Sunday, 29 December 2013

Jon Levy - the intentions of the photographer

Jon Levy, founder of Foto8 and Ei8ht magazine, discusses his criteria for documentary photographers.

Ei8ht magazine has always been a photographic vehicle for 'story-telling' reportage and journalistic rather than fiction. Following on from the Gavin interview at the beginning of this section, Levy is also very aware of the morphing of the boundaries between genres. His observations are that artistic portfolios are 'developing', or trying to develop, journalistic credentials after they have been written; this has lead him to review submissions against a new criteria - the intention of the photographer. This is very much about getting inside the head of the photographer to understand reasons and rationale of the individual and the work - understanding the inception of the work more often than not determines the nature (and history) of the work.

Levy believes that regardless of the boundary shifts, photojournalism is not just about the "pressing stories with intensity" i.e. the front-page news, but quieter, local and emotional stories are just as important and have an equal right to be communicated. Historically, the view of the western world has been to look at the rest of the world for its news, today news is everywhere including in your own living room.

Levy is not sure about the term vernacular, in terms of a local person being better suited to cover a local story, he believes the key to the success is down to the capability of the photographer to effectively communicate a point-of-view! He does however concede that accessibility has benefits and photography is a very accessible medium; so, if a local can communicate and share the work that's great because it introduces new people with different views and varied perspectives.

So finally...

Further confirmation that its not always easy to determine the genre of a piece of work. Again I ask, why is it so important to define the genre of an image or a portfolio? As Levy discussed, is it all about the credentials of the piece of work?

Just because someone is passionate about something, doesn't mean they're the best to communicate the story - even using photographs, communication is an acquired skill!

As a photographer understand the purpose of your work from inception, clearly define your brief and make sure it works for you. I wonder, if you don't have a point-of-view, does that automatically mean your work is art rather than documentary?

A decisive moment?

Exercise 7 - a decisive moment

We are required to read the commentary from Simon Bainbridge for the Hereford Photography Festival (HPF), the focus of this article is 5 very diverse examples of contemporary documentary photography. We are asked to select one of the photographers and write a 200-word reflective commentary.

So in brief about each of the works discussed here:

1. Donald Weber - Interrogations

If I'm honest, I really struggled with these images, to me they looked contrived. I accept that this my well be because of my pre-conditioned idea of what an interrogation looks and feels like - perhaps too many American police dramas. To me these images were of sad and lonely people, taken in shabby rooms. A definition of 'interrogate' is to "ask questions of (someone) closely, aggressively, or formally" and (again to me) the focus is on the word aggressively; I did not feel any aggression in the images - even the ones where the gun was being brandished at the individuals head.

2. Robbie Cooper - Immersion

I think this is a fantastic concept for a photography project. Interestingly, these are not photographs as such but stills created/taken from video clips, nonetheless, I think the images are wonderful - the obvious and total focus of the children in the game (digital environment). I find these photographs very engaging and have revisited them on a number of occasions.

3. Manuel Vasquez - Traces

The second photographer that has chosen to create images from a video-type source - surveillance tapes. The difference with these images being they are a composite of a number of stills blended together (whereas the RC work is a single frame). There is obvious skill, vision and image manipulation, required to the develop the final image. The images are very dark (black background) thus focusing the viewers gaze onto the 'action' - I feel this gives the photographs an overly stage-managed feel and detracts somewhat.

4. George Georgiou - The Shadow of The Great Bear

Selected for my review.

5. Vanessa Winship - Georgia

Subject matter, unsurprisingly, is very similar to that of Georgiou. However, Winship actively engages with her subject and places them front and centre of the images. In terms of presentation, again this similar to Georgiou in the mixing of portraits and abstract landscapes, but very different in formality of image - similar in size, single image and with the exception of her photographs of other peoples work (paintings and photographs) all shot in B&W. I find her portraits of the land most intriguing, in her text Winship states "the lush beauty of the land" but her images portray the opposite.

George Georgiou - The Shadow of The Great Bear

Georgiou work stands out for a number of reasons, primarily, the colour of his images. Their overall feel is beige/grey, because of the location and the concrete background, yet on closer inspection they are full of subtle and varied colours.

He also presents his images in a very dynamic way: first, the images are in mini-sequences and as such your eye automatically moves back and forth taking in and reviewing the information. Second, he varies the number of images per page and changes the layout from one page to the next; in addition the images from a sequence carry over pages again requiring more engagement from the viewer to fully understand and appreciate the work.

Georgiou takes his images from a distance, or at least without the knowledge or direct engagement of his subjects. I would suggest that this is the 'purest' form of documentary photography - a record of the scene with contribution from only the individuals directly involved.

