We have been in lockdown here in Houston since 16th March. We can walk outside, and get groceries whilst exercising social distancing. We have a shortage in some things, but in general we are fine. One of the problems we have is that my three daughters are company ballet dancers, who are used to training up to 5 hours a day, and all day Saturday. This is not training that you can just stop. They must continue, however they can.
My concern is that we, here in Houston go from a pandemic straight into hurricane season. The winds offshore are already accumulating.
My last visit to Katy was very productive. As I cannot photograph any of the construction site staff my gaze has shifted to what I would call forensic style. I am hunting for evidence of site workers. I really enjoy these exercises in capturing and gathering these mundane, banal signs and symbols.
After I was removed from the construction site I managed to take some photographs on the opposite side of the building. My intent here is to illustrate the sheer amount of labour that our migrant community provide. A lot of this is completed in terrible conditions, the temperatures and humidity make just being outside almost impossible.
Most of this work is hand done, the rendered buildings are no exception. The marks made on these massive structures are so beautiful, it is sad that in a few weeks these marks will be covered with stucco.
These photographs are more successful in my opinion. Looking at the mundane and the banal, I think that my eyes are drawn to these spaces as a place for contemplation and reconnection.
In this module I started by exploring the very difficult subject of migrant portraiture. This is difficult for many cultural, and ethical reasons mainly related to potential illegal status. These guys were great and joined in, however at this point I had asked a few others if they would participate, they were reluctant. This visit to the construction site was at best a total failure. The lighting wasn’t perfect, my technical ability was absent, I was anxious, and then I was removed from the area.
The two shots above made the edit of what not to do. They are over exposed, uninteresting from framing to vantage point, detail to blown out sky. I really wanted some closer shots.
These two shots below speak rather better from a contextual point of view. The glaring visual references to current political discourse maybe too didactic, this is not my intent. My intent is much more about a subtle approach to a very delicate humanitarian situation. However technically neither of these work for me.
This weekend I managed to find another new site on the outskirts of the city. Sunday is a good day to shoot as most of the construction workers do not work on that day, and the weather was perfect. However, after taking a range of images from the outside, I took a few inside the building. I was removed again, but by one of the migrant workers on site and he did not want his photograph taken either. I am left with the buildings and the remnants which is actually fine, as long as I can make images of these things.
After my latest visit in Katy, I managed to capture some migrant portrait shots before I was removed from the construction site. It was my intent at that point to have some migrant portraits to inform some interdisciplinary work that had already been started. Being removed from the site has created a shift in my portraiture work. My intent now is to photograph kids from an international school, whilst these kids are not construction migrant workers, they are migrants living in the US on a temporary basis. I have taken a few shots, and being inspired by Michelle Sank and Craig Easton’s work on Project 16, I decided to ask my subjects to write down what they feel that they have missed while traveling with their families for work. I wanted to show the portraits alongside the answers to my question.
My chosen theme is the interplay and impact of migration, diaspora and the resulting conurbation of Katy, Houston and to document these changes in the landscape.
The decision to avoid including migrant workers in my shots was founded in both the ethical and aesthetic. The migrant workers that are from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala almost exclusively make up the work force for construction in Houston, but since they are mainly illegal, I was very conscious of risk of exposing anyone to the authorities.
Visually, I enjoy these vast spaces when they are empty as these distribution centers are massive, with the latest one being built on an 84 acre site. The images that I took on the first shoot in Katy were very successful however, on reflection this work just really falls short on impact as they did not convey the massive scale of these spaces well enough.
These two images were taken on the same day, with the first being the most successful. I wanted to show the workmanship of the migrants who rendered this building, this is only available for a short period of time before it is covered completely. The next image was an abject failure in my opinion, from the vantage point to the lighting, nothing works for me. That said, I do like the lines on the walls and I may use those as a layering to other work.
The following two images were taken on the same day and although they are linked, the subject matter is quite diverse, with one capturing preparatory markings for new construction project and the other a portrait of a migrant worker. I think that this first image of the building markers was the most successful one.
The portrait was taken in an opportunistic basis. This image was not as successful as I had hoped for due to a combination of reasons inclding language barrier and lack of a speed light. He had a set of gold teeth which were really interesting, but he was embarrassed about showing them. The logo on his shirt could enable him to be traced, so I blacked out the company name as a means of making him anonymous.
I needed to rest this work for a while, think about its value going forward and research other artists to find a way where the work could be expanded. My art major and fascination for pushing boundaries kept coming back to me, as I feel that this is where interdisciplinary work could come into play, so I aim to explore these ideas and challenges regarding scale in this module.
Research & observations
Over the Christmas holidays I undertook detailed research on relevant photographers and artists. Looking at Szarkowski’s five properties of a photograph from the informing context module video was interesting whilst referring to my own work, to analyze what properties are important to me was a valuable exercise, framing is a really important element for me as is the vantage point, most of the points and properties mentioned are visible in my images.
John Baldessari, who recently passed away was a conceptual artist that was interested in hybrid art, mixed media, photography, text and communication. He was once told that the most engaging thing about his work was what he left out. Interesting on the concept of omitting things, this last module has been about omitting things in my work. It was really important to me to omit migrant workers in my images, the buildings absolutely had to be empty, perhaps because going forward I have strong feeling that these people deserve more of a voice, maybe a selection of studio portraits privileging them, not just tying them to a didactic series of work but something other than that, a pedestal and an understanding of their birth homes and what they left behind. I found Art 21 to be a rich source of information, talks and interviews.
