Category Archives: Research & Reflection

Part one – Reflection

Part one – Reflection

At the end of Project 5 the course notes ask the following questions in reflection to part one:

“What was your idea of documentary photography before you worked on Part One?”

Before I worked on part one of this course documentary meant street photography; images taken to record events which were mainly about people and places.  Quite basic a definition really.

How would you now sum it up?”

I now realise that documentary is so much more than my original basic interpretation.  I hadn’t appreciated that there were sub-genres to documentary photography and what the differences were; that each sub-genre has its own place in photographic practice for a particular reason.  The history of photography as a document and then as art is again something I wasn’t aware of (or at least consciously) but by reading the texts provided within the course materials and in the recommended reading it’s all starting to come together – a picture is building (excuse the pun).  It’s important to understand photography’s past to appreciate how it has changed, both from a technical perspective but also from a cultural and social perspective too.  ‘Documentary’ photography is a lot farther reaching in its context and narrative than I had appreciated when I started the course.

What are the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and
art photography?”

Documentary is the making of a record or to document. Documentary photography has come to cover a variety of genres, such as those below.  It can of course be street photography but is not limited to.

Reportage photography is a story in images from one persons point of view.  Nan Goldin’s work is a good example of this; very personal and subjective reportage imagery.

Photojournalism refers to news imagery.  It is photography which informs “the public of events and happenings across the world.” (Boothroyd, 2017 : 26)  This could be in the form of imagery taken live (whilst it happens) or in the aftermath (after it has happened) .

Art photography is (but not limited to) documentary images being viewed as part of an exhibition.  So it is more about context i.e. where the photographs are shown.

References:

Boothroyd, S (2017) Context and Narrative, Barnsley: OCA.

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

Part one – Project 4 – Research point : Paul Seawright

Project 4 – The gallery wall, documentary as art

The section talks about the transition of photography as a document to photography as an art form, with reference to both how it was made and the presentation of it to the public.  “Until the beginning of the twentieth century, general opinion had regarded all photographs as documents.” (Boothroyd, 2007 : 34)

America came to this transition a lot sooner than the UK, with artists such as Friedlander, Arbus and Winogrand.  The UK followed late with the Tate Modern only putting on its first exhibition devoted to photography in 2003, Cruel and Tender, with artists such as Sander, Baltz, Dicorcia and Eggleston.

The Tate shows were instrumental in revealing the shift in a relatively short period of time (2003 to 2008), from photography as a document to photography as art.  “As a result, photography was seen less as a record of reality and more as an expression of it…” (Boothroyd, 2007:35)

Research point – Project 4 – Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murders

Look online at Paul Seawright’s work, Sectarian Murders.  How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art? 

SECTARIAN MURDER

‘Sectarian Murder revisited the sites of Sectarian attacks during the 1970’s close to where Seawright grew up in Belfast. The texts are from newspaper reports at the time and document the murders of innocent civilians, killed for their perceived religion. Reference to Protestant or Catholic background was removed from the text.

Exhibited in more than 20 countries, most recently in Planet Parr in Munich and Paris, The Troubles Archive – OBG Belfast and the British Council Collection exhibition at London Whitechapel Gallery.’ (Seawright, 2017)

Seawright’s work challenges the boundaries between documentary and art because the narrative is taken from the official report of events at the time of the incident but the image is a re-imagined image, aftermath photography, with traces that are informed by the original narrative.  The image is subjective, as it is the photographers response to the narrative, which is objective, i.e. the facts.  So it could be argued his work is a bit of both; it informs you of the incident but is illustrated by an imagined image taken some time after the incident.

For example, the first image titled Thursday 14th December 1972, the original newspaper report states:

‘The sixteen tear old youth was standing at the corner of Dandy Street talking, when a motorcycle with two youths on it drove by.  The pillion passenger was carrying a Sterling sub-machine gun and opened fire on the group.  The boy fell dying in a hall of bullets.’

Seawright’s image is of a street corner, which anchors the location.  It is not obvious if it is the same street corner referenced by the original newspaper report or not but that is not important.  The youth who was killed on the street corner appears to be represented by a stop sign – maybe this is saying ‘don’t shoot’!?.  There is a motorcyclist on the road but unlike the newspaper report it is without pillion passenger but is also an anchor to the original report.  We know it is unlikely to be the same motorcyclist as at the original incident so we know it has been used as a reference point.

“Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at: http://vimeo.com/76940827).  What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?”

Seawright when he talks about his work states it can’t be too explicit otherwise it will be journalistic and if it is too ambiguous it becomes meaningless.  It needs to have balance, something to draw people in, to visually engage with them and then let the image slowly reveal its meaning.  He states that the context of the image is important and it is the viewer who finds the meaning in an image not the photographer.   Art photography has a different timescale in which to deliver its meaning to, say, editorial photography whose images have to deliver their message within 15 seconds.

