Assignment 5: (another) alternative title

I’m still thinking about the advice I was given to make the project title link to the content (and concept) more clearly.

For today anyway, I’m falling out with the last title idea I’ve been working with – Two Kinds of People – as the project deliberately doesn’t include people, and depicts whole towns using stereotypes.

I’ve already acknowledged a inspirational debt to Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1972-74), and I’m currently pondering whether to go one step further and make the title an homage to it:

Northern England in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems

… but I might change my mind tomorrow!

Assignment 5: research/inspiration: Rosler’s The Bowery…

This assignment has been going glacially slowly recently but this week I had a huge lightbulb moment.

I’ve discovered that it’s possible to be inspired by something without consciously realising it at the time. A seed of an idea planted long ago in my mind seems to be belatedly bearing fruit, and it’s helping me to refine my Assignment 5 approach and to place it in the context of the documentary photography canon.

Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

The trigger was reading Ine Gevers’ essay on post-documentary photography, a text that I found equal parts enlightening and infuriating. The essay used Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) as an example of using documentary photography in one’s work rather than being a documentary photographer. This distinction, and some of Gevers’ analysis of Rosler’s work from her post-documentary angle, struck me as worthy of further examination.

from The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75 by Martha Rosler

I had first come across the Bowery work a couple of years ago on an earlier OCA course, in the context of Rosler’s 1981 essay In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) where she refers to her own project. The concept of using documentary photography to critique itself wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time but has become more apparent as my subsequent studies have deepened my knowledge.

I’ve been struggling to articulate what I’m trying to achieve with my Assignment 5, which has morphed from being a ‘straight’ documentary photography project on social inequality into a critique of the tendency to over-simplification that is prevalent across politics, media and photography.

Much has been written about Rosler’s Bowery project, including a whole book by Steve Edwards (2012) and reading the critical appraisals of the work has been hugely enlightening for me – I found myself thinking, ‘Yes! that’s what I’m trying to do!’

By way of example, the Whitney Museum of American Art described the work using the following phrases (my emphasis):

“In her work, Martha Rosler has often employed—and deconstructed—photographic conventions in ways that examine the authenticity associated with documentary photography and the unbalanced relationship between disenfranchised communities and their visual representations.

The resulting disjunction—between words that refer to an all-too-human state and images devoid of people—suggests the inherent limitations of both photography and language as “descriptive systems” to address a complex social problem.” (Whitney Museum)

The Gevers essay had the following extracts that caught my attention:

“Her projects are aimed at calling into question numerous media-related presuppositions within film, video, documentary photography, text, exhibition. She manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word.” (Gevers 2005)

All of this is helping me to place my own objectives in a wider context of art and documentary photography. It’s reassured me that I’m not entirely making stuff up here! I am, I belatedly realise, trying to work within a post-documentary tradition talked about Gevers and practiced by Rosler.

Similarities and differences

The more closely I examine the Rosler work, and (hopefully) better understand the communication intent, the more I can see some similarities with what I am aiming to achieve.

  • Using documentary photography to make a comment on documentary photography as a representative medium
    • The limitations of using simple images to depict complex situations
    • Rosler herself opened the second paragraph of In, around and afterthoughts with this: “How can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photo- graphic practice? What remains of it?” (Rosler 1981)
  • Avoiding depicting individuals
  • Juxtaposing imagery and text
  • Using colloquial or pejorative labels
Burnley test round
test image for Assignment 5

There are however a couple of key differences:

  • Rosler’s work was more concerned with the political context of how traditional documentary photography encourages a social inequality between viewer and subject
    • My target is less overtly political/class-based and more aimed at critiquing the human tendency to over-simplify – not just in political discourse but in mass media and more personalised, social media platforms
  • Rosler’s work was targeted at the representational inadequacy of photographs and words
    • My angle is more on the representational inadequacy of photographs and data

Rather than being disheartened that my idea isn’t quite as original as I first thought, I am actually really enthused that I have found a ‘touchstone’ for this assignment. I feel like I’m on slightly more solid ground now that I am more consciously working ‘in the tradition of…’ someone or something. Such a reference point gives me somewhere to come back to if I am unsure, to consider my work in the context of (but not measure or judge myself against) known work.


Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Gevers, I. (2005) ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ in Documentary Now! (accessed 13/04/2017)

Exhibition: Strange and Familiar (study visit)

Manchester Art Gallery, 08/04/17
Tutor: Derek Trillo

I was looking forward to this exhibition for its subject matter and curatorial approach: in a nutshell, it is Britain as seen by non-British photographers. It was curated by Martin Parr and much of the content is from his own collection. I was curious to find out how much one would be able to discern the curatorial hand of someone with such a distinctive style (in the end: not much – it came across as the work of Parr the photography enthusiast more than Parr the photographer).

Study visit group

My particular interest at this point in time is how the exhibition could inform my current (slowly progressing) Assignment 5. I could do with some inspiration on how to see familiar places in a different light, so seeing work on Britain by other nationalities could be just the ticket.

I was curious as to the intent of the photographers at the time of shooting; were they:

  • deliberately aiming to capture their vision of a country foreign to them?
  • shooting for a more specific project that happened to be placed in Britain?
  • just shooting what they liked the look of, unaware of the context in which the work would later be placed?

Spoiler: it’s a mix of all of the above.

It’s a pretty big exhibition and I won’t comment on all the participants. Instead I will pick out some themes and photographers that resonated with me.

Strangeness is subjective

The exhibition’s full name is Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographer. It’s easy to play semantics but I did find myself checking my reactions to images against the nominal scope of the exhibition, and found the title to be more ambiguous and nuanced the more I thought about it.

