Sunday, 27 April 2014

Assignment 3 planning (part 1)

Visual story telling...

Option 1

The same, but different - photographing lots of different people doing the same thing - a sort of follow on from the projects of George Gerogiou (Turks 1); Philip diCorcia (Heads) or Manuel Vazquez (Traces). A couple of 'locations' sprang to mind, namely, people at the exit barrier to a car park or people fuelling their vehicles - I drive circa 1,000 miles a week and have done so for years and the interesting situations in which people find themselves carrying out relatively simple tasks is entertaining. Similarly, the level of ritual people engage in to complete routine task is quite bizarre.

The concept: to select two to three locations for each option and set up my camera on a tripod, frame my shot so that the images were consistent throughout, and wait for the scenes to unfold before me.

Whilst this would fit the brief in terms of story telling - same task but very different approaches and attitudes, if I were to use different lenses (as per the brief) I feel the portfolio would loose its impact.

Option 2

Manufacturing - documenting the manufacturing process of getting milk from the farm to the consumer. This option also fulfills the brief, but distilling the activities into only 10 images without loosing or confusing the audience will be difficult.

The concept: to identify key activities (the main image) and perhaps also focus on one element of detail (an inset) and support this with text to provide the minimum of information.

Option 3

The rapidity of modern building - close to my house there are two building sites, one residential and the other commercial.

The concept: to find a suitable location and make a series of images that show the speed of modern day building. This could be done using different lenses - map overall progress with a wide angle and show the detailed progression with a zoom lens.

England Uncensored - updated

From my previous post "I've seen the standard dozen (or so) images that are generally available on the web and they certainly depict the subjects in a harsh and unflattering light."

I have now received and read my copy of England Uncensored.

It is not lots more of the 'standard dozen images; it is a much more rounded and mature capture of the English relaxing. The images posted online are the harshest and the most brutal, however, I found the rest of the images familiar - in an uncomfortable way - which made them very thought provoking. I did not get the feeling that Dench was, in any way, looking down his nose at his subjects; instead the photographs feel more like the sort of images your friends take (of you) when your doing things you know you shouldn't - the classic no harm done this time, but next time you may not be so lucky!

The photographs are excellent - some are like mini soap-operas playing out in front of you, sometimes you want to know what happened before hand and other times what's about to happen... Whilst Dench's images are certainly colourful, the saturation doesn't feel overdone and it fits well with the party atmosphere created. I feel there are two distinct types of image in this book: (1) the opportunist capture where the scene would play out with or without Dench and (2) the near-documentary photograph where it is clear that Dench had an integral part in the final composition.

The quality of the book is very good and it is a shame have gone into receivership.

I would recommend this book.

Monday, 21 April 2014

England Uncensored

Exercise 31 - read the article on England Uncensored by the BBC Picture Editor Phil Coomes. Dench talks about his "humorous approach with an underlying social commentary" - what do you think of this approach? Does it work? What are the ethical issues?

The ethical issues 'covered' by Dench's images are obvious - the British nations unhealthy obsession with alcohol. Lenculture opens its piece on Dench's work with the following comment:
"On January 15th 1915, during the First World War, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George exclaimed that Britain was “fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink.”
Moving on almost a century, I'd have to suggest that Lloyd George's statement is still valid; partying hard, drinking to excess and the subsequent antisocial behaviour is not difficult to observe in any town on a Friday or Saturday night.

In Dench's interview with the BBC, he shares with us that his personal approach to photography was humorous and his intention behind the humour was to 'break the ice' thus enabling the trickier subject of alcoholism to be addressed more openly. Dench also clearly states that the move in his photography toward a more 'anthropological angle' was because of the pushing he received from the project editor. I accept that this statement provides Dench with a "it's not my fault really, I was just doing what I was told..." card, but the reality is his images work and they are commercially successful - so, why change it?

What do I think of the approach? I genuinely don't know. I've seen the standard dozen (or so) images that are generally available on the web and they certainly depict the subjects in a harsh and unflattering light. Whilst some of Dench's images are posed, because of his engagement/interaction/drinking with his subjects, none of the images are staged. Thus, I find it difficult to disapprove of the approach - if the image is there for the taking and Dench is there to see and take it, so be it.

[I have ordered a copy of English Uncensored and will update this post once I have read and digested the contents.]

In terms of the comment "humourous with an underlying social commentary", I would suggest that this applies to numerous other street and documentary photographers e.g. Brandt, Parr, Gilden, Meyerowitz, etc. 

Does it work, in terms of having a positive impact on drinking in Britain? I think its too early to tell, but my speculation would be that it will have no influence at all. Referring to the comments made by David Campbell in his lecture about 'narrative, power and responsibility', there is only one demonstrable example of photography influencing behaviour and that was in a very minimal and limited way. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that Dench's work will have any influence at all - for change to happen, the people involved must want to change and there is no evidence that this is the case. 

