Assignment 5: portraying people without people

No people

One of the decisions I made early on in Assignment 5 planning was to exclude people. This in itself is making the whole thing more of a challenge, as it’s generally accepted that including people as subject matter is more successful that not doing – the viewing eye is drawn to human subjects, and documentary photography tends to be about issues that involve and affect people. So to exclude people seems to be a perverse limitation I’m putting on myself! But I can explain…

The whole concept underpinning the work is concerned with the dangers of over-simplification, manifesting here as deliberate stereotyping of people who live in a particular town (based on EU referendum voting data). However, I am morally opposed to using actual people to portray deliberate stereotypes, as I strongly believe that to do so is disrespectful to the individuals in question.

I wasn’t consciously aware of the precedent at the time of making that decision, but I was reassured to see that Martha Rosler held a similar moral stance in her seminal work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1973-75), which I have retrospectively realised was an inspiration to my own work here. She depicted empty street scenes so that the drinkers that were the nominal subject of the work would not be “twice victimised: first by society, and then by the photographer who presumes the right to speak on their behalf” (Owens 1985: 69) – a damning but valid criticism of most documentary photography.

Symbolism

To communicate the notions of various pairs of opposing stereotypes circling around the cliché of ‘there are two kinds of people in the world…’ I need to apply the theories of semiotics and create signifiers to stand in for signified hypothetical people.

This means working with metaphors (signifiers that evoke similarity) and metonyms (signifiers that evoke association) to stand in for that which I am not depicting visually. I am increasingly fascinated with the notion of authorship in documentary photography and the deliberate embedding of messages that are not always immediately obvious. I wrote my critical review essay on this topic.

Of the two, it seems to me that metonyms are more useful (certainly easier to find and less obscure) for this assignment. In a recent post I brainstormed a list of potential subjects against the shortlist of caption pairings. It was a long list, with 30 signifier/signified combinations, and except where noted below are all the connotations I had chosen were metonyms (associations) rather than metaphors (comparisons):

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building

Research

Last month I went on a very interesting study visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition of photographs of Britain by international photographers, and subsequently bought the accompanying book. I was particularly interested in looking for images of British communities that didn’t include people yet still managed to evoke a sense of the presence of people. I also reviewed a number of photography pamphlets I’ve acquired from Cafe Royal Books who specialise in British documentary photography, notably from the 1960s-1980s.

A few summary takeaways:

  • Lots of examples of formal graphical elements in the composition
    • Lines, shapes, repetition etc
    • So a visually appealing image and use of leading lines to manage the viewer’s focus are important when there are no people to look at
  • International photographers leaned on metonym more
    • I presume the objects themselves held some novelty, and using them to make an association with the people not in the frame would be more attractive to the outsider, maybe?
  • British photographers in the CRB series made more use of metaphor
    • e.g. decaying buildings = deprived communities, long road = isolation, empty room = loneliness, etc

Learning

I need to lean less on metonymy and find more metaphors!

Sources

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

Owens, C. (1985) ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernists’, in Foster H. (ed) Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press

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Arles 2016, pt 2: the exhibitions

I’ve done a post on my overall observations on my first visit to Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles. This post is to cover the individual exhibitions I saw.

The festival is grouped under a number of headings: a mixture of genre, subject matter and arbitrary miscellany. I will use these categories for ease of organising my thoughts.

This is going to be pretty long. Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. Put the kettle on.

If you want to skim to my highlights, these are titled in red text.

Discovery Award

Premise: five eminent photography figures nominate two up-and-coming artists each. I saw this in a group with four other people, and we agreed to view all the entrants’ works and then compare notes, including individually ranking the best three and the worst one of the ten projects on display…

Frank Berger

I confess I wrote this one off quickly and didn’t give it long enough to ‘get’ the underlying narrative at first. On re-watching, having had the premise explained by someone more patient, it made more sense. He photographed lorries entering and leaving an industrial abattoir over a period of years, and the (extremely banal) images are presented sequentially in a slide projection. The reality of what you are seeing unfolds slowly. Maybe I should be a little more patient and forgiving with seemingly uninteresting art? Or is the onus on the artist to engage the viewer with strong imagery first? Discuss.

Stephanie Kiwitt

Black and white, fragmentary street photography with a few underlying themes – absence, emptiness, consumerism. Some of the images are presented as split images with white space in between, in box frames placed on the floor. I found myself thinking about the connections between images, not always to the point of resolution. I liked this series more than my fellow exhibition-goers did, and rated it as my ‘bronze’ award of the set.

