Exercise: Seeing is Believing


Read the WeAreOCA blog post ‘Seeing is Believing’:

Read all the replies to it then write your own comment, both on the blog page and in your own blog. Make sure that you visit all the links on the blog post. Base your opinion on solid arguments and, if you can, refer to other contributions to the blog.


Providing the 62nd comment is double-edged: I have the blessing of reading the thoughts of others in advance, and the curse of finding some new insight I can add…

Various new threads emerged during the discussion and I will attempt to unpack the pertinent ones here.

Regarding the calls for the killing to be confirmed by photographic evidence:

This perhaps speaks to an unhealthy level of paranoia in the west at the time, as it is essentially a conspiracy theory that gained a surprising amount of mainstream attention – after all, under what circumstances is it considered normal to show a dead body to the public to prove death?

In this instance I think the need for proof was tied up with the general mystique that surrounded the reclusive terrorist leader, including the scepticism and over-analysis that had already met photographs and videos of the man.

However, the underlying point of the demand for a photograph is the primacy of vision as a cognitive sense: people generally trust photographs – seeing really does tend to be believing in most cases. Photographs have this power due to their indexical nature. The flaw in this is covered below.

Regarding the US government’s refusal to release such images:

Again this speaks to the power of photography but in a different way. President Obama put his finger on it when he said “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool.” (Guardian 2011)

Regarding the release of the ‘reaction shots’ to illustrate the story:

In the circumstances this was a clever move. Having decided not to show the act or the aftermath, this sober reaction, especially from a visibly shocked Hillary Clinton, gave the viewer a sense of being an insider – and to many (not all) people would have sufficed as ‘evidence’ that the act had taken place.

Regarding the faith placed in the veracity of photography:

Fontcuberta and a thousand others have shown that the camera really does lie, and seeing really shouldn’t be believing. As pointed out by other posters, it’s hugely ironic that a photo that is tangentially involved in a discussion of photographic credibility has been manipulated by a particular news outlet to remove Hillary Clinton (PetaPixel 2011).

The fact that something as supposedly indexical as photography can be untrustworthy is highly problematic. At one extreme it allows unscrupulous parties to manipulate situations by damaging but plausible fakery, and at the other it allows paranoid conspiracy theorists to deny the veracity of any photograph.

Regarding manipulation in photojournalism:

As David Campbell said, it’s important not to conflate processing with manipulation – it’s about the intent to deceive (New York Times 2015). The problem is, of course, where to draw the line. As useful as it is for photojournalism contest juries to hold photographers to high standards, who is doing this for everyday photojournalism?

Regarding the subjectivity of belief:

As Stan Dickinson says early in the thread, “truth lies in beholding, not portraying”. People tend to believe what they want to believe. Those who always trusted that bin Laden was killed will not need to see a photograph; those who doubted it can reject any photographic evidence as faked.


After looking at documentary photography from the point of view of the photographer for the last little while, and ruminating on issues such as reflexivity, subjectivity and authorship, it’s been interesting to flip the discussion over to the viewer’s side.

To a significant degree, the photographer can influence what the viewer believes regarding the ‘truth’ of a situation, but at the end of the day the viewer brings their own reflexivity and subjectivity, and indeed if you follow the Barthesian model, their own authorship to reading an image. For documentary photography one would presume that in the vast majority of cases the intention is for the two beliefs to match, such is the trust placed (sometimes misplaced) in photography…


http://www.weareoca.com/photography/seeing-is-believing/ (accessed 04/08/2016)

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/may/06/osama-bin-laden-photograph-obama-body (accessed 04/08/2016)

http://petapixel.com/2011/05/09/hillary-clinton-gets-shopped-out-of-iconic-war-room-photo-by-newspaper/ (accessed 04/08/2016)

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/world-press-photo-manipulation-ethics-of-digital-photojournalism/ (accessed 04/08/2016)

Barthes, R. (1977). ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image/Music/Text [English translation]. London: Fontana