On the face of it the exhibition concept can be interpreted as: subject matter that is strange to the (non-British) photographer but familiar to the British viewer. However, some of the content is inherently strange, even to most Brits. Some of it is either strange or familiar depending on exactly where you live (Paul Strand’s series on the Outer Hebrides would be alien to a Londoner but familiar to a Cornwall farmer) – Britain is incredibly diverse for a relatively small landmass. Perhaps this is Parr’s overriding message.

Some of the subject matter is universal and has no inherent Britishness (Bruce Gilden’s grotesque close-ups happen to have been taken here but could have been from anywhere in the world).

At least some of the strangeness is down to the temporal distance: the past is a foreign country. In a sense the combination of where and when may be more significant than the where and who, and I occasionally found myself wondering whether a British photographer could have taken a particular picture and retained the sense of otherness to a contemporary viewer. I considered whether cultural differences between nations were more pronounced in the past, and the relative isolation of an island nation meant that shooting in the UK was much more novel to the international eye in previous decades (up to the 1960s/70s?) than in the more homogenous, globalised now.

The notion of strangeness also made me think of the Solomon-Godeau essay “Inside/Out” and its debate on the relative merits of being an insider or an outsider. The insider can be too close to the situation to be objective, while the outsider can lack the depth of local knowledge to interpret situations appropriately. It’s interesting that a few of these projects were book or magazine commissions where the outsider status was seen as an advantage (the shadow of Robert Frank, the outsider who nailed America, looms over much of the 60s work). From reading the potted biographies it came across that some of the best work came from ‘semi-outsiders’ that had settled in British communities for long enough to absorb some of the local culture whilst retaining their eye for ‘otherness’.

Photographers and themes

I mention Henri Cartier-Bresson mainly to document a rare disappointment with his work, both from a content and an aesthetic point of view. He covers royal events from the 1930s and 1970s, which came across as shallow, touristic subject matter, and the 1977 work was (whisper it) unremarkable – he looks like he had lost his keen eye for compositional geometry in his later years.

Edith Tudor-Hart, Gian Butterini, Raymond Depardon are presented as social documentarians. Perhaps it’s trying to say that it’s easier – less awkward? – for an outsider to starkly capture social deprivation. Whilst this works as a theory within the construct of this exhibition, it is diluted somewhat when one considers the number of British photographers who captured such conditions equally well (Nick Hedges, Chris Killip, Chris Steele-Perkins et al).

Cas Oorthuys, Evelyn Hofer and Bruce Davidson were displayed close to each other, and they had in common that they took photos for books or magazines with a specific brief of showing representative visions of Britain, or particular cities. Each did inject their own personal voice into their work, especially Davidson, but I found most of these interesting only as historic documents rather than great photographs.

By contrast the same room devoted a wall to much more experimental, expressive work by Sergio Larrain, a new name to me but the star of the show. His work had a Frank/Americans vibe (though broadly contemporary so possibly coincidentally) in terms of disregarding technical and compositional norms and capturing random fleeting moments of visual beauty. The fragmentary presentation matched the style, with the images framed small and hung haphazardly.

Sergio Larrain

Similar but different was Shinro Ohtake, whose snapshot aesthetic really appealed to me. Ohtake took the idea of stream-of-consciousness photography to the streets of Britain and managed to simultaneously remind me of Martin Parr and Daido Moriyama. Another student on the study visit commented that Ohtake’s work was the first set where the aesthetics of the output was identifiable to the nationality of the photographer, in terms of the use of light and shade in particular images being reminiscent of traditional Japanese art. Again the presentation complemented the visual style – some pinned unframed to the wall, some as tiny snapshots in vitrines.

Shinro Ohtake

In the same way that Ohtake often managed to make suburban England resemble Japan, Garry Winogrand replicates his US street style so well that he makes London look like New York. These two are probably the most successful examples of photographers bringing their home country aesthetic to the UK – in a spin on the exhibition concept, they appeared to be (subconsciously?) making the strange more familiar to themselves, rather than emphasise the strangeness. If that makes sense…

Whilst most of the content is from mainland Britain, some of the most interesting images are from Northern Ireland, documenting the Troubles. Gilles Peress and Akihiko Okamura captured strikingly strange scenes that show, especially with the passage of time, just how other-worldly Northern Ireland could seem to British eyes. Peress used black and white which gives many of his images a timeless quality, while Okamura displays a keen eye for rapidly-captured surreal detail. Both created memorable images that accentuated what an unusual time and place they documented.

A handful of photographers’ work seemed a poor fit with the concept and the content of the rest of the exhibition: Bruce Gilden’s aforementioned grotesque close-up portraits are not distinctively British (having seen them online previously I had projected US nationality onto them, oddly), Tina Barney’s aristocracy shots look overly glossy and glamorous, and the Rineke Dijstra work is surprisingly small-scale (three portraits) that are nominally about Liverpool nightclub customers but are devoid of contextual cues. These may have been shot in Britain but say little or nothing about the nation. Interestingly there was one Gilden image I did appreciate as it did exude Britishness in a meaningful way: the dirty tattooed worker’s arm. I just didn’t see his portraits as successful in this context.

Bruce Gilden

For me the photographers whose work best fit the construct of the exhibition were those who found a view on idiosyncratic British scenes that made them look simultaneously strange and familiar – those who identified the quirk and held it up for examination in quite a deliberate way. Two in particular were Jim Dow, who found mesmeric patterns in the repetition of sweet shop jars and tower block stairwell tiles, and Hans van der Meer, whose wide shots of local football games in unlikely environments made me smile, and said more to me (as a non-fan) about the peculiarly British appeal of football than the usual shot of a premier league stadium.

