back to master's degree
MA Photography Research Proposal
In this proposal for my master’s degree in Photography I intend to outline the current theme in my artwork and the principal aim of this project. For the past ten years I have been consistently interested in the topic of the wolf. In this time I have produced several exhibitions based on studies, research, personal experience (relating to this animal) and the myths and legends that surround it. I will explain further this past work and the influences on me as an artist, photographer, darkroom practitioner and concerned individual. As a conclusion to this proposal I will detail the approach I intend to take to complete this course of study and highlight the concerns I envisage en route.
The question should arise why the wolf should still be seen as the subject for a project, as part of my current path of education; studying for a masters degree in research photography. Emphasis is on the word ‘still’, because the wolf has been leading me along its path for over a decade and still the wolf continues to enthral me and captivate my interests as an exhibiting artist and a darkroom practitioner, creating exhibitions based on my understanding, and in support of the creature, and the issues that are related to it.
I feel that the wolf today stands as a symbol for many of the concerns relating to the conservation and preservation of the wilderness. It is this issue I wish to raise awareness of and is the underlying concept to my work. Wolf populations are in decline - so is the state of our natural environment.
In the British Isles, history reveals one reason the forests and woodlands were burnt and destroyed was by hunters determined to eliminate the threat of the wolf (1) to their increasing community. The wolf was a hungry ravenous beast that should not only be avoided, but should be destroyed. Stories were written to create fear, replacing early legends of respect (2), allowing the hunters to be justified and the landscape was raped. In Britain, by the mid-18th Century, the wolf was all but extinct, and today there is very little extent of wilderness that could be considered suitable for its home even if the wolf did still exist. Reforestation is the issue for today; restoring our woodlands and protecting the species that remain, and in my artwork, with the wolf as the symbol for my concerns, I am keen to highlight such issues.
In North America (hu)man destroyed the wolf also, but (thankfully) not the extent wilderness, and a programme of re-introduction of the wolf to the Rocky Mountains has seen opposition from landowners, ranchers and wolf-haters - a negative attitude that has spread as power, control and greed have become a ruling element and influence of westernised progression. This progression is a world wide issue where wars are prevalent and people, as well as wolves, suffer. It was in America where I first became interested in the wolf as a subject of art, having just worked with disadvantaged children from Harlem and the Bronx districts of New York. I was wrapped up with their issues, concerned for the oppression they felt, and related the domination over the wolf to these children’s subjugation. Travelling across states I interacted with the Hopi Tribe in Arizona, trekked in the Rocky Mountains, and met several participants involved in the programme of re-introduction and began to understand the different perspectives of the issues, writing these three opposing view points (of the scientist, the conservationist and the wolf itself) to this programme:
“In the early 1990s, conservationists in America chose to begin an ecological experiment. They decided to create a re-introduction programme that would see wild wolves from Canada trapped, or tranquillised, and transported south to a region of the Rocky Mountain National Park. There, following a period of penned acclimatisation - to allow their homing instinct to wane - they undergo captive breeding or sterilisation - to decrease the mixing of weak genes, before they are released, monitored and studied. Scientists believe that this decision to repopulate and restore the wolf to these mountainous slopes will help control the ever growing numbers of elk, deer and coyote.”
“Wolves live in the security of a pack. They respect leadership - the strong caring for the weak. They mate for life and love, raising families to ensure their survival. They communicate through an intelligent intricacy of poetic howling and barks. Their thirst for knowledge can often take them on long exploratory journeys, far away from their peers and their kin. It would seem they fear no animal, though live wary of man, avoiding human civilisation and ruling the wild landscape of Europe, Mexico, Canada and Alaska. Imagine such a travelling wolf, on a journey that would take him further than he could ever have foreseen; interrupted in his exploration by the poisoned dart of a concerned society. To be forced to awaken in an unknown environment.”