Research point: performative documents

We are asked to:

“Investigate Murrell’s Constructed Childhoods and Starkey’s Untitled series. How do these photographers employ imaginative and/or performative elements to construct their narratives? In what sense is the end result ‘real’? What aspects of their work might you consider adopting in your own practice?” (course notes: 81)

Charley Murrell

While the name hadn’t rung a bell, I immediately recognised the project from previous research. Like the Essop brothers, Murrell used composite images of the same person for Constructed Childhoods (2010), but the twist here is that children are depicted simultaneously in an everyday environment and as an idealised figure in media imagery.

from Constructed Childhoods, 2010 by Charley Murrell

It’s very imaginative, and like other projects in this section it offers up a new and interesting way of communicating what could otherwise be a documentary-style message – but to go back to my hobby horse, it’s not really documentary, it’s ‘semi-documentary’ or ‘pseudo-documentary’.

To what extent is it real? Well, for me it may be ‘set’ in the real world but it lacks the core of actuality that I look for in documentary photography. That’s not to say I dislike it at all; it’s quite thought-provoking. But to present it as documentary photography is to miss the point; it’s an alternative to documentary photography.

Hannah Starkey

I had briefly looked at Starkey for the Context & Narrative section on constructed images, and really liked what I saw. She has a very distinctive, dreamy visual style. She uses windows and reflections a lot, which make me think of alternate worlds that her characters are daydreaming about.

She has a knack of capturing a mood, often quite lonely and melancholy, with her images. But like Murrell, I really wouldn’t have considered this having documentary value. Even more so that Murrell’s work, it is detached from reality more than it is anchored within it. Treating this as documentary photography is to broaden the definition to include entirely fictional constructs, at which point the label is pointless.

I actually like Starkey’s work a great deal– it’s hypnotic, beautiful, thought-provoking – but it’s not ‘real’. The images evoke plausible narratives, but one doesn’t get the sense that these are real people experiencing real thoughts. The construct is too… artful?

As this is the penultimate piece of coursework in this section, and the last that asks us to review particular photographers and their work, it feels like I should circle back to the reflective piece I did on how I find the definition of constructed images as ‘documentary’ to be problematic.

Having reviewed the work of Tom Hunter, Hasan and Husain Essop, Jeff Wall and now Murrell and Starkey, I feel like I understand better why these artists are included in the course notes on Documentary… it is undoubtedly important to push the acceptable definitions of a genre, to challenge prevailing thinking and to reach for the edges of the practice.

I understand and accept that all these types of constructed ‘semi-documentary’ (my favoured term) photography belong in an augmented view of the genre, revolving around documentary photography like Saturn’s rings – but I stop short of really considering them, in my mind, documentary photography.

To reiterate, this absolutely does not mean that I see no worth in ‘constructed documentary’; on the contrary, I’ve found some of the most interesting work I’ve seen in recent months in this genre. I’m not averse to the idea of incorporating some of these approaches into my own practice – just maybe not on documentary projects.


Charley Murrell: Constructed Childhoods http://charleymurrell.wix.com/charley-murrell-photography#!__personal-projects/–constructed-childhoods (accessed 01/08/2016)

Hannah Starkey: Untitled http://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/hannah-starkey (accessed 01/08/2016)

Exercise: Jeff Wall


Read the article on Jeff Wall in Pluk magazine. Briefly reflect on the documentary value of Jeff Wall’s work.


I looked at Jeff Wall for Context & Narrative last year, and managed to get to see an exhibition of his around the same time. Much of my pertinent opinion of Wall is contained in that earlier blog post, but to summarise here: his work generally leaves me cold.

Part of me admires the effort he goes to, most of me wonders why he bothers. As a comparison, I find much more to enjoy in the work of that other big name in constructed photography, Gregory Crewdson. So it’s not that I have a fundamental dislike for the genre, just that I find Wall mostly overrated (there are exceptions: I really liked Insomnia, 1994, and some of his other work that is influenced by earlier art, especially paintings, is interesting).