Regarding the other photographers selected for HPF, each of those artists had the major influence in how the information was documented. Bearing in mind objectivity, I don't doubt that Georgiou has selected the best of his images to create the portfolio, but I believe these images captured life as it actually happened.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The myth of objectivity (part 2)

Exercise 6 – the myth of objectivity
Write a 250-word reflective commentary on the quotes (below) by Andre Bazin and Allan Sekula; briefly compare their respective positions and record your own view on the issue of photographic objectivity.
André Bazin, quote from ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ (published ~1945)

“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man…in spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually, re-presented…"

Allan Sekula, quote from ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ (published ~1975)

“If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image"

So finally, my reflections on the myth of photographic objectivity.

Let’s position Bazin by quoting further from this article:

“Photography and the cinema […] are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. No matter how skillful the painter, his work is always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The essential factor in the transition to photography […] is the psychological fact that [the image is created by means of] a mechanical reproduction, the making of which [is real because] man plays no part.”

Similarly, let’s use Sekula’s article further:

“All photographic communication seems to take place within the conditions of a kind of binary folklore, […] there is a ‘symbolist’ folk-myth and a ‘realist’folk-myth.”

Sekula summarises this as the perceived divide of photography into two art-camps–high-art verses documentary; the first is done for ones-self (the artist), the second is done for the good of community. Sekula does not fully subscribe to this divide, believing that high-art and documentary are two ends of the same spectrum and that any time during its existence (and depending upon the associated knowledge) the photograph can ‘slide’ up and down this scale. Accepting this philosophy, I find myself supporting Sekula's view that the photographer has complete subjective control over the image.

Obviously, Bazin holds the opposing view, hence his article and the age-old debate he created about objectivity. Crucial to understanding Bazin’s position is the date of the article, written approximately 30 years before Sekula’s and as such a world of development and understanding apart. If Bazin was alive today, I believe he would have a very different view regarding objectivity, but not about the ability of photography “in its power to lay bare the realities” of the scene.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Assignment 1 planning (part 6)

The more engaged I am in what I do, the better the outcome of the activity, it stands to reason that this applies to my photography as well.

I've now spent quite a bit of time engaging with (in) my local market; I've even travelled further afield and visited other markets in the hope of inspiration. I've taken some nice pictures, but that's all - they're nice. I'm not engaged by them and when I've finished looking at them I don't actually think any further or want to ask any questions. There is definitely something missing...

Assignment 1 - produce a small photo-essay that our demonstrates your engagement with the lives, experiences and histories of your local community and its people.

How do you engage with a community? There are the regulars, the real characters, but not enough of them to make a complete portfolio.

Without knowing your community, how can you share their experiences? Reading about other photographers development their photo-essays, engagement and trust takes time to build and until such time, the photographer is always someone on the outside looking in.

Without trust, how real is anything shared? How relevant or meaningful is anything shared? Does it matter? Is a good portrait image of a vender appropriate for this assignment - time, date, location, name, goods sold. Would this be enough to document the market?

Photographers (part 2)

As part of my ongoing investigation into the work of other documentary photographers I have spent a significant amount of time on the web.

For some time I have been a 'follower' of LensWork a photography magazine and blog by an American photographer called Brooks Jensen. All of the work featured in the magazine is B&W, apart from that there are no restrictions! The quality of the production is second to none - the artists, the essays and the images are truly inspiring.

When I say follower, I don't actually subscribe to the magazine because I find the magazines (and the format of the work exhibited) samey.  So I review the contents of the magazines and if I'm interested any of the artists, I will buy that/those particular month(s).

I also have ebook by Jensen, The Creative Life in Photography. The book contains a number of essays originally printed in the LenWork magazine and charts Jensen's progress through his photographic life - this is not a book about how-to-do, more a book on how-to-rethink. Again, I very much dip and out of this, but it is an interesting and thought provoking read.

I was reading an interview with Jensen and was struck by his comment:
Good art is rarely made by dolts who are disorganised, numb, or unthinking. The mad genius is a popular myth in art circles, but more often than not the best artists are the ones who work the hardest for the longest time, pushing themselves and their craft with diligence and dedication. No one ever talks about the “instantaneously successful” or “lucky” violinist — and to think this can be true about photographers is a delusion.
 I have heard this 'concept' paraphrased in lots of different ways and it doesn't matter what you do (work or hobbie) to be good at something takes continued effort. My favourite quote is by Samuel Goldwyn:
The harder I work, the luckier I get.
Interestingly, this interview was a 'mixtape' on the Lenscratch website. This is a fantastic website and worth spending time browsing. From the 'about' on the site:
LENSCRATCH is a daily journal that explores contemporary photography and offers opportunities for exposure and community. Created in 2007, Aline Smithson set a goal of writing about a different photographer each day, presenting work in a way that allows for a deeper understanding of a photographer’s intent and vision.
I only found this site last week and from my visits so far I would say Smithson comfortably delivers her objective.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The myth of objectivity (part 1)

On the invention of photographic meaning by Allan Sekula (1975)

The article is about "photographic discourse" and the different interpretations, or contexts, that can be applied to any particular photographic image.

