‘Produce a series of approximately 12 photographs that are made on, or explore the idea of, a journey through a landscape.
‘The journey that you undertake may be as long or as short as you like. You may choose to re-examine a familiar route, such as a commute to work or another routine activity, or it may be a journey into unfamiliar territory. You may like to apply some of the psychogeographic methods explored within part 2. Travel by any means available.’
– lpe coursebook (p.93)
1: Taking the Pictures
At the end of April, I made my first day-long trip up through the Lea Valley, cycling north from Forest Road (on the border between Tottenham and Walthamstow), my panniers filled with camera gear, a thermos of coffee and a packet of sandwiches.
I had already made a camera-less reconnaissance trip covering some of the stretch of canal I was going to explore; I had planned my journeys using physical and online maps, and worked out how long the travel element of the trips would take using the ‘Directions’ function of Google maps. Following the advice on planning a photographic project in On being a photographer (Hurn and Jay, 2008) I had a list of pictures that I needed to tell the story of my journey:
- Tottenham – the city, urban-ness, a beginning
- Open space within the city borders
- The main, circular roadways which cut over the canal (the A406, the M25)
- The canal and its locks; traffic on the water
- The canal path and people on it – fishing, jogging, drinking, cycling
- Light industry, logisitics depots, power stations and refuse disposal
- The reservoirs on the east side of the navigation – they’re the most noticeable thing on a map, but almost hidden as you go through them
- Panoramas to mark different stages of the journey
- Countryside/rural green space
In May, I made two more trips, each time extending the distance I cycled north. Each trip led to changes to the shot list, as I had left enough time between them to evaluate the pictures I had already taken (and to process, or – in the case of the colour rolls – have processed and scan, the photographs taken on medium format film). By the end of principal photography (including a couple of short trips to Tottenham marshes to try and get a better panorama of a electricity substation and the numerous lines of pylons that radiated from it and some extra long exposures attempting to get a successfully glassy reflection) I had around a hundred images to work with.
I began to assemble a rough sequence of usable shots, and tried it out on some of my fellow students at the June LPE hangouts. Their response was positive, and also gave me some thoughts on how to focus the original long-list (part of which can be seen, printed and blu-tacked up in fig.1). In particular, Ugo Muin stressed the importance of establishing a narrative. This helped me immensely in cutting down the number of images to the required twelve or so, by eliminating repetitions which did not more the narrative forward. I was beginning to think in terms of using Sat-Nav instructions to title the images, so coming up with eleven simple statements and relating them to a particular image (or composite image) was a natural way to connect everything in to the story of my journey.
Linda Jarrett liked the variety of pictures, with its mix of black and white and colour of digital and film, and of different picture formats. She also warned that some tutors would not be so positive. I was aware of this, but also liked the variety so carried on, while trying to come up with some better rationale for it than a simple unexamined ‘that one just feels like the right one to use’…
2: Constructing a Narrative:
Making Composite Images:
All of the images in the final presentation comprises more than one photograph. A journey (like a story) involves movement from one place to another; traditionally photographs are static.
The original photographs already had compositional elements that suggested movement – a vanishing, or a leading line drawing the viewer into the image; the assembled images accentuate this effect by either continuing a line of movement from on image to the other, by varying their size so the combined images become triangular – arrowheads pointing right or left. The final pair of images was flipped so that they indicated movement from left to right (and close inspection will show that I re-flipped the signs on the railings, so they wouldn’t give the game away).
The contact sheets in section 1 of this post do not include the ten or so, merged panoramas that I made along my route. Two of them are included in the final set of images, at points when I crossed the navigation rather than progressing along my route parallel to the water’s flow. They act as visual punctuation to the otherwise forwards flow to the images, splitting my story into three acts.
Both of the panoramas I used were taken from a bridge, and have the strong, central vanishing point of the Lee receding into the distance. The rejected panoramas mainly ran parallel to my movement and lacked an obvious start and stop point to frame them. As such they did not contribute to the telling of the story.