Mimic, 1982 by Jeff Wall

However, when his work is described as “near documentary”, he sometimes loses me. It’s too far removed, for the most part. When it is a recreation of a specific witnessed event, such as Mimic (1982), I can get on board, as it’s based on a real thing that happened.

But as per my personal interpretation of documentary photography, once an image moves into the realm of ‘something that could have happened’, it crosses a line and ceases to have significant documentary value.

I’m not pointing this out to be a purist – it’s more a case of my view being that that if one is going to invent a pseudo-documentary scene, that there should be some kind of point – communicating a message, evoking an emotion, something.

A View from an Apartment (2004-5) took weeks of meticulous planning and involved people living in the space… and the end result is a very big so what? It’s incredibly clever and well-executed (and visual interesting from a point of view of having the whole scene, inside and out, looking sharp), but… what is it saying? I’ve read a whole essay on this photograph, in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs (2005), and I’m none the wiser.

A View from an Apartment, 2004-5 by Jeff Wall

In summary, I find the documentary value of Wall’s work to be quite minimal. Some of his work is interesting in a documentary sense, but most of his typical work is bewilderingly over-engineered and ultimately quite shallow.


http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/pluk_JeffWall.pdf (accessed 01/08/2016)

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. London: Aperture

Exercise: Hasan and Husain Essop


View the video on Hasan and Husain Essop at the V&A exhibition Figures and Fictions and write a short reflective commentary in your learning log or blog.


Setting aside my recent hangup on whether constructed images should be considered documentary photography (I decided I could live with “semi-documentary“…), I found the Essop bothers’ approach really fascinating.

They responded to an external (in their case religious) constraint in a highly innovative way:

“There’s this idea in Islam that it’s not very permissible to put up pictures of people on your wall and we grew up with that… It’s like [Hasan]’s managed to find a loophole: use yourself – any judgment that occurs is going to be only on yourself.” (V&A 2011)

What this means is that they act out all parts in their mises-en-scènes and digitally stitch them together to make composite pseudo-documentary images. It’s a really interesting reaction to the limitation, and further proof that there are many ways of portraying documentary ‘truths’ without depicting real-life scenes.

Hasan and Husain Essop

Their images are meticulously planned and executed – they have to be, as they essentially need to align multiple elements at different times, like a kind of temporal jigsaw puzzle. However, it’s this meticulous planning that makes me see these as incredibly clever pieces of art, but not so much true to the spirit of documentary photography.

To reiterate though – they are inspirational to me, not because I plan to emulate their style, but simply because they found a new and interesting way of working. I admire that.


http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/figures-and-fictions-contemporary-south-african-photography/ (accessed 01/08/2016)

Exercise: Tom Hunter


Read the article ‘Think Global, Act Local’ by Diane Smyth. Research Tom Hunter’s work.

Finally, listen to Tom Hunter talking about one of his most iconic images, Woman Reading a Possession Order, on Radio 3.

Summarise your thoughts in your learning log or blog.


Notwithstanding my earlier rant about using the term ‘documentary photography’ to cover what I consider “semi-documentary”, I really rate Tom Hunter’s work.

He skilfully blends inspiration from painting, Vermeer in particular, with what would normally considered social documentary photography subject matter. Listening to the radio essay it’s clear that Vermeer isn’t only a visual influence – notably composition, colour and lighting – but also a subject matter influence, as in Vermeer also used his local community as the basis of his art.

The Vermeer influence is most strong in his project Persons Unknown (1997), from which this is taken, but Hunter has said that Vermeer’s visual style continues to exert an influence over his work in a less direct way.

Hunter clearly defines himself as an artist first and foremost – the words art and artist are peppered throughout his essay, whilst documentary is absent. I’m not suggesting that art and documentary are mutually exclusive, of course – I’m just observing how Hunter positions himself and his work. In the context of John Grierson’s famously succinct definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson 1933), Hunter’s work leans more on the former than the latter.

