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Means of Observation

The camera is a tool, through which a singular, unique moment is captured and held in sequence with others. The image is unique because, even if several people return to the same location over time, or even are at the same place at the same time, they will capture a different angle, the light will change, their camera will be different. In my research I have come to realise the significance of the relationship between photography and printmaking both historically and in a contemporary context, and in writing this blog I aim to follow this train of thought linking my research to my own process led practice.

There's a huge difference between drawing from direct observation and drawing from a photograph, my preference always being to take a sketchbook out with me and draw in the moment to capture what is in front of me. It doesn't matter how accurate the drawing is because, as said in my previous blog, it is how you saw it in that moment in time. However, it isn't always practical to work this way, and in the fast paced world we live in there are many missed opportunities to stop, look and draw.

In the last ten years I have produced several series of etchings that have mostly been based on photographs, one of which was a series based on old photos of my Irish grandparents in the 1930s. These photos were obviously not taken by myself and, though the subject held personal meaning and the process of reproducing the images as etchings involved studying them closely, I felt removed from the process of making because I hadn't taken the image in the first place. It wasn't my memory.

After a time I lost interest in working from photographs altogether and found it difficult to justify turning a 'ready made' image into an etching, even if i'd taken it myself. Previously, my understanding of photography in fine art was limited and admittedly I took no interest in it at all, however during my masters in 2018 I collaborated with artist, Sylwia Dylewska who was studying MA Photography. For the module: 'Process and Practice', we responded quite literally by taking a process led approach, exchanging skills in our specialisms. Sylwia taught me how to make and use pinhole cameras and to use the dark room to develop film, and I showed her the processes of etching, lino and screen printing. Together we produced a body of work and a temporary installation based on shared concerns around habitual use of hand held devices and how we are conditioned to scroll through an endless stream of visual information. Our approach was therefore to slow down and interpret our own observations through the limitations of manual and hand made processes.

Working in collaboration altered my approach to my own practice and opened up new ideas around 'site response' and gathering of visual resources. I have since continued to use film photography to document my wanderings around the city of Norwich, taking a responsive approach to my memory and position in each space, at each time. When I stop and take out my camera, I don't always take a shot, I tend to contemplate and try to make the decision carefully. This is partly due to being limited to a 36 exposure film, but has also changed how I think about the image I am capturing. Unlike with a phone camera which is readily available to snap up endless references, the physicality of walking around with my Canon EOS 500 gives a completely different incentive and I almost walk around in a meditative state, viewing the environment with completely open eyes.

In printmaking, although I prefer working from direct observation, at times the use of photography has become a quicker solution to my ideas. The format of black and white film can be translated and explored using a variety of printmaking processes. Even the language used to describe a photograph is similar to how I would describe preparing to etch a plate, carve a block or expose a screen. One of the most obvious parallels is that of positive and negative space, relating quite literally to dark and light, contrast and tone.

I have always been drawn to the most long winded printmaking methods such as mezzotint and etching, their appeal being the connection with materials, use of handheld tools and the gradual building, sculpting and reworking of the surface of a plate before inking and printing with a mechanical press. In my latest work I have continued to rework the plates I used to create 'Viewing' - my installation for the MA degree show at the Ruskin Gallery, Cambridge in 2019, later shown at my first solo show in Norwich in September 2021. With previously etched lines and textures, I recently decided to completely change the copper surface by 'rocking' the plate with my mezzotint rocker, disguising the etched lines I had already spent time building up. Mezzotint is an engraving process that involves working from dark to light, the serrated rocking tool rucks up burrs across the whole surface of the plate, these burrs will hold ink and the task is then to scrape away again, reducing the surface and burnishing back to create lighter areas again.

I have thought carefully about the image chosen for this rework with mezzotint. The shot is a view of a willow tree, visible through the shadowy underpass of Carrow bridge, by the river Wensum. There is a strong contrast between the black curve of the bridge and the light through it which highlights the puddles on the ground, the movement of the river and bankside apartment blocks. The willow tree is silhouetted and drapes over the path, forming it's own bridge and there's graffiti on the wall which had been there for a long time but is now covered over with new tags. I walked and ran along this stretch of river often during lockdown in 2020 it became a pathway that I observed more over time. The decision to take this photograph, like many, is a personal acknowledgement of my presence in that space at that time and although capturing the image took seconds I am finding it interesting translating it into the slow process of mezzotint. When I return to work on the plate I am spending time in that place and gradually revealing it, here in my mind is the parallel between the photograph and the mezzotint - despite the difference in time, the image is being exposed to light.

One of my favourite phrases that stems from printmaking (letterpress to be precise) is to 'make an impression' which refers to the physical act of transferring information from one surface to another. This could be interpreted in so many ways but in todays world the instant nature of transmitting information via digital technologies has kind of lost it's meaning and it's difficult to narrow down information that's relevant or even true. The 'impressions' that are made on us are also not always a choice we have made for ourselves. Either way having always lived in a visual world, and (whether you're an artist or not) today, with so much more information at our fingertips, I think it's important to stop and consider, spend a little more time actually looking at things that are relevant and meaningful.

Thanks for reading


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