PF3: A Week in Teetotal Street, St Ives, Cornwall (Assignment 3)

This third assignment ‘TeeTotal Street’ produces a small graphic and text book based on a diary and photographs of a holiday flat where we stayed in St Ives in November 2019, just before the Brexit general election. It is a very personal response to my feelings of claustrophobia and helplessness at the time and doubts and dilemmas of trying to be a ‘responsible tourist’ amid all the social and environmental conflicts in St Ives. It draws visual inspiration from Richard MacGuire’s ‘Here’, Jonathon Miller’s ‘Nowhere in Particular’ and the work of Aaron Siskind, and brings together a lot of my earlier reading and visual experimentation in a way that considers more explicitly issues raised by Poynor in ‘First Things Next’. To start to develop ways in which my work can provoke questions about the way we live – our relationships and social and environmental responsibilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic that broke in the months immediately after this assignment meant that further work in Cornwall was not possible before the assessment submission deadline. This more subjective approach to documentary underpins the more political ‘voice’ and approach to social and environmental documentary I explore with other people in further work on St Ives and Penwith in Sustaining Your Practice (see plans at the end of this post).

Evolution of the Concept

My starting point and underpinning theme was the work of Rebecca Solnit’s discussion about ‘getting lost’ and the need to open up and explore unfamiliar things without being afraid.

Losing things is about the familiar falling away. Getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.

Rebecca Solnit ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ 2005

My initial ideas for the assignment in July 2019 had been to do a political allegory about ‘Islands’ that was developing in my head – see Project 3.2.3 Finding Texts: Island and this is still a future possibility outlined in more detail in Part 5 of this course. But when my partner decided to attend a painting course at St Ives School of Art in November we decided to stay in town rent a low season (low price) holiday flat that actually cost little more than the summer campsite. In my earlier work in St Ives I had been fascinated by the evocative street names: Mount Zion, Bethesda Hill, Fish Street and particularly Teetotal Street (See my black and white photographs that I started to collate in Assignment 2.2: Shutterscapes and are further developed in Project 5.1 Shutterscapes II. When we looked at advertisements to book a flat we found that there was one free in TeeTotal Street – near the island – for the period we needed.

Initially I envisaged a short graphic ‘stream of consciousness’ work, a sort of cross between Laura Grace Ford’s ‘Savage Messiah’ recommended by my tutor and Richard Littler’s Scarfolk. But when we arrived at the flat it was not ‘grungy’ enough for the expressive black and white aesthetic I had in mind for sketching, and I quickly came to the conclusion that any attempt at documentary satire would require far more in-depth investigation and thought than I had time for in this Assignment. Much of the time it was raining heavily and cold, so outdoor sketching was difficult. As we had come by train we were not able to bring with us the normal load of books and materials to work with. So now many of those first ideas will now be applied to my home city of Cambridge in the Spring in Part 4 ‘I Love Cambridge’.

After studying Richard MacGuire’s ‘Here’ I had started to think more about something that was based solely in the flat, following also psychogeographic ‘one room walks’ like Xavier de Miastre’s ‘A Journey around my room’. Combining my own subjective feelings attempting to face the TeeTotal Angst of being on my own in a ‘minimalist’ flat for five days, adding on layers of history and influences bombarding me from outside. I considered just doing simple flat black and white ‘walking line’ pen drawings, but decided in the end to use photography so that I would have a proper record of the flat to work on at home. When I got home I looked again at Jonathon Miller’s ‘Nowhere in Particular’ and looked at the work of Aaron Siskind and decided that it would be really interesting to take a more collage approach.

On location: sketchbook text and Lightroom experiments

The basis of the work is a collaged sketchbook diary that I kept by me and wrote in through they day as thoughts came – and news of Brexit, burning rain forests and the election campaign filtered in its new South West version provided an addictive distraction. I had purchased a small square moleskin Notebook before leaving because I find this square format fits neatly in my camera bag and gives me most possibilities for altering formats as I go along through just masking off bits.

I took photos of objects in the flat and changes in the weather outside through the window with my DSLR camera. I was also lucky enough to have a ‘local’ next door neighbour whose family had lived in St Ives for generations and I took notes of our conversation and her history of the flat. I also periodically went out for a walk and made friends with a local fisherman who agreed to be photographed in return for my sending him copies. And I attended a local Labour Party campaign meeting as well as collecting local newspapers and visiting the Tate Gallery, library and walking around town and the island for further background to St Ives in winter.

Bringing together all this information while it was fresh in my mind I made a ‘minimum’ draft Photobook on my laptop in Lightroom, with initial narrative. and processing of the photographs experimenting with different black and white (high contrast as my initial idea), colour (Vivid detail as its opposite to see possibilities I had not thought of) and orange and blue duotone versions (to get an idea of mood – following my work on blue orange and duotone collage in project 3.1). I decided to retain the small square format to give a feeling of claustrophobia and maximum 32 pages so I would need to really hone in on impact for each spread and drastically cut the content.

I also drafted a series of concept maps as I went along with ideas for narrative. but with hindsight I should have spent a lot more time on this – maybe doing one each day to see how my responses evolved over time.

2: Back Home : review, collage/Photoshop experiments and first ideas

When I got home and had my sketching materials, printer, scanner etc I worked into the sketchbook pages making collages of the photos in the order they were taken and looking carefully through the text to remind myself and re-evaluate what I was aiming to do.