I admire the work, not just at an aesthetic level – I saw it in the flesh last year and it really is a beautiful picture – but as a successful piece of social (semi-) documentary, in as much as the publicity surrounding it actually led to the possession order being retracted.

I also really admire the deployment of a non-documentary visual style to a traditional social documentary subject – it really helps to make the project stand out from the noise of more traditionally shot photography.


http://www.tomhunter.org/think-global-act-local/ (accessed 01/08/2016)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zt7ky (accessed 01/08/2016)

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/04/photography-tom-hunter-best-shot (accessed 01/08/2016)

Grierson, J (1933) ‘The Documentary Producer’, Cinema Quarterly issue 2

Reflection: constructed documentary

This isn’t a specific research point suggested by the course notes but it is something I feel strongly about and wanted to capture my thoughts on. I’m writing this separate to the exercises in this project as I feel like otherwise I may repeat myself a lot!

The course notes include the following definition of ‘document’ from Clarke’s The Photograph, which is then dismissed as “reductionist”:

“Document means evidence… traced to documentum, a medieval term for an official paper… the most obvious of categories, and is used precisely as evidence of what occurred, so that its historical significance is employed further to invest its status as a truthful and objective account (or representation) of what has happened.” (Clarke 1997: 145)

I wholly disagree with this being “reductionist”. I’d go the other way, to say that this is an accurate and defensible definition of document, and the kind of photography discussed in this project exists in an augmented definition of document – let’s call them “documentary-like”, or “pseudo-documentary”, or “semi-documentary”.

A little later in the course notes:

“Any doubts about the documentary value of imaginative and performative approaches to documentary photography are rapidly dispelled when looking at the work of Hannah Starkey and Charley Murrell. “ (course notes: 80)

I only agree with the above statement if the word ‘documentary’ is removed. They undoubtedly have value as photographs, but it is not documentary value.

I really like John Grierson’s very concise definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson 1933); my concern here is that the creative overwhelms the actuality. The two component parts of Grierson’s definition are not (or in my opinion should not be) equally balanced: the actuality is the core of that which is depicted, the creative treatment is the manner in which it is represented.

One could argue that I am dwelling on semantics; I respectfully propose that the distinction is meaningful.

I strongly feel that something as important – from a communication point of view – as a documentary photograph must have some kind of line drawn on where the definition ceases to apply.

Otherwise, the definition of documentary photography becomes so broad as to be meaningless.

My line is drawn at:

The thing depicted actually happened.

  • This obviously includes traditional documentary photography
  • It would also include recreations (such as some of Jeff Wall’s work)
  • It would exclude works that, in the words of the course notes “[bring] real and imaginary experiences together and presenting them in such a compelling way that it becomes impossible to tell if what we’re looking at is real or not” (course notes: 78)

My issue is that this third, semi-fictionalised category introduces imagined elements into events, and even if these are “considered real and true”, the scope for dilution or misrepresentation is dangerously large.

I do not dismiss or dislike this style of “documentary-like” photography – I just feel uncomfortable with it being described as documentary photography.

I’m not normally a purist when it comes to blurring the boundaries between genres; I guess I just feel particularly strongly about this one.

For the exercises in the rest of this section I think I have settled on the term I am most comfortable with: I’m going with “semi-documentary”.

/ rant over


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

Grierson, J (1933) ‘The Documentary Producer’, Cinema Quarterly issue 2

Exercise: England Uncensored


Read the article on England Uncensored by the BBC Picture Editor Phil Coomes.

Dench talks about his “humorous approach with an underlying social commentary”. What do you think of this approach? Does it work? What are the ethical issues?