Sekula refutes the myth that the photograph is a universal and independent language or sign system, referencing Herskovits and the Bush woman, the woman who never having seen a photograph before is unable to relate to piece of paper and equally unable to make sense of the 'grey scale' and interpret it as a picture (likeness) of her son. Having said that, once the photograph has been explained she can then see her son. This is an extreme example to use to demonstrate the point that photography is not universal and is not independent.

In 2013, I would suggest that photography is more universal; I am remembering my holiday to Tunisia and a tour we made to the hills to see the troglodytes living in 'houses' carved out of the cliffs, all of these houses had satellite TV; and whilst I appreciate that not all locations on the planet have this level of exposure to digital media, I do believe that this type of communication is infinitely more universal today.

Referring back to the definition of 'discourse' utilised by Sekula as "a system of relations between parties engaged in communicative activity" and accepting that the photograph is now more universal in format and presentation, does it make this form of communication any more independent? If by 'independent' we mean easy to read and fully understand - especially in terms of context, then I would say that in the majority of situations the photograph will never be independent. Regardless of socio-economic background and familiarity to digital media, no single individual will ever be able to pick up every photograph and understand its meaning or context. Simply put, the contents of a photograph will only be understood by a person already familiar with that information; similarly, the context and meaning of a particular image will only be understood by a person already familiar with that information.

By way of explanation, Sekula references the crime photographs of Weegee ("primitive freelance journalist" for the Daily News, New York) the first murder victim is the most shocking to see, after a period of time one murder just blends into the next and the next and the next. Are these images easy to read? A dead body in the street, (possibly) blood on the pavement, police at the scene; therefore (probably) a violent death and probably murder. So easy to read - yes. Are these images easy to put into context? Without further information, it is just a picture is just a dead body, therefore, no the images are not easy to read and understand.

The crux of the matter is the myth that there is a clear cut distinction between symbolism and realism, or in photography terms - art photography and documentary photography. Sekula believes that any photograph, depending upon the knowledge relating to the photograph, can slide up and down the symbolic/realistic scale. The article documents the relationship between photography and high art. Here Sekula uses two specific images to debate this subject: -

Immigrants Going Down Gangplank by Lewis Hine
Hine used his images to drive, force changes in the law regarding child labour laws - his actions and behaviours were straight forward and clearly politically motivated. His photography was pivotal to the success of the reforms he championed. His images recorded the situation.

The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz
Stieglitz was an introvert and much more reflective, more of an observer. His images were a metaphor for how he felt about himself (emotionally) and about his current situation. He related to the world via his art.

These two photographs are virtually identical in contents but the principle difference (accepting photographers style) is their reason for being, that is, political motivation versus art. Regardless of whatever other inferences have been made about the images then or since, any signs or symbolism present only the possibility of meaning, not actual meaning. Until the photographs are embedded in the appropriate 'concrete' discourse any number of meanings or 'texts' can be applied.

Sekula summaries his article with a list of comparisons in approach:

Photographer as seer v's Photographer as witness
Photographer as expression v's Photographer as reportage
Theories of imagination v's Theories of empirical truth
Affective value v's Informative value
Metaphoric signification v's Metonymic signification

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Assignment 1 planning (part 5)

Thoughts after some time obsessing...

I was at the gym again this morning thinking about this assignment, the exercises (photography, not physical) I've done and all of the reading around. I keep coming back to the photo essays on the Magnum website and the way they convey 'a story'.

New idea

Definition of community:
  1. social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
  2. A locality inhabited by such a group.
Utilising the second part of the definition, develop a set of images of locations, certain obvious locations spring to mind: park, pool, gym, market, school playground, library, church, multistory car park, stadium, football pitch, etc. The concept is to take the photographs when the locations are empty of people and then record (audio) the locations when they're being utilised by the people and develop a sound track to play over the images in a slide show.

I'm wondering whether this could work taking two photographs of the same location, the first empty (as above) and the second with people and then fade the second one in and out with the sound track?

If I use this idea, I'm not sure how impactful the images will be when printed...

Nor am I sure this pushes my images further, but it certainly pushes my work further. 

A post modern documentary (part 2)

Continuing on...

In her article 'Postmodernism', Mary Klages draws up a list of the key differences between Modernism and Postmodernism and interestingly finds the easiest way to define/describe Postmodernism is by stating that it's the opposite of Modernism. Perhaps that's the reason why it is difficult to grasp. Perhaps it's also because we are currently in the Postmodern era and it is still evolving and until we move to the next era we won't fully understand it. I believe that it is easier to describe something once its finished - you have the beginning, the middle and the end and thus definition and (attempting) explanation comes more naturally.

