The end of module 1 sees us facing a blank abyss of teaching-free time, time that I’d secretly hoped to fill with back to back Mad Men episodes.
Don Draper thinking about lying down on his sofa in Mad Men
Now this was possibly just because I’d forgotten how appealing it was to imagine a world where I could spend the majority of my working day lying down on a sofa, but it was mainly because I’d found the process of preparing the end of module assignments really gruelling. So I was looking forward to the mental break.
The week 13 work was mercifully light, with a teaser for module 2 and an introduction to the photographic work of Ed Ruscha, an artist I’ve been inspired by since visiting his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery back in 2009.
But I remember seeing some big prints of his aerial car park images at the Constructing Worlds exhibition a few years back and being really astonished by the beauty and visual interest he’d managed to extract from such an apparently mundane subject. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’m totally buying his total nonchalance about photography, but whatever the case I was looking forward to getting into this activity.
I debated a few different ideas, initially planning to shoot car parks (I’ve always been interested in them), then thought about shooting old cars.
I’d already decided I was going to be shooting exclusively during the day as a departure from my usual practice. In response to Ruscha’s work I wanted to shoot in a nimble, ‘artless’ manner. This also seemed appropriate for the subject matter. So all images would be made using my phone.
I’d been wanting to experiment with making a book and had in fact included this in my project proposal. I’d only recently realised I could make books via Lightroom, so decided this would be a good chance to get my head around that as well. So the brief was set, I was going to shoot rubbish on the streets with my phone and create a book using Lightroom.
This process was really interesting and enjoyable. I enjoyed just walking round my local area, something I never usually do, and my wandering took me to places I’ve not seen before. I enjoyed the process of just being observant during the daytime, really taking in my environment. Maybe everything interesting doesn’t happen at night after all!
Contrary to my usual practice, I walked around listening to music, casually snapping away whenever I came across something that was interesting. I was much less concerned with line, light or composition and just made photos in each case and moved on. I found this quite liberating too, with less ‘riding’ on each shot.
In keeping with the subject matter, final image selection was not especially discerning and the edits in Lightroom were minimal (again, in contrast to my usual practice) and then I moved on to putting the book together. One of the unavoidable conclusions from walking around shooting was that we’ve got too much stuff. There’s so much stuff just discarded, unceremoniously chucked out, its fate unknown – nobody seems to care that we’re polluting our own neighbourhoods just to get rid of the things we don’t want any more. It’s nuts!
This conclusion influenced the way I approached the book. I’d taken these simple iPhone photographs of rubbish. It seemed nonsensical to produce a glossy archival hardback book of these photos. Equally, I can’t ignore the fact that whatever I produce is likely to end up contributing to the pile of crap on the pavement at some point in the future, so I felt that a small simple book with images on basic paper, with soft cover, would be the way forward.
Earlier in this module I took part in a collaboration with my classmate Chris Chucas whose work I’ve increasingly come to admire throughout the first weeks of this course. We had both missed the chance to collaborate during the scheduled activities but agreed to try a little side project after discussing it in the webinar that accompanied the work in week 3.
I’d been really impressed by the work produced by the other collaborators. I felt that given the constraints of time and distance separating people, everyone had produced interesting and thought-provoking images. Chris and I decided to do something together and set about deciding on the parameters of our own project.
At the outset, I have to admit that I’ve never considered myself to be a collaborative photographer, AT ALL! One of the things I value most about photography is the ability to preserve my own individual vision. In fact, it’s one of the few areas where I feel that I can express myself entirely, without having to defer to external standards or expectations. I approach all aspects of making images in a very protective way, from the way I shoot to the way I process the work.
One of the reasons to write this reflection now though, rather than a few weeks ago when it was more contemporaneous, is that one of the real revelations of this first module has been the realisation of how much of what we all do involves collaboration on some level. It’s something that I have had reason to reflect on repeatedly throughout this module and not just specifically during the work with Chris. Even in my own practice, I’ve had a long and fruitful collaboration with my printer George at Digitalarte who I have been working with for more than three years now. Not only has he taught me a lot about printing but also many other things that have fed directly into my practice and improved my work and workflow. I have had a similarly fruitful association with my framers Oaksmith Studio. I've also benefitted from the collaborative environment that my photography group members have created.