It sometimes feels like we’re asked to look at the work of Peter Dench rather a lot on this course…

The inevitable Martin Parr bit

The Martin Parr comparisons are so overwhelming that Dench not only acknowledges it but gets it in first:

“Rarely does a day go by in my professional life when Parr isn’t mentioned by, or to me. It’s impossible to photograph England without seeing Parr parts in many shots; crying children, litter, dogs with their tongues hanging out, bad food, bad weather. As a photographer I embrace that influence. I would like to think I would have arrived at the style of photography I have regardless of Parr; he certainly hastened the process and blazed a path for its acceptance as a photographic way of seeing.” (BBC 2012)

For me, he clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Parr but doesn’t add back in a huge amount of his own distinctive style. He seems to hone in on a subset of Parr’s typical subject matter – the grimier, bleaker side of Englishness.

Humour as a social commentary device

What they have in common that is relevant to the question posed here is the use of humour to deliver an underlying serious point. In this respect I think Dench is often more successful that Parr, who can sometimes be a little too subtle in his underlying messages and just comes across as sardonic or kitsch.

Dench’s subject matter is darker than Parr’s and his humour is often correspondingly a little bit spikier. The contrast between the intentionally funny pictures and the more serious ones is more heightened in Dench’s work.

I generally agree with his sentiment that “The humour disarms viewers allowing the impact of a more serious image dropped into the sequence to be tenfold.” (BBC 2012), although with England Uncensored (certainly with the images in his online portfolio, might be clearer in the book) it’s actually quite hard to see which ones he thought were ‘serious’.

A better example of his ability to introduce gravity into a seemingly sardonic set of images is A&E: Alcohol & England, which starts off with witty shots of groups of people in pubs but descends into arrests, vomit and bloodied limbs. Here I think the approach does work, as there’s a narrative direction.

Ethical issues

I guess the question is here because of the images that Dench takes that don’t paint the subjects in the best light. Is he exploiting people? Yes, he is I think. With the alcohol shots one could argue – equally strongly – that the subjects are bringing it on themselves by behaving badly in public, or contrarily that they are not in control of their faculties and so deserve a duty of care. I sense that Dench follows the former argument. With England Uncensored, he does come across as a little condescending, and his shots often lack the warmth that often saves the work of (yes, I’ll mention him again) Martin Parr.


England Uncensored interview http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/17190001 (accessed 29/07/2016)

England Uncensored http://www.peterdench.com/england-uncensored/ (accessed 29/07/2016)

A&E: Alcohol & England http://www.peterdench.com/alcohol-england/ (accessed 29/07/2016)

Exercise: Martin Parr territory


Read the document ‘Martin Parr: Photographic Works 1971–2000’ by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

Watch an audio slide show of Martin Parr talking about his progression from B&W to colour photography and The Last Resort.

In this video Martin Parr acknowledges and defends what he calls the “hypocrisy and prejudice” in his work. What do you think about this statement? Write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.


Martin Parr Putting on a Jumper, 2016 by Rob Townsend

I’ve blogged about Parr more than any other photographer over the last few years – from reviewing The Last Resort and his joint exhibition with Tony Ray Jones, to attempting to first of all better understand his appeal and then emulate his style – and I’ve moved from dislike to ambivalence to respect, as I gained a greater understanding of why he works like he does.

My real epiphany was an exhibition I saw at the Hepworth in Wakefield earlier this year, followed by a talk by Parr that I attended at Photo London in May.

I finally ‘got’ Parr. From my Hepworth post:

“Having previously dismissed Parr with the common criticisms – cruel, mocking, patronising – I came to the realisation that he’s not really (intentionally) any of those things. He is curious, probing, prolific and highly observational. He is a thinker and a writer as much as he is a photographer.”

From both the video clip and the NMPFT essay, one thing that comes across increasingly is the level of subjectivity and authorship in his work. The clip includes Parr discussing setting up an ‘arguing couple’ shot for the From A to B project (1995), where he cheerfully admits that he asked the woman to “look miserable”. Similarly, the essay quotes Parr describing his teenage project at Harry Ramsden’s chippy as portraying it “bleaker than it really was” (NMPFT 2002). So Parr clearly isn’t one of those photographers who just neutrally shoots what appears in front of him… he is seeking out particular pictures that present the message he is interested in conveying.

