London Drawing in the Reading Room

5 August 2016

Earlier this year, art collective London Drawing took over an area of our Reading Room to engage visitors and inspire them to get creative. The stand out activity was their Renaissance Selfies, relating to the theme of ‘face’. The co-director of the collective, Anne Noble-Partridge, tells us more about this fun, simple and effective photo opportunity.

As an artist I have always been interested in the way the frame of a photograph can remove an image from its true surroundings; the way you can play with reality through the ‘reality’ of the camera lens is fascinating.

It all started while I was on holiday in Italy, having overdosed on Italian Renaissance paintings. I whiled away a wet evening messing about taking self portrait photographs in the Renaissance style using what I had around me: an embroidered bedspread, sun visor and pillowcase. I really enjoyed the process and got quite engrossed in it.

When I showed friends they loved it and wanted to have a go themselves. Soon after, someone alerted me to another artist, Nina Katchadourian, who had done something similar in the toilet of a long haul flight. I thought at the time it would be great to make something of it, but couldn’t think of the right context for it.

When London Drawing was asked to run workshops in the Reading Room at Wellcome Collection, the ‘Face niche’ part of the room seemed perfect for this little project. The book we found in there on Cindy Sherman played a big part too: her work on the changing of identity, taking on a character and using the frame of the photograph as a way of playing with real life, twisting it into something uncanny, real but unreal, character portraits of character types, seemed the perfect catalyst.

When we began the first session we had no idea how people were going to react to the idea of being covered in napkins and with a pillowcase on their head! But visitors immediately seemed receptive and intrigued. Perhaps their minds were opened and their inquisitiveness naturally peaked as a result of being in such an amazingly curious room. In sitting down with us, people suspended their disbelief, surrender themselves to the process and sit compliant (almost like they would at the hair dressers); you have permission to invade their personal space and move them about, touch their arm, re-arrange their hair…

The process with each sitter is as follows. We look at them for a couple of minutes and use a their existing ‘look’: pieces of their own clothing which might work as part of their ‘costume’ and example images they might be drawn to, to create their own unique Renaissance personality.

The most interesting thing is that during the transformation process, even though they can’t see what’s going on and what they look like, they seem to take on this Renaissance character. By the time we take the picture they are in the right frame of mind to place their hand in the right way, look serious or contemplative and, for a few seconds, travel 500 years back in time.

It’s a little like performing a magic trick: they have no idea what they look like until they see the photograph and every time they are delighted, exclaiming that it looks like a different version of themselves, and so convincingly, despite the fact that the transformation happened with the most mundane of materials and a smart phone.

It’s amazing what you can do with a few paper napkins, a travel pillow, a wash bag and a pillow case!