Friday, May 15, 2015

Dublin Portrait: Personal reflection.

Camera with poster.

For 50 years Arthur Fields or the “man on bridge” as he was known photographed the people of Dublin on the city’s main thoroughfare O’Connell street bridge. The photographs offered each individual a unique portrait but collectively they form a substantial survey of Dublin’s inhabitants. Inspired by the “man on bridge” we began the process by thinking about how we could compile a human survey of Dublin in 2015. Last semester a number of students had designed and built a custom camera using a WW1 lens from a surveillance aircraft. They used this camera to take portraits of students and exhibited them within the school. Due to the nature of the lens the portraits have a unique and compelling quality. It also provides incredible macro details to large format photographs. We began with the aim of using this camera within the city.


After experimentation we arrived at what we felt was an optimum exposure time in external conditions. A 40 second exposure without using artificial light achieved what we felt was a good quality image. It became clear at the end of the project, however, that far more rigorous testing was required. The extremely sensitive nature of both the lens and the photographic paper as well as the forever changing quality of external light make it a very challenging proposal. In order to achieve more developed images artificial light may be necessary. We altered the camera so that it would be easier to load and transport into the city. The loading process, while quite cumbersome and time consuming, did add something to the project and made it feel more like an event. It also allowed people time to carefully consider the response to the question. The location we chose to take the photographs was the GPO on O’Connell street. 

Participant having his portrait taken.

This location was chosen as a reference to man on bridge but more importantly for its historical significance to the city and country. This turned out to be a very beneficial place for us to set up as it offered an incredible number of interested passers by. The location seemed to also influence peoples response to the question which was “ what is your earliest memory of this place”. While this question could have been interpreted as asking about Dublin, the country etc, many of the Irish participants, and even tourists and other nationalities, answered the question with regards to the GPO and delved into memories and stories about the Easter rising. The location is, therefore, of the upmost importance in a project such as this one and it shows the subconscious influence of the built environment around us. We placed the camera so that the background of each portrait would be the column of the GPO’s portico. We hoped the camera would pick up the grain of the large columns adding significance and interest to the photographs.

From the moment we set up the camera people eagerly approached us wanting to have their photograph taken and to enquire about the project. It had initially been a concern that it would be difficult to get people to stop and agree to have their image taken but what we found was quite the opposite. It became clear that by providing an inviting service which was both unusual and interesting people approached us rather than the other way around. Having previously interviewed people on the street I found this method was far more beneficial in terms of gaining peoples attention and participation. It seemed more of an event than I had anticipated. Families wanted their children photographed, several people asked for their photograph to be taken while they sat for the portrait so as to record the event. I believe it was this eagerness to participate that led to the open and lengthy dialogues that followed the portraits. A broad range of answers were given to the question. Some people had only arrived in Dublin that day while others had been there their whole lives. 

The images that were produced on the day were not of the quality we had hoped for. They did, however, contain other more conceptual qualities. We chose to display the portraits of four people in black frames at eye level. Each persons had their portrait and digital photograph framed with their quote underneath. We chose to include the digital image to give a face to the quote which we felt was important. We also believed it added depth and interest to the images as it captured the moment these people had taken to have their portrait taken. These digital images, taken originally as a record, were in themselves quite strong portraits. They captured the people as they concentrated in order to remain still. In these images the grain of the column of the GPO is visible as was originally intended.

I have gained a lot of knowledge in relation to both the technicalities of taking and producing photographs and also different methods and ways of working. All three projects this year look at space and try to understand it in another way. All of these projects were compiled within the same small space but produce wholly different results. Our project is more emotive and subjective per- haps than the others. However, they too are subjective in terms of what the photographer chose to photograph, where when and how as well as how many times he photographs a certain theme or scene and how it is organised in the book in what order etc. All of these things create, however unintentional, a bias view towards the subject. Therefore it is important to use not only photography but all methods of research as a tool and not the totality of understanding towards a theme or subject.

The course and semester in general have also forced me to focus on how I display and exhibit my work. The details of the exhibition are vital to conveying the purpose of a project to a visitor. For us we wanted to convey the idea of a survey of Dublin inhabitants and therefore we chose to combine the three aspects of portrait, digital photograph and quote. Had the exhibition contained 8 portraits from the custom camera as was originally intended it would have had a completely different feel and understanding. It reinforces the importance of stepping back and looking at what you want to convey and how you can enhance that message through exhibition. In conclusion the course has been of huge benefit in learning the technicalities of photography, understanding how to use photography as a tool and in stepping away from your work and trying to examine it with a more pragmatic and critical eye. 

Booklet examples

I found this process of work very interesting and the idea of interacting with people in this way is very appealing. There is a risk, however, to rely on peoples answers or opinions that they may give in relation to any questions. There is a richness in this method but it should be used in combination with various other methods of research such as historical documents, census information, silent observation etc. A site, building or space can never be completely understood but in order to coherently re organise and alter something a sufficient investigation is needed in many areas. 

At its conclusion the project feels as if it is the first draft of a series of experimental shoots. The faint images have a ghostly character which seems to strongly reflect the nature of peoples memories as they reach back into their minds. From this point the project could develop more as fine art than the original purpose of an urban survey. It could also be refined and developed to produce more detailed portraits serving the original intention.

Fields, Arthur, Ciarán Deeney, David (Documentary producer) Clarke, and Man on Bridge Project. Man on the bridge: The photos of Arthur Fields. Cork: The Collins Press, 2014.
Evans, Walker. Many Are Called: Subway Portraits. Yale : Yale University, 2004. 


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