One of the things that I realised over the years about Parr is he is an equal opportunity satirist: he is as comfortable puncturing the upper class and the working class, and especially his own comfort zone, the middle class (this is also where a little acknowledged hypocrisy comes in). He spots the absurdities in all strata of society and picks them out, magnifies them for examination. This expansion of subject matter and approach is discussed in the NMPFT essay:

“The traditional subjects for documentary photographers had, for many years, been the extremes of society – the very rich and the very poor. Middle class consumerism was virgin territory, and the ‘subjective documentarist’ was a new phenomenon.” (NMPFT 2002)

Regarding hypocrisy: his full quote is:

“But I’m a very big hypocrite, insofar that I’m making things and objects which become part of the thing that, if you read my photographs carefully, I’m preaching against. I love the fact that my work is surrounded by hypocrisy and prejudice, and all these things that people don’t expect photographers to be pursuing.” (Parr 2000)

I think he’s being very honest here, more so than most photographers! He’s much more self-aware than I originally gave him credit for. Lots of photography, including documentary photography, is inherently hypocritical – an accusation usually denied except in Parr’s case.

Regarding prejudice: Parr is equally refreshingly open about his reflexivity and authorship. I made a note of something he said at the Photo London talk, about how people react to his photos: “People bring their own prejudices” (Parr 2016) – so prejudice isn’t just something that the photographer brings to the photo, the viewer adds their own. Parr holds up a mirror to the viewer. It’s quite fascinating, psychologically.

I think the closing words of there NMPFT essay summarise Parr extremely well:

“Parr gives us symbols, icons, clichés and trivia. He is a cultural commentator but doubles as a pessimist. He is a satirist and an exaggerator. He is consummate photographer with a love of tradition, and a wicked streak.” (NMPFT 2002)

It’s taken me a while to realise the extent to which Parr has helped to change the face of documentary photography.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJinAgBYaLs (accessed 29/07/2016)

http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/parr.pdf (accessed 29/07/2016)


Exercise: Changing face of Britain


Read Brett Rogers’ introduction to the online gallery of Documentary Dilemmas. Follow the ‘Glossary’ link. Look at the work of the photographers highlighted above [Paul Graham, Martin Parr, Paul Reas and Anna Fox] and others.

You might find it useful to read the Arts Council document Changing Britain as a brief contextual background to Documentary Dilemmas.


From the archived page: “The exhibition traced the development of documentary practice in British photography over the decade 1983-1993” (Arts Council 1993)

A couple of points jump out to me here:

  • 1983–93 is an oddly arbitrary time period: it doesn’t quite coincide with Thatcherism (1979–91); it seems like it was chosen because the exhibition was in 1993 and a 10-year retrospective view seemed logical
  • By the same token, an exhibition curated in 1993 examining the decade to 1993 is potentially a slightly flawed premise; is it possible to identify the significant works in a time period that one is still living through? Doesn’t one need the benefit of even a few years distance to properly review an era in the arts?

Anyway – to my first point, even if the era doesn’t neatly match, it’s clear that this exhibition captures life in the Thatcher years, a time of seismic change in the social order and the fabric of life for many people.

All of the photographers discussed here, in their own ways, used documentary photography to both record and comment on how Britain was chasing in the 1980s.

Paul Graham

Graham did significant work in the 1980s that depicted the lives of those being disadvantaged by the increasing inequality wrought by Thatcherism. His images are mostly grim, underpinned with social concern and unleavened by the humour that other photographers employed.

from Beyond Caring, 1985 by Paul Graham

He often used a vernacular, snapshot aesthetic with skewed angles and an informal feel. Graham captured scenes of quiet desperation well, and there’s an overall sense of resigned melancholy to much of his work. I do however struggle to call any of his images remarkable. The subject matter and the treatment may have been radical at the time, but they haven’t aged well in terms of being interesting photography – they are more just documents of the time.

