For sometime now I have been aware of the work of Wangechi Mutu. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, she uses allegory to construct imagery using various mediums including collage, translucent materials, photographs, drawing and illustrations. Her work focuses on sexuality, colonialism and girl culture. Her sources include Vogue and other fashion magazines. She uses fashion poses in her work that are tweaked and distorted just enough to make you wonder where they came from and if they are real or chimeras of animals and humans.
Her work has a message too. She wants to raise awareness of how the black female body has been violated and revered by Europeans. Black female bodies have been seen as sexual machines or work animals. Very often their bodies were objectified as an excuse for cruelty and inhuman practices.
There has also been an absence of black models and figures in fashion magazines and contemporary art for some time. Mutu has been working on changing that.
Figure 1: Wangechimutu.com, 2017
My intent is to create work that is influenced by Mutu but is produced using a photographic process.
Figure 1: All images FROM: Wangechimutu.com. (2017). Wangechi Mutu. [online] Available at: http://wangechimutu.com/ [Accessed 25 January 2017].
The artist Wangechi Mutu has produced images addressing issues of race, gender and identity amongst others. She uses a variety of media including collage, ink and acrylic to create her work. At the centre of her portfolio are powerful female hybrid creatures, mythical in appearance. I planned this shoot where my model was to be covered completely with body paint so that I could explore Mutu’s work in a photographic context. Mutu’s thoughts in the quote below sum up how I view my current practice.
“Art allows you to imbue the truth with a sort of magic…so it can infiltrate the psyches of more people, including those who don’t believe the same things as you.”
– Wangechi Mutu (Thornton 2015, p.59)
Figure 1 was the inspiration for the body paint and the shoot.
I asked the makeup artist to use greens, blues and yellows on the model rather than copy the colours exactly. Whilst I was taking inspiration from Mutu’s work, I did not want to completely copy her images.
The process of covering a model in body part is a long process – over 6 hours in fact. During that time, we kept the heating on full in the studio as it was a particularly cold winter’s day.
For the sake of decency and given the poses I wanted to capture, the model was nude except for a pair of skin coloured pants that were covered in paint.
Figure 2: Sutherst 2017
Figure 2 shows various stages of the body paint being applied. Both the makeup artist and the model were extremely patient. The model’s hair was left spiky so it could easily be transformed into spines at a later stage in post-processing.
The studio was set for high key lighting and shot against a white backdrop (wasn’t white for long!).
Over 2 hours, 628 images were captured. each one had a different pose, head or hand position. I did not want to have to repeat the exercise due to the length of time it took to complete the body paint.
In post-processing, I decided to take influence from Mutu’s spiny image and add spines to my model. I found an image on the internet (figure 4) which showed blue spines running along the back of a blue iguana. I manipulated these in photoshop to give the subject a spiny back. The colour toned perfectly with the body paint.
I decided to take a photograph of lichen on a wooden fence (figure 5) using my iPhone. This formed the background and foreground of the resultant image (figure 6).
Personally, I am not sure if I like the image. It is very contrived, but it is quite pleasing to look at. I do find myself looking for meaning in the image. The subject appears strong and powerful. She also portraying peacefulness and serenity. Both the model and makeup artist are extremely pleased with the image.
The model was paid for the shoot, but the makeup artist worked for trade of images once they have been edited. I asked her why she wanted to be involved in the project. I have attached the makeup artist’s testimonial that she wrote to explain this.
The next step with these images is to embroider onto them to create a manipulated image where the spines respond to the colour and shape of the model.
I would like to thank the makeup artist and model for making this work possible :).
Thornton, S. (2015) 33 Artists in 3 Acts. London, UK: W.W.Norton & Company Ltd.
Figure 1: Wangechi Mutu. 2004. Hide and Seek, Kill or Speak. FROM: STUDYBLUE. (2017). STUDYBLUE | Find and share online flashcards and notes from StudyBlue. Any subject, anywhere, anytime.. [online] Available at: https://www.studyblue.com/#flashcard/view/7198788 [Accessed 20 January 2017].