Study visit group discussing Hans van der Meer


I found this to be a fascinating and insightful exhibition, with thoughtful curation and sequencing that subtly accentuated themes and connections, with only a couple of exceptions (forgivable of course, as it’s all so subjective and a show as diverse as this can’t please all the people all the time). A few exclusions struck me as odd – no Bill Brandt, for example – but I’m sure there’s good reason for that.

I came away with the sense that the diversity of the photographers and the imagery is analogous to the diversity of the United Kingdom itself. The message seemed to be that Britain is – or has been – all of these places, as seen by these ‘outsiders’. Can anyone really ‘reveal’ Britain? Only in parts, and even the amalgamation of the ‘Britains’ revealed in this exhibition is just one version of the bigger picture.

But to revert to an earlier point: is it really the non-British status of the photographers that enabled a particular eye for the strangeness? Val Williams and Susan Bright edited How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present (2007) which is full of idiosyncratic images of Britain, and the vast majority of photographers were British. My take is that it doesn’t specifically take an outsider to nail the distinctly British, although they may have a natural advantage; the British insider can also capture such imagery as long as they possess an enquiring mind and an observant eye.

Finally, as ever I really appreciated the study visit format as it gives me an opportunity to discuss what I’m seeing with like-minded people, and to bounce ideas and interpretations off each other. It’s a really enriching part of the study experience, and I should do more of it.


For my own assignment research this was a useful reference and inspiration source. There are some specific pointers I took away:

Firstly it reinforced the increasingly strong sense I have (and wish to communicate with the assignment) that documentary photography is just so inherently subjective. That a couple of dozen photographers can take the same subject matter (albeit as broad as a country) and find such a diversity of imagery is testament to the individual reflexivity brought to the task. The overriding lesson I’ve learned on the entire Documentary course is that there is no such thing as a single truth. This exhibition was a good reminder.

The main new point of inspiration is to look to isolate small details more than I have been doing. Often a close-up of a small part of a scene can intensify the significance. I need to look more closely for the details that can communicate my message. the Ohtake and Larrain work was particularly inspirational in this regard.


Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Manchester Art Gallery. Friday 25 November 2016–Monday 29 May 2017

Solomon-Godeau, A. “Inside/Out” in La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

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

Assignment 5: framework and presentation questions

My last post on Assignment 5 from a few weeks ago was optimistically titled ‘The clouds part‘, but I’ve spent most of the time since being dissatisfied with my work to date and struggling to ‘find a way back in’ to this assignment… so the clouds hadn’t so much parted as shifted around slightly. However, I am finally starting to see real chinks of daylight.

My concerns

There have been two related obstacles:

  • Dissatisfaction with the content of the photos so far
  • Concerns that my concept may not be clearly communicated

Unhappy with my photographs

My basic problem over the last few weeks has been dissatisfaction with my photos taken so far.   I’ve taken over 500 photos in four locations over five shooting days since November last year. Very few of them are standing out as good photos individually, and almost no pairs of images to juxtapose are making themselves apparent to me. I have a strong sense of how I want these images to end up looking like, but am not yet being successful in finding subjects that match my visualisations.

Part of it is down to an ongoing debate I’m having with myself on whether to include people in the project or not (I will do a separate blog post on this particular point). Part of this is related to the conceptual communication point I come onto next.

Lacking confidence in the communication of the concept

As mentioned in several recent posts (a fact in itself that reveals how unsure I am about its clarity) my overarching communication intent is about the perils of oversimplification, and the conceptual approach I am taking is to juxtapose binary stereotypes (which happen to be based around the EU Referendum vote).

My fear is that using stereotypes to draw attention to stereotyping as a phenomenon is inherently risky, as there is a danger that the viewer simply sees the stereotyping… :-/

I needed to find a way of making the use of stereotypes more self-evidently deliberate and therefore significant.

My ideas

I have been wrapping my head around these two interrelated dilemmas and am gradually evolving my approach in a way that I think might – might – resolve both concerns.


First, I came to the conclusion that to improve the success rate of the photos themselves I needed some kind of framework to the images I want to capture – a shooting list. I’ve been shooting with two sets of keywords in my mind but it’s still been a little too vague to be useful. I need to really hone my visualisations down to a subject matter level.

In order to do this I also started thinking of ways of making the underpinning ‘stereotypes’ concept more obviously deliberate. I started thinking of how supporting text can be extremely useful, and so how to work stereotypes into the captions. To this end I enlisted some OCA Facebook buddies to brainstorm Remain and Leave stereotypes with me, and between us we came up with the following list:

  • Rich / Poor
  • Have / Have Not
  • Posh / Plebs
  • Experts / Man in the Street
  • Multicultural Middle Class / White Working Class
  • Metropolitan Elite / Left Behind
  • The Establishment / The Workers
  • Enemies of the People / The People
  • Thrivers & Strivers / Skivers & Survivors
  • Smug Liberals / Angry Bigots
  • Swots / Uneducated
  • Fat Cats / The Great Unwashed
  • White Collar / Blue Collar
  • Upwardly Mobile / Down & Out
  • Globalist / Nationalist
  • Unpatriotic / Patriotic
  • Losers / Winners

A subset of these, or something similar, could become briefs for specific image pairings, and in turn appear as captions of some kind.

Presentation format

I’ve been trying to think creatively about how to visually communicate the message about binary oversimplification by using the exact Leave/Remain vote percentages from the specific towns and cities as the ratio of the two parts of the composite image.

