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To the Commissioners of To the Editor of Amateur Photography

Posted by keith1942 on January 22, 2015

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The film in question was commissioned by the Hyde Park Picture House and the Pavilion Visual Arts Commissioning Organisation in Leeds. The film was premiered at the Hyde Park in November 2014. There have been a number of screenings since and on Saturday 10th January 2015 there was a screening followed by a discussion involving the filmmakers, the participants and audience members.

The film is a study of the first period of the Pavilion Art Project in the 1980s, using archive documents, photographs, interviews with women involved in the project at that time and filming carried out during the production. The Pavilion started out as a project around women’s photography but over the years, partly due to funding pressures, the project has changed and developed and it is now an art commissioning project. The original venue of the project was a disused one storey building in the Hyde Park, alongside the Leeds University campus. I remember it chiefly for interesting exhibitions in the 1980s, though there were also seminars and other events

The basic form of the film uses montage, which can probably be considered an avant-garde form. Re-watching it I noted more aspects and gained a clearer sense of the content. It struck me that the photographs are organised both around themes but also around tropes: the latter offering a sense of the practical work of the project. I noted that the photographs are accompanied by recorded sound whilst the archive documents [minutes, letters, leaflets, pamphlets,…) are accompanied by electronic music: the latter increases in complexity as the film develops. The interviews are separated in presentation between visual and sound: the latter plays as voice-overs alongside discrete footage. The participants discuss chosen photographs that are not necessarily seen at that point: but I realised that all of them do figure in the montages of photographs through the film. Whilst the contemporary footage seems all to be of or about the actual film production. I also noted that from the early interviews there are questions raised about the form of the production itself.

The overall form of the film seems to be a ‘work in progress’: in a sense that the film foregrounds its own construction. This is definitely a form that might be considered avant-garde or at least modernist in its approach. It also relates to the body of film that follows the use of montage as it was developed in the pioneer Soviet cinema: The Factory of Facts collective would seem to be an important influence, either directly or mediated through filmmakers who follow their practice.

This presentation was via a DCP version, slightly different from the premiere. Visually this made little difference: black and white and colour images in a 1.37:1 frame. However the soundtrack was also embedded on the digital folders, and I thought there was less variation within the auditorium than with the direct sound at the premier.

Gill Park outside an earlier commissioned event at the old Majestic Cinema.

Gill Park outside an earlier commissioned event at the old Majestic Cinema.

The discussion that followed was very full and very interesting. There was a panel of speakers at the front of the auditorium:

Gill Park the current Director of the Pavilion: Will Rose, Associate Producer of the film: Luke Fowler and Mark Fell, the filmmakers: Griselda Pollock and Diana Clark, founders member of the Pavilion: and Irene  Revell, who acted as a sort of chair. There were also couple of the participants from the film in the audience.

What follows are my notes on the discussion, which lasted for an hour and a half. So these are partial, and, of course, my interpretation is based on notes taken during the discussion.

Gill opened up explaining some of the rationale and emphasising the stance of the Pavilion, which includes addressing the problematic of images and of their reproduction.

Will talked about setting up the production, which grew out of conversations with the two filmmakers. Also he explained how the Pavilion set about raising the funding: and pointing out that the film meshed with the 30th anniversary of the Pavilion and the centenary of the Hyde Park Picture House.

Irene then moved to the two filmmakers, Mark Fell and Luke. Mark explained how they had approached the project and the three major strands in the film – photographs, archive material, interviews.

Luke explained that the archive material was important, though it was incomplete: Mark added, ‘stuff left behind’ rather than being systematically’ collected and collated, [the archive material is housed in Feminist Archive North in the Special Collections at Leeds University]. The photographs were found as a collection of negatives, with no known provenance. The selection of photos used in the film was made at different points by Mark, Luke, Will and Gill.

Irene raised the question that one contentious issue was gender. Some of the interviews question why the film was made by two men. This also led on to comments about the interviews and the use of discrete image and sound. Points made included that of the context for photographs, which can be thought of as ‘mute documents’. There was also the point of bringing in what is ‘outside the frame’ of any photograph.

It seems that the interviews all followed the same format, though they do seem rather different. Each interviewee was asked to select a single photograph from the collection. They were all given the same four questions. And the interview was recorded aurally and subsequently, with suggestions from the interviewee, they were filmed and these images accompanied the sound recording.

Mark emphasised that he and Luke were the ‘authors of the film’ and took that responsibility’. He added that authorship can ‘take many forms’. Irene asked about the title, which was partly improvised but also reflected the view of Amateur Photography as a ‘bastion of male hegemony’.

Image

Before we heard from other panel members there were some comments/questions from members of the audience.

One young woman raised the point of the non-synchronised sound and suggested that this made ‘problematic the voice of the subject’.

Luke responded that they wanted to get away from the dominance of ‘talking heads’. He and Mark talked about filming the interviews and creating the music for the film, which was improvised.