Klages states that "Modernity is fundamentally about order; about rationality and rationalisation, creating order out of chaos." She then goes on to explain that this binary philosophy is self destructive, simply, if everything is order, then by default there must always be some chaos to create order from. If we follow that simple thread, sooner or later every element of society and behaviour will become so constrained there can only be rebellion - seems appropriate here to reference the film The Demolition Man. I can understand why Postmodernism evolved - how can anybody be truly creative, if creativity is defined and documented and comes with a prescriptive set of rules?

 So, 30+ years on from Rosler's article "In, around and afterthoughts..." and I believe the world has changed considerably. Whilst the concept of network integration was first being probed as early as the 1950's, the Internet was really only available to the technically minded general public at the beginning of the 1980's. After that, it took the best part of 15 years for this 'new' technology to gather momentum and have a real impact on our lives, for example, email and SMS and whilst it seems like Google has been around for ever, the company was only launched in September 1998. Similarly, blogging has been around since the late 1990's; one of the earliest blog-publishing tools was 'Blogger' launched in 1999, there are numerous others but the more well know ones are Wordpress (2003), Twitter (2006) and Tumblr (2007).

This technological revolution and the general accessibility of information, by the public, has changed the way we view the world and to a greater extent changed how much we are prepared to accept at face value. Lets face it, if somebody mentions a name you don't know, in a fraction of a second Google's completed its search and brought back a couple of hundred thousand results.  Add to this, the fact that information is provided by not only 'reputable' sources (for example, newspapers?) but by the general public themselves, therefore, its hardly surprising that the information we 'find' needs to be reviewed and carefully validated. Any amount of 'information' is available to anybody who cares to look, but how that individual "filters the signal out of the noise" and then uses it is down to that persons personal agenda. Is this Postmodernism in its truest sense?

Picking up on the concerns raised in Rosler's article about the taking and the using of images of disadvantaged or exploited persons; for whatever reason, be it money, sensation, communication of situation or even art; I would suggest in current times this risk is greatly magnified. There is little, if any, control in the use or circulation of images today, historically photographers had a clearly defined outlet for their work - news, newspapers and magazines. Today, anybody with a phone can take an image (or a video clip) and, within seconds of the event happening, post it on the web without any degree of censorship - see Erik Kessels 24 hours in photos. It's difficult to say that this type of behaviour is about financial gain, but its also difficult to defend that its not about personal gain in terms of 'kudos' and 'hits' and 'followers'.

When Rolser talks about "'liberal' documentary, imploring members of the ascendant classes to have pity on the oppressed", as "a thing of the past" I would have to disagree. I'm not quite sure about the term 'ascendant classes', but I am sure about the ongoing use of liberal documentary asking those immediately/currently more fortunate to support those immediately less fortunate - look at any recent weather disasters; adverts on television: NSPCC, Water Aid, etc and Children in Need. I firmly believe that this type of liberal documentary is here to stay.

In Rosler's closing statement she talks about "the germ of another documentary - a financially unloved but growing body of documentary works committed to the exposure of specific abuses caused by people’s jobs, by the financier’s growing hegemony over the cities, by racism, sexism, and class oppression, works about militancy, about self-organisation, or works meant to support them." Is this not the type of story we see regularly in our news papers and TV stations? Again, maybe this is a timing thing...

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Assignment 1 planning (part 4)

Some images from a recce shoot:

Going home
Good action with the child pointing, good use of space across the image
but needs something more on the RHS?

Woman detracts, boys need to be facing the camera, but this might work.

Idea needs some work - the image is too static and background is wrong.

Bin and black bag! Couple need eye contact.

Good angles, possibly too much sky or too much light?

Step in time, happy couple

Good angle and expression, maybe further back to include feet?

Background is loud, but close crop is death...

These images were taken with a 28mm lens, next shoot will be with a 50mm lens - I'm not sure which I prefer yet. Overall nothing to write home about, but good to be out with the camera and trying to piece things together for the assignment.  Having said that, I've identified 3 locations for shooting when the market is on.

Next steps:
  1. Work on image style and feel
  2. Options for formats and layout
  3. More time shooting people

A post modern documentary (part 1)

Exercise 5 - asks us to read In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) (1981) by Martha Rosler and make notes in our blog.

The article discusses the evolution of documentary and includes examples of good and dubious documentary practise. It also goes some way to justify/explain how and why views towards documentary have altered over time.

Whilst I do not disagree with anything in the article, I would suggest that views towards documentary have changed further in the thirty plus years since this article was written. In terms of notes in my blog, at this moment in time I have a series of questions:

Ø         What is the purpose of documentary literature/photography?

Ø         Is it even possible for an article or an image to portray events objectively?

Ø         Why is one story 'bought' by the public and another 'rejected?