Martin Parr

Parr I will write about in more detail in a subsequent exercise. Suffice to say here that he has more of a detached, sardonic eye, and is an equal opportunities satirist – he turned his camera on people of all classes in the 1980s, both the upwardly mobile and the less so. He is more of a curious neutral observer of everyday absurdity than a social documentarian. But he captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s brilliantly.

Paul Reas

Reas initially comes across as a little similar to Parr in some respects, with his subject matter and visual style. He focused more on cultural aspects of life such as the rise in consumerism and the effects of global politics and media on the country. He punctures some of the aspects of Britishness that others might have been more respectful of, such as the heritage tourist industry, as well as aspects that are often unnoticed, like rampant consumerism.

I Can Help, Army Wallpaper, B&Q Store, Newport South Wales, 1988 by Paul Reas
I Can Help, Army Wallpaper, B&Q Store, Newport South Wales, 1988 by Paul Reas

Like Parr, his style of documentary photography is one that takes observations of the subtleties of everyday life and magnifies them to bring out their absurdity. His photographs, more obviously than Parr’s I think, offer a critique of society by picking out representative scenes and reflecting society back to itself.

Anna Fox

Fox’s best 80s work is aimed at the upwardly-mobile, hyper-ambitious children of Thatcher, both at work and at leisure. In Work Stations (1987) she captured the increasingly competitive and ambition-drenched working life of the ‘Loadsamoney’ generation. She had an eye for the absurd – she even knew in 1987 how ridiculous this car-battery-sized mobile phone was…

"If we don't foul up, no-one can touch us.", 1987 by Anna Fox
“If we don’t foul up, no-one can touch us.”, 1987 by Anna Fox

Like the others, she used colour and a vernacular aesthetic to capture what seem to be ‘real scenes’ of 1980s life, but are really selected moments chosen to exaggerate the message. I particularly liked the Friendly Fire paintballing set: it captured the aggression of ambitious, alpha-male city types brilliantly, by taking them away from their desks to an environment where they could act out their daily aggression in a super-competitive way.

Whilst there are differences in subject matter, the four photographers discussed here do have a key factor in common: an almost anarchic disregard for the prevailing norms of documentary photography:

  • Colour, not B&W
  • Small cultural observations, not big social reform
  • Subjective and authorial, not neutrally observational

Beyond the subject matter – social upheaval – being particularly fruitful in the 1980s, there are other factors behind this trend towards more expressive documentary photography: the book How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present (2007) offers a good reason for the growth – changing distribution channels:

“Debates on the ethics of representation, which had dominated the decade, gave way to an energised photography that was directed by new interest from the art market and from advertising. As demand for traditional story-telling photojournalism began to decline, documentary photographers looked towards art commissions and small-scale book publishing as outlets for their work.” (Williams & Bright 2007: 161)

So, freed from the constraints of the previously dominant print photojournalism, photographers were able to work on subjects of more personal interest, as long as they could find an outlet – such as the Arts Council as in the case of the Changing Britain exhibition (1993-96).

There’s another quote from How We Are that I found to be particularly interesting, as it speaks of both the widely varied (and fast-changing!) nature of ‘Britain’ and the admission of the subjective eye of the author-documentarian:

“Photographing Britain is a complex endeavour – one that tells stories about the self, about other people, about the contradictory nature of life on this small island. These photographers, and the narratives they construct, provide a very partial view of Britain, its people, its landscape, its obsessions and its crises. The vision of photographers is by its nature artful, skewed and selective; they show us a Britain that they want us to see. They are picaresque narrators on a grand scale.” (ibid: 163)

What came across in looking at these 1980s British photographers is that these ‘partial views’, though highly personal and subjective, are also very perceptive and thought-provoking. Sometimes humorous, sometimes surreal, sometimes melancholy, sometimes scathing – there’s a point of view inherent in these photographs, and personally I find that more interesting to look at than more dry, deadpan, supposedly ‘objective’ documentary photography.