My initial approach to this was quite straightforward, juxtaposing the pairs of images as two appropriately scaled rectangles:

However, I wasn’t sure whether this really drove home the binary categorisation that I was looking to project. I started thinking about infographics and data visualisation, and hit upon the idea of using a pie chart (it was National Pie Week…) with the segments labeled to form the captions:

Please note that I am not sure about these specific images – these are just mockups to test the concept.

My current feeling is that the visual concept does broadly work in terms of data visualisation, but it’s not necessarily easy (depending on the specific images) to visually decipher the two component parts due to the irregular frame shapes.


Next steps

  • Review existing images (again) against the ‘stereotype pairings’ discussed above
  • Shoot new images with stereotype pairings as image briefs
  • Consider the pie chart visual treatment more, and potentially gather some peer feedback

Assignment 5: the clouds part

As mentioned on here recently, I took a three month break from Documentary, including work on the final assignment, that ended last week. Yesterday I went out for my first shooting trip since that break, and think it’s time to collect my thoughts on the assignment and where I go from here.

After such a break, it’s tempting to think that one of two things can happen to a project:

  • I remain enthused and pick back up where I left off
  • I become disillusioned and abandon the whole idea

In reality however, it’s ended up being somewhere in between.

This in itself is a good example of what is increasingly the underlying message of the assignment – that we humans are drawn to over-simplifying complex situations!

It’s simply about… simplification

What the assignment is ‘about’ has evolved, even though the subject matter and visual approach are unchanged:

  • The assignment began life as being ‘about Brexit’
  • Then in my mind it became more ‘about inequality’
  • As time’s gone on I have distilled this down to it being ‘about simplification’

Whilst I am excited about the new depths I am finding in the assignment, I remain concerned about my ability to successfully articulate the message. The work still needs to be rooted in the same subject matter – the images still need to be of socially unequal northern English towns that voted to Leave the EU, yet still communicate my over-arching message of the dangers of over-simplification.

‘I hadn’t thought of that before’

At the risk of name-dropping, whilst in Arles last summer I had an opportunity to speak to OCA principal Gareth Dent about my intended assignment subject. He asked an excellent question that I presume is one often used to challenge students: he asked, what’s the ‘I hadn’t thought of that before’ aspect of the project? Familiar subject matter needs to have some angle that makes the viewer think of it in a new and different way, some way into opening a new line of thought. Good documentary work needs to be – to employ an overused phrase that resonates here – thought-provoking.

What thoughts did I want to provoke? At the time my answer was more shallow and less satisfactory than it is now: I said that I wanted to highlight the co-existence of the haves and the have-nots in the same places, that these towns are overlapping parallel worlds with different populations. But this didn’t feel like all there was to it.

I Woke Up and Everything Was Fine

I’m a firm believer in the importance of titles to projects, and the working title for this project, for as long as it’s had one, has been ‘I Woke Up and Everything Was Fine‘. As time’s gone on I’ve realised that coming up with this title was the beginnings of me refining this idea down to the ‘simplification’ message.

All politics, and very specifically a referendum, is predicated on simplifying impossibly complicated situations to a point of almost meaningless bluntness. It forces a diverse population to sort into binary tribes. All nuance is lost. From 24th June 2016 the UK population was, if you believe the media, sorted into the Metropolitan Liberal Elite and the Disenfranchised Left-Behinds.

The simple act of placing an X in one of two boxes on a form carried with it an implicit expectation:

  • Remain meant “I protect my happy life”
  • Leave meant “I change my unhappy life”

Yes, I’m over-simplifying. Deliberately.

Photography = simplification

The main epiphany of the last three months thinking about, but not working on, the assignment has been the solidification of this fundamental point:

Photography itself is simplification

The documentary photographer is a professional over-simplifier. A subject is chosen, an authorial stance is adopted (knowingly or otherwise), decisions are made at the shooting, editing and presentation stages that boil down the complex world in front of the camera into a series of two-dimensional rectangles of time and light.

I’m not saying this shouldn’t happen – it would be impossible for any medium to adequately record a 360º, 100% view of any reality… even rolling 24-hour video surveillance has to choose a location and a viewing angle. There’s always something not shown that may or may not be pertinent to the ‘truth’ being captured.

What I want to do with this work is get viewers to acknowledge and think about this inherent simplification. Maybe also to consider the risks it brings, and what we as humans can do to mitigate these risks.

I’m hoping that the parallels between photography and politics will become apparent through the imagery; I will however weave this into the Statement of Intent as well to reinforce the message.

Application to the assignment

This navel-gazing has to lead me somewhere practical :-)

Since restarting my studies I’ve been revisiting some of the images taken so far with this ‘lens’ of over-simplification, and determining which images still make the cut (spoiler: not many).

To get the over-simplification message across I feel like I might need to be more deliberately stereotypical in my subject matter – to make the juxtapositions overtly more jarring. I want to present the message that says something like: “Town X is 33% like THIS and 67% like THAT” with the intended reaction that I have gone too far, that my characterisation has tipped over into caricature.

I want people’s reaction to be to disagree with me! Or at least what they think I am saying.

This feels like quite a tricky endeavour. Quite a fine line to walk.

But I think I can pull it off.

Next steps

  • Rate images taken so far against the new criteria
    • Including the new set I took yesterday in Middlesbrough with this approach in mind
  • Schedule more shooting days in other towns
  • Start building up a longlist of candidate images

Exercise: The Judgment Seat of Photography


Read the article ‘The Judgment Seat of Photography’ (Christopher Phillips 1982)

Add to your learning log the key research materials referenced in the text.


