The Longer Version

Below is the longer version of the Oral Presentation for the Sustainable Prospects module. I wasn’t able to fit in all that I wanted to say into the 7 minutes and had to reduce the text.

What I ended up with, I like, but I felt some references and connections were missing in the end.  So here is the full text.

Oral Presentation

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” Emily Dickinson

Welcome to the oral presentation from Tim Stubbs Hughes for the Sustainable Prospects module of the MA in Photography at Falmouth University.

Throughout this oral presentation, I will be discussing where I am currently with my practice through examining external research, influences and my work, and I will consider where my future Final Module Project may be heading.

I believe that my work and practice, as a photographer, theatre-maker and artist, is rooted in the idea and concept that a word, a performance or an image contains within it a metaphorical resonance and that this resonance can both expand and narrow the viewer’s experience.

What I am starting to realise about my process and the work that I am seeking to produce, is that the act of taking a photograph is itself as important as the photograph that is made.

Fig 1: Tim Stubbs Hughes (1988). Manchester.

The taking of a photograph is the freezing or capturing of time, through a process of either chemicals (analogue) or electronically (digital), and today is employed in many different uses from business to art, used by professional photographers to hobbyists, and is a form of mass communication. Since 1839 and the announcement of the first daguerreotype to today’s ‘selfie’, photography has been used to present a truth, it has sought to create its own fiction, been asked to evoke memories or past moments, depict poetic vistas and landscapes as well, bring us documentary and news, as well as advertise and sell us products and dreams.

In ‘The Social Photo’ by Nathan Jurgenson states that “The self – that feeling that you are you and not someone else – is a story you tell yourself to connect the person you once were to who you are now and to who you will become” and goes on to explore that the photograph of the self is not only an act to record yourself but a “mode of thinking about yourself” (Jurgenson, 2019: 54).

Fig 2: Tim Stubbs Hughes (1988). Three Sisters rehearsal, taken playing a character in a play.

 

Back in summer 1988, while training as an actor I played the character Aleksej Petrovich Fedotik in Anton Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’. He was an army officer and minor character within the play, who has within his possessions a camera with which he records the birthday party of Irina, one of the sisters and who he admires from afar. In Act III of the play, he loses all his possessions to a fire within the town. In 1992 I sold my camera equipment and did not pick up a camera until about 20 years later.

Fig 3: Tim Stubbs Hughes (1987). Christmas Party.

Using this character within the play, and my own photography at the time to record a Christmas party with some friends from the course, I am interested in the similarities and connections between the fiction of the play and the reality of wanting to record a personal moment, which becomes a memory of this moment, a representation of people who are captured within this frame, a remembrance of who we were and a historical artefact.  The essential difference between the two photographs is that in one, from the play, the actors were presenting themselves as characters, while in the second, the people were being themselves. As Nathan Jurgenson points out “Photography plays an integral role in linking the self over time” and that “This identity work is deciding to remember something as quintessentially me, a choice, a performance, memorialised within the frame” (Jurgenson, 2019: 55).

Both the character Fedotik in the play and myself in real life were both seeking to capture a moment, to have a remember of the self and the time spent with others, and to then have within the frame the indexes and references which allow for a revealing of a past self, and an opportunity to recall and re-evaluate this self. Even though Fedotik does not appear in the image, the fact that he took the image and was present in its making alludes to the idea that his personality is within the frame. In Jerry L. Thompson’s ‘Why Photography Matters’, he also implies the same thesis: “Photographs are made by personalities” (Thompson, 2016: 86)

Fig 4: Tim Stubbs Hughes (2019). “7 Spice Peking Duck”. (image 4 of 4)

Caught up with the beginning of the MA at Falmouth University was the passing of my father-in-law on the 7th of September 2019. A year earlier he had been diagnosed with an incurable blood disorder and had been given between 3-6 months to live. He managed to live for 12 months.

John Berger in ‘Understanding a Photograph’ states that “Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen” (Berger and Dyer, 2013: 18).

Throughout 2019 I was travelling to the house I grew up in Fleet, visiting my mother, Mavis, and Alan, every few weeks to cook, chat, help around the house. Their life had become a routine of carer and being cared for.

During this time, I took a number of informal and off-the-cuff photographs, not really knowing if I would display them publicly or reflect on them, though I suspect there was a deeper recognition within myself of the journey I was on with my photography and my continuing exploration and relationship of my presence to the world around me.

In November 2019, as part of “Reflection” at Conway Hall, I displayed “7 Spice Peking Duck”, clearly indicating in the text that accompanied the four photographs, that this was one of the final meals that myself and my partner cooked for Alan and Mavis at their home in Fleet.

In the month before the “Reflection” exhibition, I went down to Fleet to ask my mother her permission to exhibit the photographs of Alan. She responded by asking “Would anyone be interested to see them?”

Fig 5: Tim Stubbs Hughes (2020). “Elephants”, 2020.

In some ways, I feel I am on a circular journey with my art and my examination of self and identity. I feel that I am re-connecting with moments of my past through the analysis of photographs I took between 1983 to 1992 and my current work and projects. I believe my work is rooted in the present but is seeking to explore the past, and how we have come to the realisations or concepts that we have.

My photography is informed by my theatre-making process, and the techniques that I have used as a theatre director to collaborate with others and how I have presented plays to an audience. In Chapter 2 ‘Once Upon a Time’, in her book ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, Charlotte Cotton talks about the “narrative within the frame” (p49) and I believe that concept of storytelling is very present within my work. My current projects, similar to my self-portraits from the past, and while not full staged enactments, they demonstrate an attempt to explore a staged moment in order to explore the ideas I am seeking to capture.

