Mapplethorpe-inspired portraiture

“The guiding principle of ARTIST ROOMS is the concept of individual rooms devoted to particular artists. The collection of over 725 works includes major groups of work by seminal artists…

The aim of the collection is to create a new national resource of contemporary art that will be shared with museums and galleries throughout the UK so as to inspire new audiences, especially of young people.”Image

I recently did a workshop for West Lothian Council for their Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at Linlithgow Burgh Halls. In 2008 , art collector Anthony d’Offay gifted his art collection to the nation and it is managed in partnership between National Galleries of Scotland and Tate.

My brief was to lead a tour of the exhibition and a workshop in self-portraiture which took as it’s inspiration from two specific self-portraits of Mapplethorpe; one mid-career and one towards the end of his life respectively.

For the gallery tour, I spoke to the young people about symbolism in art; specifically photography, the playfulness of Mapplethorpe’s early self-portraits compared to his last one, and we looked at how the search for perfection in the human form was a major influence on his work. We skirted around his life as an ‘out’ gay man living in New York in the 1970’s and 80’s, his Catholicism and his death from an AIDS related illness- these topics needed to be addressed because of his self-portraiture, and to give the young people attending a sense of the historical implications of his life- of him living in a different time from now.

The participants were all from James Young High School in Livingston and are studying art in 4th year. They were rather quiet and reserved during the tour which can at times be a bit unnerving but during their workshop they came in to their own, expressing their personalities, having fun, enjoying being photographed, expressing themselves in a safe and creative environment. The young people were given the brief to take two self-portraits showing their outward personalities and two showing their inner selves. I set up a black background and a white wall sufficed for the other surface. They chose which they wanted to be photographed against and worked in small groups to achieve their portraits. I set up two DSLRs as I did not want the workshops to be about the technical aspects of photography it had to be about expression and, in such a short time frame it was easier to set up the cameras for them. However they were responsible for shooting each other. All the images were shot using one reflector and natural light which came flooding in through the windows of the beautiful top floor of the Burgh Halls.

I cannot stress the importance of gallery visits, showing and discussing artworks, themes in art, stories behind the artworks and the artists themselves.

I have managed to get several model-release forms from parents to share their portraits with you. I was so excited to see the images produced by the group I just had to share- put simply they are all beautiful and there is a quality of vulnerability to of them, a sense of fun, of self-expression and exploration, a chance to share with others the different facets of their personalities. The young people were all sent copies of their images on disc and a print of their black and white 4-image collage but I have chosen to show their single colour images as I think I prefer these.

With thanks to West Lothian Council, James Young High School, Linlithgow Burgh Halls and especially Nancy Douglas.


Positive destinations

One of the best parts of my work is when I say goodbye to some of the people I have worked with knowing that they are on to new things in life. One of the more recent times was working with the young people on the HYPE project in West Lothian. HYPE (Helping Young People Engage) is a project which assists young people transitioning from school to work/further education through skills training to move on to positive destinations. Over the ten weeks I worked with the young people they proved themselves to be keen to learn much about photography and we developed a book project which they recently published on Two of the young people have just started their NC in photography at West Lothian College and are looking forward to continuing their photographic learning up to HNC and degree level.

On a personal level, it was a joy to work with such a dedicated and interesting group of young people- keen to learn about the work of other photographers, engaging in conversations about art and photography and working collaboratively to produce a stunning set of images in what was, in photographic terms, only a short time. OK, so I know that out of the eleven young people I worked with only two have gone on to study photography but it’s so much more than that. A group of young people, who didn’t know each other, and who, for the most part had stopped attending school, turned up every week to work, meet people and learn. Friendships were forged, confidence grew, knowledge was shared.

This week, three of them came along to the Civic Centre in Livingston, set up their exhibition, and spoke to strangers about their project. They took great confidence in being asked questions, seeing that people were interested in what they had achieved and how working on this project had lead them on to a positive destination.

Their book, Show me the Light, is available to view at

This picture was taken by Heather, the community education officer leading the project, who was also inspired to take better pictures.



my history is not important

I have been working through in Livingston recently with a bunch of young folk. This is a picture of Chris who attended all the sessions. I liked Chris- he was a nice lad. He has hopes for his future and is looking to get a job soon to support himself and his girlfriend. I admire Chris- I don’t know much about him, I just took him as I found him, as I do with all the participants I work with. One of the most important things I do in my work with young folk is to give them a safe haven to express themselves creatively and without prejudice. Who or what Chris is, is of little importance to me. My job is to help him increase his soft skills and express himself, not to help him solve his problems. I know the group he’s attached to and like many young folk he finds it hard to listen and concentrate but when we go out taking photographs he comes in to his own. The pleasure he gets from composing, taking and then looking at his photographs pushes him on to take more photographs, to take his time, to come up with more ideas, and this is infectious. He’s an alpha male and so other members of the group start to join in…
This group wanted to look at showing young folk in Livingston in a positive light, which they did successfully with their work which I will post at a later date, but through their less formal photographic works they have showed themselves to be caring, sensitive, attentive and creative. Livingston can get a bad rap from folk but their photographs show it to be rather idyllic in some respects. I show them how to find, and compose beauty- and perhaps for the first time, they are looking and seeing things a little differently…