What are the ethical issues? Heather Shuker (UK street photographer) states that "the ethical issues associated with any street photography primarily concern invasion of privacy; invasion in the form of intrusion; portraying subjects in a false light; embarrassment; and image appropriation."
All of the above are legitimate concerns, but, is it conceivable that, in some warped way, this kind of photography starts to glamourize the situation - the locations, the people and the behaviours. Fundamentally, any type of bad or antisocial behaviour that is not curbed when it happens is, by default, condoned and will happen again...

Slate - Britain's drinking culture shows it's not always happy hour...
Peter Dench

Sunday, 20 April 2014

New milestones in documentary

Exercise 30 - Martin Parr acknowledges and defends what he calls the "hypocrisy and prejudice" in his work. What do you think of this statement?

In the interview Parr states "I'm a very big hypocrite in so far that I'm making things of objects which become part of the thing, that if you read my photographs carefully, I'm preaching against. I love the fact that my work is surrounded by hypocrisy and prejudice and all these things people don't expect photographers to be pursuing."

Parr was born and lived in Surrey and comes from a middle class background, when he left home he moved north to study photography at Manchester polytechnic. Not surprisingly he was fascinated by this change in culture and obsessively photographed his new environment and 'align' inhabitants. (His story has striking similarities to Brandt's transition from Germany to the UK.)

His holidays, to the seaside, with his grand father no doubt also played a significant part in tuning his photographer’s eye when it can to the 'brasher' side of life.

As part of this course we have debated, at length, that it is difficult (if not impossible) for any photographer to be objective when shooting - we bring to the image our own personal baggage. Thus we are in essence a part of the images we create.

Parr's images are humorous at the same time as being cringe-worthy and just a little bit to close to reality for comfort, that said, they appeal to the baser instincts of the British general public. The vibe from the images is that Parr is always looking down his nose at his victims, not in a critical or chastising way but more with a sense of disbelief. The very fact that Parr is:
1.      Prepared to capture these images indicates that he is somewhat prejudice, add to that the style of the image – saturated colours and fill-in flash and the concept of prejudice is magnified. (e.g. The Last Resort)
2.      Able to capture so many choice moments clearly indicates that he must be able to relate to the individuals and the environments in which they find themselves - being of that class whilst publicly poking fun a is hypocritical. (e.g. The Cost of Living)

Thus, it would be pointless, even hypocritical, of Parr to refute that his images were not hypocritical and prejudiced.

Interesting quotes:
Parr wanted to join Magmum, because he believed an agency would be the most effective way to promote his work, he decided on Magnum because it was the best. Parr said "Magnum photographers were meant to go out as a crusade ... to places like famine and war and ... I went out and went round the corner to the local supermarket because this to me is the front line."

You Tube - Martin Parr (part 1)
You Tube - Martin Parr (part 2)
Martin Parr
BBC - The Genius of Photography

Monday, 14 April 2014

Assignment 2 images - Depression portfolio

Introduction and overview

No future
It's a nice clear day and then it's not; I could see and feel and understand and then the greyness starts to seep in. There's nothing I can do to stop it, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it takes over completely and everything slows to grey.

The Black Dog
He's an easy way to talk about it, superficial because he can't really explain my feelings but good at explaining my mood - bad day = big black dog! Before this, it wasn't really a dog, I'm not sure its really a dog now. But because I picked this dog, it seems more like a dog. A scary dog on a bad day.

Self medication
I'm entitled to some time off, time to not be who I am.

I'm such an idiot! I didn't do that, I can't believe I did that.  
How will I ever live this down, what are people saying about me?.
I can't go out again, what will people think?
I'm such an idiot. I can't stop thinking about it. I can't believe I did that.

Its lonely not being able to talk about it. Just leave me alone, I'm fine.
Its difficult trying to talk about it. Just leave me alone, I'm fine.
Its impossible to put it into words so that you understand it. Just leave me alone, I'm fine
Its tiring just trying not to think about it. Just leave me alone, I'm fine.
Its easier not to talk about it. Just leave me alone. Help me!

Everyday tasks
Make you a cup of tea, on a bad day it would be just the same as you asking me to climb Mount Everest!
It takes all my effort and concentration to walk across the room.

No matter how hard I try to change things - nothing works; the harder I try, the more frustrating the situation becomes. I end up so angry and frustrated with myself, it feels like I'm crying inside my head and no one can see, so nobody can help!

Tired, so tired I can't think or feel or breath.
So tired I can't move a muscle, I can't even close my eyes.
So tired I can't sleep.
I feel like I'm dead.
I wish I was dead.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Documentary, identity and place...