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Stephanie Kiwitt’s Maj/My

Basma Alsharif

This was a combination of video, appropriated images and a wall-sized room replica – and it did nothing for me, I’m afraid. We must not have been on the same wavelength.

Daisuke Yokota

Yokota exposes rolls of photographic paper to light, creating abstract patterns that sometimes resemble dreamy landscapes. The presentation method was quite distinctive – long rolls suspended from above, seemingly to resemble a waterfall. Unfortunately it also reminded me of a wallpaper display. A vaguely interesting curio.

Marie Angeletti

Like Kiwitt, quite disparate and fragmentary in subject matter, but employing a strong colour aesthetic. There’s a sense of narrativity to her images but any story is usually opaque and implied, leaving the viewer to fill in most of the details. She uses masks a lot, suggesting that identity is one of her interests. There’s a surreal and dark ‘Twin Peaks‘-y feel to many of her images. I like the way she sees the world. I voted this my ‘silver’ pick (no-one else agreed).

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Marie Angeletti

Christodolous Panayiotou

Four small photos (three of underground pipes, one of flowers) and three urban water features. Unanimously voted the ‘merde’ prize by all five of us. Balls of steel to be given a huge stand at Arles and do this with it.

Nader Adem

A study of people with disabilities in Addis Ababa. He has a good eye for simple, human moments, and captures his subjects without patronising them. One could question why such a (good but) straightforward documentary project was nominated for the Discovery Award, surrounded by more conceptual work – maybe it is recognising that places such as Ethiopia don’t have the same photographic history as other countries, and in that context it is progressive work.

Sarah Waiswa

My ‘gold’ pick for this set (we all agreed on this one) and also one of my highlights of the whole festival, so I go into more detail. And it deservedly won the overall Discovery Award. The series Stranger in a Familiar Land is a set of staged images of albinoism in Africa. The sole model is striking enough for the lightness of her skin, let alone her beautiful intricate purple hair braids. Posing her in the backdrop of Kibera slums makes her stand out even more than usual, giving a dreamlike quality to the images. The presentation made this project even more engaging: each photo was framed alongside a physical artefact; the viewer must navigate between the photo, the artefact and the title to interpret the image. A masterful series.

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from Stranger in a Familiar Land, Sarah Waiswa

Beni Bischof

Garish, pseudo-surreal, self-consciously wacky photoshoppery. Not my cup of earl grey.

Sara Cwynar

More photo-illustration art than photography really. Much use of appropriated imagery to build kitsch collages about the passing of time. I found the presentation of one half of the exhibit – images laid out in a consecutive horizontal line – more interesting than the individual images; it reminded me of Martin Parr’s Common Sense installation.

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Sara Cwynar

Street

Sid Grossman

I hadn’t heard of Grossman (active in the US from the 1930s to the 1950s) but I liked much of his work, especially his later period when he got more expressionistic and abstract. There’s an inherent historical interest in a lot of the work, though, and one needs to look past that to get to the ‘so what?’ of his work (he reminded of Vivian Maier in that regard). A handful of his images are exemplary though – in particular I loved ‘Pants Store’.

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Pants Store, Sid Grossman

Ethan Levitas / Gary Winogrand

This paired the contemporary New York street work of Levitas with iconic 1960s images of Winogrand. It’s a bold gambit to invite comparisons with a great like this, and I don’t believe Levitas pulls it off. His work is more contrived, more distant than Winogrand’s. The Levitas work gets displayed here better than Winogrand’s though, which is presented as blown-up contact sheets. The dissonance between the two parts of the show is bewildering. I found myself wondering how and why this pairing came about. Odd.

Peter Mitchell

I was really looking forward to this, but felt oddly let down by the presentation. It’s an exact re-staging of the 1979 show A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, which used as its conceit that aliens had been studying Earth in the same way as we’d been studying Mars. Photos of urban Yorkshire and London scenes are presented in ‘space chart’ frames. My assumption is that Mitchell wanted to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of the scenes being depicted. The problem is that in this re-presentation 37 years later, no such device is needed as the passage of time is enough to make this an ‘alien’ world. The extra-terrestrial conceit just distracts now. A missed opportunity for re-contextualisation I think.