Ø         How can we be sure something is genuine, rather than politically motivated?

Ø         Why is political motivation not a genuine reason to act?

Ø         If images are staged to 'represent' a situation, does that make the situation they are representing any less real?

Ø         Does the reason behind why the public react matter - guilt, sympathy, shame...

Ø         Does the end justify the means?

Ø         Do the needs of the many really out way the needs of the few?

Ø         How do we ensure context and social understanding?

Ø         How do we ensure that vulnerable people are not exploited?

Ø         How do we ensure that we do not become immune to the images we see?

Ø         How do we balance sensitivity and sensationalism?

Ø         What's the difference between real documentary and muckraking?

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Photographers (part 1)

Walker Evans 1903 - 1975

The progenitor of the documentary tradition in American photography, Evans had the extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to translate that knowledge and historically inflected vision into an enduring art.

American Photographs is still for many artists the benchmark against which all photographic monographs are judged.
Walker Evans, Sidewalk and Shopfront, New Orleans, 1935.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
With a 35mm Contax camera strapped to his chest, its lens peeking out between two buttons of his winter coat, Evans was able to photograph his fellow passengers surreptitiously, and at close range. Although the setting was public, he found that his subjects, unposed and lost in their own thoughts, displayed a constantly shifting medley of moods and expressions—by turns curious, bored, amused, despondent, dreamy, and dyspeptic. "The guard is down and the mask is off," he remarked. "Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people's faces are in naked repose down in the subway."

In 1973, Evans began to work with the Polaroid SX-70 camera the virtues of the camera fit perfectly with his search for a concise yet poetic vision of the world. The unique SX-70 prints are the artist's last photographs, the culmination of half a century of work in photography. With this camera, Evans returned to several of his enduring themes, such as, signs, posters, and their ultimate reduction, the letter forms themselves. Google has a selection of these images and they can be found here; they are also available in a book.

Polaroid image of sign taken by Walker Evans, ~1973.
Selected from Google Images.

Jacob August Riis 1849–1914

Riis was among the first photographers to use flash powder, which enabled him to photograph interiors and exteriors of the slums at night. Flash was a German innovation, by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke, flash powder was a mixture of magnesium with potassium chlorate and some antimony sulfide for added stability; the powder was used in a pistol-like device that fired cartridges.

Riis, Dr John Nagle, Henry Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence using flash photography started documenting the slums. Their first article was published in The Sun (New York) in February 1888 and the article was illustrated by twelve line drawings based on the photographs of "Gotham's crime and misery by night and day". Riis photographed the slums for only 10 years and printed as half-tones or used as a basis for engravings to illustrate his newspaper articles. The images taken during this period became the foundation of Riis's later book entitled 'How the other half lives'.

Bandit's Roost, Mulberry Street by Jacob Riis, ~1888.
Masters of Photography

Riis was the first to realise the power of photographic documentation in the campaign for social reform. Plus because if his role as a police reporter he had access to some of the worst slums and because of his role as a journalist was in the ideal position to communicate these atrocities to a bigger audience. Riis developed a tersely melodramatic writing style and he became one of the earliest reformist journalists.

Reference sites
Spartacus Educational




Assignment 1 planning (part 3)

Investigating the market images found on the web…

There are numerous images, but they tend to be limited in terms of presentation and imagination. Please don’t think I am inferring that the images a bad in any way, on the contrary, some are quite stunning.

In addition, I feel a bit “pot calling the kettle” because my existing market images are effectively the same. Referring back to my tutors email images of market stalls and stall holders will not suffice for a level 2 course; so, how do I "push my images further"?

I was at the gym last week and watching music videos, I say watching because I left my headphones at home – big mistake. Nonetheless, it was interesting, because I actually watched the videos (probably for the first time) and the lack of sound created a very different experience. For the first time I had to make sense of the videos with only the song title and the artist or groups name. One of the new videos was Go Gentle by Robbie Williams and I was fascinated by the way the director used slow-motion to emphasize what was happening.

Having now listened to the video, I can honestly say I didn’t come close to guessing what it was about; but the video does very cleverly support the lyrics. However, I’m still not quite sure about the pirate ship or the captain’s outfit…

Also thinking about photography in terms of speed, documentary and pushing the boundaries – I was reminded of the Eadweard Muybridge galloping horse experiment and whilst it wasn’t slowed video it was movement captured by a rapid sequence of still images. Quite revolutionary in its time and absolutely accepted as documentary evidence that a horse does have all four feet of the ground when galloping.

Why am I talking about this? I suppose it relates back to Exercise 3 and Jose’s question about what makes a document. Inevitably, context and meaning were going to come into the discussion as well as the key question about whether a single image can stand alone as a document. Each time I think about this I find myself reverting back to the definition of ‘a document’.

