Part 1: Thinking Before Shooting – Drucilla Burrell’s Residency at Watts Gallery

Jan 22, 2024 | Commission, Watts Gallery 2023

Part 1: Thinking Before Shooting – Drucilla Burrell’s Residency at Watts Gallery

In Part One of Drucilla Burrell’s blog series, Drucilla takes us behind the scenes and into the inner workings of the earlier part of her recent time as Artist in Residence with Watts Gallery.

I will be under-taking two-week residency at the Watts Gallery to explore the Victorian Virtual Reality exhibition (on till 25 feb 2024), which contains Brian May’s collection of stereograms.

The concept of artistic ‘discovery’ can be somewhat constrained, as we are often required to lay out what will be explored and created before we experience or research the topic, location, or subject matter. Therefore I have broken these blogs into two parts. Part one explores my initial plan, how my preconceived ideas were challenged, and how I adapted to these challenges. The second will explore the actual creation of the work. Combined, they should trace the research and development of the residency.

Below is the first part, exploring my preconceived notions and best-laid plans, categorised as ‘Thinking before Shooting.’

Definitions.

From Wikipedia: Stereoscopy (also called stereoscopics, or stereo imaging) is a technique for creating or enhancing the illusion of depth in an image by means of stereopsis for binocular vision. Any stereoscopic image is called a stereogram. Originally, stereogram referred to a pair of stereo images which could be viewed using a stereoscope.

Most stereoscopic methods present a pair of two-dimensional images to the viewer. The left image is presented to the left eye and the right image is presented to the right eye. When viewed, the human brain perceives the images as a single 3d view, giving the viewer the perception of 3d depth. However, the 3d effect lacks proper focal depth, which gives rise to the vergence-accommodation conflict.

Generative AI (generative artificial intelligence) is artificial intelligence capable of generating text, images, or other media, using generative models. Generative ai models learn the patterns and structure of their input training data and then generate new data that has similar characteristics. Process approach.

Before the residency, I outlined my intended approach to image-making and process. Being away from my usual shoot spaces, I aimed to do one to two shoot days involving tableaux, either exploring stereoscopy or the themes contained within the exhibition.

I concluded there were three possible routes – digital, physical, ai – or a combination of all three. 

I subsequently landed on the two pathways below:

Film > image shot on film. Two cameras or a stereoscopic camera

Print > film printed locally

Ai > into ai exploration

Print > fine art printed

Mount > view

____________________________

Iphone > shoot with two cameras on a tripod

Ai > ai exploration

Print > fine art printed or digital display

Mount > view

I concluded it would be best to try out both processes in order to research the best method for the final piece.

Concept of Elitism.

Before viewing the exhibition and seeing Brian May’s collection, my initial preposition was that this type of photography was limited to the white middle classes and only showed the time’s dominant and accepted social narratives. 

On the first day of the residency, I met with Rebecca Sharpe and Denis Pellerin of the stereoscopy blog. They kindly gave me Denis’s book, ‘poor man’s picture gallery,’ where he and sir brian may explore the connection between stereo cards, paintings, and other popular victorian media. Although I had been aware of the Victorian obsession with tableaux vivant, which my national gallery work referenced, I hadn’t realised the extent to which the victorians had reproduced paintings of the era, making access to the art affordable and widespread via stereograms. 

“The images contained in the exhibition show both formal and informal snapshots of victorian life, art, and culture in order to explain the breadth of subject matter captured.”

“During the nineteenth century, access to art was mainly limited to the elite. Stereoscopy offered an affordable way for more people to enjoy three-dimensional representations of art and artistic spaces, which they would not have seen otherwise.”

“Stereoscopy allowed those who were not able to purchase original paintings to enjoy their own versions of notable artworks. Some stereophotographers recreated famous paintings in their studios and sold the resulting images as cheaper alternatives. Michael burr, from birmingham, staged at least two variants of henry wallis’s popular painting ‘the death of chatterton’ (1856, Tate).”  – Exhibition Text

I was very excited to find this connection to my previous work and was reassured that exploring tableau photography within this medium was logical.