Added to this is the feeling that there is a bond that exists between the act of taking the photograph and the actual image that is produced. In the book ‘Each Wild Idea’ Geoffrey Batchen writes about when the desire to actually photograph a scene begins to emerge, and that it precedes the first actual daguerreotype of 1839.  Batchen goes onto argue that the desire to create a photograph was an attempt to bridge the artistic and emerging concepts which were occurring between the Enlightenment and Modernity theories. Using Foucault’s thesis on panopticism, he sees a connection between photography and the “economy of gazes as constituting each of its contributors as a self-reflexive doublet – as both the subject and object” (Batchen, 2002: 22). We are, using the poets Coleridges’ words in a moment of “a self-conscious looking glass” and that the desire to photograph is in some-way “a mapping of bodies in time and presence” (Batchen, 2002: 23): that through this artificial eye of the camera, the photographer is both recording what is in front but also their physical presence of being there.

Fig 6: Tim Stubbs Hughes (2020). Self-portrait.

I would go further and suggest that even a photograph that was not taken by the viewer also has the aura to transports them to the location, the time and the place of the photographer: to the very spot. That the image within the frame acts as a time machine, that is full of its own indexical and metaphorical references and that it taps into the subconscious within and begins an internal storytelling between the photograph and the viewer.

In 2017 I began an artist statement for myself of intent, and which has since developed into the first draft of a new play ‘Pessoa. My-Self. I.” that I intend to act in and produce in late 2021. The play explores a man waiting in the room, and now a museum, of a dead writer. The man is sure the writer will make a physical appearance and answers his burning question: that whether the words the man writes his own or the dead writer’s. I feel this work is connected to my FMP and other projects.

Fig 7: Tim Stubbs Hughes (2020). “Childhood Noddy”.

The project that I began at the start of the MA in September 2019, ‘Remembrance of day-dreams’ is an examination of childhood objects that I still have in my possession. My intention for this project is to continue this by re-visiting the home I grew up in Fleet with my mother and to re-connect and photograph the various rooms and objects that are still there, from my childhood and teenage years. This is underpinned by what Bachelard says in the ‘Poetics of Space’ that “the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as day-dreams these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all the time.” (Bachelard. 2014: 28)

Fig 8: Tim Stubbs Hughes (2020). Picture Frame.

‘In Looking Back One Learns to See: Marcel Proust and Photography’ Mary Bergstein explores the “visual culture from a close reading of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and his letters, combined with an abiding interest in the history of photography” (Bergstein, 2014: 9). Writing about Lynda Nead who in her book ‘The Haunted Gallery’, “she advances the alluring idea that light-induced the states in which Proust travelled back and forth from the unconscious (oblivion) to conscious (suddenly remembered) thought” (Bergstein, 2014: 221). In ‘The Photograph: A Strange and Confined Space’, Mary Price writes that Proust was a touchstone for Walter Benjamin and photography, who wrote about a photograph having the potential to possess an aura, and Benjamin credits Proust as “the first great imaginative writer to make extensive use of wonder and magic of photography” (Price, 1999: 150). The photographer Alex Soth talks with Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian in a 2019 interview about his “sudden realisation that everything in the universe was connected” while sitting in a chair at the edge of a river (O’Hagan, 2019), while photographer Keith Carter in an interview with Ted Forbes alludes to the fact that “something is going on” (Keith Carter: The Artist Series, 2017) inside a photograph to draw the viewer inside.

I see my work over the FMP period as a fusion and connection between several projects: the photography of my father-in-law, the revisiting and reassessment of portraits taken when I was younger, the creative writing of the play about a man waiting in a room for a dead writer to appear and the connection of objects from my childhood and the house I grew up in.

In summary, I would end with the words of Lyle Rexer in their introduction to Will Steacy’s “Photographs Not Taken”. He states that “the desire to photograph the whole world, all of it, is not an attempt to record or create memories. It is a need to affirm experience as expressible, if not comprehensible and to create an aura of talismanic protection.” (Steacy, 2012: 3)

In the same way that a character on stage can have a moment of self-realisation about their own existence and their presence in the world, a photograph can possess similar qualities and magic, and act as a conduit to the past as well as the future.

Bibliography

BATCHEN, G., 2002. Each Wild Idea. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.

BERGER, J. and Dyer, G., 2013. Understanding A Photograph. London: Penguin Books.

BERGSTEIN, M., 2014. In Looking Back One Learns To See. Amsterdam – New York: Rodopi.

HAGAN, S., 2019. Alec Soth, A Photographer Reborn: ‘I Realised Everything Is Connected’. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/09/alec-soth-photographer-i-know-your-heart-is-beating-furious-interview> [Accessed 4 December 2020].

JURGENSON, N., 2019. The Social Photo. Verso Books.

PRICE, M., 1999. The Photograph: A Strange And Confined Space. Stanford (Calif.): Stanford University Press.

STEACY, W., 2012. Photographs Not Taken. [New York]: Daylight.

THOMPSON, J., 2016. Why Photography Matters. The MIT Press.

THE ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2017. Keith Carter: The Artist Series. [online] Available at: <https://youtu.be/PjuWESzRhWo> [Accessed 8 December 2020].