George Georgiou (British photojournalist) has had numerous exhibitions and regularly presents two images on a single page - see The Shadow of The Bear. Interestingly, these images are not necessarily sequential or even immediately related, but support the photo-essay in GG way of conveying the information.

Going back to the Robbie Williams video, I find a degree of similarity between some of the slow-motion clips and the Turks 1 exhibition photographs.

Historically, the best images I have taken (feedback from previous tutors) are the images that make the viewer think. These have tended to be images with a number of possibly related, or possibly not related, activities happening within the images – hence the requirement to think. Normally, my images have titles and captions as part of my write up for assignment submission, thus my context is provided by me for my images; the viewer can then use or ignore this information at an individual level.

I’m not quite sure why I’m obsessing over this, perhaps too much philosophy and contemplation? Since this is a documentary course, do my images for this assignment need to be more poignant than anything I’ve done before? Back to my tutor’s feedback and ‘image pushing’ so the answer must be yes. Time for more obsessing…

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Assignment 1 planning (part 2)

The subject: The Market

Some questions that need answering:
  1. What do I want to say about the market?
  2. Why do I find the market so interesting?
  3. What are the key elements of the market?
  4. Should it be lots of elements of one market or vise versa?
  5. Are buildings/stalls integral to the atmosphere or purely a backdrop?
  6. How do I fully communicate 'the market' without words?
  7. If I need words to communicate, how do I use them?
Some thoughts on the matter:

I think people watching is the reason the market is so interesting - the interactions and the bartering; lots of mini events playing out in front of you all the time. That said, it would take a significant amount of pre-visualisation and luck to take enough 'mini-event' images to create a reasonable portfolio for this assignment.

In general, I don't find watching people shopping (in shops) as interesting. This may be because it feels more intrusive; whilst markets tend to be more crowded, they also feel more open. Similarly, when a market is finished and everybody has gone; the space feels lonely and expectant at the same time - possibly the lingering ghosts of previous generations... (Walton would have a field-day!) Does this mean that the stalls help create the atmosphere?

I believe this portfolio will require words, however, I'm not sure of the format these words should take. A simple caption, whilst a little boring, may suffice; but an interview (or anecdote) from the owner (as per John Londei's book Shutting Up Shop) would be much more interesting, if not insightful.

Thus the words will have a direct bearing upon how the images are presented. Captions are simple enough to add and the images could be presented in the blog. Whereas, anything bigger would really need to be presented in 'book' format - careless layout could have a negative impact on the relationship between the words and the photographs.

In terms of delivery, the course notes state that we need to submit 10 unmounted quality prints. One for discussion with my tutor.

Magnum In Motion

As part of my investigation into the development of documentary photography, I decided to look at the Magnum website to gain insight into one of the best know collectives of excellent documentary photographers and photojournalists.

I found Magnum In Motion - home to some of the best photo essays, what an eye opener...

What is a photo essay?

This is my take from the essays I have watched.
  • Photographs of every conceivable type - colour and B&W; sharp and blurred; close-up and distant (almost impossible to make out); every subject matter.
  • Narration - this appears to be personal choice. It could be the photographer; the crowd or even voice over clips from the archive.
  • Music - background music seems to be a requirement, especially if there is not narration. Music does not have to be a know 'tune', but a mixture of the most appropriate noise that fits the sequence of images in the essay.
Listed below are some of my favourites:
  1. The East was Tugging at My Soul by and about Marilyn Silverstone
  2. Playas by Martin Parr
  3. No Whisper, No Sigh by the Magnum Group

I think the most consistent element to these essays is the conceptual thinking, the attention to detail when considering how everything will hang together to create the desired effect - ensure the correct story is told.

I sincerely recommend this site to anybody studying this course.

Photographs from the family collection

Exercise 4 - make a selection of up to five photographs from your personal or family collection. They can be as recent or as old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn't belong to anyone else.

Using OCA forums, ask the learning communities to provide short captions or explanation for your photographs.

Photographs personal to me...

Photograph 1

Photograph 2

Photograph 3

Photograph 4

Photograph 5

I look forward to reading your comments.

Assignment 1 planning (part 1)