This is an enlightening essay on photography as art, built around the historical work of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It is not, however, specifically about documentary photography as art. Certain aspects of the essay did strike me as relevant and thought-provoking and I will extract these below.

The instruction in the exercise brief to add the referenced research materials to my learning log is somewhat odd: the text has no less than 81 footnotes and only a handful of these came across as being strongly relevant to my current studies.

My preference for how to respond to this essay is to:

  • Discuss the different approaches by MoMA’s first three Directors of Photography and how these relate to the debate of photography as art
  • Discuss the recontextualisation of photography in the gallery/museum, specifically the role of the curator vs the role of the photographer
  • Add my own thoughts on documentary photography being treated as art

MoMAs place in photographic history

Without crediting MoMA with single-handedly elevating photography to the status of art in the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine exactly how the history of photography as an art form would have unfolded had the museum never existed.

MoMA’s first Director of Photography was Beaumont Newhall (1908–93) and my simple take on his tenure (1940–47) is that he was, in a sense, ahead of his time. He saw the potential of photography as art but struggled to articulate this to both the museum’s management and its visitors.

Phillips’ argument is that Newall deferred to the ‘cult value’ of photography over its ‘exhibition value’ (the two kinds of value described by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1969). He treated photographs as pieces of art and emulated painting’s modes of presentation; he emphasised the ‘art credentials’ of the photograph by bringing attention to the unique qualities of the materials used and the variability of the printing process. His first MoMA exhibition with Ansel Adams was accompanied by text that introduce “notions of rarity, authenticity and personal expression – already the vocabulary of print connoisseurship is being brought into play” (Phillips 1982: 36).

Newhall’s prolific curatorial output (almost 30 exhibitions in seven years) seems with hindsight to have been a breakneck attempt to educate the US public on the artistic potential of the photograph as quickly as possible. He curated shows covering the history of the medium, the “canonisation of masters” (ibid: 38) and emerging talents such as Levitt and Cartier-Bresson. But it was possibly all a little too much too soon, and he tried too hard to borrow characteristics from other art forms.

Edward Steichen (1897–1973) was already a renowned photographer when he took over the MoMA role (1947–62), with a very different approach. He had a highly democratic, populist vision for photography and did not care for the notion of photography as an autonomous fine art.

His tenure was marked with an emphasis on Benjamin’s derided ‘exhibition value’ of photography; Steichen cared little for uniqueness and ‘aura’ and instead positively embraced the reproducibility of the photograph as a means of illustration – the photograph as mass media object.

Steichen’s exhibitions (including, most famously, Family of Man in 1955) were thematic collections that elevated the role of the curator above that of the photographer (a move that triggers interesting discussions on the notion of authorship and context – of which more below). He held no reverence for the sanctity of the original print or the personal expression that this had implied: “The photographers complied, for the most part, signing over to the museum the right to crop, print, and edit their images.” (Phillips 1982: 48). His installations drew comparisons with magazine layouts more than art galleries, and were considered more accessible to the general public as a result.

Although hired directly by Steichen, MoMA’s third Director of Photography (1962–91), John Szarkowski (1925–2007), again took a different approach to his predecessor. He returned, to an extent, to the ‘cult value’ of photography – white walls, uniform print sizes and wooden frames made a comeback. He built on Steichen’s intervening populism to reintroduce some of Newall’s underlying principles of photography as art, but with an increasingly contemporary twist.

Where Newall had emphasised the uniqueness of individual prints as art objects by comparing them to other art forms, Szarkowski was more interested in the uniqueness of the medium itself. His seminal work The Photographer’s Eye (1964) deconstructed the photograph into five formal elements intrinsic to photography (the detail, the thing itself, time, the frame and the vantage point). His work with photographers was more respectful of individual practitioners with their own ‘voices’ than Steichen’s subjugating curatorial approach.

The photographers championed by Szarkowski, such as Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander and Eggleston, all worked in what one might term self-expressive documentary rather than traditional social documentary photography. They were all investigating the real world but from a viewpoint inside their own heads.

For me, Szarkowski stood on the shoulders of Newall and Steichen to complete the circuitous journey to accepting photography as a branch of fine art; maybe we had to go through the earlier two phases first and Szarkowski was the right person to bring it to fruition at that point in time.

Curation: recontextualisation and reinterpretation

Stepping back from the detail of these three phases, there is a connecting thread here of recontextualisation: in all three tenures MoMA was at the forefront of attempts not necessarily to promote photography as art but certainly to take photographs out of their original context and present them in a new way. Newall and Szarkowski favoured presentation akin to paintings while Steichen preferred more modern, magazine-like installations. In all cases, photographs were being recontextualised by a curator, and the key difference is the extent of curatorial involvement (interference?).

All photography is inherently taking things out of context. In the words of Garry Winogrand: “When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.” (date unknown). Szarkowski himself has this to say on the subject: “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.” (1964: 70).

The interesting and potentially problematic aspect of this context question is the additional layer of a curator – if the original photographer is already making authorial decisions on inclusion/exclusion at the level of the individual frame and the project body of work, these are potentially subsequently diluted by the selection decisions of the curator, working to their own authorial intentions. Or maybe the original authorial decisions are amplified rather than diluted – who knows?

There is a kind of parallel with the role of the picture editor in journalism – the editorial selection decision ultimately trumps the picture-taking one, in terms of what is presented to the audience. One key difference between a picture editor and a curator is the objective of the curation exercise: the former is trying to best illustrate a news story, the latter is trying to articulate some coherent larger communication message through ‘art’. But in both cases, the press picture editor and museum curator become what Phillips calls an “orchestrator of meaning” (Phillips 1982: 38).