Do I agree with Seawright?  For a document to be art I believe it does need to have the ability to hold a viewer’s gaze for longer than say an advertising image would.  The context needs to be right though to ensure the viewer has the best chance of understanding the images.  In the introductory section of the course notes we are introduced to Joachim Schmid who chose to present his found photography in photo books instead of a digital presentation, the reason he stated for this was “I have seen people who spent two hours looking at books.  I never saw anyone looking at a monitor for more than ten minutes.” (WeAreOCA, 2013)

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its
meaning?

yes, I think if you define documentary photography as art it does change its meaning.  If you take the original objective reason for taking the image away it becomes subjective and then the truth of the image is brought into question or is given a different interpretation due to a change in context.

Photography wanting to be recognised as art mimicked painting aesthetics which included manipulating images, for example, using gum-bichromate to create a brushed effect.  Steichen did this with his image titled Self portrait with brush and palette, Paris which suggested art by association.  This was one of the instrumental moves in raising photography to the same standing at painting and therefore art.

Once you call into question the authenticity of an image I think it then ceases to have the ability to act as a straight documentary image.  The only thing that could sway the viewer to take an image at face value is the context, for example, the early black and while images of the war were so quickly developed that the images were blurry but knowing the ‘why’ around the aesthetic actually makes the image feel more authentic.

Migrant Mother taken by Dorothea Lange is an example where context elevated a documentary image to art status (or maybe iconic status).  It wasn’t a straight image which showed the plight of migratory farm labour but instead became the image to represent migratory farm labour.  It was not explicit in its representation but from the composition, closeness, subjects in the image and the context given it has become the image to represent that story.

References:

Boothroyd, S (2017) Context and Narrative, Barnsley: OCA.

Seawright, P (2017) Sectarian Murder – Paul Seawright, Available at: http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ (Accessed: 27/07/2017).

Imperial War Museums (2013) Catalyst: Paul Seawright, Available at: https://vimeo.com/76940827 (Accessed: 28/07/2017).

WeAreOCA (2013) An Interview with Joachim Schmid, Available at: https://weareoca.com/photography/an-interview-with-joachim-schmid/ (Accessed: 27/06/2017).

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

Part one – Project 3 – Research point : Contemporary Street Photography

Project 3 – Research point : Contemporary Street Photography

“Do some research into contemporary street photography.”  (Boothroyd, 2017: 32)

In the course notes a number of contemporary street photographers are listed from which research can be done, or there is an option to do research on a contemporary street photographer of our own choice.

To start with I decided to look at a couple of the photographers listed in the notes as, apart from Martin Parr whose work I am already familiar with, the other photographers were pretty new to me:

Helen Levitt (1913 – 2009) an American photographer who was particularly noted for pioneering colour street photography and in particular around New York City.  Her approach to photography was that she “..either sets friezes of polychromatic figures against dark grounds or keys the whole of the picture into a dominant primary blue or red.” (Jeffrey, 1981:229)  

Levitt used vintage dye-transfer color prints from the 60s through the 80s.  “The color is super-saturated and startling in its ability to evoke strong memories from that period. The wonderfully warm and humorous street theater is still present in these photos, but the luscious color itself almost steals the show.”  (LensCulture, 2017)

Levitt reveals her sense of humour and compassion through her amiable and bemused observations which come through in her photography. (Warner Marien, 2014 : 354)  Some of Levitt’s images can be found on the LensCulture site here

How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American Values?

One of Levitt’s images shows an elderly couple crossing a multiple lane road both with their walking sticks, so you can imagine moving very slowly, whilst a couple of vehicles can be seen waiting for them to cross.  This is a comical and ironical juxtaposition between the slow couple crossing and the fast cars having to wait for them to cross.  I’m not sure whether this is specifically either British-ness or American values but instead something most westerners can relate too.

I captured an image previously in my street photography, at a seaside location, where I noticed some graffiti on a wall “Surf the moment” and happened to photograph an old person crossing the street in front of it.  Even now the juxtaposition amuses me.  The image is posted below for your amusement:

surf-the-moment-by-elisabeth-smith-4

I also note that Walker Evans and Helen Levitt knew each other and occasionally conspired on projects together.

Joel Meyerowitz (1938- ) an American photographer known predominantly for his New York street photography.  He switched full-time to colour photography in 1972 and started using large format.

Meyerowitz has had a long career in photography and noted that he was part of a group of photographers pursuing their art at the same time in New York.

In the latest edition of the British Journal of Photography Meyerowitz states that “the camera is like a divining rod and I have lived my life letting instinct show me what I am interested in.” (Grieve, 2017)  A lifetime behind the camera embeds the way you see things through the lens until is becomes like a sixth sense and producing images that ‘work’ becomes second nature.

In the article we are referred to in the course notes, David Campany makes reference to Meyerowitz, notably, in the “…aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Centre…”, “He was the only photographer to have been granted comprehensive access to the scene and the clean-up operation.” (Campany, 2017).  Meyerowitz recorded the scenes using his large format camera.  Taking the images would have been a slow and contemplative process and the resultant photographs have a still and reflective feel.  The composition of some on the images produced have been likened to some of his previous images, which shows and reinforces Meyerowitz’s way of seeing.