Exercise 28 - Read the article in Foto8 about 'We English' by Simon Roberts and write a short review.

Extract from 'The English Outdoors' by Stephen Daniels:
"A bright new world of weekends and annual holidays with pay, of new motorized modes of transport, by car, charabanc and caravan, as well as a frequent and far reaching rail network, brought thousands to the country. Trippers flocked to the beaches, hikers to the hills, sunbathers to lidos, cyclists along country lanes, and picnickers to woods and fields.
Then as now, most people happily cleaved to each others company, not too far from designated places. It was and remains a collective, sociable pleasure on the whole, not a solitary one: an encounter with nature, or at least fresh air, green space and water, conditioned by comfort in numbers."
 This particular section refers to the advancing state of holidays and tourism in the mid 20th century - one really has to question whether or not we have progress very much further? But, fundamentally, is this not the question (or depiction) being asked (made) by Roberts photograph? Daniels and Roberts references to J M W Turner as an inspiration rings true when you look at the landscapes he chose to paint. 

We English by Simon Roberts

My observations:
  • As a photographer he appears to prefer to carry out extended project, over long periods of time - even years. Perhaps enabling to engage more completely in the subject he is trying to capture.
  • Specifically, We English, follows on directly from Motherland and there are clear carry-overs in composition and artistic presentation. That said, We English, feels more personal and inclusive rather than purely observational.
  • Whilst these essays clearly have a documentary element, they cut across genres into landscape and tourism - this potential stems from Roberts background and university studies in Human Geography. 
  • Whilst the photographs are interesting and some of the familiar landscapes have resonance, Roberts book essay accompanying the exhibition and explaining the rationale behind each image, makes the portfolio significantly more engaging.
  • The photographs, whilst all about 'the English at leisure', are very varied shots capturing: English culture, various pastimes - historical and contemporary; landscapes, beach-scapes and town-scapes, depicting classical and unchanged views, as well as showing the impact of the development of the tourist and travel industry on the environment.
  •  Roberts works from a clearly defined project brief - in terms of the photographs he intends to take as well as the style, including the format of his compositions. Regardless of this, he seems to be flexible enough to evolve and adapt the brief to include images that at first glance do not completely fit e.g. Derby day and Rushey Hill caravan park.
 Returning to the initial extract from Dainels, Roberts has a knack of showing the English 'escaping' to the country, at the same time as remaining with the pack...


Exercise 27 - research and compare Koudelka's Gypsies and Eskildsen's The Roma Journeys. Discuss aspects to do with the photographers intention and the distinctive aesthetics and approach of each body of work.

Koudelka's Gypsies

All of Koudelka's images are black and white and quite often in a stark, high contrast style; in the same way his images contain a real mix of emotions - happiness, sadness, hope and regret. The images are taken in close proximity to the subject and whilst this might be because of space constraints for the internal photographs; the subjects in the images taken outside are equally as close. These images all have very strong compositions and are able to stand alone in terms of their story, that said, a number of his images have very specific stories but Koudelka prefers for his audience to interpret them in their own way.

In terms of intention, Koudelka is known for his individual style and his strong views, when an interviewer asked why he chose the project he did, he replied “I photograph only something that has to do with me, and I never did anything that I did not want to do. My freedom is something I do not give away easily." 

Review from Atget Photography: "They seem instead to aim at a visual distillation of a pattern of human values: a pattern that involves theatre, large gestures, brave style, precious camaraderie, and bitter loneliness. The pattern and texture of his pictures form the silent equivalent of an epic drama." 

Sean O’Hagan talks of Koudelka bringing the Romany way of life to life with "images that resonate with mystery and ritual, romance and hardship."

Eskildsen's The Roma Journeys

This body of work is completely different in terms of presentation to Koudelka's Gypsies and has a thoroughly modern feel.  First and foremost the photographs are predominantly in colour; and secondly, because the project visited 7 different countries the images are grouped by country into 'chapters'. In addition and to ensure the viewer does not loose the thread of the story/project, the photographs are presented in a very structured format - opening landscape; family groups; portraits, houses (caravans), landscapes.

Whilst these images are candid and show the daily life and the hardships of the Roma people, it is a very positive and upbeat portfolio.

The intentions here are clear as stated by Rinne in the interview - "We always tried to make it explicit that we were no helpers, but artists, and that we had no means to change their living conditions. The only thing we could do was to tell about them and thus make people aware of their situation." 

From Lens Culture: "We are able to soak up the visual richness of the Roma’s personal surroundings and unique ways of living while they adapt to (and resist) the influence of the dominant cultures of their adopted homelands." 