The images here were shot in a church hall with natural light and an on-camera flash fitted with a honeycomb grid (figures 1, 2, 4 and 5) or a ring diffuser (figure 3).
Figure 1 was shot against a white backdrop, but no light was falling on it so it appears grey. This allows the subject to be defined clearly against the background and she appears 3-dimensional.
The positioning of the subject’s arms allow the viewer to appreciate the beauty of her tattoo and it also frames the shot.
The subject had asked specifically for a couple of portraits were she “looked feminine and normal”. In many of her shoots, the subject portrays a character and she wanted something real.
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
– Susan Sontag (1984: 15)
Figure 2 was also shot against a white backdrop; again the backdrop appears grey due to the lighting used.
I angled the subject this time to create more definition across her face. There is also more definition across the top of her body too. the image was shot at eye level to make sure that the perspective was correct and not distorted. This has caused a few highlight spots on her face, but they do not detract from the overall pleasing nature of the image.
The shoulder could have been more forward. At the moment, the position of the shoulder makes her look broader than she is. The position of her hair behind her shoulder frames her face well.
Post process toning and clarity adjustments have added to the subtly of the portrait. It is understated and simple, unlike the majority of my practice.
These images are a true likeness of the subject and not what I would normally shoot. She was not performing for the camera, but was just being herself. The subject (and her mum) is very pleased with both of these shots.
Figure 3 was shot against a black backdrop, using a ring diffuser on my flash. Whilst this diffuser makes for interesting catch lights in the eyes, the overall effect is too flat. There are no shadows on the face and the overall lighting effect is too bright. The detail of her hair accessories are almost lost against the darkness of the background.
Post processing into monochrome has done little to overcome the brightness issue, but has removed some intensity from her lips (which were red). The composition of the image is striking and her hair frames the face well. The hair adds interest and the curls are well lit.
Figure 4 was shot against a wooden door. The subject is defined clearly against the background and she appears 3-dimensional.
The cheeky pose is very representative of the subject’s personality and we spent a lot of the time in this shoot laughing. The light is bright and the white of her dress is too dominant in the image. It has more visual weight that I had intended it to and the eyes are drawn to her chest, which was certainly not the intent.
The honeycomb grid does a good job of directing the light so that the edges of the image appear darker. This is intentional as I wanted the viewer to be focussing on the subject and not the background. This has been successful in that regard.
Figure 5 is a different to the other 4 images in this blog post, in that the image was not planned. It was a serendipitous moment.
The subject was working with another photographer and they were setting up lights ready for a shoot. At the moment I took this, the photographer was talking a less experienced photographer through how to light this portrait. The subject was taking part in the conversation. I chanced this shot because it reminded me of an actor in a stage production. The beauty dish of the other photographer acts like a spotlight on the subject. The honeycomb grid on my flash directed the light so it looks like the subject is lit by the spot light.
There is only the one image like this. I did not take any other shots as the other photographers started to shoot and the moment was gone.
I really like this image. Compositionally, the visual weight is all centred around the subject. The image looks staged as the subject was getting ready for her shoot with others. There is a lot to be said for always being prepared to take a shot.
Susan Sontag, 1984. On Photography. Edition. Penguin Books, Limited (UK).
The three images here were shot in a church hall with natural light and an on-camera flash fitted with a honeycomb grid. To prevent glare from the flash on the lenses in the glasses, we removed the lenses for the shoot. Figures 1 and 2 were shot on a different day than figure 3 but in the same venue and similar lighting conditions.
Figure 1 is too bright in the face, hand and neck compared to the rest of the image. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it draws the viewer into the image and the focus is on the subject. Although in hindsight a slight less bright edit may have been more successful.
The post process toning has added interest to the image and toned down the jacket which is red and too dominant in the original edit.
Overall, the image is composed well and is pleasing to the eye.
Figure 2 is a softer image of the same subject. His hat is a little lost in the background, adding an air of mystery and adding some framing to the top of the head.
