5th Jul 2019 — Flow Bend Feel: a Photographic Study of Siobhan…

Flow Bend Feel: a Photographic Study of Siobhan Davies Dance

The research grant

Twice a year, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects offers a research grant opportunity to staff, in which they are invited to submit a proposal to spend £250 and three days’ additional annual leave undertaking a project of their choice. The project should develop their own skillset and also feed back into the practice. I submitted my proposal to conduct a photographic building study of Siobhan Davies Dance (SDD), one of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects’ most iconic projects.

My proposal

As a fine-art and architectural photographer, my aim was to freshen up SWA’s existing architectural photography of the project, providing an updated insight into the building since its inception in the early 2000s.

I proposed to spend a day in residence at the studio, ‘taking architectural photographs, shooting the building internally, externally and in-use and looking at its form, function and materiality’. Taking place in SWA’s 25th year in practice, the images would be reflective, looking back at a past project and at how the building has been used since its completion in 2005. They would also be explorative, ‘allowing me to study the space with fresh eyes and offer something different to the original project photographs.’

As an emerging photographer this grant was also an excellent opportunity for me to access and photograph an iconic project which could be used in my portfolio. At the same time it offered a freedom that other commissions cannot, as I myself was determining the ‘brief’ and the parameters of the work. The £250 would be spent on hiring a tilt-shift lens for the shoot, and to get a zine (a mini-publication in the form of a booklet, usually A5) printed, which I would produce to showcase the project’s final outcome. The zine format would allow me to utilise my design skills and to showcase the work in print form – much more concrete and timeless than anything digital.

Upon planning the project, I decided upon the breakdown of one day to shoot the venue; one day to edit the imagery; and one day to put together the zine.

Photographing Siobhan Davies Dance

Day one of the project consisted of my visit to SDD in Elephant & Castle, via Direct Digital to collect my lenses – I decided on a 50mm and 24mm tilt-shift. Judith at SDD had sent over a breakdown in advance detailing how the spaces were being used throughout the day, so my first stop-off was the roof studio, SDS’ main (and undoubtedly most photogenic) space at the top of the building. I wanted to access the room before morning class began, so I spent some time capturing the light on the ground and the way in which the walls curve seamlessly into ceiling.

After a short while I was allowed to access the morning dance class; I entered the session as the students were starting an exercise in which they sat back-to-back with a partner and communicated verbally through free and expressive sounds. They next spent time in motion, tasked with making their movements feel like a piece of music – an activity that required participants’ full bodies and utilised the whole studio space. I found myself completely entranced by the freedom with which these people moved, flowing in and around each other with awareness but an enchanting lack of self-consciousness. Sometimes they crossed paths and interacted with one another, but each of them was on their own journey, navigating the space through physical and verbal expression. Avoiding the formality of a tripod, I found myself flowing through the space too.

After the session finished the dancers spent time cooling down, stretching out and taking stock of the class. I photographed them as they unwound from the day, calm and centred. The rest of the day was spent capturing the rest of the studio – the stairwell, the corridors, the breakout space and some of the building’s finer details.

Making the zine

Before I even began working on the zine I knew the images which had the most feeling were the ones which showed the dancers. Their movement gave such life to the architecture and made the empty shots seem a little lifeless in comparison. I spent a lot of time reflecting on the images and brainstorming words which could describe the dancers’ movement, as well as trying to work out exactly what I wanted to say with the project. It became clear that the zine should celebrate the building in use and its users, so the publication should be a study of the dancers’ movement, using the more conventionally ‘architectural’ images as punctuation.

As I spent time putting the zine together, the more architectural shots took a back seat while the photos showcasing dynamic movement came to the forefront. I was finding that, as the roof studio was so beautiful with such amazing light, these more experimental images were still highlighting the architecture in an incredibly striking way, just one less rigid. As I finalised the zine’s rhythm I cemented its structure: its first half would focus on energy, spirit, motion and the interaction of dancers in the space. The publication’s centre image – a wide shot showing the space completely empty – would act as a pause before its following pages which are comparatively more still, focusing on unwinding and cooling down. The collection of words I used to describe the dancers when I began to reflect on the day also became a part of the final piece, featuring on the first inner page and the back cover.

The zine

Undertaking this research project has been a great experience and a real learning curve, one which has encouraged me to focus on feeling and intuition, free from the rigidity of conventional architectural photography which is embedded with rules and standards. The project has required me to think on my feet, adapting to the space as well as the movements and timetables of others. Producing the zine has pushed me to react to my work within a short time frame of three days and to conceptualise it into a piece which tells the story of the research without using words. It’s also been highly rewarding to have a physical outcome from the work I’ve produced and to share copies with SWA, SDD and the dancers.

I would like to thank Sarah Wigglesworth Architects for selecting me for the research grant. I’d also like to thank Judith at Siobhan Davies Dance for co-ordinating my visit and being so welcoming.

Flow Bend Feel is available to view online here, or if you would like a printed copy please visit the link here to purchase.

Further work can be found at rachelstanley.co.uk