Photograd Experience: Laurence Stearn at PhotoEast

We spoke to Laurence Stearn, Film graduate from Kingston University, London, and assistant at this years PhotoEast festival. Laurence told us all about his education, experience with making films, and the outcome of the project he worked on with Tim Mitchell at PhotoEast. We set out to discover how Laurence ended up working at the festival with a degree in Film, and we hope you enjoy reading about his experience!

Education: I studied Film at Kingston and started in 2010. The course was split 75% theory and 25% practical, which I later realised wasn't really what I wanted. I spent more of my second year experimenting in the darkroom than in the film department. I did find my dissertation work very rewarding because I could really narrow down my research and focus on areas in cinema that really interested me. I settled on exploring a pre-existing argument about horror films in the 1970's; a time where a barrage of revolutionary films from the United States (sometimes referred to as the 'American Nightmare') blew the cobwebs off the stagnant Hammer horror of the UK. 

After I finished my degree in Film at Kingston University I tried pretty hard to get work in the industry in London and ended up doing a couple of brief internship trials and some runner work. I was offered an internship at a production company but it wasn't paid and was more or less full time. Having already moved out from Kingston and with next to no money to live on, let alone start renting again, I had to decline and come home to Suffolk.

I went to university with the intention to write about films but quickly realised this idea didn't allow a lot of room for creative freedom, so I started making short films instead which gave me the opportunity to experiment and make the work that I was doing much more personal. As with photography, film making seems to give you a much better sense of authorship over the work you do which seems to let people become more passionate about their work, I think. 

The two short documentaries that I produced were made as a kind of fly on the wall look at farming life in Suffolk. I initially made a film about my Grandpa, a retired farmer who was reluctantly forced to sell his land and house after it having been at the heart of the family for generations. The way that I looked at the farmers in these films was with great admiration. Two typical ways in which rural life in the 21st century has been portrayed are either as an idyllic, lush green close knit community or as a decaying environment where abandoned farms litter swathes of enormous fields. I had typically been of the latter view but made a conscious effort to let the interviews, and whatever else I could find out during the project, dictate the direction of the film. 

Learning to simply let a project evolve naturally and organically rather than approach it with a set agenda was the most important thing that I took from the practical portion of my degree. I made both films with one co-creator and close friend, Claire, who was invaluable because she brought a much wider perspective to the whole project. Coming from a city, her knowledge of agriculture more or less began with the project so she picked up on a lot of things that I really wouldn't have noticed. That said, working in groups ended up being quite problematic for most people on the course because being young and enthusiastic, people were very keen to explore their own unique style and approach to film making. The lesson we were supposed to learn was that the vast majority of film is a cumulative effort between dozens, even hundreds of individuals. What I have noticed since, however, is that more and more people can get their hands on good quality video cameras, editing software, and training via youtube, and more and more people are becoming solo film makers.   

Involvement: I made contact with Jo Bexley who was joint orchestrator of PhotoEast. This must have been sometime last summer, so almost a year in advance of the actual festival. We chatted via email about ways that I could potentially help with featured projects. I took a back seat whist the logistics of the festival were being sorted out and later in the year I had a meeting with Jo, her husband and co-creator of the project, Adrian, and photographer Tim Mitchell, where we discussed project ideas and decided that I would be of best use working with Tim on a project which would become Welcome To The Waterfront.

 
Welcome to the Waterfront - Ipswich Marina

Welcome to the Waterfront - Ipswich Marina

 

Working with Tim was brilliant because he shared my enthusiasm for representing and addressing subjects in an organic way. Welcome To The Waterfront was based on a formula of Tim's where a group of participants make pinhole cameras and a darkroom and learn a bit about the history of photography and also get to see and understand the basic mechanics. What we attempted to do was let the project evolve naturally and discover truths about different subjects without going into it with any particular bias or agenda.

Project: The basis of this project was for a group of people from the new developments at Stoke Quay to build some pinhole cameras, then go around the marina taking photographs and engage with the social history and wider community. We primarily worked with the residents from Genesis; a social housing group responsible for the care of people with learning disabilities. With the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Ipswich Maritime Trust we set out to try and recreate some of the fantastic images that the IMT has just come into from an enormous archive of photographs of Ipswich, some of which date back over 120 years. The pinhole cameras, having an incredibly deep depth of field and used with very low sensitivity photographic paper, gave the images a really lovely aesthetic, reminiscent of the large format, glass plate images from the archive. Looking through some of the archive photographs then exploring the marina, the participants along with Tim and myself, ended up learning a lot about the rapidly changing history of Ipswich docks. 

Tim and Joel setting up the plate camera

Tim and Joel setting up the plate camera

Tim and one of the star participants, Joel, taking a photo of a square rig on the marina

Tim and one of the star participants, Joel, taking a photo of a square rig on the marina

The best development in the project for me was when Stuart Grimwade, photographer and head of the IMT, brought his old 6/8 plate camera along which he was given over 50 years ago. We cleaned it up and checked for light leaks and fungus, but everything seemed beautifully preserved. People were obviously fascinated when they saw us wandering about the marina with this beautiful bit of history and seemed to get a lot of people interested in the festival as a result. The images we got out of the plate camera were sharper and more precise than the pinhole cameras we had previous made; due to having a viewfinder of sorts, but we were also able to take better photographs with people in frame as the exposure times, though not short, were short enough so there was little to no blurring as people moved.

I got a chance to use the plate camera a few times in between sessions and decided to get a couple of family portraits, particularly one of my Grandpa.

Laurence's grandpa, shot using 35mm film

Laurence's grandpa, shot using 35mm film

Laurence's grandpa, shot using Stuart's plate camera

Laurence's grandpa, shot using Stuart's plate camera

Outcome: When it came to the actual festival and exhibition, things remained very hands on. One of our group was a local hero, Blue King, who worked her fingers to the bone organising and pasting up the final images on the waterfront.

Seeing some of the residents from Genesis on the Saturday of PhotoEast was brilliant, the group aren't usually out and about in large crowds, let alone able to see people enjoy photographs made by themselves.

Future: At the moment I have a couple of projects that I'm mapping out, again to do with the rural community. I've created a collection of 35mm photos that I took of my grandpa prior to the documentary I made about him. They represent the style in which I hoped to make the documentary.