Documentary Dilemmas http://collection.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/exhibition/documentary-dilemmas-1993/ (accessed 28/07/2016)

Paul Graham http://paulgrahamarchive.com/ (accessed 28/07/2016)

Paul Reas http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=62 (accessed 28/07/2016)

Anna Fox http://www.annafox.co.uk (accessed 28/07/2016)

Williams, V. and Bright, S. (2007) How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present. London: Tate Publishing.

Book: The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore

My tutor recommended this book as part of his feedback to my last assignment.

It’s a deceptively slight volume, with short chunks of text interspersed with lots of photos that illustrate each concept under discussion. It seeks to answer the question: “What are the characteristics of photography that establish how an image looks?” (Shore 2010: 7). In both these ways it reminded me strongly of Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966), and the inspiration is acknowledged by Shore.

While Szarkowski looks at a photograph under headings that broadly correspond to its physical content (the thing itself, the detail, the frame, time, vantage point), Shore takes a slightly more cerebral approach and adds in the mental processes that surround the taking and viewing of photographs. His list is:

  • The physical level
  • The depictive level (broadly corresponding to Szarkowski’s categories)
  • The mental level

The physical level

The physical level is, to me anyway, unremarkable. While I do prefer seeing a photograph printed to seeing one on a screen, I am not a print fetishist that finds meaning or importance in the paper texture or the type of emulsion used. The content of the image is much important to me than the way in which it is made physical.

The depictive level

Now it starts to get more interesting. Shore’s opening claim is particularly pertinent to documentary photography (my emphasis):

“Photography is inherently an analytical discipline. Where a painter starts with a blank canvas and builds a picture, a photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture” (Shore 2010: 37)

Shore has four component parts to his depictive theory, which “form the basis of a photograph’s visual grammar” (ibid: 38):

  • Flatness (which he uses interchangeably with ‘vantage point’ – and for clarity I wish he’d chosen one term or the other)
  • Frame
  • Time
  • Focus

These four ‘transformations of the world into a photograph’ (ibid: 38) neatly summarise the authorial possibilities of documentary photography; the photographer gets to decide where to stand, what to include/exclude, when to press the shutter and whether/where to focus the viewer’s eye. The authorial side of documentary photography is something I find increasingly fascinating, and may become the subject of my critical review assignment.

The mental level

This is the section I found most interesting, thought-provoking yet ultimately frustrating.

In Shore’s words, “The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level.” (ibid: 97). He’s describing what happens in the mind when one sees a photograph – what it makes you think, how it makes you feel. The photographer could have had a particular intent in mind, and made quite conscious decisions on vantage point, framing, timing and focus in order to best get across the message intended. This attempted steering of the viewer’s mental process is part of the authorship model described above.

This is why some people (myself included) find abstract and surrealist imagery so absorbing – it creates the mental space in which to collaborate with the artist to arrive at one’s own interpretation. Some engaging images are like visual puzzles that need to be solved; others are inherently ambiguous and provide wide scope for different readings. This is the area that fascinates me most.

The closing chapter examines this notion under what it calls ‘mental modelling’:

“For most photographers, the model operates unconsciously. But, by making the model conscious, the photographer brings it and the mental level of the photograph under his or her control.” (ibid: 117)

This is where my frustration comes in: having introduced this fascinating concept of mental modelling, Shore just leaves it floating without any deeper examination. I’d have loved the book to have got into more detail such as examples of mental modelling, techniques other photographers have used, advice of how to nurture it and build it into one’s own practice, but it does not. It closes with the line: “It is a complex, ongoing, spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination and intention.” (ibid: 132). What a cliffhanger!

So for me, the book finishes just when it was getting really interesting.

Having said that, it has fundamentally added a layer of further insight into my understanding of what makes a successful photograph. This mental modelling of how a photograph represents the world can, if properly taken into consideration and harnessed, make a significant difference to the success of one’s work.


Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. 2nd ed. New York: Phaidon Press.

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. 2nd ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.