The De La Warr Pavilion’s Brighton Photo Biennial exhibition of photographs from the Magnum archive, proved a massive inspiration for the writers who attended our latest Drawn To The Page workshop. The exhibition features three displays of photographs, chosen by three curators – historian and anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards, photographer Hannah Starkey and artist Uriel Orlow, who were invited to reinterpret how social, cultural and political inclinations have shaped the content of the archive. They chose 130 rarely seen photographs from 68,000 prints, which collectively present an imperfect history of photography from 1940 – 2000. Edwards addresses how the experiences of people and their engagement with the world are inscribed in the photograph. Starkey’s interest is in how the female perspective has resulted in a narrative linked across the decades, and Orlow teases out the blind spots of history in the margins of crisis.
What struck me when I first visited the show, was how each separate grouping of photographs, suggested different approaches for writers – and so our workshop, last Saturday, contained three separate – but connected writing exercises.
We started with Elizabeth Edwards’ selection which explores watching and viewpoints. I loved the idea of a ‘stowaway in the image,’ an observer observing, and maybe another observer – the photographer or the viewer – observing things too. Who is the stowaway in your favourite image, I asked writers? Who is the main protagonist? What is happening in the frame, and also ‘off stage’ beyond the frame? Who is viewing and what is the point of view?
We looked at some examples of writing from Ali Smith and Katherine Mansfield, both of which offered different points of view, and we discussed the differences between 1st person, omniscient 3rd person, and close 3rd person. I then invited writers to choose 1 photo, and to write 3 short pieces each with a different point of view. 1st person, for someone within the frame – who is part of, or observing an event; 3rd person omniscient – looking down on the whole scene from above; and finally, close 3rd person for the photographer’s point of view, both involved and detached. Some writers found this a challenging exercise, but we agreed at the end, that it had really revealed how radically shifting point of view can alter a scene or a story, as well as our understanding of what was happening in the image, and the choices the photographer might have had to make when taking it.
“Another fantastic Drawn To The Page – ‘Wendy Workshop’. Interactive and inspirational.” Hilary
We then moved on to Hannah Starkey’s selection. She’s curated a series of photographs of women. With so few women photographers represented in the archive, she was none the less struck by the multiplicity of images of women, and was inspired to focus on them, and on the voices that seemed to emerge from women represented. This emphasis on voices, on a conversation occurring between each woman, in each photo, naturally suggested some writing around voice, proving a great counterpart to our point of view writing earlier.
We looked at some examples of strong written voices – this time in the poetry of Jackie Kay’s, Adoption Series, which features the voices of an adopted child, birth and adoptive mothers, and in Alan Bennet’s monologues. I then suggested that writers choose 3 photographs of women and try and write with their voices, conjuring up a stream of consciousness that related to what the women were doing in the photos, and who they were with. Images of women with their babies in prison, actresses on set, female welders from the 40s and a whole congregation of women at a Billy Graham meeting in the 50s all provided strong and very distinctive voices – which told of their experiences. It also sparked an interesting debate about why so few women photographers were represented in the archive.
Finally, we moved on to Uriel Orlow’s selection, which focuses on the peripheral moments within larger – often cataclysmic – events. Images ranged from the Vietnam War, to the troubles in Northern Island, and highlighted what might be termed, the small, human moments in the great scheme of conflict. Despite the intimate focus of the photographs, it is, never the less, a big undertaking to write about such huge world events with any kind of authenticity. So what I suggested to writers – were two possible approaches…
They could either go upstairs and listen to Ron Geesin’s, Blackbird Quadralogue, feeling what it is like to hear the pure, simplicity of bird song. Then they were to come back and imagine that they were in one of the photographs. In the midst of this scene, they were then to imagine a moment of silence, and in that silence – this pause in conflict – a bird was to be heard singing. The rest, was up to them. The power of birdsong, of the silence it filled, gave writers an entrance into the scene, and helped them to occupy it. For those who did this exercise, it confirmed that the strong sensory input from Geesin’s installation upstairs, allowing them to find that small, human moment and write about it with some sense of connection and confidence.
“Another fruitful experience – wonderfully inspiring photography which really helped me think about character and point of view. Loved the blackbird song installation – which literally drew me into the sound of the war zone photographs.” Danielle.
For those who didn’t feel attracted to the sound of birds – a group of photographs which all feature human hands, captured in a variety of attitudes, actions and expressions – was the starting point. I suggested that quite simply they did a free write around what these interactions suggested to them, and then from this free write – select elements they could draft into a poem later. Several of the writers focused on the contrasts within these images – the hands that embraced in a hug, clashing thematically, with hands that silenced an open mouth, for example.
We ended our session with a brief sharing of our ideas, and in some cases readings from what had been written over the morning. As always, all of the writers – beginners and more experienced – have been invited to submit their writing for publication on the Drawn To The Page blog, so watch out for them here. Thanks to our partner, the De La Warr Pavilion, for hosting us so well, and for those of you who’d like to join us another time, our next writing workshop will be at Towner in Eastbourne in February 2015.
” I wouldn’t have visited the Magnum Archive (or the Towner Twixt Two Worlds exhibition), if not for Wendy’s writing workshops. Her workshops are a fabulous way to see a show and enjoy it creatively.” Helen