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from A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, Peter Mitchell

Eamonn Doyle

My undoubted highlight of the whole trip. In fact, the one purchase I made out of the Arles trip, aside from the catalogue, was Doyle’s End. The presentation is awe-inspiring. A combination of colour images in grids, wall-sized b/w prints, colour-washed posters, graphic illustrations – it’s a multi-media, multi-format extravaganza.

But none of that would matter if the images didn’t work. Doyle’s trilogy of Dublin works over the last three years (i, ON, End) have brought a poetic, expressionistic form of street photography, and given a sense of place like none I experienced from any other photographer at Arles.

Monsters & Co

The one part of this segment that I really wanted to see was Charles Fréger’s Yokainoshima, but unfortunately it had closed the day before I got to Arles…

Scary Monsters!

This is a compilation of images of monsters of various sorts in cinema. It’s a fairly pedestrian theme for a photography festival in my opinion, and horror/sci-fi aren’t my favourite movie genres, so I didn’t hang around long enough to discern any deeper meaning in this one.

Phenomena

This is a collaboration between three Danish photojournalists – Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen and Tobias Selves Markussen – and looks at the phenomenon of UFO enthusiasts. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic depiction that avoids mockery. It contains lots of individually strong images and also works as a cohesive overall set, despite the shared authorship. It’s a low-key, quite sweet set that is as much about faith as it is about aliens.

Africa Pop

Only two of these three shows were still open by the time I got to Arles.

Swinging Bamako

Part retrospective, part contemporary catchup, this looks at the Mali pop music scene in the 1960s. Much of the interest in the first part is the historic context – all black and white photos from five decades ago are worth a look. I found more to see in Karen Paulina Biswell’s smaller set of contemporary pictures catching up on the band members. This show did also give me the earworm of the trip, the impossibly catchy ‘Rendezvous Chez Fatimata‘!

Tear My Bra

An eclectic celebration of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. Some of it was visually striking, like the the Godfather pastiche and the recreations of iconic Hollywood scenes. However, these two sections were also the most derivative and timid of the lot, as they leant heavily on the audience’s knowledge of existing Hollywood tropes. Maybe Nollywood hasn’t yet defined itself enough of a distinct identity – that’s what came through in these images anyway.

Platforms of the Visible

An odd title for what the programme describes as a look at “Investigation as a photographic topic and the photographer as a detective combing through photo archives”.

Laia Abril

This project A History of Misogny, Chapter One: On Abortion is a powerful series, and one which I have picked out as one of my highlights, but perhaps oddly not for the photographic content. The subject of abortion and its effects on women who have them, particularly the dangers in the many countries where it is illegal, is not easy to depict photographically without being gruesome. The images here are portraits with testimonies, photos of artefacts such as surgical instruments, biological diagrams. Without the accompanying text they may not mean as much. However, the two exhibits that had the most visceral effect on me weren’t photographs but physical installations: a surgical chair with stirrups, and a pile of wire coat hangers. These two objects spoke more about the experience and dangers of abortion than the images.

Stéphanie Solinas

I probably didn’t give this the attention it deserved as the premise didn’t grab my attention. It’s a varied examination of a particular building on the outskirts of Arles, meditating on concepts such as memory, identity, passing time. What I saw of it I found quite clinical and lacking in any emotive connection. But as I say, maybe I didn’t give it a chance (it was one of the shows that I rattled through on day three…)

After War

I missed the Don McCullin show by a day, but having looked through the catalogue it features many of the images I saw at his Photo London show in May, so I’m not too concerned.

Yan Morvan

This is a set of 80 images of battlefields long after the battles. I find this genre of (very late) aftermath photography quite curious: without the context of the historic warfare these are perfectly ‘nice’ landscapes; it is only when one understands what had happened in the years before that they acquire gravitas. The significance from reading the caption triggers a re-evaluation of the image. One finds oneself searching the photo for ‘clues’ as to what happened there, but of course in most of them there are none, so it becomes largely a work of triggered imagination. Part of me finds this genre of photography a kind of manipulative mind trickery…

Nothing But Blue Skies

This, a compilation of media and art responses to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, is a mixed bag for sure, but on balance I felt more of it worked than didn’t. The first part is a recap of how the attacks were reported at the time – a room covered floor-to-ceiling with newspaper front pages, and a smaller room made entirely of old TVs looping through rolling news footage. Both are quite an assault on the eyeballs and the mind. Only after sifting through the imagery does one start to appreciate the nuances of how different nations and outlets reported the events.