“I opened my eyes, aware of a strange cool air penetrating my body warmth, clearing the mugginess of sleep from my mind as the intense freshness pierced my nostrils. I struggled to my feet and sensed cautiously in each direction, turning full circle, unsure of my surroundings. Before me, stretched an open meadow, leading to a distant wood. Beyond, the high peaks of an unrecognisable mountain range, higher than I had ever witnessed, reached a cloudless sky. I battled to sustain my breath in the obvious altitude. I was scared. My instinct suggested I seek the protection of the wood and head for the sanctuary of higher ground. There seemed one path I could follow. I took it.”
In the United Kingdom, there may be little hope
to re-introduce the wolf, but there has been a programme (under the current
EC directive for endangered species) to bring back the beaver in a controlled
environment. This is the first large mammal to return and success of this may
set the precedence for the wild boar, the brown bear and perhaps, one day, the
wolf, to return. But even the return of the beaver has had political opposition
and the debate to what constitutes success has seen the project frozen and the
Awareness of these concerns have developed during my research as an artist and as this continues I hope my art can support educational purpose, create awareness of contemporary issues and personal concerns, and serve a moral good. Whether it could ever institute change, only time, persistence and the creative will tell, for before the message can be relayed the method to communicate must first be thought of, and researching the possibilities and so increasing my understand will, I hope, one day provide the solutions I seek.
The wolf, therefore, proves to be an honourable and inspirational subject for Creative Art and the subject of my artwork as I prepare for my master’s degree in research photography.
The work I have achieved to date has fallen into categories beyond art. In my studies I have acted as a wildlife observer and attempt to engage my concerns for the natural environment with my artwork. In my research of myths, legends and stories, where (hu)man has interacted with the wolf, I have discovered the importance of the role of the wolf to (hu)man’s early hunter/gatherer, yet depicted a change in the stories that led from a positive, sometimes god-like image, to have a negative affect on today’s population, influenced by economic growth, greed and the importance of livelihood and possession. On a third level I now have a better understanding of my own psychology by creating and understanding a personal relation to the wolf and the related issues, and attempt to incorporate them in my work, making comparisons to the better side of the wolf as a metaphor for my desires, and challenging my views on society.
With the concept firmly in place, I am in a position to look back on a catalogue of exhibitions and a portfolio of wolf-related artwork and photography. In 2000 I was very critical of my first exhibition, staged at Edinburgh Zoo, on behalf of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and intended to boost tourism to a rural wildlife park, owned by RZSS, in the Highlands, where I had observed a pack of Canadian wolves for six months. The Highland Wildlife Park (HWP) were, and are, involved in important breeding projects of rare native mammals and birds and rely on money raised from visitors to fund most of these projects. It was my first introduction to such issues. The wolves were the star attraction at the park and to produce a significant exhibit about these animals would be a boost to all concerned. My period of observation led up to the mating season and I witnessed the forced rejection from the pack of a female on heat - because she aroused the attentions of the alpha male from the alpha female. In response the alpha female roused her gang – like a school bully – and enforced her rule. This observation I tried to communicate through the selection of a series of photographs, but I felt I failed to get the message across with images alone in the exhibit, and, in my opinion, it remained merely an exhibition of photographs of wolves. Though it succeeded in raising awareness of the work at the HWP and boost visitor numbers that season, I am critical that it failed to relay my own intentions in its narrative.
Getting the audience to understand the motives of the artwork is an important element to my work. Though the subject matter may be obvious, the narrative is not. In my second study of wolves I observed a family pack of European wolves at Wildwood, Kent. This study, lasting nearly three years, brought to my work a consideration for the individual characteristics of the wolf. Each member of this family pack has their own identity and like humans these personalities influence the relationships with each other and their roles in the family unit. To tell their story I moved away from the white-wall gallery space and created installations directly in the woodlands at Wildwood, lining the woodland path for visitors to interact with. During this period, my techniques in darkroom printing evolved and I became interested in the experiment of printing big monochrome imagery, attempting to create life-size pictures of wolves, where the facial expressions and body postures became more identifiable with the individual wolf on display as an attempt to portray those family values I observed. By exhibiting in the woodland; exposed to the elements, the artwork lost certain values and took on a life of its own. Richard Long was a Land Artist, who used photography as a medium and dealt with site-specific artwork relating to the wilderness. He said “he liked many of his works to be impermanent. That way they were more human, their limited physical existence in the world resembling the impermeance and reality of human life” (3). In my research paper I discussed how the Starn Brothers created photographic artwork “conceived to change and age” (4). It is this approach to artwork I find fascinating and wish to explore further, though with reference to Richard Long, the human becomes wolf. Having to deal with environment and breaking away from the white-wall gallery allows an element of surprise to be part of the artwork, something un-planned and spontaneous that can catch an audience off-guard and react to it accordingly.
