“How long has it been?” asked my friend. The question was followed by some rapid calculations, after which we realised that it had been around 25 years since we’d last seen each other, and it would have been more if our wives hadn’t shared a passion for competing in multi-sport events. Our chance meeting, a few years ago now, led to a chat that took us right back to when we first met as teenage apprentices at the beginning of our engineering careers. What we quickly realised was that we didn’t really have any of the usual questions one asks on these ‘bumping into’ occasions, not because we were somehow socially awkward, but because we’ve been connected to each other on social media for many of the intervening years. It’s very much a 21st Century thing to share many details of our daily lives, families, even our dinner on these online platforms, and it is this familiarity that left my old friend and I making small talk instead of finding out more about that past quarter of a century. Now, I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, and I am not against social media at all (I am on a few of them myself, of course). However, social media has become so ingrained in our lives that it is entirely possible to use it as our sole form of communication, and not really engage with people in a physical way if we don’t want to. While that might suit someone who is severely introverted, for most the need for actual human contact is a strong one. It was great to see my friend, and I’m happy to say we’ve caught up a few times since.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, and another opportunity to meet friends who I have previously only ever seen in a small on-screen window, came along. As you know, my degree studies are what is known as ‘distance learning’, a term that often feels like a more than adequate description of it. Unlike a traditional university, the students are all at different stages of the course, have limited access to their tutors beyond marking assignments and while they have access to many resources, are left to follow a course schedule by themselves. It is often a lonely experience, particularly when a project brief is difficult to understand, or an area of research doesn’t make sense. A few years ago, some of the students formed a group aimed at supporting each other through these tricky times, to inspire each other’s creative work, and have the odd laugh along the way. We’ve regularly met on Zoom ever since, and our meeting has become an important part of our study schedule. One of our number announced that he was heading to London to an exhibition related to his Self-directed Project, so a meetup was arranged for those who could easily get there. We are an international group with members in Germany and New Zealand so unfortunately, we weren’t all able to make it. When we gathered in the café at The Photographers’ Gallery near Soho, I had a similar experience to that encounter with my apprentice friend. We all know each other from our extensive contact online, so we could dispense with the usual ‘getting to know you’ chit chat. Instead, we filled in the blanks by talking about our lives away from our studies, what we did for a living etc. Two of our number brought their partners, so we had their perspective on our study experiences, which was also fascinating. What we were really in town for though, was to see some exhibitions. As part of our shared knowledge, we were also aware of where we each drew artistic inspiration from, and that was brought into focus (pardon the pun) with the first exhibition we saw. The Photographers’ Gallery was showing a collection of Evelyn Hofer’s works from across her 40-year career and seeing this exhibition really brought home the idea of familiarity and influence. Her work covers a wide range of subjects from architecture to street photography, but it’s for her portraiture that she is perhaps best known. Shot predominantly using a Linhoff 4x5 camera, her photographs have a quiet sensitivity to them, which reveals the person but avoids the kind of staged direction that one might normally associate with using complex large format cameras, which are not exactly point-and-shoots. There was something about the way she engaged with her subjects that made them comfortable being photographed and kept them from becoming impatient.
This book by Hofer contains some of her most 'connected' portraits
By all accounts, Hofer wasn’t a warm person, her assistant referring to her attention to detail and perfectionism that could be infuriating. As a photographer, I find it difficult to square perfectionism with putting a subject at ease, but Hofer definitely achieved it through establishing a strong personal connection. Her subjects hold the viewer’s attention, before visual context surrounding them draws us into an aspect of their lives. As we are studying ‘representation’ this year, Hofer’s work appeared to resonate with us all, which certainly made the process of viewing a different experience to what it would have been if done alone.
We moved on to the Centre for British Photography and some powerful work by Mandy Barker about the impact of plastic waste on our natural world. It was particularly poignant as one of our number had recently completed his major project on a similar aspect of pollution in the landscape. Where he had explored the seemingly normalised proliferation of small pieces of rubbish in the beauty of his local area, Barker’s images make the pollution look, at first glance, beautiful. Only when looking closely, do the sinister implications of the objects present themselves and that beauty becomes uncomfortable. Again, familiarity with the subject matter through another artist’s work made the connection for me. Last stop was the recently reopened National Portrait Gallery, which always has a few photography exhibitions running. The notable one here was Take a Moment, a series of portraits and self-portraits with the subject’s eyes closed, which was the result of a decade-long project to raise mental health awareness. This exhibition combined the original series of famous faces with the opportunity to upload our own selfies so that we could become part of the work. Standing on the designated spot and taking a selfie while not being able to see yourself might seem peculiar, but it was another experience of being physically present before becoming virtual in an online gallery. I have a long history of taking bad selfies and this one is no exception, so no judgment please.
Yep, another corker. Selfies of the Take a Moment Project.
“What’s the point of all this?”, I hear you ask. Surely social media keeps us informed and Zoom and its contemporaries made the Covid lockdowns much more bearable while saving many businesses at the same time? Well yes, those points are undoubtedly true, but as human beings we need to be physically present in a situation, whether that is meeting friends for the first time or visiting an exhibition to actually see art rather than viewing it on a website. These engagements help us understand things, which is one of the other challenges in studying outside of the bricks and mortar universities; there is little human connection. The visit to London gave me an insight into my fellow students that I hadn’t noticed before and our discussions throughout the day, along with the works on display, inspired me to explore other avenues with my work. This idea of being present was further brought home to me in the queue for the shop at The Photographers’ Gallery. I was standing behind a young man carrying a Pentax 67, who was extolling the virtues of the favourite film stock he was purchasing. Film photography, and in particular film photography with Pentax’s bruiser of a camera, is a serious undertaking that is about as far from the virtual world as it’s possible to be. “I dunno why I like this one… it just feels right, you know?” he said to his friend. “Good enough for me”, I thought. So, if anyone wants me, I’ll be Googling ‘cheap flights to New Zealand’ for the next catch-up.