The second half is made of artistic responses to the attacks and aftermath. One piece that I found particularly engaging was Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski. It’s a skilfully edited compilation of clips from Hollywood blockbusters that recreate the narrative of the attacks on the twin towers. I got a bit of a Debord/Baudrillard vibe from watching fictional footage standing in for a real event – the sense that despite describing the events as shocking and unprecedented, we had in fact pictured and rehearsed such events already as entertainment. The other takeaway from this is that it has slightly reset my previously dogmatic stance that documentary must show things that really happened – it turns out that you can present a documentary ‘truth’ using only fictional material.

I am Writing to you from a Far Off Country

Yann Gross

This expansive and beautifully presented exhibition, The Jungle Show, takes a trip along the Amazon. Rather than employing a straight documentary photography approach, however, Gross stages scenes that give an impression of the people and the locale. He captures facets of Amazonian lives in an artistic, expressive yet non-condescending way.

PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy

The Hollow of the Hand is a poetry-photography-video collaboration based on the duo’s travels through Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC (this last seems out of place, but it hangs together better than you might imagine). It’s a looping video installation that alternates between fragments of film footage with slideshows of Murphy’s photos with Harvey reading her poems over the top. The overall result is suitably ambiguous in terms of narrativity yet gets across lingering impressions of the places filmed. Once strange sensation I had watching it was that I found Murphy’s short film clips to be like moving photographs, in terms of composition and aesthetic – I found myself mentally freeze-framing when I saw the ‘decisive moment’ in each clip.

Rereading

Fabulous Failures

The title of this group show is somewhat disingenuous, as few of these are ‘failures’, more deliberate attempts to subvert photographic norms. It’s a very entertaining collection of surreal, playful and downright silly visual experiments. It wasn’t what you’d call profound, but I enjoyed it a lot.

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PutPut

Where the Other Rests

This group show is all about appropriation, as subject I am a little ambivalent about. I get that one can create a ‘dialogue’ with pre-existing imagery and make new pieces of art that carry a different message, but I found a lot of the work on show here to be uninspiring and lacking in originality. As noted elsewhere, I find some appropriation to be too self-referential and insular – photography about photography.

The one piece that I did admire here was Broomberg & Chanarin’s Afterlife, which took an image of a Kurdish firing squad execution and deconstructed it, isolating figures from the background and mounting the photo fragments on multiple glass plates – like a collage where none of the pieces touch. I found this detailed dissection of a photograph brought its meaning closer to the surface, in a strange way.

Bloomberg & Chanarin, 'Afterlife 8', from Where the Other Rests
Bloomberg & Chanarin, ‘Afterlife 8’, from Where the Other Rests

Singular!

Themed archival collections.

Sincerely Queer

A look at the hitherto hidden world of 19th and early 20th century LGBTQI amateur photography. Gender fluidity and cross-dressing in particular has an enormously rich visual history, but for various reasons the images have been kept private. Sébastien Lifshitz has collected and curated a wide-ranging and fascinating alternative history, proving that the accepted version of society’s history always leaves things out.

Lady Liberty

An interesting enough visual summary of the construction of the Statue of Liberty. Not sure there’s enough there to justify it being part of a major photographic festival though.

Hara Kiri Photo

The visual archives of the satirical French magazine (kind of Charlie Hebdo forerunner?). What you could get away with showing on newsstands in France in the 1960s and 1970s is mind-boggling. Out of the context of the time these images just look variously surreal, profane, pornographic and grotesque. A prurient curiosity.

Outside the Frame

The Cardboard Museum

A self-consciously wacky funhouse-style installation with various rooms containing surreal images and objects in. Like a class of sixth-form art students had been let loose. It would have been a nice lightweight palate-cleanser if I’d visited it halfway through the more serious works in the Parc des Ateliers, but as it happened it was the first thing I saw, and I was simply bemused. It did include the pic below though, that made me laugh.

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from The Cardboard Museum

Emergences

This section picks out emerging talents.

An Unusual Attention

The work of three graduates from ENSP (the Arles photography school). Guillaume Delleuse was the only one to make an impression. His gritty, sexually-charged black and white urban photography reminded me of Anders Petersen and Jacob Aue Sobol. Clémentine Roche’s repetitive (found?) street scenes and Vincent Marcq’s deconstructed house didn’t do much for me.

Associated Programme

Systematically Open?

Subtitled New Forms for Contemporary Image Production, this was put together by the LUMA Foundation in Arles. It featured four exhibitions, only one of which was particularly good in my opinion.

