Listen to Daniel Meadows talking about his work: http://vimeo.com/28349336#
Then read the essay ‘The Photographer as Recorder’ by Guy Lane.
The clip and the essay make strange bedfellows.
In the clip we get Meadows himself talking passionately about his drive to document people’s lives – he describes himself as a “documentarist” and a “mediator for other people’s stories“. His interest in other people, especially from sectors of society different to his own, seems to spring from a sheltered upper-middle class upbringing – witness the body language when he talks about his childhood, he shakes his head vigorously throughout. His reaction to this narrow early world view was a curiosity, coupled with a drive for democratisation, that drove him to seek out and give voice to those less fortunate.
The essay, on the other hand, is an external view on The Free Photographic Omnibus (1972-74), Meadows’ project about English communities whose lifestyles and livelihoods were at risk of disappearing due to societal changes. It looks at the project from the point of view of its place in the photographic art and documentary genres of the era. I confess I found the essay hard going, as it was riddled with overly academic vocabulary, much of which I am not yet familiar with.
The main points I took from the essay were in the first third, which deconstructs the flyer that Meadows produced to raise funds for the project and uses the text and imagery therein to position Meadows and The Free Photographic Omnibus in the context of documentary photography history.
- Although the intention was a survey of (a subsection of) ‘the English’, in the decades since the project it has been mostly remembered for portraiture alone, especially portraits done in a particular style – full length, straight on, against a blank wall
- The 1997 exhibition National Portraits selected almost exclusively portraits in this style, even though they made up a tiny minority of the original work
- “The 1990s privileging of portraiture, and the preference for unidentifiable, nondescript locations, effected a purging of informational content, a retrospective de-contextualisation of the work.” (Lane 2011)
- The flyer formed a kind of manifesto for Meadows’ approach to documentary photography – simultaneously a break from the prevailing documentary photography of the era and a harking back to an earlier ‘photographer-recorder’ mode of working:
- The double-decker bus was at that time a counter-cultural youth icon, and he makes sure it is in the flyer
- The self-portrait was done in a ‘straight’ full length frontal pose, signifying ‘the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth’ and eschewing any hint of artistry or authorial intent – “unremarkable” as Lane correctly calls it
- He emphasises his lack of experience as further reassurance that no authorial hand will interfere
- He invites comparison with Sir Benjamin Stone, nineteenth century founder of the National Photographic Record Association and, according to Meadows, the last person to undertake such a survey of the English
- With his text, Meadows positions his work in opposition both to prevailing forms of documentary and to commercial photography, once again emphasising the honesty and sincerity of his straightforward ‘recording’ approach
The remainder of the essay concerns itself with the arts funding situation of the early 1970s and the prevailing social environment that led to Meadows’ project. The overarching theme Lane finds is that of tradition, or indeed the lack thereof. Lane finds Meadows’ choice of subjects as “a way of anchoring a definition of Englishness, [which] discloses a desire for stability, continuity and tradition” (Lane 2011).
Lane observes that such an intention also underpinned the work of other practitioners of that era, such as Homer Sykes and Tony Ray-Jones (one could potentially add early Martin Parr, a classmate of Meadows, to this list).
I guess the point of the inclusion of Meadows in this part of the course is to highlight a particular kind of documentary photographer: the non-authorial, empathetic, ‘honest’ recorder, interested in people, their lives and their stories. Subject-first, no artistry involved.
Daniel Meadows interview http://vimeo.com/28349336#
The Photographer as Recorder http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/meadowsguylane (accessed 29/04/2016)
Photobus http://www.photobus.co.uk (accessed 29/04/2016)