Research point: Contemporary street photography

The course notes ask us to do some independent research into contemporary street photography.

Just over a year ago I was given the same exercise on the Level 1 course Context & Narrative, and having re-read it I will link to it here as my observations and opinions still stand.

https://robtownsendcn.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/research-point-contemporary-street-photography/

Colour dominates

One point to bring out in the context of this section being about B&W photography – my findings were that a lot more street photography is being done in colour these days. B&W is a little more niche, a nostalgic throwback or an artistic choice (as it is for the likes of Anders Petersen et al).

trente-park-inpublic-gallery-2-image-10.jpg
Sydney, 2001 – Trent Parke

I had another look through Street Photography Now (2010) for this research point and noted only a handful of B&W practitioners: notably Trent Parke, Ying Tang and Mumen Wasif. A B&W street photographer I discovered a couple of years ago and really like is Craig Semetko, whose Unposed book (2010) acknowledges something of a stylistic debt to the great Elliott Erwitt who provided its foreword.

EyeballPeople.jpg
Eyeball People, Edinburgh 2005 – Craig Semetko

Street surrealism

The only other thing I can add to the earlier appraisal is the extra layer of understanding I have regarding how good street photographs happen: the inherent surrealism in much of the best street photography – the instantaneous and unconscious recognition of an interesting and unusual scene, the synaptic spark from brain to shutter button, bypassing conscious thought. It’s this ‘tapping into the dreamlike state’ that I believe marks out the best street work.

Looking at it again this week, I’ve realised that Street Photography Now is the most surreal photobook I own.

Sources

Howarth, S and McClaren, S (eds.) (2010) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson

Semetko, C. (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeus Verlag

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Exercise: a Japanese connection

Brief

Read Miranda Gavin’s reviews of Anders Petersen’s French Kiss and Jacob Aue Sobol’s I, Tokyo for Hotshoe magazine.

Read the article ‘Bye Bye Photography’ (AG magazine #38) and research the work of Daido Moriyama.

Write a short reflective commentary about the connections between the styles of Moriyama, Petersen and Sobol.

Response

Moriyama

I’ll start with the ‘old master’ (although I could have maybe gone further back to William Klein, a key Moriyama influence).

dm-phaidon-55-page-16
Riot, Tokyo, Japan, 1969 – Daido Moriyama

Though vaguely aware of Moriyama as a purveyor of grainy, blurry B&W street images I knew little else about his work or approach until today. A few snippets in the 2004 Badger article really piqued my interest though, as they articulated (several years ago) some realisations I had about B&W surrealist photography in the last few days:

“The most valid subject for the author therefore was one’s own experience, set down as immediately, directly and spontaneously as one could make it. Provoke photographers epitomised this ‘stream of consciousness’ approach to an extreme degree. Technique, even using the viewfinder, was sacrificed for raw spontaneity, the feeling that the camera itself was dragging the image out of the photographer’s subconscious.” (Badger 2004)

Surrealism par excellence! As Badger described Bye Bye Photography (1972), Moriyama had a “desire to be led to the edge of photography’s coherence” (ibid).

Shooting on a simple compact camera, Moriyama pioneered the so-called ‘snapshot’ aesthetic, although most snapshots might actually be of technically superior quality. It seems to be a later eastern equivalent of Robert Frank’s throwing out of the photography rulebook in the late 1950s, only more extreme.

Moriyama’s visual style: gritty, grim, dark, raw, unfocused, grainy, skewed angles, high contrast.

Petersen and Sobol

I’ll cover these together as they are like two peas in a pod, as noted in the course handbook. Indeed, they have even collaborated on a photobook, Veins (2013).

