I feel so grateful of some of the insights of the world, and how photography fits into it, with the help from some amazing teachers and students along the way. I’m tired. Oh so tired. After a relentless and challenging year of research and image making, it’s now time to rest up and enjoy some downtime. During the past 3 weeks, my routine of ‘wellness’ has been challenged as the project completion consumed my days. I can now breathe and be present once again with the earth, family and friends. The coming years ahead look rocky and un certain. I’m happy to be able to take a back seat and refocus my energies into 2022. Will I do a masters? Will my commercial work dry up? Will everything not change much at all? Who knows.
On a more positive note, last night I was awarded the prize of ‘Academic excellence in Photography’ at ARA Institute! I’ve never won anything like this before and feel so joyful! The award means a lot to me at 47 years old, and miles ahead in grades to my first Degree in Biochemistry back in the mid to late 1990’s. Of course I’m a different bloke, and my devotion to learning is greater than as a young student, but honestly, it has been just as challenging, but on another frequency. So much has changed in the world since graduation in 2000, that it’s difficult to fully comprehend and share the highly philosophical narratives within an arts based degree in 2021. But I made it though and with such an award added to my achievements, I’m super proud. The award also has a decent cash payment too. Wow what a bonus!
What I’d like to share with you all is my final reflection of the beekeeper project. I can then officially chill out. Writing about each portrait experience is what I believe elevated my work to the highest grades and enabled a really extensive and thorough final reflection. Here it is. It’s quite lengthy. A big thanks to my teachers, family, supporters of my blog and instagram feed, and of course the Beekeepers. I really appreciate it. One last thing….what’s happening with the beekeeper book? The hand-in was really a proof and there are a fair amount of tweaks to do before I’m happy to put up for sale. I guess it will be ready in the new year now, and limited to 99 signed copies. Anyway, end of degree vibes!
My project aim was to document the people behind beekeeping in the Canterbury region of New Zealand and the environments in which they operated. Early plans were to create cohesion between the images with posed questions to the beekeepers. I believe I achieved the goals of the project.
Documenting a range of beekeepers of all ages and cultures was important to me for this vast project. Early on the abundance of middle-aged white males was apparent, and I had to spend additional admin time and scope to widen my audience to ensure I got to document a true representation of the community.
Admin was a difficult process from the start with this project, and quickly out grew a simple word document with contact details. I utilised a customer relationship tool called Capsule CRM that allowed me to add all details of ‘leads’ and accompanying notes with calendared prompts to follow up. This software was central to the success of the whole assignment. Without this tool I would have not been able to manage such a vast group, from initial contact though to shoots and model release.
Did I manage to represent the diversity of the beekeeping community? Yes, I feel that I did. I captured both male and females ranging from 20’s to 80’s. Some diverse cultures, and hives in urban settings to high country. It took persistence and hope. I had both.
Early anxieties included a reservation to shoot subjects due to this process being so unfamiliar to me outside of ‘prescribed’ commercial image making that I’m accustomed too. I also had to dig deep and trust my process that moved from hand holding the TLR’s onto a tripod with cable release. Compositional challenges were apparent too, and central to creating images from the start that would work across all images at project completion. On top of these worries I had inner conflicts surrounding what film to use. Colour or black and white?
Thankfully as I captured more subjects and developed the two types of film, I not only felt more comfortable with subjects and the images that I was making, but using a cable release was a great way to connect more with the subject/s. As for monochrome vs colour, it became clear that my coloured work was simply better aesthetically than the monochrome images. After several class critiques and feedback towards this reality, I trusted colour process more and for the complete project invested in this primary with monochrome as more of a backup. I’m happy with the results.
From the start I wanted to keep the process simple so that I could focus on the subjects and their environments. I wanted to explore the aesthetics of beekeepers and their world through a series of photographic images, and feel I did exactly that. I applied the same process to all keepers from the initial contact email, time of day to shoot (mostly), and height/ angle of camera on the tripod. Repetition was key and paid off well as the collection of images grew. The biggest hurdles became making time in the best light, and travel which is I good place to be I guess vs problems with photographic cohesion and style. I’m happy with the end results.