At MoMA Steichen was the most extreme example of this, collating photographs as illustrations of predefined messages:

“To prise photographs from their original contexts, to discard or alter their captions, to recrop their borders in the enforcement of a unitary meaning, to reprint them for dramatic impact, to redistribute them in new narrative chains consistent with a predetermined thesis – thus one might roughly summarize Steichen’s operating procedure.” (ibid: 46)

Szarkowski may have paid more attention to the self-expression of the original photographer but ultimately is still sculpting his own ‘version’ (of Arbus, of Friedlander, etc) from the available work.

Documentary photography as fine art

The essay doesn’t cover this subject specifically or thoroughly but the preceding course notes do raise some points that I’d like to address.

The art curation process described above can, and often is, applied to documentary photographs. This brings ethical questions into play: is it acceptable that images of death, destruction, squalor, sickness and depravity are converted into art objects?

It’s possible and hopefully useful here to make a distinction between the objectives of the museum and the gallery:

  • An artwork in a museum is a public presentation, to be experienced (enjoyed / educated by)
  • An artwork in a gallery is a commodity, to be bought and sold

My personal view is that documentary photography in the informative environment of a museum is a valid and ethical communication form (whether it is ‘art’ is another question). Documentary photography in a gallery, with a price tag attached and wealthy art enthusiasts sipping champagne before it, pondering an investment – that is unethical.

To an extent I believe that some photographers allow or even encourage their documentary photography work to become treated as fine art. If the intent of the image is to communicate a ‘truth’ then why not produce limitless low-cost reproductions? By restricting the reproduction and display of their own work, photographers are effectively participating in the art market with their documentary images.

Luc Delahaye, for example, is one photographer who straddles the worlds of documentary and fine art – he shoots on a large format camera and exhibits wall-sized prints that sell for thousands of dollars, yet the subject matter is the kind of thing seen daily in newspapers, magazines and on news TV – bomb sites, angry mobs, bodies. I find this somewhat distasteful, I must admit.

To close with my take on Benjamin’s theory of two types of art value:

  • Documentary photography should have exhibition value
  • But I’m not convinced it should have cult value


Phillips, C. (1982) ‘The Judgement Seat of Photography’ in October, Vol 22 (Autumn 1982) pp 27–63

Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ trans. Harry Zohn,in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books.

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

Reflections after a short break

I took a three-month break from Documentary which ended yesterday.

As per my last post, I realised towards the end of 2016 that I could only really complete one of my Level 2 courses in time for January submission, so I prioritised Gesture & Meaning. December was taken up with completing G&M Assignment 6, January with reworking and preparing the whole set of G&M assignments for assessment and February I took off studying completely, my first study break since starting the degree just under four years ago.

[ I took the month off to set myself up as a commercial photographer for hire and so will be combining study and work (hopefully on a roughly 50:50 basis) until I complete the degree. Taking 2016 to study full-time was an excellent decision and I’m very glad I did it, but going forward I want to blend studying with re-engaging with the world at large and earning a few pennies… ]

Taking a few months off this course has given me time to reflect on my Level 2 experience so far – what I’ve learned, how doing G&M in parallel has helped, what I might do differently on this last stretch. I’ll summarise the general points here and will also go into a little detail on my current thinking on Assignment 5.

Two Level 2 courses in a year is a stretch

In terms of total study time, a calendar year should really give enough time to complete both courses at the estimated number of hours per unit – I was averaging something like 25 hours of study per week, which isn’t quite full-time but still pretty solid. But it’s not so much the total time as the elapsed time – including the thinking time in between sections, the space to reflect, to apply what one is learning going along and stretch one’s academic and creative muscles. It feels now like sticking to my original plan of submitting both L2 courses by this January would have been to the detriment of both.

Expect rework

The amount of rework I decided to do for G&M was an eye-opener. It made me realise how much both my abilities and my standards have increased over Level 2. I came to realise that I’ll almost certainly want to put a similar amount of diligence and pride into reworking the Documentary assignments. For this reason I stand by my decision to delay completing Documentary to give my attention to G&M for assessment.

Presentation matters

I’m glad I had the chance to pull together the assessment pack for one L2 course before the other, as I learned a lot through trial and error about the many different ways in which one can present the material for assessment. I feel better prepared to do it a second time having been through it once.

Studying other genres has complemented my interest in documentary

Gesture & Meaning is a very eclectic course, with a section each on four genres: documentary, fine art, portraiture and advertising. Whilst the first section inevitably covered some of the same ground as this course, the other three really broadened my horizons in a lasting way. I realised by the time I’d done four G&M assignments that I had found a way to bend all of the briefs towards some form of documentary subject matter, even if a genre-led visual or conceptual approach was taken.

For example, my ‘fine art’ assignment for G&M tackled food poverty using a surrealist approach, while my ‘advertising’ assignment employed a similar kind of photographic ‘magic realism’ as a response to the terror attack in Nice.

Realising how I’d steered the G&M assignments in this way made me think that I’m possibly beginning to find that elusive Personal Voice…

In addition, the two academic assignments on G&M allowed me to choose my own subjects, so I steered them towards my interest in documentary photography and more specifically how it interacts into other genres – my oral presentation was on the subject of portraiture as a device in documentary photography and my critical review was on overcoming the limitations of the still image for depicting a narrative, mainly using documentary photographs as examples.

