Dawn Woolley

PhD Photography 2011–

I graduated from the College with a Masters in Photography in 2008. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Photography and felt my practice was supported but also pushed to its limits. I was really pleased with the work I came out of the College with. I had been encouraged to consider research while I was writing my Masters dissertation, so I planned to think about it for a few years and then write a proposal.

As I already knew the standard of the teaching staff and facilities was high, I thought it would be an ideal place to apply. I applied for other research institutions but there were aspects of the courses that I felt were not as good as RCA. They felt less rigorous and I wanted to produce the highest quality work I am capable of, so I decided it had to be the RCA.

Celebrate, Dawn Woolley 2012
C-type print

As a Masters student, I had some knowledge of the research department and had spoken to research students. It took time to work out how my practical work will inform my research, but group seminars and discussions with my supervisor have let me test out ideas and discuss issues I am experiencing, and hopefully start to overcome them.

My research involves investigating the relationship between sex and food in visual culture. It originated from my interest in the symbolism of Dutch seventeenth century paintings. In the paintings, food objects are given moral meanings related to sexual and consumer vices. I intend to use the sexualisation of food to make artwork that questions or reflects on contemporary consumer culture and our relationship to commodities. I’m exploring these ideas through theories of the fetish – from anthropology, psychoanalysis and Marxist commodity fetishism.

I am also interested in the substitutive nature of the symbolic objects in Dutch painting – they allow the painters to describe gender and sexuality without depicting gendered bodies. As my previous artwork aimed to emphasise the objectification and idealisation of the female body in photography, I felt that it was important for me to develop a visual language of gender and consumerism that didn’t rely on traditional representations of bodies. By casting and moulding objects, I can change their characteristics and ‘value’, hopefully giving them qualities interpreted as sexual or consumerist codes.

I meet with my supervisor regularly for lengthy discussions about my progress, and we discuss potential avenues for enquiry, and any pitfalls I might encounter. I also attend the Fine Art Research programme. During these sessions, students present work or ideas that are discussed by the group of students and staff. It is invaluable to engage in discussions with a wide variety of people, and helps to see problems from differing perspectives.

Because I’m part-time, I don’t meet with my peers regularly throughout the week but we communicate via email. I also remain in touch with students I met during the research methods course from different departments. We try to meet periodically to discuss our progress and share ideas.

I chose to study part-time so I could continue to work as a lecturer. I am liable to pay the fees myself but have received grants from educational trusts to help me to cover the costs. I didn’t receive Arts and Humanities Research Council funding for the MPhil portion of my research but intend to reapply this year. I’m currently teaching degree students in Wales and exhibiting my artwork around the UK and internationally, but my plans for the future include continuing teaching and practicing as an artist. Make the most of the time you have at the Royal College – my Masters flew by and I’m sure my research will too.

"I make use of the wide variety or resources available to me. I regularly process and scan negatives and borrow equipment. As I hope to branch out into 3D techniques, I also intend to work in other departments of the College over the coming year. Among the most significant developments in my work are a brushing up of my large format photography skills, and beginning to work with materials such as alginate and latex."