One panorama that did work as a formally composed image, but which did not depict a crossing, has been used as the cover image for the cyanotype map that acts as an index for my journey and would form a centrepiece for a physical presentation.
Building an animated onscreen display:
The work, to scale and combine images and also to merge multiple images to produce a panorama, is of course considerably easier to achieve when working with digital image files than it would be working with physical prints. It is, however, much harder to control the way they are viewed, particularly if you do not wish to produce a long, vertical scroll of identically sized images. For a digital-only presentation of my set of images, I wanted to do something that made use of computers’ ability to continually draw and re-draw what is shown on a digital display, to create a narrative moving from one episode (represented by a composite image) to the next.
As part of one of the OCASA -sponsored Keeping up Momentum Workshops I had already coded a way of moving an image slowly across a narrower screen with the same software I used to make the slideshow for Assignment 1 (you can see it in the second half of the video embedded into a post describing the collaboration on the weareoca blog written by drawing student Paola Alessandri-Gray) . Thinking it might work here, I compiled the 11 composited images into a single long frieze, and tried it out with the original coding. With a bit of playing with the rate of right-left travel, it began to come together nicely. Thinking of the way text combines with location to provide directions for a journey, I wrote 11 ‘directions’ and turned them into floating panels that could sit above the images and added some floating guides to let me get a better idea of the relative placement of the captions.
This is the point when I demoed the animation at the July forum live and got the feedback that led to the final version retaining the guides to provide more of a sense of viewing the images from some moving vehicle. After I had tidied the animation, I began to layer on audio, using atmos tracks I’d recorded at various points along my route. The aim was to fill the gaps between images and to quietly change the experience of place as my journey moved from city to country, finally adding an electric buzz which grows as the viewer approaches the substation at the end of my journey.
To illustrate my journey and to give some sort of context to the individual images if they were to be given some sort of physical exhibition. Indeed a miniature map could be used as a catalogue for the other images.
I am aware that there are the same issues with using commercial maps – by Ordnance Survey et al – as part of my work as there is with appropriating any other copyright material. While Google seem much more open to people using their maps, I felt more comfortable making one of my own. At the Landscape hangout, Karen Jeffrey had mentioned that most of the UK canal system had small sketch maps showing locks and junctions with other canals; The Lee Navigation was no exception and I decided to use it as a starting point for a map of my own.
I took the section of canal I had covered on my bike from a reasonably geographically accurate A4 map, and simplified it further, leaving just the – mainly straight – waterway and eight locks. I scanned the drawing and enlarged it by cutting it into six overlapping rectangles which I then printed, again on A4 paper. After turning these into a much larger patchwork, I drew on the main features I was interested in – the reservoirs and the east-west roads that cut across my route.
I have meant to have a go at cyanotype for some time now, and this seemed to be an ideal moment to do so. I already had the necessary chemicals and a pair of UV lamps; I had read the basic how-to information from Christina Anderson’s excellent book on the process (Anderson, 2019). On A2 tracing paper I made a pair of overlapping, black-ink ‘negatives’, mixed up a small amount of cyanotype solution and made another set of a4 sections. I scanned these and assembled them into one large sheet in Photoshop and then collaged on a number of scans of instax prints made from sketch-type photographs made with my phone.
The resulting file could make a very large (A0) print if I had the equipment; as it is, the largest print I can make myself is A3. I printed a copy and tried to fold it, but the cartridge paper I used did not allow a map-folded sheet to lie anywhere near flat no matter how hard I scored with my bone-tool, so I got hold of some 75gsm paper and had another go. Success! I added the cover (fig.5) and enjoyed folding an unfolding my little map. I had the final image for my set of 12…
- Hurn, D. and Jay, B (2008) On being a photographer (3rd ed) Anacortes WA: LensWork Publishing.
- Anderson, C. Z. (2019) Cyanotype – the blueprint in contemporary practice. Abingdon: Routledge (Focal Press)