Curated by Walead Beshty, Picture Industry is described as “an array of images whose formats reveal the complex and evolving relationship between the photographic medium and its many modes of distribution“. The bare thread that connects these eclectic images is that they were originally presented in different visual formats. So we get prints, slideshows, video installations, 70s porn mag spreads etc. I presume the point is to highlight how images are (at least in part) interpreted based on the distribution channel and/or physicality.

Elad Lassry apparently wants to investigate “what kinds of engagement are possible with pictures“. For reasons best known to himself, he felt the best way to do this was to display large, colourful pictures of dental procedures. Gruesome and fairly pointless.

Collier Schorr curated a collaboration with his near-namesake Anne Collier, but unfortunately I found little of interest in the collection of nudes, self portraits and porn pastiches. Supposedly about “exposed subjects [who] are frequently framed by the formats of the medium itself“, it came across as very self-indulgent.

Photographer and activist Zanele Muholi provided the one highlight of this section. Her ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama is a set of stark, dark self-portraits in various states of costume and make-up, often based around her hair – a key cultural signifier for African women. Each portrait is visually dominated by the strong contrast between the darkness of her skin and the whiteness of her eyes. Her gaze into the lens is penetrating. Striking is an understatement.

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from Somnyama Ngonyama, Zanele Muholi

That’s me done!

Assignment 3: photo essay workflow

Assignment 3 is all about Visual Storytelling – incorporating a sense of narrative into a photo essay. While I have delivered photo essays in the past, I really want to start work on this assignment in earnest with a deeper understanding of photographic narrativity, and a refresher on best practice for photo essays generally.

To this end, the two main sources of theory have informed my planning for this assignment are the 2010 David Campbell lecture as directed in the assignment brief, and a re-reading of Hurn & Jay’s chapter on photo essays in On Being a Photographer (1997).

On Being a Photographer

My first reading of this book did not endear me to it. I found most of it to be lazily written (it’s a transcript of two friends having a conversation) and patronising.

However, I always remembered that the chapter on photo essays included a structured approach that might come in handy for this particular assignment, even if it’s a little restrictive for some kinds of projects.

An aside: my assignment will include pictures taken at protest marches; I had forgotten, but was amused to see that Hurn uses a protest march to make one of his key points, about avoiding easy visual clichés:

“Ask somebody who has been to a protest march or demonstration what they remember about the event and they might reply: ‘There were about 6,000 people there, most of them very quiet, many of them were middle class and a lot of them were women with kids. Most were reasonably smartly dressed.’

When you look at their contacts you see five people in unusual clothes and a punch-up that lasted all of three minutes during the three-and-a-half-hour march. The pictures do not relate to the photographer’s memory of the event. Too often, the photographer looks for the visually strong picture rather than covering what actually happens.” (Hurn 1997)

I will endeavour to take this highly specific advice on board!

Planning and shooting workflow

The basic planning and shooting workflow proposed by Hurn is as follows (I will look at selection and sequencing later):

  • Identify the purpose of the project
  • Research the subject
  • Identify how many pictures are required
  • Divide the topic or theme into the same number of headings as the number of pictures required
  • Devise a proposed structure of shot types, e.g.:
    • Establishing
    • Medium
    • Close-up
    • portrait
    • Action
    • Closing
    • etc
  • If possible, observe the situation or event before taking any pictures, taking notes
  • Combine the last two points into a ‘shooting script’
  • Tick off the required images, one by one
    • Don’t repeatedly shoot the same thing – if you’ve got the shot, you’ve got it

I confess I find this approach comes across as overly restrictive, and would seem to take photography projects as quite dour, predictable things rather than opportunities for experimentation or happy accidents.

Hurn and Jay repeatedly emphasise a point that can be summarised in the sentence: “The aim is to take images which become your memory of the event.” (ibid). This advice makes absolute sense for photojournalism, where ‘authenticity’ and ‘neutrality’ are important.

However, photojournalism is not the only medium for a photo essay – a wider view of documentary photography would encompass the more subjective, expressive, authorial work that other photographers practice. One could easily accept a variation on Hurn’s quote above that said ‘The aim is to take images which become your impression of the event.’

So I’m inclined to take the advice with a pinch of salt. That said, I will endeavour to take on board at least some of Hurn’s workflow in plotting out and shooting the anti-fracking assignment.

Sources

Hurn, D. and Jay, B.(1997) On Being a Photographer. USA: Lenswork

Book: The Documentary Impulse by Stuart Franklin

Short version: this should be the course reader.