They both acknowledge a clear debt to Moriyama.

frenchkiss2_2b.gif
From French Kiss, 2008 – Anders Petersen

What they have in common with each other (and most of it with Moriyama):

  • Gritty, grimy, dark, raw subject matter
  • Lo-fi technique – blur, grain, high contrast etc
  • Expressive, emotive, intuitive approach to subject matter
  • Mysterious, generate more questions than answers
  • Outsiders: Andersen’s French Kiss was by a Swede in France; Sobol’s I, Tokyo was by a Dane in Japan
JAPAN. Tokyo. 2007
Tokyo, 2007 – Jacob Aue Sobol

Some specific points on each:

  • Andersen’s people shots often obscure faces – anonymity, or using people as blank canvases? – while Sobol uses a more straightforward portraiture approach
  • Andersen’s use of nudity comes across as more about taboo/transgression than sexuality; Sobol’s nudes, like many of Moriyama’s, are more erotically charged
  • Sobol went in for a lot of close-ups, often obfuscating the subject

As an aside, Petersen came up with a fantastic justification for using B&W that I will add to my earlier post about why B&W is used for documentary photography:

“In black and white you are not caught by the colours, you have your own fantasy and experiences and they are all in colours. So unintentionally you add colours to the black and white photograph.” (FK Magazine, 2012)

I read this as you (the viewer) bring your own experiences to the image to ‘add the colour’. It’s a marvellous way of describing the more engaging, thoughtful experience of ‘processing’ B&W images.

Summary

There is clearly a triangulation between the work of these three photographers, with Moriyama at the top. I find the aesthetic visually appealing but am not entirely sure to what extent it can be an influence on my own work without becoming pastiche.

Beyond the aesthetic, what I like about all three of these is the highly intuitive way of shooting. Truly surreal art in the real sense of the word – bypassing cognition.

Sources

http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/frenchkiss (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://www.anderspetersen.se (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/tokiosobol (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://auesobol.dk (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/gbadgersayonara (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://www.moriyamadaido.com/english/ (accessed 12/05/2016)

http://fkmagazine.lv/2012/01/30/interview-with-anders-petersen/ (accessed 12/05/2016)

Higgins, J. (2013). Why it Does Not Have to be in Focus. Modern Photography Explained. Farnborough: Thames & Hudson.

Research point: Vivian Maier

We’re asked to explore the Vivian Maier website and identify five street photographs that show the influence of surrealism, and write a short reflective commentary. (Side note: the line between an exercise and a research point gets very blurry on this course…).

I’m fairly familiar with Vivian Maier, having a couple of books, a couple of prints and the recent documentary, so a few images sprang to mind even before I started. However, I wanted to find some of her lesser known work to expand my horizons a little, and thankfully the website has some of her images that haven’t made it into the books.

I also wanted to incorporate the differing flavours of surrealism: the more visually complex images that relied on composition and technique, and the more straightforward shots of surreal occurrences that happened to be in front of her camera.

September 1956
September 1956
Undated
Undated
Undated
Undated
Undated
Undated
Undated, New York, NY
Undated, New York, NY

Using the original definition of surrealism I covered earlier, meaning “art purporting to express the subconscious mind by phenomena of dreams etc” (OED), the way in which surrealism could be said to have influenced Maier is that she saw and interpreted the world in a particular way and identified the elements that disrupted a ‘normal’ scene from life. There is dreamlike quality to these images – whether they meant anything to Maier specifically is something we’ll never know, but they certainly fit the generic, external view of ‘dreamlike’ imagery.

On the evidence of this set (and many others – I was spoilt for choice really) she certainly had an eye for the surreal moment out on the street, as well as the right kind of compositional and technical skills that could render an otherwise everyday scene visually surreal.

She used formal graphic elements a lot – shapes and lines that make things resemble other things, frames within frames, repeated shapes – to help create the air of surrealism.

As per my comments on Atget et al however, there have been many photographers who could produce surrealist images as part of their oeuvre, but few that consistently practiced a surreal approach on a sustained basis (Daido Moriyama, for example). So one could have selected many more of Maier’s images that showed no hints of surrealism.

It may be a generalisation, but my sense is that it’s more meaningful to speak of surrealist photographs than surrealist photographers. So the use of the qualifier ‘influence of‘ in the research brief is appropriate here.

Sources

http://www.vivianmaier.com (accessed 11/05/2016)

Exercise: Street photography

Brief

Choose one of the weekly instructions given to contributors to the Street Photography Now Project in 2011 and build a small portfolio of B&W images on your chosen brief.