Reference websites: 
Magnum Photos - Koudelka's Gypsies; a comprehensive set of 61 photographs 

Joakim Eskildsen       
Lens Culture

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Environmental portraits

Exercise 26 - look at Paul Close's environmental portraits and analyse his style. Consider whether the images work as documentary photographs...

The Insight Visual website has 15 photographs by Paul Close taken from this particular exhibition.

The images are environmental portraits with a difference - whilst they are serious photographs there is also clearly a element of humour. The individual to be photographed is isolated on a white studio backdrop, however, rather than take a studio-typical portrait shot the photographer has chosen to include significantly more than just the individual. This portfolio comes across as though it was actually taken by somebody other than the photographer - almost like the assistant taking images of the photo-shoot as it was being set up.

I personally find the style of these photographs engaging because of the focus on one particular individual (aligned to the caption giving the location and the aspiration of the individual) and because of the cleaver way it includes, almost as a second image, the environment in which the individual lives.

Do these images work as documentary photographs?

In my opinion yes, however, I can appreciate that in purist terms they would not fulfil the brief. To be purely documentary, you would not expect the image to be staged nor would you expect to see any impact of the photographer; in these images, this is clearly not the case.

The photograph below is my favourite - the very serious pose of the subject and the focus and puzzlement of the little boy watching him. 

Photograph by Paul Close
© 2009 Visual Insight 

Travelling gazes

Exercise 25 - write a reflective commentary on the first chapter on John Urry's 'The Tourists Gaze', discuss its relevance to documentary photography.

There are number of questions raised by Urry in this chapter:

  1. Why do we travel?
  2. How do we see?
  3. Does what we want to see create our need to travel?

Accepting that travel, certainly foreign travel, is a modern convention, it begs the question - why do we travel?

The obvious answers: -
Ø         In this modern culture, we have less quality time for ourselves therefore, we treat ourselves and make our memories of it as special as we can
Ø         We are more able to travel than our predecessors because (a) we have more disposable income and (b) the 'world' is much more easily accessible to us
Ø         Urry comments that, in part, we travel because it enables us to define ourselves in relation to others - in other words, it enables us to fit with our peer group; or more importantly to rise above our peer group in terms of status.

Once abroad, how do we go about actively creating those memories - how exactly do we see?

Part of the discussion in Urry's paper brought to mind a conversation re-told in Galen Rowall's book Mountain Light, when an old Sherpa was commenting on 'the vision' (or not) of tourists 

"Many people come, looking, looking, taking picture....... No good......
Some people come, see. Good!"

I believe this very succinctly communicates what Urry was trying to say.

We are bombarded by mass media, it is unavoidable in this day and age; thus there is no doubt this media informs our individual 'world view', again this is unavoidable. So, do we travel to tick-off the sights? Or, do we travel to enrich our lives and develop ourselves into more rounded, more understanding and better informed individuals? Or, for both?

Looking at the amount of repetition on the web, one might have to concede Urry's point, that we go abroad just to tick-off the sights... In reality, I genuinely don't believe this to be the case, just because people want and need to take the iconic images (I include myself in this grouping) doesn't mean that this is the sole purpose of the travel or that we/I am unable to see and create other images that are much more meaningful on a personal level. In the creation of these individual images, I accept that my upbringing, my experience, my politics, etc; my overall baggage, influences my objectivity and ultimately my photographs. Especially because of this 'personal' objectivity, I find it interesting that so many people are driven to take the iconic images at famous tourist locations.

Finally, does what we want to see create our need to travel? In other words, does our need to tick-off the iconic sights and maintain our status, drive us around the world?

I believe that there are travellers and Travellers, that is, the list tickers and the genuine explorers of the unknown. Similarly, there are non-travellers (voyeurs?) who are more than happy to sit in the comfort of their own homes and watch far-off places on a screen. In terms of the impact of mass media - I believe sometimes it drives us towards a place and other times it drives away form a place!

So, why is this relevant to documentary photography?

A photographer visits a place; then takes a photograph of/in that place; then shares those images. The photographer, professional or not - it little matters, is documenting the people, the place, the situation, the scenario, competently or not - again it little matters. These very subjective views (of the individual) are actual documents of the world (records of events) and fundamentally influence the viewer and the attitude of the viewer towards what they are viewing.

Tourism is a multi-billion pound industry and given the tourists need to experience the new and yet familiar - Urry's reference to New York City, it is hardly surprising the efficacy of all photography in this global business. By the same token, these photographs enable the industry and the tourist to work together in creating and delivering the desired fantasy; thus ensuring the perfect memory of a perfect holiday. Holidays, by their very nature, are an attempt at escapism by the individual - for a pre-determined period of time, the person, can be somewhere else or be somebody else or both.

Tourists document their holidays for others to see; thus enabling others to replicate and improve upon the experience. This 'improved' experience is also documented in images and shared; thus creating a repeating pattern.