41-5HKjfcrL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_The reading list for Documentary has a few good books on that cover a particular aspect of documentary photography (such as British documentary photography) and more that are general histories of photography (Bate, Wells, Marien) that include good coverage of documentary photography – but what is lacking is a thorough, in-depth, one-stop-shop overview of the whole genre. This book could fill that gap very well, as it covers many important aspects of documentary photography – not only the what, who, how, where and when but more interestingly (to me, anyway), the why.

Stuart Franklin (b. 1956) is perhaps best known for his iconic Tank Man (1989) shot from Tiananmen Square, China, but he has had a varied career including a stint as president of Magnum. It’s fair to say that he knows a thing or two about documentary photography.

Without summarising the entire book I will pull out a few themes that connected with me.

A ‘creative treatment of actuality’

The book opens with a good analysis of the origins and definition of the term ‘documentary’, using as its jumping-off point the phrase used by John Grierson, generally accepted as the originator of the word in the early 1930s: it is the “creative treatment of actuality” (Franklin 2016: 6, quoting Grierson 1933).

This short phrase fuses the two crucial and sometimes seemingly contradictory strands of documentary photography: that it allows creativity to the applied to reality, and accepts the element of subjectivity that means there is no singular truth but multiple presentable truths. Expanding on this, he quotes 19th century critic John Ruskin on the different types of truth:

“Ruskin felt the ‘truth of impression’ to be more important than ‘material truth’. In the documentary impulse, two species of ‘fact’ exist side by side: one is coolly objective and the other is fraught, diverse and emotive; one figurative, the other abstract; one prosaic, the other poetic; one factual, the other romantic.” (ibid: 6, paraphrasing Ruskin)

Negotiating these two types of truth is central to documentary photography. I confess that before my studies I held the view that Documentary = Truth. I am now much more conscious of the hidden hand of authorship behind all documentary photography.

“The documentary impulse embraces a dual approach to the treatment of actuality in which creativity, or the extent to which creativity is applied, is a selective process.” (ibid: 29)

Rhetorical tools

I’m particularly interested in the effects of reflexivity and authorship on documentary photography, and Franklin articulates a few authorship techniques, or tools of rhetoric as he calls them:

  • Selection (of pose, mood, expression – at the shooting stage and the editing stage)
  • Vantage point (low to aggrandise subject; high to diminish)
  • Colour (I will write a separate post on this point)
  • Lighting (especially to imply character in individuals)
  • Ambiguity (see next section)

Ambiguity

Franklin is very good on ambiguity, another area of much interest to me at the moment. Harking back a little to the Ruskin quote above, he differentiates between didactic images and ambiguous (or poetic, or surreal) images that rely on the viewer doing some of the processing work.

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Torso, Pelaw, Gateshead, Tyneside, 1978 by Chris Killip

He uses a Chris Killip image to illustrate his points on ambiguity (my emphasis):

“This photograph is important for two reasons. First, it performs a function that only photography can achieve: the creative treatment of actuality as revealing detail through stillness. Second, it is both rhetorical and ambiguous. So many of the signs that we search for in an image are missing. The face, the area of a picture
we rush to for clues, is missing. The background, the spaces where we look for context, is also absent. What remains is a living still life of exquisite detail from which our stories, our fictions and our metaphors can be built. Here begins a journey into the non-didactic, into the psychological control centre of what constitutes a large part of documentary practice: the ambiguous image.” (ibid: 146)

This all speaks to the point I found so interesting in Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs (2010) – the ‘mental level’ of appreciating a photograph, the space provided for the viewer to process an image.

Personally I find ambiguous images much more engaging than didactic ones. I like to bring some of my own mind to appreciating an image rather than have it presented to me fully ‘resolved’.

“That ambiguous photographs may possess a power equal to that of more didactic images I can only assume is because there is a great deal we still don’t understand about the way we read photographs.” (Franklin 2016: 197-198)

That’s just scratching the surface of this excellent book. I’m sure I’ll return to it a lot in the coming months.

Sources

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

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

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.

Sources

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.

Book: William Eggleston’s Guide

I’ve just started on section 3: A Colour Vision and so it’s a good time to finally take a proper look at an iconic photobook that I bought some months ago and have been saving up until it was relevant to my studies: William Eggleston’s Guide (1976).