Publish a selection of five images from your portfolio on your blog.

Response

I chose this one:

IMG_2107

Note: I was in Nice when I took these photos so the streets might look a bit different to my usual North Yorkshire output.

Pair
Pair
Two Pairs
Two Pairs
Three of a Kind
Three of a Kind
Four of a Kind
Four of a Kind
Full House
Full House

Sources

https://streetphotographynowproject.wordpress.com (accessed 03/05/2016)

Research point: B&W and surrealism

We’re asked to read the essay ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and to review the work of some suggested surrealist photographers (Graciela Iturbide, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, George Brassaï, Man Ray, Eugène Atget, Paolo Pellegrin, Tony Ray-Jones), then write a bullet list of key visual and conceptual characteristics that their work has in common.

Finally understanding surrealism

First, a little reflection. I wrote a draft of about half of this post then deleted it as I had a sudden epiphany about surrealism.

My understanding of ‘surrealism’ for the last few decades has been rooted in the visual style of certain notable surrealist artists (notably Salvador Dali and René Magritte). I associated ‘surreal’ with weird, abstract, unreal – melting clocks and floating apples. Most of all I associated it with painting.

My limited understanding of surrealism until now

My limited understanding of surrealist photography was that it co-opted similarly unreal imagery in a highly constructed way (Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Philippe Halsman etc). My misunderstanding was that surrealism is a self-consciously ‘unreal’ visual style. I struggled to associate it with documentary photography.

In this context I first thought that in the photographers suggested by the course notes, the bar for ‘surrealism’ had been set strangely low. Most of the images I surveyed would struggle to be meet my definition of surrealism.

The lightbulb moment came when I revisited – and finally understood – some key definitions of surrealism. The OED has surrealism as meaning: “art purporting to express the subconscious mind by phenomena of dreams etc” (OED 1982). Wells (2009) expands with:

“Surrealism took the idea of the individual psyche as its theoretical starting point […] Surrealism emphasised artistic processes whereby the imaginary can be recorded through automatic writing or drawing which could thus offer insights into the world of ‘thought’ and therefore disrupt taken-for-granted perceptions and frames of reference. For the surrealist, the artist was the starting point or material source of what was to  be expressed” (Wells 2009: 281-282)

So surrealism is not so much defined by its (visual) output as by its (subconscious) input.

Wells also quotes Bate as arguing that “the surreal refers not to a type of picture but a type of meaning, an enigma” (Wells 2009, quoting Bate 2004).

With this realisation, I finally understood Sontag’s Melancholy Objects essay, which had bewildered me for years with its assertion that “photography is the only art that is natively surreal” (Sontag 1979: 51). This now makes sense: the very nature of photography means that the instantaneous, automatic creation of an image based on seeing something and pressing a button is indeed the closest thing to pure and direct connection between the subconscious and the artwork.

With this in mind, ‘surrealism’ in photography can mean two things:

  • Intentionally surreal: imagery that is constructed to recreate or represent a subconscious state of mind (subsequently recalled, e.g. a dream) through constructed scenes (Man Ray et al)
  • Intuitively surreal: imagery that is captured as the result of a subconscious state of mind – this latter definition is truer to Sontag’s argument

B&W surrealist photographers

Which brings us on to the examples we’re asked to research.

Some of these photographers can be considered to use surrealist techniques when they have taken an image that includes an interesting, unusual or incongruous juxtaposition in the frame that they saw, interpreted in a particular way and committed into a photograph.

The short cognitive distance between seeing something and clicking the shutter – bypassing conscious thought, maybe not knowing precisely why they pressed the shutter until afterwards – is what makes the pictures surreal. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment is, in effect, recognising when the confluence of objects in front of the camera make for the most visually interesting split-second.

This definition of surrealism allows me to reconcile the movement with documentary photography practice, a connection that had previously eluded me.

The names given can be divided into the two categories of surrealism I offered above.

More intentionally surreal (constructed): André Kertész, Man Ray.

More intuitively surreal (observed): Graciela Iturbide, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Eugène Atget, Paolo Pellegrin, Tony Ray-Jones.