Aside from the process of photography, I had excessive travel and the physical development of every roll with digital scanning. The time and energy I invested was relentless from week one. At times I was very tired and found that I needed a break from image making. I also had school holidays to accommodate. Thankfully using the CRM enabled me to back off when
needed, and then simply follow up leads once I had the energy/ focus again. It worked really well. Warning signs that I needed a break included boredom and making simple mistakes during the chemical developmental process. I listened to these signs throughout the assignment and thankfully it worked well.
Artists who have inspired my goals for this project include Alec Soth and Glenn Busch, Diane Arbus, August Sander and Duane Michals all of which capture people on large format film. I also found their aesthetic and process compelling in the sense that they simply had subjects stand and look at the camera. This process in my own work blossomed as I spent more time shooting. I guess I see it as both subject and photographer stripping away the façade and agenda for a second or two. Having a cable allowed me to stand away from the camera and upright- looking the subject in the eyes. I was not hiding and as vulnerable as the subject. The results speak for themselves.
I’ve been getting more and more into art books this year too and recently of note is a book by Anne Noble “ In Conversatio; In the Company of Bees”. It looks at the astounding practice of leading photographer Anne Noble, set against the issues of ecosystem collapse and climate change and examining what an artist can do in response. Its creative focus is on that most important insect, the European bee. Reminiscent of an artist book in its extensive visual content, its appeal is to a wide readership curious about art, ecology, science, literature and their intersections. It is not just a beautifully designed book, it also speaks to me!
I’m feeling very similar to Anne, in that I’m falling for the bees, and their wonderful place within our environment. Simply watching their behaviour and colonies develop is so compelling. Anne’s passion definitely motivated me mid way through the project to continue. Very inspiring.
The regions that I visited enabled me to explore the beekeepers in their environments fully. I had no idea at the start of the assignment that beekeeping was so reliant on the seasons. Early images were captured during the winter and autumn months in which the bees are basically hibernating in their hives surviving the cold weather. It was not until Spring and right near the end of hand in (late November) that hives were being tended to for colony growth and honey production for he warmer months ahead.
As luck would have it, this reality actually worked in my favor as I set out to shoot portraits of keepers in their homes and ‘happy places’ first, than onto subjects wearing suits and amongst the hives as it warmed up. The series document this well and makes for a great experience within the final book too. You see the faces of these people who get up daily against all odds, and keep bee colonies alive, and then see them hard at work about half way through the collection and book.
The seasonal aspects bring me to my final comments with regards to the project as a whole. The research ‘questions’ simply did not fit the characteristics of this unique community.
They were dry and clinical. Boring and generic. They were also going to be time consuming and I opted to not bother the beekeepers more than I already was with regards to the image making and their valuable time. Once the season kicked off, most commercial keepers work from 7am to 9pm, and there was no way any time could be allocated to my annoying inquisitions. So I decided to leave them alone and in 2022 alongside the continuation of this project towards a book, ask for anonymous essays instead. I can visualise a hardback book filled with half stories and essays, and then photography.
Anyway, for this project and final hand-in, I turned the planned questions towards myself in the forward of the book. I believe it works well and adds some insights to the experiences I’ve had spending time with such a warm and inviting community. I’m happy with how this ‘cohesion’ evolved and played out. I’m also happy with using my 35mm auto focus camera with 70-200mm for close up hive imagery alongside the more staged 120 TLR’s. Scanned at 5000 DPI and converted to 6×6 the 35mm images look brilliant.
Time management went exceptionally well for this project alongside ‘life’ and ‘other work’, as I started it early using the CRM. I can’t actually fault how well this project developed into the final prints and book. Honestly I’m struggling to find any negatives at all. I guess the relentless cost associated with film and chemistry had me struggling through my wallet, and the travel costs also were difficult to manage on occasions. This is more naiveté though, as I did not consider this reality.
What would I do different? Not much actually. I would love to continue with this project into 2022 and make a book as discussed. I would like to travel further afield and meet more ‘alternative’ beekeepers who live off grid or manage hives topless. With covid hysteria and discrimination against unvaccinated, this is a major unknown moving forward.
If I was to create further projects using the template ‘learnt’ from this project, I would consider using digital equipment to keep costs down, or invest in only black and white as it’s much cheaper. I can’t really find anything that was problematic overall and that I would do differently as a whole.
Overall, I feel that I captured the people behind the beekeeping community in Canterbury New Zealand and the environments in which they operate. Through the insights I gained I brought this narrative together with a book and series of prints. I’ve enjoyed every moment of the project and I feel my work showcases that too.
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