Completion of each project and the display of work has meant that many thousands of visitors have seen the work produced and I continue to be motivated by my sense of achievement. In the Wildwood exhibitions I included collaborations with performance artists and each opening was supported by an evening of wolf-related performance, allowing myself the opportunity to collate all my research and incorporate it in a theatre show called ‘Wolf Tales’.
In these experiences, my role as an observer has on occasion gone beyond just the wolves and their habits. I have had an insight to the work of conservationists and at times been affected by the work that they do, or rather, do not do. I have personally been prejudiced by the politics of the industry, which at times has influenced my approach to my artwork and I have, at times, wondered how much these influences have meant I remain true to an animal, that even in captivity, can be treated with contempt. At times I have had to distance myself from the actions of the authorities I have had to work with and the management decisions I have had no say in, even when I disagree with them. I think the final outcome of these observations have led to me this stage now, where I am taking time to reflect on these projects to date, and the entirety of my experiences, and consider my future approach as an artist.
In Richard Long’s gallery exhibition ‘A Walking Tour in the Berneroberland, March 12-22 1969’, he had “but a notice on paper attached to the gallery wall … (that) … shows no inclination towards artistic complication of form … it is perfect in its phrasing, leaving … no doubt as to what the work is about” (5). The practise of including a narrative to my work is important, and within this context it is important that I get my narrative right. If I relate my photographic images to a certain story or myth then I want the audience to understand the gist of that story or myth. If I have an experience I want the audience to experience then I must consider how I portray it. Certainly the imagery I select and exhibit will play a part, but so must titles, so must text, or para-phrasing and ultimately storytelling.
Of course, the textual content only supports the photography and the photographic image. In my research study paper, I discussed how P.H.Emerson thought a “student should try to express his subject as it has never (been) expressed before” (6). Emerson sought to capture an image and portray the sensation and feeling in his expression of the print. I consider my uniqueness to be in the black and white large scale print. When printing big, Carleton Watkins “synthesized a soaring sublime based on the wilderness … the immediate sensation is one of transcendence and invincibility” (7). I agree with Watkin’s process, for the big print can be sensational and portray all the expressions Emerson considered. I find by exploding the grain of the negative I can create texture and atmosphere in the print. These textures allow me to draw the viewer in; to study the detail of the print, and so be absorbed by the atmosphere of the image and like the painter Caspar David Friedrich create a “experience of the full presence of the landscape (that) … may have … more to it than meets the eye” (8). With respect to the wolf, I hope the audience considers the wild landscapes on view and relates to the exhibition titles, the stories and the text in support of the wilderness pictures; thinks deeply on the subject matter and ultimately gains an understanding of his/her role in the future preservation of this precious environment.
Ansel Adams was “fascinated with the challenge of making a photographic print in grand scale” (9) and “wrestled with the technical and creative problems” (10). He stated that “the making of big enlargements … requires a certain amount of specialised equipment” (11). One of the first steps forward in this project is to create a darkroom large enough to experiment with the large scale print. I work also as a Co-Director of a non-profit group, The Art Organisation, which makes claim to derelict properties and converts them for use in the arts. We have recently identified a building that will allow a suitable, and extremely large, darkroom to be built that can handle these experiments. I work from an old ordnance survey map enlarger that allows for large scale printing (floor to ceiling) from an 8 inches by 10 inches plate carrier. This will produce photographic prints in excess of 50 inches by 80 inches. Ansel Adams claimed “there is usually a limit to the enlargement of a negative where the size of the grain and the loss of definition detract from the desired qualities of the image” (12). I have always thought the explosion of the grain an aesthetic quality and wish to explore this consideration of Ansel Adams’ further when creating my large scale imagery. He also claimed that “a semi-abstract subject wears much better … with less likelihood of visual fatigue” (13), but Adams’ production of a print shows he was concerned with exact reproduction, where as I am keen to consider the artistic aspect of the print. In saying this, I wish to experiment with a multitude of imagery from landscape to wolf and see how the grain can be exploded and how the image is therefore represented, whether abstract or not. Just because Adams did not like it, it does not mean I will not.
