5. Submission

Fig. 1 Artifice, Welsh photographer after Brandt’s Northumbrian coal miner, 2020
Fig. 2 Bill Brandt, Northumbrian coal miner eating his evening meal, 1937© the estate of Bill Brandt

[29Jun] Submission text

All photographs are fictions, to a far greater extent than we are able or willing to acknowledge. Yet most of them still pretend to a high degree of verisimilitude and transparency, to the impersonal neutrality of windows on the world.

 A.D. Coleman, introduction to Theater of the Mind, Arthur Tress, 1967, pages unnumbered

wrote A.D. Coleman in his introduction to surrealist trickster Arthur Tress’s 1967 compilation of images, Theater of the Mind.

In Assignment 4 I described my surprise and a degree of disillusionment when I learned that one of my photo-heroes, Bill Brandt used ‘family and friends posing as characters in purportedly unmediated scenes of British social life’ (Hacking, 2012, p.61) and arranged ‘his subjects … “in character”, placed on a stage with the necessary props’ (Delany, 2004, p.10). My tutor was rightly dismissive (in a good way) of my judgment and self-professed naivety, stating that the photographer’s ‘relationship with [the] subject’ and ‘the context within which the work is made’ is (to paraphrase) more significant than whether the furniture has been moved (McMurdo, 2020).

The subject of this final assignment had already been decided by then, an evocation of and response to Brandt’s Northumbrian coal miner eating his evening meal, 1937 (fig. 2), the subject of the Assignment 4 essay, and this commitment was reinforced by the making of a zine (or perhaps a booklet) covering my coursework which had become mostly about Brandt (or, rather, about Brandt and me).

The plan is another self portrait with photography paraphernalia rather than mining references and possibly my partner (if willing on the day) too. But, in response to (what I still see as) the liberties Brandt took with his subjects, I intend the props to emphasise the artifice of the ‘set’, adopting the production values of early Doctor Who series, the ‘wobbly sets’ era (Booth, 2013, p.44). The starting point for the props was an article in the RPS Journal on the Ensign Ful-Vue II camera, released in the year I was born (Richmond, 1999). Around this, I envisage incompatible and anachronistic mixes of equipment so that the image is palpably false.

Fig. 4 West Yorkshire New Sharlston, 2004
© Bertien van Manen
Fig. 3 Ezra, 2019
© Julie Blackmon

While the intention for the detail of the shot is mutually-incongruous artifice, the aim for the overall effect is something like the gathered precision and control of Julie Blackmon’s striking Ezra (fig. 3), combined with the sort of magpie assemblage of artefacts used by Bertien van Manen in her Give Me Your Image project (fig. 4). My initial thought was to produce it in colour to make the detail items (such as the camera bag) more discernible (and for some contrast with the heavily black-and-white zine) but I later considered trying it in wide-angle grainy black-and-white to echo his late nude, beach images and portraits in an attempt to sum up my perception of Brandt’s life’s work in a single shot.

The above was written before the shoot, the following written after.

Fig. 5
Ensign Ful-Vue II

The props assembled were:

  • The Ensign Ful-Vue II (fig. 5)
  • an Ensign advertising poster, to match the picture in Brandt’s
  • the largest Billingham bag to hand, corresponding to the satchel in Brandt’s
  • miscellaneous developing equipment to replace the miner’s meal
  • I had intended to dangle some processed film, replacing the drying washing in Brandt’s, but failed to find any uncut and so sacrificed an unexposed roll of 35mm that expired in 2005
  • an air shutter release, both to make the process easier and to reference early Cindy Sherman (and the Willy Ronis in Asg. 3)  
Fig. 6 The Set

Lighting was from a single LED source, intended to be harsh (fig. 6), to suit the intended post processing.
Camera settings were at the widest angle available, 10mm on the Fuji X2 (15mm equivalent) and that just happens to be the focal length of the Zeiss Protar Brandt used on his ‘police camera’ according to Greg Neville (2015).

Turning to consideration of the outcome, it is not a photograph I would ever have set up and taken without the artificial stimulus of a course assignment. There is the intended, planned jumble of detail as in the original, notably the coiled airline drawing attention to the shutter release controlled by the second subject; the unfamiliar camera in the foreground; the poster; the bag; the reflector (too distracting in colour); dangling film, emphasised by its shadow; the disconcerting incompatibility of components (for the discerning nerd) — all that before turning attention to the ostensible subject of the shot and the second, subsidiary subject ironically darkened by the shadow of a light reflector.

Fig. 7 in colour

The Ensign Ful-Vue II dominates the foreground as always intended. We had looked at the source image and decided that the plan was to both look glum. Jan would deploy the air shutter release to allow a final reference to authorship (discussed in the zine, Blackburn, 2020) and the eclipsing small reflector was intended to emphasise Jan’s subsidiary role, as with the second subject in Brandt’s original. I had thought that the reflector might be used to sanctify me with a more direct halo reference, but this would have obscured the Ensign poster and the Billingham bag.

In processing, having decided on black and white because, amongst other things, thereflector is too distracting in colour (see fig. 7), some retouching was done to de-emphasise highlights and remove unwanted detail then a variety of available filter presets were tried, eventually choosing the most extreme example that allowed broad visibility of the subjects, Nik Silver Efex, Yellowed 2. I am slightly embarrassed to be using such a preposterously fake finishing effect as the final act of falsehood and so felt the need to give the piece an exculpatory title in an effort to indicate that it was being used ironically. I am hoping that the feedback will instruct me to process it again with something less unsubtle: I will then be able to relax.
If I were shooting this again, I would omit the reflector and work in a fake Hepworth sculpture to match the ceramic artefact in Brandt’s original. 

Word count 995


Blackburn, N. (2020) Brandt, a gradual realisation. London: Baphot Publishing.

Booth, P. (2013) Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Delaney, P. (2004) Bill Brandt, a life. London: Jonathan Cape.

Hacking, J. (2012) Lives of the great photographers. London: Thames & Hudson.

McMurdo, W. (2020) Formative feedback [online]. baphot.co.uk. Available from http://baphot.co.uk/pages_cn/asg_4_feedback.php [Accessed 22 June 2020].

Neville, G. (2015) Bill Brandt’s camera [online]. greg-neville.com. Available from https://greg-neville.com/tag/kodak-wide-angle-camera-with-zeiss-protar-lens/ [Accessed 28 June 2020].

Richmond, A. (1999) The Ensign Ful Vue [online]. ensign.demon.co.uk. Available from http://www.ensign.demon.co.uk/ful-vue.htm [Accessed 22 June 2020].

Tress, A. (1967) Theater of the mind. NY: Morgan & Morgan.