This cross-genre research led me to the realisation that…

There are many ways of approaching ‘documentary photography’

Yes, the course itself is at pains to point this out, but it’s taken a while for the significance of this to really sink in. I confess that earlier in this course I was somewhat dismissive of the notion of ‘constructed documentary’ as lacking a sufficiently strong core of actuality. After a few months of not working on – but continuing to think about – documentary photography, I am becoming more comfortable with an expanded definition of documentary and less hung up on established genre parameters.

This has, in turn, deepened my interest in…

Interrogating documentary photography as a genre

I’m increasingly interested in the form as well as the content – the nature and character of documentary photography, if you will. How it ‘works’, what it’s good at, what is potentially problematic about it, etc. I’m particularly interested in the theory and practice of authorship in documentary work. This is something I would like to look at more deeply at Level 3.

My approach to Assignment 5 is evolving

I’ve touched on this already, in one of my last posts before my recent break, but in my head I’m increasingly separating the subject matter from my underlying message intent:

  • It started off being ‘about’ the EU Referendum result
  • It evolved into digging deeper and being a statement on social inequality
    • that may have led to the above result
  • For me now it’s increasingly become about oversimplification of complex issues
    • and the parallels between politics and documentary photography
    • both use simplification as a technique, consciously or otherwise

I’ll pick up on this last point in my next Assignment 5 specific post.

That’s it for now!

Assignment 5: slow progress

I’m slowing down a bit on this assignment for various reasons. I’ll pick it up again properly in the new year and will focus on the section five coursework until then…

Some big picture context first

At the start of 2016 I set myself the target of completing both my Level 2 courses (Documentary and Gesture & Meaning) in time for the January 2017 submission deadline, which realistically meant finishing up before Christmas and spending January doing a little rework (not too much) and mainly pulling together the submission packs.

This has proved to be optimistic…

I’m almost finished on Gesture & Meaning: all coursework is done and five out of six assignments are done, with just an essay left to write. I will submit this in January.

Documentary looked on the face of it to be slightly less work overall: only five assignments compared to G&M‘s six. However, whereas G&M finishes coursework at the end of section four, leaving only two (non-photographic) assignments for the last third of the course, Documentary continues with coursework through section five. Add to this the brief that the final assignment is the ‘personal project’ and is intended to be bigger in terms of both scope and final deliverables than all the other assignment, it’s become apparent recently that I’m not going to finish Documentary before Christmas! So I’ve told my tutor to expect the assignment sometime around the end of February / beginning of March.

This realisation sunk in after a few photoshoots for Assignment 5 over the last week and a half…

Experience so far

My assignment is based on producing 10-15 pairs of images (‘positive’ and ‘negative’) from shoots in the following six northern English towns and cities that voted heavily to leave the EU:

  • Accrington
  • Barnsley
  • Burnley
  • Hull
  • Middlesbrough
  • Redcar

So far I have shot in three locations, with the following experiences:

  • Accrington:
    • I struggled to get many ‘positive’ images (and the weather was atrocious)
  • Middlesbrough:
    • Opposite problem – there’s been lots of regeneration in the centre and it was harder than I anticipated to find the more disadvantaged side of the town!
  • Hull:
    • A timing problem… the entire city centre is being dug up for regeneration works in advance of the 2017 European City of Culture celebrations
    • So getting any photos without cranes, workmen, holes in the road, barriers, ramps or apologetic signs is pretty much impossible :-/
    • But it will be lovely when it’s finished, I’m sure…!

Add to these specific problems a few general learnings:

  • Shooting in some of the more disadvantaged areas is proving more difficult than I expected
    • Quite a few suspicious looks from people
    • (and I’m too introverted to walk over and chat with them…)
  • Generally I’m trying to shoot photos without too many people in them
    • As I want to let the places speak for themselves rather than use people as signifiers (this may sound odd / not make a lot of sense, but I know what I mean…)
    • But the time of year is meaning that the town centres in particular are exceptionally busy (Christmas shopping)
  • Frankly, I haven’t done enough research and planning on what kind of subject matter I want
    • I was expecting to be inspired once on location, but it isn’t really happening that way just yet…

The result of all of these points is that from three days of shooting over two weeks, I only have a handful of images that I am happy with.

So with all of this in mind, I think I’m postponing further shoots until the new year. I’ll no doubt go back to the three locations already used, but hopefully come back with better results.

Some more processing experiments

I’ve been posting work-in-progress for this assignment, even though I’m not happy with the images, as I’m experimenting with the layout – this is an important aspect of the presentation on this assignment.

The thing I’m playing with at the minute is how to depict the % split between the two parts of the composite image.

Next steps

  • Step away from it for a while and come back with a fresh pair of eyes later!

Exercise: Cruel + Tender


The 2003 exhibition Cruel + Tender was the first major exhibition at the Tate dedicated exclusively to photography. Rather than adopting a chronological approach, the Tate opted to arrange the work of living and dead documentary photographers in a more fluid sequence. The aim was to encourage the audience to make connections between historical and contemporary documentary photography.

Look at the Cruel + Tender brochure. Listen to interviews with two of the featured photographers, Rineke Dijkstra and Fazal Sheikh. Add relevant notes to your learning log.


Exhibition in general

It’s an interesting place in the course notes to cover this exhibition, as in a sense it goes back to documentary photography basics – one could almost imagine it being in the early part of the first section as a context-setting exercise. Having said that, it also makes sense at this juncture, as it specifically talks about how documentary photography has been reinvigorated through the exhibition format in the last 15-20 years. As a bonus, it’s good to be reminded of some of the key aspects of documentary photography that we have covered during the rest of this course, collated here in a digestible format.