This new awareness of the popularity and variety of images altered my idea about wishing to produce work that would look to ‘break down’ the codifiers of ‘elite’ imagery because this was not the case.

Stereograms were varied and mass-produced. In 1854 the london stereoscopic company was set up, coining the slogan “no home without a stereoscope.’’ By the time they were mass-produced, they would have been the most popular and widely accessible type of entertainment of the time.

My first Stereograms.

Rebecca and Denis gave me a demonstration of the i3dsteriod app, which allows for the quick and easy production of 3d imagery with an iphone – I took my first couple of shots. Finding a quick and easy method, I adjusted my process plan to remove the need for the two camera tripod setups but became aware I would need to explore the best way to produce the three-dimensional result effectively.

To test my concept as to whether it was possible to add ai-generated images into the two images without ruining the 3d effect, I popped these images into ai to ask the following:

1) Can you make the stereogram appear as a singular image (and therefore have it be more of a ‘surprise’ when the 3D element was revealed)? I wanted to see if you could remove the ‘mount gap’ between the two images while still leaving them pleasant to view. I wanted to create a series of artifacts that would feel ‘whole’ even without viewing via a stereoscope.

This was mainly in reference to the fact that stereo cards were not designed to be viewed or displayed as the cards themselves.

“Collecting, viewing and sharing stereoscopic photographs was a popular victorian pastime, and these images were designed to be handled and interacted with. Today, we value them both as art objects and as precious records of our society.” (Exhibition Text)

2) Was it possible to bring AI elements to the image to make a flat ‘frame’ that still allows the brain to view some features in 3D? This was an extension of the atelier rococo ai image below, in which the original tableau recreation of the national gallery’s ‘gainsborough’ painting was expanded to include painterly effects using ai. I wanted to find out if this would ‘break’ the effect and make it unviewable, or if it was possible to do this, would it become too uncomfortable to view. The wish to explore this ‘new technology’ within the work came from a desire to recreate the excitement that victorians would have viewed the images of the time.

“Viewing stereoscopic images would have been a thrilling experience for victorians, transporting them to an alternative realm much like virtual reality technology today.” (Exhibition Text)

Process.

I intended to test stereoscopic imagery on film. As one of my first passions, film photography is prominent in my heart and practice. I am not a ‘technical’ photographer, which is ironic given that I am very interested in numbers and data. Although I fully understand the process of what ‘should’ be done, I prefer to ‘feel’ my way through the work, relying on instinct and body movements rather than technical setups. I enjoy uncertain renderings, light leaks, and the irregularities produced by slightly hit-and-miss processes.

I knew this ‘feel how you go’ process was inconsistent and expensive (120 film is costly to develop now), so I decided to do this ‘feeling out’ digitally to save time and money. I planned to run some film tests on one roll of film before leading up to a singular ‘shoot day’ where all these learnings should (hopefully) come together.

Physical not digital.

Another preconceived concept I had before viewing the exhibition was that there was not a way to view the 3d images in digital formats. This proved to be incorrect. The collection features some beautiful multiple-view stereoscopes shown to the left. There is still the need to view the pictures via lens viewers; however, the process is pleasing and intimate. While going around the gallery, one of the volunteers mentioned that people prefer the multiple-view stereoscopes to interact with the works.

Although now aware that this is possible, I decided to dive deeper into how the ‘artefact’ I’m creating comes together in the physical or digital viewing space and how people physically interact with it. 

To support this process, I set up mentoring with Andy Lomas. Andy is a computational artist, mathematician, and Emmy award-winning supervisor of computer-generated effects. His artwork explores how complex sculptural forms can be created emergently by simulating growth processes. Inspired by the work of Alan Turing, A’arcy Thompson, and Ernst Haeckel, it exists at the boundary between art and science.