Another woman referred to the collection of photograph in the film and expressed the view that many of them deserved to be highlighted as particular images. Luke responded that they wanted to place less emphasis on their qualities as photographic images and treat them as interesting images.

Another woman bought up the occasional appearances of the filmmakers: and Luke responded that they thought there was a problem when ’producers were presented as anonymous’. He also made the point that they were not making documentaries in the form followed by Nick Broomfield.

Points was made that the film only partially explained how the Pavilion developed/

Griselda Pollock now contributed to the discussion. She made some comments about the formal structures in documentary. One aspect, going back to John Grierson, treated film as ‘someone goes and looks at someone else’. She contrasted this with the work of one of the photographers featured in the film, Sirkka-LiisaKonttinen.  She worked for seven years in an area in Newcastle-on-Tyne, building up relationships with mothers and children involved in dance classes. Her work was not just about recording but also about ‘changing access’, and using ‘informal photography’ she also raised questions about how the recorded interviews were treated – there was a slight dispute about what editing left out from the interviewees comments.

Dinah Clarke also now contributed. She talked about her days in the initial work to develop the Pavilion project. One aspect of the context was that these were the years when the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was taking place. Thus a place like the park ‘or moor’ was not necessarily a safe place for women. She also talked about how funding issues changed the nature of the project. The Art Council was only prepared to fund what it regarded as ‘quality photography’: ‘informal photography’ was seen as ‘community work’ rather than ‘art work’. The emphasis on exhibitions in the early years of the project resulted from this emphasis.

Griselda added some points about her personal experience. She also commented on the use of the archive material. As a historian she felt they could have made the material ‘more vivid’: there was a sense in which they were merely illustrative rather than informative.

Sue Ball, in the audience, added to these. She also raised the distinction between authorship and ownership. She pointed out that one important aspect of the project took place in the dark room: both for them professional photographers and for the users. She thought that there was this aspect of the project’s own production process which the film omitted.

As the discussion came to an end people returned to points about the filmmakers being men: to the changes that had occurred in the project since the period the film covered: and a suggestion that the matter needed to be related to different views of the Pavilion in the different generations who were involved.
Irene thanked everyone and then event came to an end, after an hour and half for discussion. This was an extensive discussion, even so there was clearly more to be said and there were individual discussion taking place in the foyer and outside the cinema.

I asked a question at one point. After a woman made the point about how the photographs were treated I asked whether the filmmakers had thought about using some of the modern technologies to produce a version that audiences or viewers could construct themselves. Mark responded that he was not interested in ‘a viewer’s narrative’. I can understand this standpoint. The filmmakers have produced a version that critiques conventional treatments, but viewers might choose to follow just those conventional approaches.

However, some of the participants in the Pavilion in the period studied felt that the film did not sufficiently reflect the role of people in constructing images and their meanings: one comment added that the film should include the users of the project, often involved in informal photography. This is a recurring contradiction between authorship in films and participation. I remember that Jean Rouch, who was partly responsible for the renewed interest in the Factory of Facts and the writings of Dziga Vertov, included in his seminal Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un Eté, 1960) a sequence where the participants viewed and commented on an early cut of the film. This appears to have happened to a degree with Letter, but only with those being interviewed and their segment sin the film. It would be interesting to take this further with others of the participants in the project, including ordinary women who were users of the centre.

This is a consideration of the film and its relationship to the Pavilion rather than a specific criticism. I remain impressed by the film. Someone near the end commented that one function of the film was to ‘galvanize people to do more work’ on the Pavilion and its history. That would be good, though given the ‘privatisation’ of Universities, I think the Feminist Archive North collection is probably less accessible than in the past. Mark and Luke talked about the time and labour they had to spend on this.

Those interviewed for the film were:

Dinah Clark. Angela Kingston. Caroline Taylor. Griselda Pollock. Sirkka-LiisaKonttinen. Quinn. Rosy Martin. Sutapa Biswas. Al Garthwaite. Deborah Best. Jenifer Carter Ramson. Sue Ball. Maggie Murray.

TO THE EDITOR OF AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER
A Pavilion film by Mark Fell & Luke Fowler
Commissioned by Hyde Park Picture House & Pavilion
Kindly supported by: Arts Council England  Leeds City Council  Leeds Inspired
Hamilton Corporate Finance  Feminist Review Trust  Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society

Camera: Margaret Salmon
Second camera: Luke Fowler
Producer: Will Rose
Music: Mark Fell, Luke Fowler
Rostrum: Jo Dunn, Leeds Animation Workshop
Grading: Ben Mullen at Serious
Sound Mix: Iain Anderson at Savalas
Music mastering: Andreas [LUPO] Lubich at Calyx
Telecine colourist: Paul Dean at Cinelab
Lab: Cinelab London
Film stock: Kodak
Pavilion: Gill Park, Anna Reid, Will Rose, Linzi Stauvers, Miriam Thorpe

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