Julie Mehretu was a Glassell School of Art in Houston core alumni, which is where I continued my art education when I arrived here from Scotland. I have always admired her work, as the scale is awesome and her printmaking applications, layering, and mixed media really engaging, her work Politicized Landscapes really resonates.
Jessica Rankin has a frenzied approach to her work, she has adopted a “must make must make” mantra. I find that her intricate sewing, drawing and painting works are really inspiring. My background in fine art makes me open to trial and error and pushing boundaries in any medium. I like the idea of somehow replacing the human handwork of the migrants on the massive concrete structures with mapping, layered works and architectural elements. This of course would mean a great deal of exploration, trial and error and tests on different surfaces and grounds.
Zed Nelson’s film “The Street” documents four years of gentrification in Hoxton, which is an area in London. It is quite sad to see the changes and the effects on the local people, their homes and their livelihoods. I do think that emotions run deep here, as it is heartbreaking to watch people’s history be effectively torn down and ripped apart. As mentioned in the comments page, gentrification has always and will always happen. It is development and more often than not can be tied back to how much money can be made, with no regards to the impact on the current residents.
Alex Boyd Sonnets is from Scotland and was recommended to me as feedback for going forward. He has undoubtably gorgeous images however, the context was really inspiring. Referencing my own work here and my admittedly wide and scattered approach that needs to be pared down and reigned in. I have trouble writing and contextualizing work due to this approach and would really like to be brave in this area. I need to look at one area, photograph one area and the migrants working in it.
Having moved from Germany as a boy, Boyd’s work is interesting, and I can totally understand why he would photograph this way, as longing for another place is something that I know very well since I am part of the Scottish working diaspora from. We cannot live work in Scotland as there are no positions available, so we have to go where the work is. I do not know a time when I have actually wanted to stay in a work directed country. So, the disruption and longing is very engaging in Boyd’s images.
Recapping, I have confirmed that I’m interested in migration and diaspora. They are definitely threads in the work that I do although I intend to look deeper in the resulting impacts, including consumerism and the attitude of others within the US.
This divisive topic is relevant to the area that I live in and is highly dynamic. Within the last few weeks, Governor Greg Abbott vetoed the resettlement of refugees within Texas, citing that Texas had accepted more refugees than any other state. Texas has been historically viewed as a welcoming state, but is now the first state to action the veto power under a recent executive action by President Trump.
Considering the successes and weaknesses of my previous work, as well as the exposure risk, I will focus on the buildings and less so on the people, which may provide an abstract consideration within my work.
The risk that I face is to try and address all of the aspects of this multifaceted topic, so going forward I aim to pare down my ideas and focus on one or two key areas.
I intend to address the scale issue by considering experimentation of use of mixed media, but as yet, am not sure what media I will incorporate. My starting point will be to lay out some ideas in my sketchbook and consider including trials of transfers and larger works that leverage other materials such as canvas, wood panels and rice paper trials, either in a series or one larger image collective.
“There was still a lot of bitterness. It took six seconds for that huge, blue gasometer and those … massive elegant cooling towers to come down … After the … site was decommissioned, its buildings flattened and shovelled away, its earth decontaminated, there was just a big hole, in the town, in the shire, in so many people’s lives.”
Deborah Orr on Motherwell and Ravenscraig steelworks.
The Ravenscraig steelworks of Deborah Orr’s youth can be linked to the rice silos in Katy as features of the landscape that are under the threat of decommissioning.
Reflection on 701 practice
In this module I made many human choices regarding my photographic practice. My choice to photograph the silos, historical and current new buildings in Katy was an important one. The sun is very strong here in Houston, since it is an unforgiving light and I made a conscious decision to either avoid it or use to my advantage. I find that this sunlight works very well for the retro buildings that are popping up everywhere however, for the silos, historical buildings and the new construction I prefer an overcast day with moody skies.
“To see something spectacular and recognize it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.”
Stephen Shore in O’Hagan, 2015
Stephen Shore’s interest in photographing the mundane is fascinating to me, my focus on recognizing a photographic possibility is really what has driven me up until now. Those great slabs of concrete forming the new buildings in Katy are captivating to me.
New construction is almost exclusively erected by migrant workers. These migrants work rapidly so from week to week these areas change dramatically. The visuals that interest me most are during the initial installation when the raw forms of buildings, the skeletons are visible. This stage only lasts for a few weeks before the visual interest for me is lost. This skeletal stage quickly evolves, and the buildings then appear to conform to their surroundings, erasing the migrants handmade concrete artwork.
My choices to avoid including migrant workers in my shots were both ethical and aesthetic. The migrant workers that are from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala almost exclusively make up the work force for construction in Houston, but since they are mainly illegal, I was very conscious of risk of exposing anyone to the authorities. Visually, I enjoy these vast spaces when they are empty, as these distribution centers are massive, with the latest one being built on an 84 acre site. The images that I took on the first shoot in Katy were very successful however, on reflection this work just really falls short on impact as they did not convey the massive scale of these spaces well enough. This is where interdisciplinary work could come into play, so I aim to explore this going forward.