Context & Narrative

Rob Townsend

Assignment 3: Surface Tension


Self-portraiture: Surface Tension

Alternative title: Meeting Myself Coming Back

NOTE: this is the revised version of this assignment following feedback from my tutor. See link below to access the original for context and comparison.


Click the first image for a full-screen slideshow view.

About the work

There’s an idiom in English ‘to meet yourself coming back‘, meaning to be so impossibly busy that you risk bumping into yourself. My life for the last few years has been juggling two jobs working away from home, studying for this degree and the usual household responsibilities, along with attending to my relationships with family and friends.

I’ve been feeling increasingly overwhelmed and unable to settle or focus for any length of time. I have a sense that I’m trying to do too much and not doing any of it well enough. These images are my attempt to portray how this feels by depicting my varied encounters with surface versions of myself.

As explained in more detail in my earlier post, I was drawn to shadows and reflections as I felt that they represented the shallow, surface-only versions of me that I have divided myself into by taking on too much for so long. I was particularly interested in how shadows and reflections both represent alternative versions of the self, almost as if each is a kind of two-dimensional doppelganger that one might bump into. To me this spoke of the fluidity of identity and the idea that no single external perception of a person is the whole, ‘true’ individual persona.

Much of the insightful thinking that led to this concept came out of keeping a diary for a number of weeks. Writing down my thoughts helped me to articulate how I was feeling, and a few key words and phrases I’d written became significant:

  • “overwhelmed”
  • “unsettled”
  • “unfocused”
  • “all over the place”
  • “spreading myself too thin”

The last phrase in particular reinforced my attraction to the shadow and mirror self-portraits that I’d been taking in parallel with writing the diary – the idea of these ‘flat’ representations of me skimming the surface, no depth to anything I do.

Changed approach to captions

The diary was sufficiently crucial to the project that I originally decided to superimpose the actual handwritten extracts onto the photographs. However, my tutor’s comment was that the statements I chose were too literal and detracted from the viewer’s ability to bring their own interpretation to the images. I considered alternative options, such as choosing more obtuse phrases from my diary, but ultimately moved away from the idea when I realised that my diary entries weren’t exactly brimming with interesting phrases!

I did however want to relate the captions to my sensations outlined above (fragmented, disconnected, spread too thinly). I came to realise that throughout my time working away from home, I’ve been listening to the same half a dozen or so songs repeatedly, almost to the point of obsession. I examined the lyrics of each song to see what the connection to my predicament might be. In each case there was a key phrase that resonated with me, albeit on a subconscious level at first. So I decided to take extracts from the lyrics of these songs and use them as titles. In some instances I used the specific phrases that jumped out at me, in others I sidestepped the more obvious/literal lines and chose lyrics that I just liked the sound of – interesting turns of phrase. These words mean something to me, even if they don’t to anyone else.

Once I decided that the captions weren’t selected from my diary, the conceit of superimposing the handwriting on the images no longer worked, so I moved to more conventional captions. For the assessment I plan to include the captions on the prints themselves.


The ‘story’ has a happy ending. I have decided to take a year off work to study full-time. This should alleviate my sense of overwhelm! At least for a while…


Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

  • Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
    • Technically, I am happy with the quality of the images
    • I wanted a consistent look to the images, particularly the colour palette, so processed all the images as black and white, trying to keep the contrast and overall toning consistent
    • I tried to bring as much variety as possible to the executions; it would have been easy to produce a set of similar ‘long looming shadow’ shots, but this wouldn’t have been as interesting – and crucially wouldn’t have got across the whole sense of fragmentation and dislocation I was seeking
  • Quality of Outcome:
    • I am personally pleased with how the set turned out, with regard to my intentions
    • I do harbour some concerns about how well I have articulated what was going on in my head, and how easy it is for a viewer to ‘follow’ (maybe I will always feel like this about more conceptual work)
    • I tried to introduce a sense of narrative to the set rather than it being a random jumble of images; the sequence chosen should provide the viewer/reader with a loose narrative arc that leads to a logical end-point (albeit a kind of cliffhanger)
  • Demonstration of Creativity:
    • Following on from the last assignment where I pushed myself creatively, I was relieved to see that the tutor response was good – this encouraged me to take a similarly experimental approach here
    • In a sense, this is of a piece with the last assignment, in as much as both were concerned with depicting photographically sensations that were passing through my mind – ‘photographing the unseen’ as the last assignment had it
    • Working from the starting point of extracts from the diary felt like a good creative decision and helped me to coalesce my ideas into a more coherent shape
    • I’m starting to feel like this kind of work – more conceptual, personal, experimental – might be informing my developing photographic voice; I’m certainly enjoying trying it anyway
  • Context:
    • A number of photographers, photobooks and journals accompanied me on this journey through self-portraiture; some directly influenced me (Friedlander [1], Maier [2]) while others helped me less directly simply by opening my mind to what self-portraiture (or self-focused photography in a wider sense) can encompass; these sources are listed in the references below [3, 4, 5, 6]
    • As regards photographic theory, I found myself referring to and taking specific insights from the works of Bate [7], Bull [8] and Berger [9, 10], on a number of points surrounding the theories of photography and identity
    • I reviewed the work of other OCA students, and am in particular indebted to Steve Middlehurst [11], whose essays on shadow self-portraiture pointed me towards some sources (Gombrich [12], Stoichita [13]) that informed my understanding hugely; for a good chunk of the assignment I am standing on Steve’s shoulders, research-wise

  1. Galassi, P. (2008) Friedlander. New York: MoMA
  2. Maier, V and Maloof, J. (2011) Street photographer. New York: Powerhouse
  3. Bright, S. (2010) Auto focus. London: Thames & Hudson
  4. Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze. Lausanne: AVA
  5. Higgins, J. (2013) 21st century portraits. London: NPG
  6. British Journal of Photography Nov 2013-Aug 2015
  7. Bate, D. (2010) Photography: the key concepts. London: Bloomsbury
  8. Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge
  9. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin
  10. Berger, J. (1972) Ways of seeing. London: Penguin
  11. (accessed 19/08/2015)
  12. Gombrich, E. (1995) Shadows: the depiction of cast shadows in western art. London: National Gallery Publications
  13. Stoichita, V.I. ( 1997) A short history of the shadow. London: Reaktion
Song lyric credits:
  • “I sleep alone” – Trimm Trabb by Blur (Albarn/Coxon/James/Rowntree)
  • “six months is a long time” – Shoplifters of the World Unite by The Smiths (Morrissey/Marr)
  • “l’argent est sur la table” – Lost in Music by The Fall (Hefner/Cooke/Perry)
  • “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case” – Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box by Radiohead (Greenwood/Greenwood/O’Brien/Selway/Yorke)
  • “happiness is only a habit” – I Trawl the Megahertz by Paddy McAloon (McAloon)
  • “so what if this is largely bravado” – I Trawl the Megahertz by Paddy McAloon (McAloon)
  • “just go for a stroll in the trees” – Walk On By by The Stranglers (Bacharach/David)
  • “hope that something pure can last” – We Used To Wait by Arcade Fire (Butler/Butler/Chassagne/Kingsbury/Parry/Gara)

2 thoughts on “Assignment 3: Surface Tension

  1. Pingback: Assignment 3: Surface Tension | Context & Narrative

  2. Pingback: Assignment 3: tutor feedback | Context & Narrative

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