Monday, 17 August 2015

Behind the Lens: My Life in Shadow Laughter

For three years from August 2012,I worked with my friend and fellow artist Hamish Marr on a mysterious film-noir inspired photo-project that we called Shadow Laughter.  We would meet every Thursday evening, take photos, upload to facebook, drink cans of Stella Artois and eat prawn cocktail crisps.  This routine took place every Thursday for three years, barring the odd holiday and Christmas Day, although we did produce Christmas Specials, of course.

Above: An early Shadow Laughter image.
Below: Images from each of the Christmas Specials

Hamish and I had discussed the idea of a collaboration for some time, but as our own artistic disciplines were quite different, we were often at a loss to find a suitable medium.  There came a point then, where Hamish realised that we each had a growing interest in exploring photography in a creative way.  It was he who first suggested the idea of joining forces on a photography project, one that used the visual language of film noir.

As the project went on, we noticed various motifs recurring; themes we had not always planned in advance, as well as spontaneous scenarios, which we became adept at producing under the pressure of our self-imposed regime.  We even invented our own lexicon around the work.  Is it possible though, to wonder what were the meanings of this unusual activity, this quirky routine that seemed ever more peculiar the more it was described to others for the first time?

From a very personal point of view, I was not in a good place when we started the collaboration, and so Shadow Laughter became a regular distraction for me.  It quickly grew in its significance in my life, as it offered the potential for dramatic expression; something I had discovered in myself on the amateur stage several years previously.  Also, it presented creative challenges, ones we grew more excited about as the creative potential of the work began to dawn on us.  In this sense, the project became a refuge at times.  It was an important source of excitement, challenge and sense of achievement, when other parts of life were harder-going.

It was also a learning curve: Working creatively with another was not something I was used to, but we seemed to manage well and quickly got to understand what each of us was after in a particular shoot.  Sometimes, the inspiration behind a shoot came from Hamish, and sometimes from me.  When ideas were in short supply, we improvised!  Hamish was excellent with lighting from the start, and I was continually impressed by how he would create shadowy atmosphere, balance lighting requirements, and produce large and small lights, including an array of torches appropriate for all sorts of angles and spaces.  We used a lot of tin foil, too, to dumb-down the larger lights in order to achieve stronger shadows.

                            Above: Our classic image.

Hamish and I shared the excitement, not only of setting up and taking the photographs, but of seeing the results on the screen for the first time.  This aspect of working collaboratively was very special.  Mostly, artistic practice can be a solitary affair, and one can have a sense of achievement when things go well, but to regularly share small successes gave us confidence to continue.  This was a new experience for me.  More than this, though, my friendship with Hamish deepened.

Our houses became locations, with every room used at one time or another as the set for intriguing actions or encounters.  An attic, dusty and grimy, was even used when 'one of the gang returned to claim the proceeds of a heist'.  However, we reached a point where we had used most of the spaces, sometimes several times over, especially Hamish's kitchen and my dining room - notably the table!  
In my small studio space at home, we started to use digital projections.  These allowed us to expand, location-wise into other places.  Our episode, "Odyssey on Osborne Boulevard" was particularly exciting for us in this respect.  We felt that we had integrated the projections with our posed positions particularly well.  Hamish's home office was also used in this way.  Sometimes we would project shapes, patterns or textures, often giving surprising results.
    Below: Coded message projected onto the figure.  The figure appears in silhouette.

Above: Our first projected location, from 'Odyssey on Osborne Boulevard'
Below: We projected face-mask images of Noir stars onto pillow-cases worn as head-coverings.  This was inspired by Magritte's covered-head 'Lovers' paintings.

It became clear after a short while though, that we were quite limited in where we could stand, so as not to cast a shadow onto the projection, or to light it with a secondary light source.  We discussed the potential for projections, thinking if only we had a bigger wall and a larger space to project in.  At the time, Hamish was still enjoying access to the large workshop he had been using for sculptural work.  The solution to the projection problem came in the form of a king-size bedsheet hung from a large mobile gantry in the workshop.  With this carefully positioned, we were able to do larger projections although there were still similar lighting limitations.  We did get some very pleasing results though, even if I say so myself. Eventually, the workshop was no longer available and we reverted to working in our domestic locations. 

Above: A larger projection: In the cold store, something menacing is planned.

We decided to try for an exhibition, and in August 2013, Junction at Goole accepted our application.  Junction is a cinema and also has an exhibition/performance space.  As our work looked like film-stills, this seemed like an appropriate place to show.  The next challenge for us was deciding on which images to have in the exhibition.  By that point, we had already amassed about a thousand images from the many shoots.  In  some cases it was easy, as we knew our few favourite pictures, but it did take some time to finalise the rest.  Surprisingly, there were never any arguments over which pictures to choose, although the discussion was critical.

Having finalised the selection, we then brought together the files, made sure they were of sufficient size to give great printed results, and did any necessary final editing.  Then, we went to a store to have the images printed off.  It was a very exciting moment to see and hold the physical version of images we had only previously seen on a monitor.  Our work in general, (and the exhibition,) seemed somehow more real.  We produced appropriately-designed extras, including; an artists' statement, business card and poster, and these were also good fun to do!  The exhibition went well and was a very positive experience.

Above: Having set up the exhibition, all that remained was to get into character and take some shots with our work.

Below: Statement, in the form of a classified document, of course.

Above and below: Publicity material for the exhibition

In November last year, I moved into my own house and this provided some new sets for our shoots.  Once more, we worked through the various rooms, extending the/our classic noir staircase motif,  moving into the kitchen for a forensic investigation and also the garage where an arrest took place!  Also, we revisited some older shoots and extended their narratives with new photos.

 Below: Further smaller-scale projections, shot in the comfort of my dining room.

I think to some extent, over the three years we were exploring ideas and themes that reflected our personal situations.  As a lot of artistic practice does this, it would be unusual for it not to be happening.  However, we never consciously set out to do this, and it may be for us to look back in future and identify moments when such meaning may have been more apparent.

The change in my own circumstances became significant in different ways, and I began to feel that the time had come to let go of this work.  It was difficult to make the decision to stop, but I feel very proud of what Hamish and I achieved; the body of work that involved creative challenge, technical skill amidst physical limitations, ingenuity borne of improvisation, and a lot of fun and excitement.  I even (literally) have the T-shirt...oh, and the book, and the mug!  

If you enjoyed our adventures on facebook, or twitter, or via the Shadow Laughter blog, then thank you.  We truly appreciated any comments from you the audience.

Below: (Top)From our very first shoot, 'Laughter shook them from their seats' 2012
Middle and Bottom: From our final shoot, 'Last Post! Paranoir No More' 2015 We referenced the original images via 'jazz hands'.

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