Tom Roche
ESP2 Work Book
2017 / 2018

Project: Black Blood

Formerly: Chasing Gypsy gold

Fig.1 - The night sky. Winter 2018. Shot on 4x5 film

Journal download Here

Alternative download Here



Proceeding on from the module ESP1; a style of making work that adopted the idea of the road, as a space to explore my feeling of being a distant Gypsy, I wanted to carry on this way of working for the module ESP2. The transition from the start of the project to this point now, has taken on different approaches to find the right one to tell the story. Starting out as a formal investigation project, the work was searching for something tangible, solid evidence. As time has gone on, and the project has shifted from investigation, to something more ethereal, the way of making the work has changed. Preceding this module, I wrote about the family archive, and its use in visual storytelling, for my dissertation subject. The main point from the text, was that archival imagery can create a feeling. A feeling of nostalgia; love; loss; transience; curiosity; but above all, a universality for readers of all backgrounds to relate. The faded yellowing of old prints, and the outdated dress we know so well, can be a platform for readers to project their own meaning onto, and read the work in that way. Getting the right balance of archival imagery, and contemporary photographs will be the key to making the book have the right tone; Telling the story of my Gypsy ancestors, the journey to find out, and how I feel about it in myself.

The process of making the work at the start of this module was a little stale. I tried to rush back into making work on road trips, going out only for a day, coming back disappointed. The work was still in the old style of looking for Gypsy signifiers, and trying to make work in Gloucester, where my family once lived. But the work had no purpose. Instead I tried to photograph what I thought I should photograph, not what felt right. After this failed outing, making work for the project formerly known as Chasing Gypsy Gold, I felt in a rut, needing to change direction. Shortly after this trip I sent an email to Robert Dawson, a Gypsy specialist, of which I visited his donated archive last year, at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading. I didn’t expect much in terms of a reply, as I thought he would be too busy and uninterested in my elusive art photography project. However, I was met with a charming reply, with Bob offering his time to meet me.

I planned a two-day excursion to meet Bob in March 2018. The first day would be driving to meet Bob at his home in Derbyshire, then driving to Snowdonia to spend the night. Driving home slowly the next day making images on the road. After having lunch with Bob, we went to his study to discuss my work, my heritage & his 63 years studying the Romany Gypsy, and Irish Traveller culture. Looking at my family tree, and analysing things I have been told, Bob, with ‘99%’ certainty confirmed that my family were Welsh Romany Gypsies. He clarified that all of the names matched Romany style names, and that even my features were similar to that of a Romany. This was a revelation moment. For an idea that was mostly speculation, not previously confirmed by records or writing, I was told the thing I wanted to hear most: I was a Gypsy after all. Bob also told me some folklore about the Romany people, and one phrase that stuck in my mind driving home: Black Blood. (Kaulo ratti, in the Romany language) Black blood refers to a Romany Gypsy of the purest type. Black is a sacred colour in Romany culture, so to say that one has Black Blood is a real compliment. This idea of having pure Gypsy blood was almost an ironic comparison to what my project was about. The idea that I am watered down from my heritage, lost in time from it, but still have a curiosity about it. This notion of Black Blood summed up this dichotomy I was facing about my story. I then change the working title of the work from Chasing Gypsy Gold, to Black Blood. The road trip carried on the next day, and I made some more work for the project. But what was most important for my work was the meeting I had with Bob Dawson, and the information he told me. It shifted how I thought about the project, and how I made the photographs.

After shooting had finished, the wide selection of images featured an array of material that I could make an edit from - Contemporary photographs; ranging from: portraits, still life, landscape, details, flash, natural light, colour, black and white; Plus: archive material, book clippings and audio recordings. All of this material presented me with an ethereal, occult and mysterious set of images to work into a book. A photobook was in my mind all along with this project. I thought it would be interesting to bind all of these ideas and speculation, into the book form. Concreting the ideas that have mostly been folklore for generations, the book as an object formalises and gives a platform for these ideas to sit together. Getting the tone of the book right was a key feature. This project would not work well with laying the images on the right-hand page, in a traditional photobook format. But playing with the fragmentary nature of the work, and replicating that on the page. Having images as diptychs, triptychs, small, large, having breaks in the book, some text; are the tools I used to try and bring the work to life. Unfortunately, due to time restraints I am unable to hand in the finalised copy, in the format I would have liked. The size is correct, and the paper stock used is how I wanted: 25x20.5 cm, slightly off A4 squared, making it more like a finished photobook than an on-demand Blurb book & 140gsm Off white recycled paper stock, giving the work an aged quality and democratising the images on the page. However, I would have made the cover black cloth hardback, with the title in silver foiling, given more time. Going back to the concreting the fragments of the story, the black hardback would have given the work a formalist feel, then you would have a very fragmentary story inside. So, this version, for hand in can be viewed as a dummy copy. Something to refer to the sequence, pacing and reading of the work. As well as a tangible idea of how the book will turn out to exhibit.

With the exhibition design, I want something to complement the visual language of the book. Not just standard sized black frames, but a designed space that fits how the work should be read. The scale and the layout of how the work is displayed will be important, creating an exhibition that gives off the tone of how I think the work needs to be read. Framed and unframed works, making an artefact of some images and something less formal in others. With the exhibition, I want to showcase the work in the best context, considering people from the industry will be at Free Range to view the work. This is a great opportunity to get feedback from people in the photographic world and try and get some people talking about the work. I feel like at this point in time, the work is nearly at the standard I want it to be. Exhibiting in London is a good chance to see if this is true. In regard to the context the work fits, I hope that it sits somewhere in the fine art/ documentary photography world, although I dislike this phrasing, it best describes the work. The type of work and photobooks I look at are mostly published by publishers such as MACK, Steidl, Sputnik etc. I hope my work will sit in this author led photo-book world.

The project has come a long way from photographing in Cheltenham some one and a half years ago. The mystery and the family tropes have come to light, and I feel as though I have matured as a photographer over the course of this module. Using different formats from flatbed scanners, to medium format film, to large format cameras. Meeting Bob Dawson has taught me the importance of first hand research, and allowing chance meetings to influence the narrative. I don’t know that Black Blood is entirely finished yet. There is some scope to pursue a web outcome for the work, allowing a wider audience to view and interpret the work, not the photobook world. The book could do with some tweaking to do before I can call it finished, but for the time given in this module, I have done everything I can, to try and tell the story of my Gypsy past, and the fleeting feelings I have in the present day about it.

Word count: 1505

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