The lighting is better in this image than the previous one. There is more definition in the subject’s face. The image was shot slightly from above for a more flattering portrait.
This image has a real honesty and rawness about it. It feels less staged than the other two images in this blog post. It seems more of a captured moment. At the point this was taken, the subject and I were having a conversation about general life issues (as you do) and I was still shooting the whole time we were talking. I really like the vulnerability and softness of the resultant image. The subject is pleased with this too.
Figure 3 is a planned and staged image. I asked the subject to shave his beard for this shoot as I wanted him to channel his inner ‘James Dean, bad boy’ and add his own personality for this shoot. The subject had brought the leather jacket and cigarette with him in preparation. The idea was to stage a ‘captured’ moment. I intended to produce an image that could be interpreted as being shot in a caravan or similar. The positioning of the subject in from of the curtain was intentional. The image was shot from slightly below the subject’s eye line to help with the composition. The shadow of the hand is also intentional and designed to make the viewer believe that the subject has been lit by a ceiling lamp. The lighting has produced hotspots on the face, hand and t-shirt which could be toned down in a future edit. However, I don’t want the image to look too staged as I quite like the idea that it looks like I have captured the moment.
Working very much in collaboration, we shot several images to get this one. The resultant image is quite reminiscent of James Dean and other actors of the same time. The top part of the t-shirt could be toned down slightly as it is quite bright, but you are drawn into the image. The image is engaging and the post process toning, crop and addition of grain adds to the sense that this is an image taken in the 60s or 70s.
Moving forwards, I will be planning to work with this subject again as we collaborate well and are able to try out staging different scenes.
The intent of this shoot was to capture sultry and classy images of a subject who had “never been photographed properly” with her saxophone. She wanted to capture images that she could be proud of.
To achieve the effect, I decided to setup low-contrast lighting that would flatter the subject. I used a grey backdrop and a single light with a vertical rectangular softbox. I chose a grey backdrop rather than a black one because I did not want to use a second light to separate the subject from the background.
In figures 1 and 2, I placed the single light off to the side. This was so that I would achieve the contrast needed for the images. The light was also placed slightly above the subject so that I could concentrate on the upper part of the body and the light would drop-off as it got lower down her body.
The resultant lighting is low contrast and low key. The subject looks sensual and seductive without it being sleazy. The images are dramatic and have a good degree of depth to them. The subject is clearly defined and distanced from the background.
On reflection, the lighting could have been set to a slightly lower intensity. The light used does show up creases and wrinkles in the skin. I have counteracted this a little in Lightroom by adjusting the clarity to soften the image a little.
Overall these are successful images that the subject is pleased with. The minor tweaks I will work on in Lightroom as a further edit.
For figure 3, I decided to adjust the subject’s position and the lighting position to create a shot of her legs and saxophone. This is my favourite shot from the session. The composition works well and the image appears very classy. The lighting set up is the same as for figures 1 and 2, just lowered as the subject is sitting.
My niggle is that the shoes does not fit the subject as well as they could. There is a gap at the back of the foot which irritates me. The shoes are the subject’s own and I did not have another pair to fit her. The shot would not have worked without shoes, so it is something I have to accept on this shoot.
Figures 4 and 5 were shot using natural light only. The large window with privacy glass offered a soft diffuse light in the room. The silhouette in figure 4 is quite striking. I particularly like the lines of the window interfering with the silhouette of the subject.
The detail of the saxophone in figure 5 has been composed to provide an intimate view of part of the saxophone. The colours are attractive and the angle across the image adds to the interest.
This shoot provided the opportunity to produce work where the subject was clear on the intent of the performance they would give to the camera. The narrative was not, in this case, one that I needed to come up with. My challenge was to interpret the subject’s narrative in such a way to meet her expectations. This I achieved.
“The enemy of photography is the convention, the fixed rules of ‘how to do.’ The salvation of photography comes from the experiment.”
– Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
To explore how I could digitally manipulate images utilising cropping, layering, collaging, image morphing and stylising techniques, I have produced a series of images based on feedback and ideas from others. I have also used hand illustration pre and post Photoshop editing on some of them. In all cases I used Winsor and Newton drawing inks.
Each image is individually created based on the effect required.
The above images have the same base image. ‘Hybrid’ was created using pen and ink to add spines and a tail to the base image. The photograph was printed onto semi gloss Permajet photo paper. I scanned the inked image into the computer. This was then manipulated, I desaturated the colours a little and a background was added. Personally I prefer the image without the background but have definite areas for improvement in the manipulation of the inked photograph. My next experiment trialled further manipulation techniques.
The next manipulated image (‘Woodland Pixie’) was created from another inked photograph (printed on semi gloss Permajet photo paper). The resulting image was again scanned, manipulated and montaged onto a background in Photoshop. The final image is, in my opinion, a more successful product. Others have commented that they particularly liked this image in the portfolio. One viewer felt it was a strong manipulation that embodied what a woodland pixie might be like.
The next image I experimented with was the mermaid fairy. The original image (printed on canvas textured photo paper) had a dried oak leaf glued to the back of the subject. The glue used was décopatch Paperpatch glossy glue. Once dry, the leaf was also inked over to add colour and interest. Once scanned, the image was manipulated and collaged onto a photograph I took earlier in the year at West Bay, also known as Bridport Harbour. This is on the English Channel coast in Dorset, England. The resulting mermaid image is quite successful and has an interesting composition. A viewer has commented that the image is ‘strangely attractive but I had difficulty making sense of the image’. They felt that the final image depicted an unexpected outcome for a mermaid. The replacement hand looked odd to them as they expected to see a normal or webbed hand. The viewer commented that they did not understand the ‘weird plant-like structure at the back of the mermaid’. This is useful feedback as it provides a basis for future images. I will experiment with expected elements (from folktales and current imagery) and unexpected elements (created in a non-structured manner).
The above two images are predominantly montaged images with some manipulation in Photoshop. For both images, the subject specified what kind of creature they wanted to be. The first is titled ‘Bat fairy with hippo feet’ and the second ‘Troll goat fairy’. Both subjects are particularly pleased with their resulting images. Reflecting on this process, I haven’t really explored why they wanted to be these creatures. This is a development point for future images.
Each of the three above images are composites of photographs that I have previously taken. In each case, the subject has specified exactly what kind of fairy they want to be. Each image has been well received by viewers. Feedback has been received on possible alterations to the butterfly image. In particular, it has been suggested that I consider ‘removing the creases in the leotard’. The subject and I did discuss the time of image capture and we decided that we wanted her to look like she had a butterfly segmented body. I will however take this feedback on board and create a version with smoothed out creases to see what the impact is.
Again the subjects are pleased with their resulting images. I feel that these images are successful and am pleased with how they finished up. As above though, I haven’t really explored why they wanted to be these creatures. This is a development point for future images.
Moving forwards I will be engaging further with my subjects to understand why they want to be particular creatures / fairies. I will use this in the evaluation and production of the images. I also need to improve the level of sophistication of all images that I produce. An experiment planned is to try to improve the overall appearance of the images by using a model covered in body paint photo rather than ink the images after. This session will produce images that I can compare and contrast with images that are inked as part of the post-production process.
“The thread acts as a connection between the person and myself or place that I have photographed. I always think of the photograph as something from the past and the thread as a reaction to the past and present. The thread makes the photograph more personal to me and allows me to meditate on the image. Combining the two mediums (photography and sewing) allows me to reinvent the photograph; to visually react to a person or a place.”
– Melissa Zexter
“As long as something creates a reaction it’s alive”
– Maurizio Anzeri
Using Maurizio Anzeri and Melissa Zexter as inspiration, I trialed the addition of embroidery on a few images. Anzeri embroiders found photographs with coloured thread, whilst Zexter uses photographs she has taken herself to sew onto. I decided to follow Zexter’s example and use my own photographs to stitch onto.