When I got home and had my sketching materials, printer, scanner etc I worked into the sketchbook pages making collages of the photos in the order they were taken and looking carefully through the text to remind myself and re-evaluate what I was aiming to do.

I found my added narrative in the first drafts rather heavy. It needed to be either drastically cut or a well-crafted detailed narrative – something that would need some creative writing skill. I decided the text should be either from found text, or overlays of handwritten sections from my diary notes, or cut out text. So I reviewed the collage and selected more text from the collected ephemera and newspapers, adding these to the diary. I then went through the text and photos again to refine the narrative and produced mixed photo and collage spreads with only the text from the collage.

I then looked carefully again at my written text to see what might be added further as hand written overlay in Photoshop to further refine the narrative.

I found my added narrative in the first drafts rather heavy. It needed to be either drastically cut or a well-crafted detailed narrative – something that would need some creative writing skill. I decided the text should be either from found text, or overlays of handwritten sections from my diary notes, or cut out text. So I reviewed the collage and selected more text from the collected ephemera and newspapers, adding these to the diary. I then went through the text and photos again to refine the narrative and produced mixed photo and collage spreads with only the text from the collage.

I then looked carefully again at my written text to see what might be added further as hand written overlay in Photoshop to further refine the narrative.

Annotated images of draft so far.

Click on one of the images below to get the annotation carousel.

Assessment and further plans

January 2020: my assessment sent to my tutor

I learned a lot on this project, but still a lot more to think through. All the apparently disconnected exploratory projects have contributed in some way and my frequent shooting off in different directions has led I think to something much more interesting and with more depth than the initial ideas I had.

When I had completed it, I considered the draft still at the Minimum/Maximum stage and I had become overwhelmed by the infinite possible variants on each image :
– what should be photography, what should be collage, what should be illustration, should I mix, or just stay with one style?
– colours, tones, layering, framing, picture in picture and the potential different meanings communicated even by just slight changes
– layering and collage – I have not yet tried tearing images to layer them physically.
– the ways in which the images can be sequenced – should the narrative go day by day (at the moment it does not), thematically and what exactly is the narrative.
– balance between clarity and simplicity for some images to avoid overload and complex multi-layering on others to provoke thinking in the viewer.
– There are also many images I have not used that could be added or replace those I have included so far in order to present a clearer/slightly different message.

Having got a discreet and time bound set of images and diary notes, I planned to go through everything again in 6 months time once the implications of all the turmoil going on ‘outside’ is clearer, and:

  1. Revisit what I am trying to say and narrow down to 2-3 possible narrative sequences, possibly with a somewhat different image selection.
  2. Plan the aesthetic rhythm and sequencing to enhance the narrative based on my experiments so far.
  3. Finalise the images and text spreads, redoing many of them in Photoshop.

I considered it “a very ambitious project to take on and it was the first time I had taken on something of this sort. The book is still at the development and experimental stage. I need about a month more to really work through all the images and text again into a focused narrative with more thought through visuals. This will best be done August/September as part of my work on Part 5 when the longer-term fallout from the election/Brexit vote is clearer to think through what I want to say of broader and longer lasting relevance. And I have improved my visual, narrative and Photoshop skills on other projects in Assignment 4 and Visual Research module.”

The planned follow up with people in St Ives was not possible because of the COVID-19 outbreak from January 2019 and successive waves that meant we got tired of having to change bookings. Finally we will be going again to Cornwall, including another week in Teetotal Street the end of September to mid October 2022. Finishing this book together with other projects in the assignment and mostly new work will now be part of Sustaining Your Practice.

Further plans September 2021

This small book is very much a ‘record of its time’, with that time now past and much more besides. But the underlying issues remain.

Feedback from my tutor on this project was generally very positive – particularly because of its restraint and less overworked more spontaneous feel as ‘melancholy, downbeat but with occasional flashes of humour, with a strong diaristic sense of days being counted out and small observations made’.

A series of further visits to Cornwall – including Teetotal Street – are planned for SYP. Particularly looking at the fishing and mining industries and the impacts of social, economic and environmental changes on women and men in the communities largely dependent on them. Together with the opportunities and challenges of expansion of tourism.

Any future reworking would need to be very careful not to lose the ‘stream of consciousness spontaneity’ and responses to somewhat random observations at the time. One way of deepening my sense of memory would be to start by working on a Moving Image version, using the audio and video footage as well as more of the photographs I took at the time: clocks, boiler, wind, rain. A short video uploaded to You Tube could serve as promotion.

Audience feedback will be key, particularly from my Brexiteer next door neighbour in Teetotal Street who gave me a lot of inside information on the house and history of the fishing community there and the surrounding streets. But also from people elsewhere in UK, and internationally to see what things (if any) might resonate with a wider audience. I would then tweak some of the images accordingly. And add some sort of short Postscript – possibly just some scans of newspaper clippings and/or a quote from the neighbour or one of the fishermen who I hope to work with more for SYP.

The underlying aims will be to subtly align my subjective responses to activist questions – particularly the implications for tourists like myself who wish to responsibly contribute to the local economy. But posing questions – there are no easy answers.

Further photo galleries of St Ives that revisit some of the earlier images that provide the background to this book and will be further built on as part of my work in SYP can be found in the photo galleries on my SMUGMUG portfolio page:

Woman Living Lost: St Ives UK