene, such as a building or a sculpture. I definitely got a better understanding of her work knowing the concept/story behind it, whereas, it would not ordinarily appeal to me at face value. She had some interesting works from time spent in Beijing where a lot of building sites where appearing on the scene and disrupting the urban landscape.

Yvonne Todd started out by telling an anecdote about her ‘defining moment’ when she was 4 years old and her mother fell and gashed her head in a shop, and then somehow ended up across the way at a cake shop with pink-aproned shop assistants and blood covered cakes. You had to be there in the telling which was very effective! She said she doesn’t really plan the photos in advance and prooved this by showing us her very basic sketch and then showed us the result for her “Seahorsel” studio shoot. The photo is the same basic concept but a very different visual result! She used paid models and friends, dressed them in an assortment of second-hand things, and gave them props to hold (as hands often look awkward in photos) like driftwood detritus. She had to “photoshop” in a seagull in one of the photos, as she couldn’t get a real live one from the bird wrangler.

Overall it looks like a constructed photograph is a process, where the photographer starts with a visual idea in their mind of a photo or set of photos that is informed by a concept. Part of the process is the plan for achieving the intended result – be it a studio set up which needs the right subjects, props, costumes, and so on, or chasing the right light for an outdoors photo shoot. Ultimately the final work may or may not be what the photographer had in mind at all, may or may not have worked according to plan, but ultimately it is still informed by the original idea and is still a result of a process.

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