Partial list of surrealist characteristics

  • Visual
    • Incongruous juxtapositions
    • Unusual angles, vantage points, perspective
    • Objects that mimic other objects
    • Pattern, repetition, rhythm
    • Partial objects
  • Conceptual
    • Disorienting, confusing – need ‘deciphering’
    • Dreamlike
    • Sense of humour
    • Invite you to consider different ways of seeing the world – the extraordinary in the ordinary

One point worth noting is that a scene isn’t inherently or universally surreal; it is a function of the context in which it is seen, most notably the time and the place. Many images from decades ago can now seem surreal simply because the events depicted no longer take place. Similarly, images of everyday events in exotic foreign cultures could be considered surreal to westerners.

Canon Fodder

This was heavy going, and only tangentially relevant to the point of this section in my opinion. Sifting this for enlightening nuggets regarding surrealism in B&W photography was like panning for gold. But not totally fruitless…

As far as I can summarise it, Solomon-Godeau’s basic premise is that the deification of Eugène Atget in the 1970s/80s says more about the notion and practice of the ‘artistic canon’ than it does about the work of Atget itself (the course notes and many other OCA students missed the wordplay in the title and referred to it erroneously as ‘Cannon Fodder’…).

Solomon-Godeau points to five commentators from various backgrounds over the 20th century attempting to use Atget as an exemplar of… various different things, as it happens. Whilst she concurs that what they agree on is that Atget was not merely a photographer or even an artist but an author (which implies a deliberate intent, a message to be transmitted, so one must decide if Atget was an author at all, or simply a cataloguer who photographed Old Paris for posterity). What they fail to agree on is what kind of author – what he represented, and why he is an important part of the photographic canon.

Berenice Abbott thought Atget represented “realism unadorned“, (Solomon-Godeau 1991: 31) while Walter Benjamin claimed his pictures as “the forerunners of surrealist photography” (ibid: 28). John Szarkowski co-opted Atget as a founding father of modernism, drawing a line that leads to Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand (ibid: 48). Margaret Nesbit and Maria Morris Hamburg devised further variations of Atget whose specificities eluded me.

The underlying fact that helps to explain this plurality of canonisation is that Atget left 10,000 images behind. With that much to work with, one could feasibly produce a set of images that could align Atget to practically any genre or movement. As Solomon-Goudeau puts it, the size of the archive “allow[s] the Atgetian deck to be shuffled” (ibid: 48).

So to draw the threads of this eclectic post together: can Atget be considered a surrealist photographer? Yes, if you look at certain of his pictures. Look at a different set and you may conclude that he was a typologer, or a documentary photographer, or an art photographer, or or an early modernist, or an architectural photographer, or… whatever it is that you’re trying to use him as an example of. He truly is all things to all men :-)

Sources

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder’ in Photography at the Dock. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press

Sontag, S. (1979) ‘Melancholy Objects’ in On Photography. London: Penguin.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Exercise: Making Sense of Documentary Photography

Brief

Read the article ‘Making Sense of Documentary Photography’ by James Curtis.

Curtis contextualises the work of the FSA photographers within a tradition of early twentieth-century social documentary photography and touches on the issue of the FSA photographers’ methods and intentions. What is your view on this? Is there any sense in which the FSA photographers exploited their subjects?

Response

I recently wrote a research piece on the Farm Securities Administration for another OCA course, and this covers the overarching project and its objectives and principles.

In summary, what I found most interesting about the FSA project was the interplay of editorial and authorial intent – there was an evolving set of ‘messages’ expected by the FSA, complicated by photographers with their own strong feelings on the subject matter – which puts it in direct contrast to the nominally comparable but ultimately much more neutral Mass Observation project in the UK.

The question of whether the FSA photographs were exploitative can be examined across the two dimensions in the brief: the methods and the intentions. I have looked at these in reverse order.

Intentions

For the purposes of attempting to answer the question broadly, applied to the FSA project as a whole, my view is: generally no, they were not intending to exploit their subjects. The best interests of the subjects was at the heart of the project, and the photographers (especially Lange and Evans) have a reputation of being committed to representing their subjects with dignity (this is not like the Avedon and Oestervang projects I recently researched, where the preconceptions and agendas of the photographers came first, and accusations of exploitation are more clear-cut).

