For the past 20 years, London-based artist Dawn Parsonage has collected found photographs. Her archive includes over 10,000 carefully chosen photographic objects spanning the history of the medium. She looks for the subtle nuances in these images, discovering common human emotions and experiences across time and culture. These discoveries inspire her personal photographic practice.
Parsonage’s latest project, The Boring Exhibition, was inspired by found portraits of bored people caught off guard. These images of strangers uninterested in and disconnected from their surroundings raise questions: What is boredom? Where do our minds go when we are bored? Is boredom a waste of time, or a necessary part of our creative lives? Moreover, what is the role of boredom today, in our contemporary technology-saturated, overscheduled lives?
Parsonage spent a year exploring these questions, and her research led her to the work of Adam Mastroianni at Harvard University. He later put her in touch with Dr. Erin C. Westgate, who researches boredom and believes that it is an essential tool for self-reflection. Working with what she had learned from these psychologists, she ran a series of experiments on 22 volunteers to see whether it was possible to observe and photograph boredom and capture its essence intentionally.
Parsonage’s studio experiments included isolating subjects under one of three circumstances: listening to a boring speech on a short loop, listening to a loudly ticking clock running at half speed, or sitting in silence with the ability to give themselves a small electric shock to relieve their boredom. During each of these experiments, she recorded her subjects on video, intermittently shot digital photographs, and took one large-format film photograph.
In The Boring Exhibition, Parsonage combines a selection of this work with the found images that inspired it. The videos are almost painful to watch and put the viewer in the sitters’ frames of mind, while the still photographs capture and elicit a range of emotions. Some subjects appear lost in thought and have hilarious expressions on their faces. Others look depressed, sad or frustrated. All of their portraits stand in stark contrast to the staged expressions one generally makes for the camera.
The artist’s large-format black-and-white images have a particularly uncanny honesty to them. They are less pristine and, at times, have slight motion blur from a seemingly slower shutter. They reference the artist’s archival photography collection, underscoring some of the questions the project raises about the nature of boredom, its place in history, and its future within our culture.