Email from me to my tutor dated 9-Nov-2013

Good morning,
I hope you are fit and well and appreciating the change in the weather.
I'm writing to tell you that I am getting on with the course and have completed up to exercise 4. Unfortunately, without this email you couldn't possibly know this because my access to the Internet, via BT Infinity, is nonexistent. I have recommended to BT that they rename their service BT Infinitesimal! The 'technician' on the other end of the phone didn't think this was at all funny.
Currently I'm not at all sure what I'm going to do for assignment 1, but have a couple of ideas:
  • The local market, we have some real characters and normally with a bit of discussion they are prepared to have their photographs taken.
  • The project team at work, significantly more challenging because they don't want their photographs taken, but in terms of situational portraits its a real opportunity.
  • The street, I live in the 'village', it is a single row of ex-tied miners cottages and a number of the residents are still miners (from the open cast pit); I would love to be able to do this, but I think it will take longer to set up than I have for this assignment. I'm hoping with a bit of lateral thinking and some further development of my image ideas I may be able to use this for assignment 3.
In terms of assignment 4, I think it must be something about Walton and his transparency of pictures - for some reason I have taken a very strong dislike to the utter drivel he has written in the particular paper! At the same time I also find myself a fan of Bazin.
Initially, I found Walton's paper very difficult to understand, so I dissected it paragraph by paragraph, by the end of which I had written (albeit) a very emotional and negative two and a half thousand word response. Currently, my response only references Bazin (in order to defend him), but I think with the inclusion of other people (references) and a more balanced discussion around transparency, it has the legs to work for the 'critical review'. However, at this stage I have no thoughts as to what my personal project would be and how I would link it back to my critical review.

Referring to your email, in terms of the kind of documentary I would like to do, I don't know.
Work I like - Atget, Meyerowitz, Crewdson. I find the images considered and clever, they have an eye for an image that you can't always immediately pin-point.
Work that's ok - Parr and Gliden. Again clever images, but with a certain edginess derived from the less salubrious side of our lives. I always feel glad that they've never photographed me...
Work that's not me - Goldin (older work), Billingham, it's a long list. Great documentary images, but very much from the other side of life. I come from a great home and a very loving family and, more and more frequently, I truly appreciate how lucky I am. At the same time, I'm struggling with the idea that my background makes me an inferior photographer. In our current world, it appears that only those of the tortured-soul persuasion are the ones with enough pain to be truly artistic...
Response from my tutor dated 10-Nov-2013

Good to hear from you - and currently sheltering from the rather cold conditions! I share your frustrations with the internet - we have BT at work and it regularly drops out.
Firstly I have just returned from OCA HQ so thought I would give some initial feedback with regard to blogs.
Do take care that your blog is very easy to navigate. You want to have links that take the reader straight to the assignments. Also a separate heading for all research posts. Lastly the main learning log posts should be easy to navigate through. I have had a look again at your People and Place blog and this doesn't quite have this ease of navigation. Having more categories would be better to be able to find different sections. For level 2 there is a much greater requirement for recording your progress and by reflecting on your work and relating to the work of others. Please don't worry about changing/updating past blogs BUT do take care in the layout for this one.
I will try and answer the points you raise - but if I have missed anything do let me know.
Critical Review - I would hold on this until you get settled into the course and see what direction your work is going.
Future assignments
Again it is good that you are thinking ahead but do not commit to anything. The work on the course should be organic and the sequence of assignments should allow you to develop your work from one to the next. The assignments are not set in stone - and there is great flexibility for you to take an idea and run with it, in negotiation with a tutor. More important then answering the brief is your reaction, discussion and production of work.

Assignment 1
For this assignment choose a subject that is easy to manage. I think you want to make a start on the course so it is key to be able to turn it around.
The other thing is that you want to be able to shoot, review images and then reshoot. The market does seem to be a feasible subject for this matter.

Do think about how you push the images further - at level 2 you want to be able to move this on visually from images of stall holders behind their stalls. This is where some research comes in. It should be easy to find some traditional images of markets and market traders - I'm sure Flickr can provide some examples. Look at the images - it can be good here to annotate them. Look at the similarities in image style, can you see repetitions in photographic approach. Now think how you can build on this.

Good photographers to look at would be Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange. Although shooting in the 1930s they were able to identify with the subjects in a way that their images are still visually interesting to us today.

John Londei's project 'Shutting Up Shop' is a more contemporary project to look at.
Photographic Style
You will find that your taste into photographers changes over time - you can appreciate a photographers work without liking them particularly. Level 2 courses should be seen as an opportunity to experiment with different styles of working (this is exactly what students on the second year of a degree course would be encouraged to do).

I have written a lot here - do come back to me with any queries.
So, in summary - good ideas, keep on thinking, but don't go dashing off down any specific road without speaking to me.
Next steps:
  1. Look at Flickr and identify 'market' images I like and don't like
  2. Check out John Londei's project, plus any others I may find
  3. Get out and take some images, start to find my own feet...

Jose asks: "What makes a document?"

Exercise 3 - read the post "What makes a document?" on WeAreOCA, including all the replies to it and write your own comment both on the blog page and in your own blog.

Make sure your reply is personal and authoritative. Express you opinion on the topic of the blog and substantiate your comments with solid arguments, ideally referring to other contributions to the blog.

Jose posses a question:
So is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?