So overall I believe that the ‘greater good’ argument wins out when judging the FSA photographs on charges of exploitation.

However, does this mean that no individuals felt legitimately exploited, or at the very least manipulated? The devil is in the details…

Methods

This is where the thrust of Curtis’s argument comes into play. The FSA photographers were, in many cases, guilty of a level of manipulation and stage management that many viewers of so-called documentary photography would find surprising.

Rather than thinking of exploitation in a general, vague sense it’s more useful to put oneself in the shoes of the subjects and consider what would constitute exploitation.

Two examples of exploitation of individuals would be:

  • Changing or falsifying a scene to depict people as suffering greater hardships than they really are
  • Promising something to the subjects in return for the photograph/s that is not delivered

To the first point, Curtis gives examples of FSA images (by Walker Evans and Russell Lee) where there are signs of the scenes having been carefully constructed – a family is seen to be motherless by excluding her from the shot; a table is cleared of possessions to emphasise sparseness; a healthy child is made to look sick; etc). The outtakes are a matter of public record, so piecing together the wider context of each shoot is easier than it might have been for other documentary photography projects.

While it’s unclear what the photographers told or asked the individual subjects, the drive for such stage management is assumed to be to match a pre-configured message. The individuals become actors in a scene that the photographer had pre-visualised, or at the very least wanted to present in a particular way. The ‘truth’ of each scene is subservient to the wider point that the FSA photographer wished to make.

To the second point, Florence Thompson was the subject of the most famous FSA image, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936), and years later complained that she had not benefitted from the photograph in any way that she had been led to believe at the time (Wells 2009: 42).

Looking at Lange’s presumed thought process at the time rather than forecasting the image’s subsequent fame (which may distort feelings of exploitation), one can imagine that she did indeed persuade or even coerce Thompson into posing in the way that she did with implied promises of short-term assistance – even if Lange truthfully meant that the photos would benefit her subsection of society generally rather than bring financial relief to Thompson specifically.

So the ethical question turns on the point: is it acceptable to manipulate an individual and/or stage a scene to create a photograph (methods) to communicate a message that is for the greater good (intentions)?

This is where accusations of exploitation may legitimately rest – with manipulated individuals. But to side with the FSA for a moment: their project needed subjects; someone had to represent the hardships that the project was intending to not just highlight but resolve. The level of stage management is questionable, admittedly, but in the final analysis the photographers did it for the right reason – to get across the social reform message.

Sources

Making Sense of Documentary Photography http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/makingsense (accessed 09/05/2016)

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Research point: Spender’s Worktown

We’re asked to “Briefly reflect in your learning log on Humphrey Spender’s documentary style and the themes of Worktown, with particular emphasis on the ethics and purpose of the project.

The current archive site for the Worktown collection is http://boltonworktown.co.uk rather than the site given in the course notes, so it is that which I have used for this research.

The style of the images was what I’d call classic social documentary – unposed scenes of everyday life in the communities being observed. The themes as listed on the Bolton Worktown website – though possibly retrospectively categorised, it’s not clear – were:

  • Ceremonies
  • Grafitti
  • Industry
  • Leisure
  • Observers
  • Politics
  • Pub
  • Religion
  • Shopping
  • Sport
  • Street
  • Work

The overarching objective of the parent project Mass Observation was to chronicle the people of Britain going about their everyday lives – there wasn’t a strong social reform element to it, it was intended to be very neutral. So the purpose was a kind of long-term anthropological study of the British people.

The course notes ask us to look at the ethics of the project. I didn’t find anything particularly problematic about the project from an ethical point of view, although it’s possible that I’m looking at the situation with 21st century eyes – maybe candid documentary photography didn’t go down too well in Bolton in the late 1930s, and it was seen as more of an imposition into private lives than we might think so today?