The teaching kit brochure (and by extension the exhibition itself) covers such topics as:

  • Portraiture and how to represent a person through photography
  • The problematic nature of documentary in relation to ideas about truth
  • The role of the viewer and how we are implicated in the images we look at
  • The use of series of photographs to build the way we ‘read’ works

The brochure quotes Charles Caffin from 1901:

“There are two distinct roads in photography – the utilitarian and the aesthetic: the goal of the one being a record of facts, and the other an expression of beauty.”

It also adds a third road: conceptual photography. I believe it’s become apparent in the 100+ years since Caffin made his statement that the distinction between these ‘roads’ is increasingly blurred; many works manage to be both aesthetically pleasing and informative, others manage to be disruptive / conceptual whilst still being ‘expressions of beauty’. No doubt if I thought about it for long enough I could find a photographer that manages to fuse all three categories of photography in their work.

Although I didn’t see the exhibition at the time, it seems that its main success was in revitalising documentary photography by presenting it as a genre that transcended the specific issues and had matured into a valuable form of visual communication.

Rineke Dijkstra

I’ve been familiar with both these series (Mothers and Bullfighters) before now but this is the first time I’ve discovered that they have been exhibited together. I’d say that Dijkstra falls partly into the third category mentioned above, as in there’s a conceptual foundation underpinning the documentary work.

There were two interesting things I took away from Dijkstra’s decision to juxtapose these two sets of images, and in some ways they both raise wider points about good documentary photography:

  • Their similarities:
    • Not just aesthetically…
    • … but also thematically (people in the aftermath of scary, life-changing, maybe even life-threatening situations)
    • From this I took the value in having a distinctive personal voice
  • How they subvert clichés:
    • The ‘man = fighter’ and ‘woman = nurturer’ clichés are recognised by Dijkstra but she points out that in both cases she is showing another side to the stereotype
    • The men are not macho but looking slightly shaken, ill-at-ease
    • The women don’t look like natural born mothers but look similarly unsettled and in some cases quite petrified
    • From this I took the importance of presenting the less obvious, less normally-seen side of situations

Fazal Sheikh

Sheikh is perhaps more of a traditional documentarian in that he eschews the kind of conceptual artifice that makes Dijkstra’s work so striking (but also a little un-documentary, if that makes sense). Sheikh’s work is based on being embedded in situations and returning to his subjects over time. He does this to achieve more natural and ‘real’ images once any feelings of mistrust have dissolved. He’s also surprisingly democratic in how much he lets the subjects drive how they are represented.

Abdia Abdi Khalil and her son Hameed, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1992.jpg
Abdia Abdi Khalil and her son Hameed, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1992 by Fazal Sheikh

His approach underlines the complexities of real-life situations and the necessary simplification that documentary photography generally imposes. It comes across that seeing his work in an exhibition (or maybe a book) format would provide the depth and context necessary to see his subjects as individuals rather than just representatives / metonyms.


Cruel + Tender (accessed 21/11/2016)

Rineke Dijkstra (accessed 21/11/2016)

Fazal Sheikh (accessed 21/11/2016)

Assignment 5: format experiments

I’ve been playing around with the format of joining the pairs of pictures together, as I decided that as well as not liking many of the pictures I’ve taken so far, I’m unconvinced by the format I’d started with.

To recap: I’m joining pairs of images to show two sides of a particular town or city.

Photographic ratios

I’m looking to present the images in a comparative horizontal ratio of approximately 1/3 to 2/3. My original intention was to keep the resultant overall rectangle to be a ‘normal’ photographic ratio, and the widest such ratio is 3:2. When this is divided into 1/3 and 2/3 horizontal splits, the resultant images are a tall and thin left hand portion (2×1) and a square right hand portion.

Accrington (33.8 / 66.2)

Both these ratios look distractingly odd and cramped, and for me this visually overrides the 3:2 ratio of the complete image.

I decided to set aside the intention for the overall image to be in a recognised photographic ratio and looked instead at the component parts being in standard ratios and working together to produce an overall image that would be more panoramic.


I concluded that a 2×3 left hand side and a 4×3 right hand side to produce an overall image that’s twice as wide as tall, and would visually work better than my original layout.

Accrington (33.8 / 66.2)

Communicating the split

In the mockups above the split between the left and right hand positions is signalled both in the actual visual balance between the two sides and by the numbers in the caption.

However, I felt that this doesn’t strongly enough steer the viewer to the underlying meaning of the split, namely that it represents the two responses to the EU Referendum (and in my deliberately over-simplified take on the situation, the ‘haves’ vs the ‘have nots’).

The panoramic ratio of the revised format seemed to better lend itself to showing that this is a kind of ‘chart’ with each portion representing something. I experimented with including a partial scale along the bottom of each image. Once I’d done this, it also felt right to include the town name as a photographic caption rather than a text addition separately.

Visual separation

With this new panoramic ratio, the effect of seeing the image as a whole is diminished somewhat, and it’s more evident that this is a juxtaposed pair. This should make matching pairs together a little easier, I think. As it is now more clearly a juxtaposed pair, I started wondering whether it might benefit from a tiny bit of delineation between the two parts, so I introduced a 1-pixel keyline between them.

Finally I looked at further visual separation, now that the key line acts as a kind of visual break, to emphasise the disparity between the two parts of the image. I converted the right hand side to black and white.

This wouldn’t have worked as well prior to the key line separation but seems to be effective now. Whether making the right hand side black and white is a little too heavy-handed, I’m not sure. It might be, and I might be OK with heavy-handed!

That’ll do for now. I did another shoot on Friday and am sorting images from that at the moment. Then 2-3 more trips out in the coming week, with selection and editing as I go along. I’m getting there, bit by bit.