In my role as Co-Director of The Art Organisation, I have agreed the use of an under-used and mostly empty building and the surrounding outdoor environment at Woburn Safari Park in Bedfordshire. The safari park houses Canadian wolves and black bears in very comfortable surroundings, living together and interacting as they may in the wild. With the potential of an exhibition in such a large space (indoor and outdoor), this is an opportunity for me to expand on my previous efforts and attempt to perfect certain exhibition methods where I have struggled to relay my exact intentions to the audience, and it is a large building suitable to displaying the experiments of large scale photographic printing.
With this project, I am not so much concerned with a long-term observation of the wolves at the park (to save getting involved with internal routines at the park), and I am concentrating this exhibition, with its large scale prints, on environments of the wolf, narratives relating to my experiences, stories, myths and legends and my interpretations of these relating to my concerns in human society.
Ansel Adams stated that “size is necessary from the point of view of majesty and dramatic force” (14). It is my hope that by creating this large scale imagery I can impress with the ‘wow factor’ of the image and like painter Mark Rothko “takes his large canvas and fills it so that it brims with presences” (15) I would wish the large photographic print to impress beyond its size; to include the aesthetic and sublime, an element of detail in the scene, and so serve as a reminder of our all encompassing landscape and wilderness – to feel the environment of the wolf; the land the wolf journeys in, and be reminded of its importance, as though we were there. I particularly admire the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and am inspired to follow his examples of symbolism and emotional attachment.
To complete this task of fulfilling this potential gallery space with an installation / out’stallation of photographic artwork and text I have personal photographic and observational studies of the Rocky Mountain environment that relates to the wolves and the bears of Woburn, and have an insight to the issues involved with previous links I have made. Recently I have been working with a national charity, The Wolves and Humans Foundation, working to preserve the wilderness of the wolf in Eastern Europe, and have been collecting stories through experiences in Northern Spain, Brittany, England and Scotland. I have studies of Canadian wolves, East European wolves and Iberian Wolves. As part of this research study it is my intention to increase on this imagery and have planned a schedule to visit these countries and learn more from each situation, with an aim to create exhibition artwork relating to my experience, knowledge and understanding, and to promote awareness of such and educate about the issues involved.
My expectations of events in the forthcoming year
are as follows:
2006. June – move to new darkroom, set up equipment.
July, August, September – begin early experiments.
October - travel to North Spain to finish collection of travel journeys across Cantabrian Mountains.
November – continue experiments in darkroom.
December – travel to Poland and make links.
2007. January, February, March - further experiments in darkroom. Begin final printing.
April – return to Poland to collect imagery. Printing.
May – travel to U.S. to collect imagery in Rocky Mountains direct on 8x10 sheet film.
June – Printing.
July, August, September – launch work at Woburn, to include statements and text, in conjunction with completion of degree study.
At this stage I am aware of the increasing costs to the idea of the project and am relying on success in other fields of work to fund these costs. I already get sponsorship from several organisations in the photographic and promotional industry, getting free film and certain printing services supplied. I have obtained a stock of rolls of paper, suitable for large prints, from Kentmere Paper, and I have a good working relationship with Fotospeed for products. I have had initial discussions with Ilford about a decent discount if buying necessary materials direct.
I use a lot of recycled materials wherever possible and have been stockpiling wood and timber for framing purposes, and have access to national outlets dealing with recycled materials.