I met Andy at the electronic visualisation & the arts conference, where he presented one of his algorithmic works via a stereoscopic format you could adjust and manipulate while viewing. When asked who I wanted as a mentor, I couldn’t think of anyone better.

We discussed the various ways he had used stereoscopic techniques to present his work within gallery spaces, in particular using projections/digital screens and mirrors to create the viewing experience of a wheatstone stereoscope but only at a certain point, allowing for a person ‘wow’ moment beyond the projected viewing. Here you can see a wheatstone stereoscope presented at the Victorian VR exhibition.

Due to my interest in playing with 2d and 3d planes using ai, he suggested I research ‘depth budgets.’ 

When shooting 3d films, the director works with a stereographer to work out the pattern of depth needed to support the storytelling narrative while preventing the audience from experiencing the adverse effects of viewing skewed 3d imagery. Using this process, you can ascertain which elements need to appear most three-dimensional and those that can afford to sit within flat planes.

‘a depth budget in simple layman terms means, the use of a script drawn up by a stereographer in consultation with the director, the dp, and at times even the screenplay writer that closely follows the storyboard and literally assigns “Depth” to subjects of interest and the scene as a whole, in either percentage or pixels for each scene in a movie. Thus over a period of time in the movie, the amount of out-of-screen (negative parallax), on-screen (zero parallax) and in-screen (positive parallax) is monitored so as to ensure audience comfort, and yet also add “Mood” and “Immersion” to a 3d film.’ clyde desouza.

I had noted that some of the images in the exhibition seemed to have an almost ‘cardboard cut-out’ feel, so I thought this was an element I could play with (see image below from Brian May’s collection).

Andy also mentioned that the best way to ‘test’ what is wrong with 3D photos is to close one eye and then the other quickly. The problem should stand out fast – this can also prevent motion sickness, which can be expected when making stereoscopic imagery.

The individual vs social engagement.

Stereograms, as a form of entertainment, were not meant to be viewed alone but with others. This dynamic was something I wanted to research and test. Should the imagery I produce be viewed alone, or should you be encouraged to engage with others to view and experience it as closely as possible to the victorian versions? After the second day, I had the idea to have someone else select the image you would view. This is something I will continue to consider as the residency progresses.

The limitations of stereograms and accessibility.

Between 2-12% of people cannot see in 3D (‘all about eyes’) due to various differences in the way the eyes work or the way the brain processes information, or additionally, it simply makes them feel sick. Stereograms produce in essence, a ‘trick of the mind’ in which the brain merges two paths of information to form a singular ‘truth’; it interprets it as three-dimensional (as is all seeing!). For this reason, I was keen to look at ways of presenting the work, which meant that it still felt like a ‘complete’ artwork regardless of the ability to engage in the three-dimensional aspect of the work.

Narrative storytelling.

During the tour, I discussed narrative storytelling within the images with Denis and Rebecca. They confirmed that this was common and stereograms were essentially the first form of ‘cinema’ storytelling – so I established this as something I would explore further.

Subject.

I wanted to carefully consider the subject of the shoot. I had initially planned to explore the concept of illness and disability within Victorian society and how those notions of ‘other’ have continued into contemporary society.

On my first two days, however, I realised there were multiple subjects I could take inspiration from and concluded it would make the most sense to pull in elements from all of them.

The location: The watts village is a fantastic inspiration, as are the watts themselves and their work should feed into my final images.

Tableau: This theme runs throughout my work and is something I will continue to explore. It is connected to how stereograms were traditionally shot.

The artist’s studio: From the exhibition text – ‘stereoscopic images of female artist studios give intimate glimpses of women at work in a male-dominated art world. The only known representation of the painter florence small’s london studio is a stereoscopic photograph in the watt’s gallery trust collection’.’

Disability and illness: I have long wanted to make work that looks at the ‘changeling fairychild’ as an analogy for autism and the idea of the ‘perfect’ child being replaced due to misbehavior.

As I move into my second week I look forward to sharing the further development of my research and the final results!