One aspect of Mass Observation that I found fascinating and very enlightening was the fact that the photography was not originally seen as a key part of the study:

“Paradoxically, though, Spender’s photographs, which are now recognised as an important part of the Mass Observation archive, were never used at the time. ‘The images were always there to provide a focus for the written material, which was the core of the project,’ elaborates Russell Roberts […] ‘They were purely informational and not meant to be artistic in any way. So from Spender’s photographs of a crowd at a Bolton Wanderers game, the Mass Observation researchers could count how many men were wearing hats at a football match. It was this kind of statistical detail that they collated and processed in their excavation of the everyday.'” (The Guardian, 2013)

It’s not clear whether Spender saw his work in the same light, or whether he had claims to any higher art or documentary worth. It seems odd that he could have been happy with the only audience for his work being the researchers treating his images as statistical data. Maybe this gave him the freedom to just capture what was in front of him, with no agenda.

Deliberate or not, this lack of immediate audience does lend the project an extra level of objectivity – it’s only now, looking back on the images, that one can discern their relevance to the social circumstances of the time. Spender and his peers still had the final say on where to stand and when to press the button, but to a large degree the very nature of Mass Observation’s limited use of the images leads to a minimal authorial input – and therefore more likely to be a reasonably objective ‘truth’.

Sources

Bolton Worktown http://boltonworktown.co.uk (accessed 09/05/2016)

The Way We Were: Mass Observation http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jul/21/mass-observation-photographers-gallery (accessed 09/05/2016)

Exercise: Avedon and Oestervang

Brief

Read ‘In the American East’ by Richard Bolton (in Bolton, 1992, pp.262–83) and write a 200-word reflective commentary on its relevance to documentary practice.

Then look at the work of Charlotte Oestervang in Appalachia (Foto8, V6N1, June 2006, pp.58–9)

Response

Bolton on Avedon

avedon_02
Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker. Omaha, Nebraska, 1979 – Richard Avedon

Avedon’s In the American West (1985) was an uneasy marriage of documentary subject matter and fashion photography aesthetics, and the latter dominates.

I largely agree with Bolton’s take that it was an exploitative rather than informative project.

The motives of the project come across as being more about the photographer than the subjects. The subjects seem to have been chosen for their visual distinctiveness rather than as representations of their circumstances.

Removing the context by shooting on plain white background makes the sitters ‘Avendon Subjects’ rather than individuals with real lives.

Unknown
Levis ad, 1986 – Richard Avedon

Aesthetics dominate the project:

“Avedon spent five years making portraits of everyday citizens of the American West in the Reagan era, and never did they look more flown-over, more craggy, more hardworkingly exotic.” (Washington Post, 2004).

It’s telling that shortly after the project he was hired by Levis for an ad campaign with the same aesthetic. The American West photos acted as a calling card for the next phase in his already-stratospheric career.

One can take some of the traits of documentary photography (subject matter, colour palette) but if some of the other important traits are absent (intent to inform or move viewers, ‘truthful’ scenes) the end result is somewhat less than documentary photography. It’s art-documentary, maybe, or fashion-documentary, but it’s not really documentary photography in spirit.

Oestervang

CharlotteOestervang2647208396
Amanda, Austin and Brianna during a visit by their uncle Sherman – Charlotte Oestervang

I found Oestervan’s images to be as exploitative as Alvedon’s, albeit in a different way.

Where Alvedon seemed to have selected his subjects for their aesthetic appeal, Oestervang appears to have chosen – or perhaps stage-managed – images that present the subjects as ‘freakish’.

There’s a real Arbus-gone-rustic vibe to these images (an influence recognised on the artist’s own website). The subjects are depicted as variously crazed, backward, obese and poor – all ‘hillbilly’ stereotypes.

I did find this project to be closer to the spirit of documentary photography than Alvedon’s images, yet still came away with the distasteful conclusion that both went into their respective projects with motives that don’t end up representing the subjects in a particularly dignified way

Sources

Bolton, R. (1992) ‘In The American East’ in The Contest of Meaning. Massachusetts: MIT

Richard Avedon’s Ruthless Eye http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A1633-2004Oct1.html (accessed 09/05/2016)

http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/foto861appalachian (accessed 09/05/2016)

http://www.oestervang.dk (accessed 09/05/2016)

Exercise: B&W portraits as a documentary strategy

Brief

Read the information that accompanied August Sander’s exhibition People of the 20th Century at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Write a 200-word reflective commentary on Sander’s seven-category system. Briefly discuss the implications of his classification system within the socio-cultural context of the time. Make connections with contemporary practice such as that of Zed Nelson, if appropriate.