To market the culmination of the exhibition at Woburn I will have the support of the Woburn Marketing team. Use of the space is obviously free, and with such a great venue to promote from it is possible national or corporate identities might be willing to support the project in exchange for advertising opportunities.
Processes of Experimentation.
Obviously at this stage I am unsure how the nature of this darkroom experimentation will go but have an idea of certain techniques I will follow (i.e. to create an inter-negative), and will be influenced by success and /or failure. A portfolio of artwork was successfully produced creating an inter-negative on 5x4 sheet line film from 35mm film (negative and transparency) and a print a 30 inches by 36 inches square, which have sparked my interests to go larger. These images were high in contrast, though sometimes lacking in depth due to the restraints of the line film.
I am keen to explore the different sheet films on the market to compare the final product when keeping to a similar methodology. The Linhof Studio, in Essex, have donated some Berger Sheet film and I plan a study to understand the explosion of grain when creating inter-negatives on 5x7 and 8x10 sheet film from my current stock of imagery on black and white negatives and colour transparencies, on 35mm and 120roll film. Some of the film is blue-sensitive so will react differently to standard film, especially where sky shades (of blue) are concerned.
Obviously, with a year still ahead, and a new darkroom with which to experiment in, I am open to other ideas and suggestions. My research paper introduced me to active artists (like The Starn Brothers), who are pioneering innovative work with the photographic medium in an art context, and I am keen to explore these influences. I also work with a meta-conceptual approach to the production of artwork. In this case ‘meta’ takes us ‘beyond’ the normal approach to the concept of photographic printing; where processes we expect to occur if techniques are followed can be manipulated to allow chance to happen and the unexpected to occur.
There are also experiments I wish to explore in the taking of the photograph; considering the viewpoint of the metaphorical wolf and the camera’s perspective and the relationship to my experiences in the wilderness. I am also willing to consider the inclusion of related mediums, such as film, to support a photographic study.
I am keen to include collaborations with artist colleagues, both in photography and photography–related mediums and will bring these new elements to the table accordingly. In the past, on previous event openings, I have worked with a small theatre group ‘The Fairie Village’, producing an evening of wolf-related tales and performance (as mentioned) and I have ideas to increase on this success. Urban artist Steve Gent has been testing ideas of stencil art using my wolf imagery and Environmental artist Jamie Torode and Gordon Culshaw have been running experiments using sounds as an idea to relaying stories and wolf howls in the space. Other associates work in film and music and bringing these mediums in to support the photographic work would be highly entertaining and visually exciting. To avoid the length of study needed to capture wolf images on film I can collaborate with colleagues who specialize in this field of work – my work is specific to the darkroom and the manipulation of the original image on film, so I question if it matters the origin of the image, only the final result.
What happens next?
A Final aspect to the work is ‘what happens next?’ Where does the work go following the completion of the degree and the culmination of the exhibition at Woburn Safari Park? When Ansel Adams and his peers created large scale photographs and the art-world stood up and noticed, people “were ordering huge blow-ups and montages with which to paper their walls” (16). I am not too sure the world, on this instance, will go wolf crazy, but I am keen to tease the commercial industry and will take the time to portfolio the imagery and publish it for sale or for commission in an attempt to raise revenue for future, even more exploratory artwork. Adams had books published that “proved to be a great asset to the campaign” (17) that “supported the idea of true wilderness” (18). It will be interesting to see if the world of book publishing would accept such a bank of photographic imagery and wolf tales worthy of producing in hardback. My studies have certainly revealed a lot of books relating to wolves and related subjects and the market seems to sustain them. Would another work? Success at Woburn could certainly open other avenues to expand on this exhibition with new work possible relating to other countries and a multitude of myths and tales. In America, where the issues are pertinent, with books, stories and films featuring the wolf, would the same exhibit have potential in galleries or museums? Could the exhibit directly support wolf conservation in Europe despite the foreign language barriers? My interests in the wolf have already gone on for ten years; there is no reason why they could not travel further, and probably will. My final level of interest following on from this degree is to consider the contemporary art-world. Would the wolf work in the white-wall gallery space? So far I have avoided this direction, or perhaps more to the fact, this direction has avoided me. The exploration of large scale printing, though, may change that, and the work may take on a new context and these avenues may open with a determined push, taking the wolf in to a public forum, promoting the issues on a more prominent stage and perhaps achieving greater success, raising my profile as an artist, leading toward change, attitude and a positive future for the wolf.