The tricky part was selecting images from my previous work to use. I did not want to try and shoot images especially for this as this would make the work too prescriptive. So I searched and chose images I thought would work well and allow me to add a layer of narrative to add additional meaning and emotion.
The next stage was to consider how the embroidered aspect would interact with the image. My intent was that the embroidery would be a reaction to the photographic image and bring an additional layer of narrative, adding add emotion to the image.
Like Melissa Zexter, my starting point was to work on ideas in my sketchbook. I printed out my images on standard printer paper and sketched my plans for the embroidery onto them.
After deciding which images to produce, choosing the correct thread colour was the next challenge. In the images where the emotion needed to be strong and powerful, 4 strands of red DMC Mouliné Stranded Cotton (colour 13) were used.
I printed out the photographs onto semi-gloss Permajet photo paper. Initially, I tried to stitch in a normal fashion, pushing the needle through the paper. This proved to be very difficult due to the thickness of the paper as it was tough to push the needle through the paper accurately and without pain to my thumb. I very quickly realised that I would need a different method.
I trialed using a thimble on my thumb to help push the needle and thread through the paper. This method was much better than the first method, but still lacked a level of accuracy which I wanted for the placement of the thread.
I decided to trial pushing holes through the photograph, using a needle and thimble to push the holes through from the front and I used a cutting mat underneath the paper. This method allowed control and accuracy of the hole positions. Once the holes were all punched, I just threaded the cotton through them. The ends of the cotton thread were secured in place with sellotape as knotting the ends would have shown through the front of the image once mounted.
For the eye expression images, 4 strands of black DMC Mouliné Stranded Cotton (colour 939) were used. I also chose to add a small bead to every other line in the image with the embroidery just under the eyes. This was to give additional texture to the image and add interest to counterbalance the bright expressive false pink lashes worn by the subject.
Reflecting on this experiment, I feel I have areas of technique to work on. The most successful image for me was ‘Headache’. The strands of cotton thread really express to me how powerful the headache is. The positioning of the threads starting from the forehead really emphasise the pain that the subject is going through and that the headache is extensive.
I also feel that the ‘Anguish’ and ‘Verbal’ images also successfully portray the emotion and narrative I was aiming for. However, I feel that the 2 eye images are the least successful. Whilst the embroidery has added to the images, I feel that the effect is more aesthetic than emotional.
Feedback from others reflects my opinions. The comments I have received about ‘Headache’ include “the image really speaks to me about bad this man’s headache is – I really feel his pain” and “this is a really successful manipulation of the image. It works”.
‘Anguish’ and ‘Anguish Version 2’ were both liked by others. However, views differed on whether the image should be cropped as in ‘Anguish’ or not as in the second version. Personally, I prefer version 2 as it gives more character to the subject. On reflection, the blue background could be adjusted to give more emphasis to the subject. I will consider this in the next version of the image.
Another person commented that the image ‘Verbal’ appears to portrays quite an aggressive character, who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. This wasn’t entirely the effect I was going for. I was intending to demonstrate that the subject was confident and not afraid to speak her mind. I had not intended her to be portrayed as aggressive. I can see how the embroidered layered has added this narrative to the image. I need to be mindful of different interpretations of my work as I progress through the project.
For both the eye images, viewers were confused about the narrative I was trying to portray. I have to agree with them that these images are the least successful in this experiment. They do not have a clear message unlike the other images. Moving forwards, I need to ensure that each image has a purpose and that this is clearly expressed in the embroidery added.
One final reflection point, is that I feel that some of these images lack a degree of sophistication in the style of embroidery added. This is an area for development and improvement. I will need to improve and develop my embroidery skill level to enable me to tackle more intricate and considered designs. I also plan to develop machine stitching techniques as well as hand stitching techniques.
Further experiment results will be posted in blogs once they are completed and evaluated.
Zexter, M. From TextileArtist.org. 2017. Melissa Zexter interview: Embroidered photography – TextileArtist.org. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.textileartist.org/melissa-zexter-interview-embroidered-photography/. [Accessed 11 January 2017].