IMG_2525

William Eggleston (b. 1939) – and in particular his mid-1970s patronage by the Museum of Modern Arts’ John Szarkowski that culminated in this book – is generally credited with legitimising the use of colour in art photography. Whether Eggleston’s work can be classed as documentary photography is open to interpretation: he documents the banalities of modern life, particularly American life. There’s no social documentary element to his work, it’s simply chronicling.

My initial impression of the book was similar to my initial readings of The Americans and The Last Resort: underwhelmed; just couldn’t see what the big deal was.

My second impression (of all three books) was borne out of my realisation that I must keep in mind how much of a departure this was from the norms of the time, and try to put myself in the shoes of a viewer contemporary to the time of publication – once one imagines the prevailing context it comes across just how much this work would carry ‘the shock of the new’. So my sense was of an artist pushing forward the medium, even if I still couldn’t find much to love in the images themselves.

My third, and lasting impression, is the most interesting one, and so I will go into this in a little more detail.

Not about the colour

I find Eggleston’s reputation for bringing colour to art photography a little overworked. For a start, he was lucky to have been supported by Szarkowski and get his first major solo show at MoMA, with all the attendant publicity. He certainly wasn’t the only photographer working in colour – for example, Saul Leiter (one of my favourite photographers) was doing so from the 1950s, just with less publicity.

More interesting to me though is how the colours seem to constitute only a minor part of his artistic vision – it’s almost incidental in many of the pictures in Guide. Leiter, by comparison, made photos that are almost entirely of colours, with subject matter pretty incidental. Leiter used colour like a painter; Eggleston generally used colour in a much more subtle way, real rather than exaggerated, an accent for key details.

It’s a shame that Eggleston’s most famous image is the one of the blood-red ceiling (not in Guide) as this helped to cement his reputation as the colour-meister, yet it really isn’t typical of his work. That’s an image where (as I described above for Leiter) colour is the subject. In the vast majority of the photographs in Guide, Eggleston shows a mastery of using colour without it being overbearing.

Suburban inertia

Setting aside the distraction of the colour reputation, I sat down with the book to really look at the images and identify what I saw in them.

The course notes talk abut the qualities of dislocation and alienation in Eggleston’s work (course notes: 62). What I saw was slightly different. The overriding sense I got was of being very static, rooted, almost trapped. A stillness, an inertia that verged on claustrophobia.

Two things contributed to this: first, composition choices. In this set he used a discernible style of central placement of subject, at odds with the general ‘rule of thirds’ advice that many photographers consciously or subconsciously follow. Central positioning is normally avoided as it makes the image look too static. I believe Eggleston knew this – in the introductory essay Szarkowski quotes Eggleston as saying “the pictures were based compositionally on the confederate flag” (Szarkowski 2002: 11) – and chose to make the images look static.

Another formal element that I saw recurring as a motif was the circle – it’s everywhere once your eye is tuned into it. The idea of being stuck in the middle, going round in circles comes across in many of the images.

Secondly, the subject matter in many cases overtly or implicitly references being stuck in a place.

A plane is pictured, but it’s grounded. A woman sits to stare at the camera lens, with a thick chain wrapped around the pole to her side. A pool is shot from outside, through a wire fence. A miniature house is shown in the grounds of a real house, appearing to shrink around the occupant. There are various interiors.

Most tellingly for me, the famous tricycle shot used for the cover can be read as a youthful desire to leave, but with added pathos of the background depicting the grownup means of transport resolutely parked under, almost in, the suburban home. To me this image whispers “you’ll never leave…“.

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So the whole set reads to me as a statement about staying in the one place. Suburban inertia. It carries a melancholy air rather than an angry one, though. Maybe Eggleston liked staying in the same place.

The colour does form part of this mood. The banality of the scenes is not detached from the viewer via the artistic construct of black and white, it’s rooted in reality by the deceptively vernacular look and feel.

I read around a little on Eggleston, in particular Guide, and found no other review that read his work in this way – maybe everyone was distracted by the colour and missed a deeper reading of the accumulated mood evoked by the set. Or maybe this is an entirely personal interpretation. Who knows. If we believe Barthes, my version is as good as anyone’s, even Eggleston’s own…

Sources

Eggleston, W. and Szarkowski, J. (2002) William Eggleston’s Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Imagine: The Colourful Mr Eggleston https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jZ_HkaTXh8 (accessed 10/06/2016)

Exercise: The Americans

Brief

Part 1

Find five images in The Americans where symbols are used. Explain what they are and how they function in the images.

Part 2

Read the introduction to The Americans by Jack Kerouac.

