Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Individual Reflection about Dublin Portrait

The ‘Dublin Portrait’ installation was set up in the Board Room in Richview. There were three main elements: eight black frames on the wall with four quotes underneath, the large format custom-built camera with a big sign stating “Get a unique portrait for free”, and a booklet. 

Installation in the Board Room, Richview 

Four people’s portraits are hung on the wall: Nicholas, Margot, Kathleen and Katie. For each of them, there is a frame containing the developed and edited picture from the ‘old camera’, this picture is quite blurred and a bit ghostly which lets the visitor come to their own interpretation. The second frame contains a digital picture and the quote underneath is the answer the question “What is your earliest memory of this place?”. With these elements, the visitor can have an idea, or make his own idea, of these Dublin portraits. 

Portrait of Margot 

The booklet is showing the entire collection of photographs and quotes as well as a documentation of the process. After this description of the installation, I will try to explain why and how we developed the project, as well as giving a critical reflection on it. 

In order to explore the concept of photography as means to survey the city, we proposed to draw a portraiture of Dublin by photographing its occupants today. After studying urban sociology at the Architecture school of Nantes (France), I have been convinced that the people make and transform a space instead of a space makes and educates the people living in it. Thus, I believe there are two main ways of studying people in space: one is observing the people from a distance and the other is engaging and interacting with people in the space. We chose to pursue the second option. We proposed to act after Arthur Fields, the man on the bridge who catalogued with his photographs the people of Dublin from the 1930s to the 1980s. The pictures we wanted to take are individual portraits but collectively there are an interesting record of the actual people of Dublin. A critic could be that these portraits are random and obviously not exhaustive so they could show a wrong conceptionof the city today. We decided to emphasize this idea of subjectivity by recording a quote from each person in order to try to share a part of the thoughts of the volunteers. To that idea, I can refer to Gerry Andrews I met in October, this photographer surveyed the Limerick Milk Market in the 1970s showing portraits of people and their bad life conditions at that time. He associated his pictures with what he calls a ‘back story’, because he always got to know the people before photographing them.

Our photographs were taken using a homebuilt camera with a WWI reconnaissance aircraft lens which can provide interesting details to the large format photos. Returning to an old process to photograph was really new for me, I learned a lot about how a lens works, what is an exposure time, how to develop the negatives... All what we forget using digital cameras nowadays.

Custom-built camera

We set up at the South Pillar of the General Post Office portico, due to its historical significance and central location. We were surprised by the positive response of the public, people were intrigued by what we were doing and we had a diverse range of volunteers. The fact that these people were approaching us, instead of us approaching them, made them share easily their memories. I think that was really an interesting point : if you survey a site for a design project by stopping people and asking them questions about the place, they are suspicious and less open to answer. With our camera, they approached us wanting a photograph and by us giving them something, they were happy to give us their time and talk about the place. That constitutes a process I would like to reiterate later on to survey a site, with an intervention on site that offers the people something in return to their cooperation.

Photographic process in front of the GPO

Then, the photographic process itself took roughly 3-4 minutes: once the subject was in focus, he had to remain completely still while the paper loaded and the following exposure time was 45 seconds. That permited as well to really interact with the volunteer, and the expressions on the pictures taken also show that people were concentrate and conscious of staying still facing the lens. In retrospect, that point makes the pictures quite formal, comparing to other portrait series, like the work of WalkerEvans in the metro. That was not really expected but was actually interesting to have what we can refer to an ID photograph.

Katie's digital and developed picture
Walker Evans’s picture in the metro
 While developing the pictures then, we were really disappointed with their quality. Indeed, the day light was not enough strong so the negatives were really ghostly. Due to a large budget already spent and technical considerations, we were not able to reiterate the process so we decided to accommodate with the pictures. As an afterthought, that aspect was really interesting because it made the project evolve. We decided to associate a digital picture, initially taken only as a simple record of the moment, to a developed picture in order the different elements to be stronger as a combination. That is how we came to the final installation. Thus, I have become aware that the different steps of the learning process were really rich in that project rather than trying to have a perfect result.

How did that project influence my practice of surveying a place in order to design ? As a foreigner, the GPO and O’Connell street were places I have only experienced for the last few months so they still seem new and unknown for me. That type of survey is far from trying to portrait the city by its building and different typologies, as Bernd and Hilla Becher did with their objective series of typology, even if that is another type of portraiture. The project opened my mind to another type of survey, which also tells you about the people of a place and the place itself. However, by interacting with people, I felt to be easily influenced by their talks because I was a newcomer. As a conclusion, to survey a city by using photography, it seems really important to combine more ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ means. To that end, the work of the three disseminating architecture groups seems to complement each other. 

Hélène Guillemot

Bibliography :
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.
Andrews, Gerry. Shaped by History. Dublin : Juniper, 2012.
Exhibition in the National Photographic Archive, (Meeting House Square, Temple Bar) from August 1, 2014 to the January 5, 2015 
Evans, Walker. Many Are Called. Yale : Yale University, 2004. 
Becher, Bernd, and Klaus Bussmann. Bernd & Hilla Becher: Tipologie = typologien = typologies. Bonn: Auftrag des Auswärti- gen Amtes, 1990.