Bearing in mind I just had the joy of reading Walton on the transparency of photographs - I promise not to talk about fictional or directly seeing.  My first point would be that in order to be a document the photograph needs to be of a 'real' event, so regarding this photograph (as Rob stated) "If nothing else it also documents that [Jose's Grandfather] stood in front of a large wall on a sunny day." That said, I do not question that a fictional novel is a document.

With respect to time, I believe a number of elements need to come together for that photograph to become a document and then to have any gravitas in later years. For example, that:

1.      The photograph was taken in the first place
2.      Events conspire to enable the photograph to become a document
3.      The photograph is found and that somebody knows the story, thus providing provenance and creating a document of interest
4.      The 'owner' is perceptive enough to understand that it is a document
5.      The document can find an audience that are receptive and interested.

A classic example of this is the photography book "Bill Wood's Business". Diane Keaton (actress) purchased a photographic archive and within the archives were thousands of images of Fort Worth, Texas, taken by Bill Wood, over the period of thirty years. The photographs effectively chronicle the lives of the residents and whilst individually they are quite ordinary, together they provide a fascinating insight into all aspects of daily life during that period. All 5 of the above points occurred and resulted in the publication and distribution of Wood's work.

Regardless of how perfectly executed the photograph, as Anne stated (most ably, albeit unknowingly, paraphrasing Berger) "the document would need to have an anchor in the original reality even though it would still be open to differing readings". Berger states that, regardless of subject, because "photographs have been taken out of a continuity" they are all ambiguous. Returning again to Wood's photographs, the captions are very generic because little or no information was included with the archive. This does not make the collection any less documentary in function, just less detailed in factual information.

Anne's follow on question, "can one photograph be a document?" is very valid. It opens the discussion to the amalgamation of words and images and the age old debate that 'if you need words you photograph isn't good enough'. Looking back at the images proffered by Jose, regardless of time (his grandfather 70 years ago and Gaddafi in 2008) both required 'words' to engage the audience. Are we now talking about the difference between photojournalism, reportage and documentary photography?

Jim adds an interesting dimension, that culture means that certain documents will have greater significance to certain sections of the population. I would extend this beyond just culture and include age, disability, ethnic origin, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background and political opinion; I have no doubt there are numerous other 'groups' that could be added to this list.

So, finally, what makes a photograph a document?
In my opinion, as long as it is an image (or multiple images - photomontage) of a real event(s) it is a document.

Here is a link to one of the more insightful reviews of the difference between photojournalism and documentary photography written by Antonin Kratochvil (Czech-born American photojournalist).

Transparent Pictures by Kendall L Walton (part 3)

Continuing on...

I believe Walton's ideas about transparency can be discussed using these two extracts:

  1. "[...] photography is a supremely realistic medium [...]" 
  2. "Dissenters note how unlike reality a photograph is and how unlikely we are to confused one with the other."
Simply, Walton theory is "because a photograph is created by a mechanical process, 'people' believe it tells the truth without skew or influence inferred by the photographer". Herein lies the lack of transparency misunderstood by the layperson. Adding weight to his theory, he introduces statements from photographers who understand how open to interpretation and influence photographs are and utilise this freedom to create their pictures.

To clarify, Walton accepts that art (painting) could be perceived to be very realistic but is understood by the viewer to be 'art' and therefore not expected to tell the 'truth' - it can legitimately be the artists 'take' on the truth.

Walton then pushes further claiming that because of the realism of photography; regardless of subject matter e.g. unicorns; the viewer is conned, confused and deluded into believing that they are seeing not a photograph, but the real thing.

So, as to my views...

I agree with Walton that there is a transparency 'issue' and a lack of understanding (generally) regarding the ability of a photograph/photographer to skew the truth. I also agree with Walton's claim that "we see, quite literally, our dead relatives themselves" in photographs.

However, I cannot subscribe to his philosophical debate about the confusion people suffer regarding seeing the object rather than the image of the object. When I look at my ancestors, I see a realistic likeness of my ancestors; similarly, when I see myself, I see my likeness. I do not believe that hold my ancestors, or myself, or my dog or my house in my hand. Nor do I believe that the photograph captured anything other than a fleeting moment in time - I don't believe that my ancestor is still sitting in the chair or that my dog is still on his walk.

I believe, Walton like many other philosophers, likes to manipulate and twist the words of others; and also stretch and modify the definition of words; to enable and create debate. QED: "Photographs are transparent. We see the world through them." Also see "Photographic Pictures" ref: Walton's comments on words used by Roger Scruton regarding photographs and representation.
Attached is a photograph of my scribbled notes on my copy of Walton's paper about transparent pictures. My copy still looks like this, covered with blue ink and highlighted in green marker, however, it's no longer strewn across my desk, it's neatly collected and inserted into my OCA file. That's my OCA file, it's just to the left of the paper you can just make out the 'A', interestingly enough it's in exactly the same position now... Or is it?
My scribbled thoughts and questions about Walton's theories and questions.