Find symbolic references that you can also identify in Robert Frank’s photographs – not necessarily the five images that you chose for the first part of this exercise.

Response

“In semiotics the word ‘symbol’ is used own a special sense to mean literally any sign where there is an arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified” (Hall 2012: 32).

I’ve become fairly familiar with The Americans since getting a copy a couple of years ago and having blogged about it twice already. I took it off the shelf today and was pleasantly surprised to see that last time I looked through it I’d annotated every image with comments on a post-it note, and many of these referred to symbolism. So I’d kind of inadvertently done half of this exercise already!

Part 1

Note that I’m not claiming any insight into Frank’s mind regarding any conscious intent with any symbolism, rather I am placing my own interpretation on the images.

Alone

Flag = America

There are a lot of US flags in The Americans; it’s the most obvious recurring motif. It’s hard not to see each flag picture as making a statement about the nation. In this instance my interpretation of the symbolism employed is that the identity of the USA is bigger than the individual, and that its people are alone, anonymous and disconnected.

Cross

Cross = death

Another recurring icon is the crucifix, often in the form of a gravestone. I read this as being symbolic of death more than of religion. What I found interesting in this particular image is that the tree and the prone body form a cross – so it’s a signifier of a signifier of a signified.

Jukebox

Jukebox = the ‘spectacle’

Jukeboxes feature prominently in several pictures. In this one it glows like a religious icon, centrally placed, commanding your attention. To me the jukebox is symbolic of what Guy Debord later called ‘the spectacle’ – mass media / entertainment / consumption etc. This consumerist spectacle has overtaken religion as a guiding framework for life. If Frank did intend this interpretation, his symbolism was ahead of his time.

Light and Shade

Light and dark = morality

The use of light to denote good and dark to denote evil was well established in art long before Frank. The symbolism here places the three characters at positions on the good-evil continuum: one fully dark, one fully lit, with these two looking at the third who is half lit, half shaded – who in turn directly addresses the camera. This may be a stretch but I think the symbolism here is reflecting back to the viewer (like a mirror) that we’re all capable of both good and evil. And perhaps the car symbolises America.

Old Couple

Left = the past

The symbolism here is an action rather than an object. Looking to the left in a photograph often implies looking to the past (and by the same token looking to the right implies the future). This is simply because we (with western eyes at least) read from left to right. Given that this depicts an older couple I read the leftwards look to mean harking for a past that they preferred to the contemporary present. And it is again set in a car, another common Frank symbol and possibly a metaphor for America.

Part 2

The Kerouac introduction talks about symbols enough to make me think that Frank either intended or at least retrospectively recognised the symbolism in his selection of photographs for this book.

  • Jukeboxes get mentioned in the very first sentence, and compared to coffins (as you end up “finally not knowing which is sadder”)
  • Funerals are mentioned and Kerouac discusses death as photographic subject, though not specifically crosses
  • Cars are referenced throughout the text, as they are dotted through the photos
  • The US flag gets a mention, specifically in an image that I nearly included “Madman resting under American flag canopy in old busted car seat in fantastic Venice California backyard”
  • Kerouac talks about roads a lot, such as what they “promised us in the vision of the west” – so roads as symbol of escape, optimism (of course, On The Road was his breakthrough novel so he had a thing about them…)

Sources

Debord, G. (1992) The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press.

Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen: Steidl.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Bibliography

The following have either been of use to me as existing books in my collection, or have been specially acquired for this course. I will add to this as I progress. Essential reading from the course reading list is in bold text.

Text books:

Barson, T. et al (2006). Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now. London: Tate.

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.

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

Bright, S. & Williams, V. (2007). How We Are: Photographing Britain. London: Tate.

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

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

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Durden, M. (2013). Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Dyer, G. (2012) The Ongoing Moment. London: Canongate.

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington: Focal Press.

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

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin.

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

Wells, L. (ed), (2003). The Photography Reader. Abingdon: Routledge.

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

Photo books:

Baker, S. and Mavlian, S. (eds.) (2014) Conflict – Time – Photography. London: Tate.

Erwitt, E. (2001) Snaps. London: Phaidon.

Eskildsen, U. (ed) (2008) Street & Studio. London: Tate.

Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen: Steidl.

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

Lubben, K. (ed) (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson.

Steichen, E. (ed) (2015) The Family of Man (60th Anniversary Edition). New York: MOMA.

Szarkowski, J. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MOMA.