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?