Response

Sander

Sander’s classification system is a product of its time. It’s easy to see now the catch-all grouping of ‘Women’ as offensive and reductive, but this no doubt reflected the social expectations of the time and place. Similarly, one could get offended by the grouping of the elderly and disabled as ‘The Last’, as if this were a value judgement, but it’s possible that this was simply a poor translation from an accepted German phrase, or maybe even simply a descriptive title as Sander worked on this category last.

sander_bricklayer
Bricklayer, 1928 – August Sander

What concerned me more was the fundamental classification approach of the project, a product of the detachment of the ‘New Objectivity’ school of European photography (Marien 2014: 262). I’m either being controversial or just pedantic but my main observation is that I wouldn’t call Sander’s work ‘portraiture’ in the strictest sense. That word implies “a shorthand description of a person” (Bate 2009: 67). Clarke goes further, with “character revelation is the essence of good portraiture” (Clarke 1997: 101).

Sander was not concerned with individuals but with archetypes – Sontag put it well in ‘Melancholy Objects’: “Sander was not looking for secrets, he was observing the typical.” (Sontag 1979: 59).

He worked ‘top-down’ to divide the population into categories and capture ‘specimens‘ of each grouping. There’s a framework of stratification in place, a focus on archetypes, defined by their differences to other archetypes. So Sander’s was a typology project first and foremost.

Nelson and Penn

Disappearing-Britain-Corn-008
Thomas Treborra (Cornish Fishermen) – Zed Nelson

By comparison, Zed Nelson and Irving Penn came at things a different way entirely. While the surface comparison to Sander holds, the intention and approach were quite different. Nelson and Penn worked ‘bottom-up’, identifying small and quite specific groups of society – largely centred around professions – and treating the individual portraits as just that.

Their subjects are examples not specimens – a subtle but important distinction. The people are named in the titles, a small but important aspect of personalisation that separates this from the Sander work.

So while I’d call Nelson and Penn portraitists, Sander is closer to the human equivalent of a butterfly collector.

Footnote: Sander revisited

Shortly after first writing this up I became aware of a recent project by the always-interesting Broomberg & Chanarin that takes Sander’s original typology project as one of the jumping-off points for a more 21st century art project.

Broomberg-and-Chanarin----011
From Spirit is a Bone, 2015 – Broomberg & Chanarin

Rather than actual photographs, Spirit is a Bone (2015) used 3D facial recognition software to capture Moscow citizens, presenting each face as a kind of a digital mask. Bloomberg & Chanarin acknowledged the influence of both Sander (they used his categories) and his contemporary Helmar Lerski (who did close-up facial portraits in comparison to Sander’s full-length shots).

The end result is a curious visual effect that simultaneously is and isn’t a portrait; the connection to the typological categorisation is lost as there are no visual cues beyond the facial surface, making these more identifiable as individual portraits than Sander’s work, even with the minimal information provided.

Sources

http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/asandersfmoma (accessed 29/04/2016)

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2011/mar/12/goodbye-to-all-that-zed-nelson-photographs (accessed 29/04/2016)

http://www.choppedliver.info/root/two-eyes-above-a-nose-above-a-mouth/ (accessed 09/05/2016)

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marien, M.W. (2014). Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed). London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Sontag, S. (1979) ‘Melancholy Objects’ in On Photography. London: Penguin.

Exercise: Daniel Meadows

Brief

Listen to Daniel Meadows talking about his work: http://vimeo.com/28349336#

Then read the essay ‘The Photographer as Recorder’ by Guy Lane.

Response

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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 12.10.54
From The ‘Photobus’ web archive – Daniel Meadows
  • 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.

Sources

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)