When you look at things more closely you realise that all image making is to some degree a collaboration. With your subject, with your equipment, with your audience. For me personally this has been a useful realisation, liberating me as it has to some degree from the narrow myopic viewpoint that refused to allow external light to illuminate new and better ways forward.
The project with Chris was framed simply. We would both shoot two images, in landscape format, that would ultimately be combined in some way. Our general theme was ‘loss’ or ‘being alone’ and we briefly talked about some shared inspirations. Chris had posted some lyrics up on the class forum that had got me thinking, from the song Church Street in Ruins, by Bangers:
Hearing the Beach Boys playing on this rainy high-street
Makes me chuckle at the amount of surf shops here.
I've tried, there's just no waves in this town.
Just more coffee shops that we could ever hope to drink in
And I don't care how cheap their drinks are,
I'm better off at home.
I kind of find it offensive that everything's for sale,
Coupled with the realisation that there's nothing here I need.
It's strange, I don't hate my job and I'm not living on the breadline,
But spending money still seems strange to me.
On the plus side when I'm outside I repeat mantra-like
"The last thing I need is any more things".
We spoke a bit about how we interpreted some of these thoughts and I managed to slip in a Tribe reference, because frankly there’s always room for A Tribe Called Quest!
One of the pleasures of this project for me was finding shared perspectives with someone whom I didn’t know beforehand and whose work was so different to mine. Also, the fact that by being open to others it’s possible to derive inspiration from places I wouldn’t usually find it (my knowledge of Punk is zero!). In speaking with Chris and sharing ideas I not only found affirmation of some of my own feelings but also was challenged to broaden my views and think beyond my previously perceived boundaries. Reflecting on this experience and on the output of the rest of the group, as well as the various practitioner interviews provided where people discussed how they had entered into their own collaborative relationships, I would say this is one of the real benefits of collaborative working.
We agreed on a loose deadline by which we planned to have shot our images, and I went out on the streets of East London one night after work. I was feeling really uninspired, and usually in these circumstances I would have given things up and headed home just accepting that it wasn’t my night. Having a responsibility to someone else though prevented me from doing that. Now, it wasn’t about me and my own selfish view point. I had a responsibility outside of myself, to the shared objective of our collaboration.
Images for collaboration - shot February 2017
At this point, Chris had already sent me his images (I hadn’t looked at them though), so I was even more aware of a sense of not wanting to let the side down. I think there’s a lot to be said for deriving external methods of inspiring work and a work ethic, particularly if one wishes to pursue a professional path in photography. ‘Not feeling it’ can’t be an absolute obstacle to producing work, there has to be a way to keep shooting through it, and developing a productive routine that is almost independent of notions of inspiration, is one of the benefits that collaboration might also offer. In general, that is certainly something I must do better at as the course progresses.
Another element to our collaboration was that we would process each other’s photographs. For me this was a massive step. I am super obsessive about processing, always have been, and so the act of sending my RAW files into the ether and just allowing someone else to take charge of the final presentation of my images was both incredibly daunting, but also very liberating because ultimately, no one died! And that’s a lesson in itself, that sometimes by loosening the tight grip on the reigns you might be allowing magic to happen. Another lesson for me.
Image for collaboration - Chris Chucas
Image for collaboration - Chris Chucas
The final images were put together by Chris and I was blown away by them. I’ve never presented work in a diptych before, so again that was another way in which my practice was challenged and broadened by this collaboration. Both composite and diptych have caused me to consider different ways in which I can sequence and present my work in future and I’m grateful to Chris in this regard.
Chris Chucas - Justin Carey Collaboration
Chris Chucas - Justin Carey Collaboration
Overall, both in this exercise and on reflection throughout this module, I feel that collaboration is something that is not only unavoidable, but is also a positive force that can be harnessed both to produce work that transcends individual practice but can also strengthen and develop individual perspectives. I’d certainly be open to collaborating with Chris, or other practitioners, in future. As this module draws nearly to a close, I feel I have a better idea of where I want to go with my practice and significant parts of that will involve collaborative working, whether it be in producing images or in developing work to accompany, support or discuss photographic practice.
You can see what Chris thought about our collaboration here
Falmouth university ma photography critical research journal