We recently caught up with photographer and recipient of the Genesis Imaging award at Format Festival, Jan McCullough, to find out about her fascinating series ‘Home Instruction Manual’; a series constructed from internet forum user’s advice on ‘how to make a house a home’, which questions our very identity.
‘Home Instruction Manual’ was recently awarded first prize in the Fotobookfestival Kassel Dummy Award 2015, shown at Belfast Exposed; Northern Ireland’s principal gallery of contemporary photography and recently featured at Unseen photography fair in Amsterdam. Her book, of the same title, is due out next year.
What was the most surprising tip that you found online (for how to make a house a home)?
There was a lot of discussion about the ‘right amount of mess’ a house should have in order to be considered homely – as opposed to a “cold show home.” In particular, there were instructions relating to the appropriate state of the Tupperware cupboard. According to the particular chat forum I gained my homemaking information from, the most normal homes have messy Tupperware cupboards! In the series, there are several photographs of Tupperware in varying states of disarray.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome in the production the series and how did you overcome this?
One of the most challenging parts of producing the project was actually finding a ‘standard-looking’ house to rent for the short period of two months (I planned the project on the maximum time I could, given my very tight budget). Since the rental market is very strong in the UK, no one was interested in renting me a house for a short period of time, when they could easily get a longer-term tenant. Luckily, I was able to persuade (or pester) a landlord after a couple of months of searching. I then scoured Gumtree/ second hand shops and warehouses to find the objects to fill the rooms.
How much did your ideas change or develop as your time in the house progressed?
I printed out all the chat-room advice, and from this compiled a strange-looking ‘shopping list’ of furniture and accessories that I would need to construct the rooms. For the ‘family’ photos on the walls of the house, I used a mixture of found photographs and ones I had constructed myself to match the descriptions.
It was fun to play around with the model of the manual when I was making the images, as there are many different ‘looks’ I could have tried to recreate. For example, I could have staged ‘ before and after’s ’ or made a diary documenting the house’s makeover. I knew from the start that I wanted the images to look as ‘normal’ as possible (not beautifully lit, like in an interiors magazine) – ideally I wanted these to look like something you might find in an amateur documentation of a DIY project.
As I was working alone in the house, I would often set the camera up on a tripod with self timer and photograph my hands holding objects in place, to test how they looked in various positions. Although I intended them simply as working images, I actually ended up including a selection of them in the final edit, as they looked a bit like the ‘step-by-step’ photographs you might find in a traditional manual – documenting someone’s hands completing a task.
How do you feel that the images are perceived differently when viewed as prints, from as they are in the book?
The book, by its nature, is a very private viewing experience in contrast with walking around a gallery; one can read a book by themselves in their own domestic space. With this in mind, the book is sized A5, like a cross between a personal notebook and a manual.
When exhibiting the work, I like to show the photographs and matching text from each room of the house in separated spaces in the gallery – imitating the rooms of the house that I worked in. The viewer can then physically walk through each ‘room’ in the gallery space like I did in the house. A cross between a domestic room and a chat-room!
How did you approach editing or sequencing the series?
After I finished working in and photographing the house, I moved all the furniture out, moved house, and then took a month’s break from looking at any of the text or photographs. I had been so closely involved with both taking the photographs and building the rooms that I needed distance from them before looking at the images with a fresh eye.
When editing, I printed out small photographs on my printer and then experimented with different sequences in hand-made books.
The final edit mimics a simple walk-through the house, a bit like the order you would look around a house during a viewing by an estate agent. Sometimes you will see a full room scene, and at other times just details- such as the dirt on the floor or a slice of the bookshelves. The images serve as evidence that the event happened, and not a full survey of the house.
How has ‘Home Instruction Manual’ changed or developed from the dummy you entered into the Kassel Fotobook festival Dummy Award 2015?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the wonderful Merel Witteman and Erik Kessels to develop the design from my original dummy. My book dummy was very simply made, with and served as a very basic way to communicate the work. It has been great to make the book mimic and work like a functional manual (with things like a traditional front cover, index, and a floorplan). The text which correlates to the images will be scattered throughout the book on a very thin / low quality paper- so it feels like it could have been printed quickly from a home computer – like I did when I first downloaded the text.
If you had to sum up ‘Home Instruction Manual’ in a single image from the series, which would it be, and why?
‘Garden 5’ (2014) shows the result of the instruction… “a flowing bird bath with pink roses and climbing plants”. Of all the images in the series, it might appear the most traditional-looking of a home- with homely ‘cottage garden’ elements; attractive pink flowers, and a lawn. In the corner of the photograph, my hand is filling up the bird bath with water, as instructed by the stranger on the online forum. I wanted the series to have a mix of ‘normal looking’ photographs with the odd reminder that the setup was very far from normal.
What do you hope that viewers take away from Home Instruction Manual?
I would really like someone to pick it off a bookshelf thinking it was a functional manual. One of the first things that attracted me the concept of the manual in the age of the Internet, was the infinite amount of information accessible online for every imaginable task. Choosing to find instructions for making a home really appealed to me, as a ‘home’ might typically be considered a place of personal taste / history. We can view intimate details of other peoples lives (whether a true depiction or a constructed one) online, through social media, forums, and other outlets- it is interesting to borrow the material and use it to try on different lives for size.
‘Home Instruction Manual’ aside, If you had to write a manual, what would your topic of choice be?
It might be fun to recreate a manual such as ‘How To Take Good Photographs’- to see what the original author would suggest taking pictures of, and how they think it should look!
Tell us (what you can) about what you’re working on now?
Following on from ‘Home Instruction Manual’, I’ve been interested in the themes of identity and living by instruction. In particular, I have been making work using YouTube tutorials, video diaries, Vlogs, and particular types of images on social media- that suggest aspirations for ‘normal’ or everyday life.
See ‘Home Instruction Manual’ at Unseen Photography Festival in Amsterdam with Division of Labour / Belfast Exposed galleries, from 18 – 20 September 2015. Lambda C-type prints and Bespoke Gallery framing by Genesis.Visit Jan McCullough’s Website