©RHS Bluehouse 2006
1. “Towards the end of
the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries large tracts of forests
in the Highlands were purposely cut down or burned, as the only means of expelling
wolves which there abounded.” A Short History of the Wolf in Britain by
J.E. Harting. Page54. 1994 Pryor Publications. 2. Celtic, Roman,
Saxon, and Viking legends have the wolf feature positively from a time in history
when human society lived closer to nature, evolving from the role of hunter-gatherer
to settled farmer. 3. ‘Richard Long’ by R.H. Fuchs.
Thames and Hudson ltd 1986 and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
1986. Page 45. 4. Mike and Doug Starn byAndy Grundberg. Essay
by Andy Grundberg. Page 38. Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1990. 5. ‘Richard
Long’ by R.H. Fuchs. Thames and Hudson ltd 1986 and The Solomon R. Guggenheim
Foundation, New York 1986. Page 101. 6. PH Emerson, The Fight
For Photography As A Fine Art, by Nancy Newhall. Page 146. Aperture 1975. 7.
Photography: A Critical Introduction, edited by Liz Wells. Chapter ‘On
and beyond the white walls, Photography As Art’. Page 297. Routledge 1997.
8. Casper David Friedrich and the subject of landscape, by
Joseph Leo Koerner.Page 164. Reaktion Books limited 1990. 9.
Ansel Adams, An Autobiography. Page 187. Thames and Hudson 1985. 10.
Ansel Adams, An Autobiography. Page 188. Thames and Hudson 1985. 11.
The Print, by Ansel Adams. Chapter Eight. Page 173. Little, Brown and Company
1983. 12. The Print, by Ansel Adams. Chapter Four ‘Proof
and Work Prints’ .Page 72. Little, Brown and Company 1983. 13.
The Print, by Ansel Adams. Chapter Eight ‘Special Printing Applications’.
Page 174. Little, Brown and Company 1983. 14. Ansel Adams,
New Light. Chapter ‘Scaling The Sublime’ by Robert Silberman. Page
39. Friends of Photography 1993. 15. About Rothko, by Dore
Ashton. Chapter Eight. Page 138. First Da Capo Press Edition 1996. 16.
Ansel Adams, New Light. Notes from chapter ‘Scaling The Sublime’
by Robert Silberman. Page 41. Friends of Photography 1993. 17.
Ansel Adams, New Light. Chapter ‘Forging The Wilderness Idea’ by
Renée Haip. Page 77. Friends of Photography 1993. 18.
Ansel Adams, New Light. Chapter ‘Forging The Wilderness Idea’ by
Renée Haip. Page 76. Friends of Photography 1993.
A Short History of the Wolf in Britain by J.E. Harting. 1994 Pryor Publications.
Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez. First Touchstone 1995.
Richard Long by R.H. Fuchs. Thames and Hudson ltd 1986 and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York 1986.
Mike and Doug Starn byAndy Grundberg. Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1990.
PH Emerson, The Fight For Photography As A Fine Art, by Nancy Newhall. Aperture 1975.
Photography: A Critical Introduction, edited by Liz Wells. Routledge 1997.
Casper David Friedrich and the subject of landscape, by Joseph Leo Koerner. Reaktion Books limited 1990.
Ansel Adams, An Autobiography. Thames and Hudson 1985.
The Print, by Ansel Adams. Little, Brown and Company 1983.
Ansel Adams, New Light. Friends of Photography 1993.
About Rothko, by Dore Ashton. First Da Capo Press Edition 1996.
With thanks to:
Woburn Safari Park
The Wolves and Humans Foundation
The Linhof Studio
Slater Crosby Photographic