Photography used to be at the forefront of breaking news and mainstream media, to record events as they happened – the medium of choice.  These images would be placed in newspapers, the distribution channel of the day.  However, the role of photography has changed over time.  Whereas previously photographers were given access to conflict situations (e.g Vietnam) to provide a record of what happened notably, during the Gulf war, photographers were not given access with the only images being from satellites and instead the role of the photograph was directed to the aftermath of the conflict.  Once portable video cameras came along (late 60s early 70s) video was then the preferred method of recording events, with single images coming from stills from video and not photography.

What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?

Meyerowitz noted that colour allowed for subjects in the background to present themselves, whereas in black and white they faded into the background.  This is supported by “He finds the one experience on Cape Cod and the other on the streets of New York, where colour photography makes revelations out of what faded into the background of black and white pictures.” (Jeffrey, 1981 : 230)

References:

Boothroyd, S (2017) Photography 1 – Context and Narrative, Barnsley: OCA.

Jeffrey, I (1981) Photography: a concise history, London: Thames and Hudson.

Warner Marien, M (2014) Photography: A Cultural History, 4th Edition edn., London: Laurence King Publishing.

LensCulture (2017) Helen Levitt: New York Streets 1938 to 1990s, Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/helen-levitt-helen-levitt-new-york-streets-1938-to-1990s#slideshow (Accessed: 23/07/2017).

Campany, D (2017) Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’, Available at: http:// davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ (Accessed: 26/07/2017).

Wikipedia (2017) Joel Meyerowitz, Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Meyerowitz (Accessed: 28/07/2017).

Grieve, M (2017) ‘Agenda: Any Answers – Joel Meyerowitz’, British Journal of Photography, 164 (7863), pp. 22.

Meyerowitz, J (2015) JOEL MEYEROWITZ, Available at: http://www.joelmeyerowitz.com/  (Accessed: 28/07/2017).

Part one – Project 2 – Research point : Photojournalism

Part one – The photograph as a document

Project 2 – Photojournalism
“Photojournalism is a term used to identify news imagery.” (Boothroyd, 2017:26)

We are asked to read chapters 3, 5 and 6 of La Grange’s Basic Critical Theory for Photographers, for further reading.  I have provided a very high-level summary for each chapter below:

Chapter 3
This chapter covers Susan Sontag’s On Photography.  It is a pretty long chapter running from page 30 to page 75.  Having read On Photography in full, La Grange’s book helps to further understand the arguments and points Sontag raised and I felt this chapter was very thorough in its examination.

Chapter 5
This chapter covers Marther Rosler’s In, Around and Afterthoughts (On documentary photography).  After having read the excerpt we were directed to in the course notes, which I nearly fell asleep reading about 4 times (sorry!), this walk through was much more palatable and a lot shorter.  The chapter runs from page 113 to page 124.

Chapter 6
This chapter covers Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s Inside/Out.  Again this is relatively short running from page 125 to page 132.  Solomon-Godeau brings in Sontag and Rosler as part of the examination, so although Sontag is sited in the notes under the critical viewpoint (see below) on Compassion Fatigue and Rosler under Charity, they still both had something to say about insider photography and Solomon-Godeau had a view in response.

This part of the course focuses on three critical viewpoints on the uses, problems and benefits of photojournalism; charity, compassion fatigue and inside/out.

Charity: Rosler believed that reinforcing the gap between rich and poor through photography was “a way of reinforcing hierarchical structures imposed by capitalism.” (Boothroyd, 2017:26)

Compassion fatigue: “Sontag argued that bombarding the public with sensationalist photographs of war and poverty was a certain way to numb the public’s response.”  (Boothroyd, 2017:26)

Inside/out: Solomon-Godeau argues against the binary voyeuristic/objective or confessional/subjective approaches of photojournalism but to “produce work which provides a distanced look at the subject as well as offering some sort of ‘truth’, which may not be the truth.” (Boothroyd, 2017:27)

Research point – Project 2 – Photojournalism

“If you’re interested in the critical debates around photojournalism, try and make time to
find out more about at least one of these critical positions during your work on Part One.”

The whole of Part one so far has really grabbed my attention and imagination so I was interested in doing some further research/commentary but wasn’t quite sure which to pursue (time restrictions mean that you can’t pursue everything at the same time), so I chose the inside/out viewpoint.

insider – noun
“An officer or a corporation or others who have access to private information about a corporation’s operations.”  (Wordweb, 2017)

Part of the reason for this is that there was much debate on a study visit I went on last year to see Martin Parr’s work in respect of the insider aspect to photography.  A link to my EYV write-up on the two Martin Parr exhibitions (Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers and Unseen City: Photos by Martin Parr) I visited in May 2016 as part of the OCA study visits program can be found here.

Parr as a royal photographer has had access to high-profile people behind the scenes which few of us will ever get the chance to meet let alone photograph but does this make his images more interesting, worthy of exhibit or valuable as a photographer?  A number of the photographs had subjects heads and legs cut off by the frame and had been taken at strange angles, which most photographers would have discarded as bad shots, and yet Parr has been able to legitimately present these images as part of his work.

As a photographer in a unique position, such as this, surely you would question whether your photos hold up because a) your ‘insider’ appointment reinforces your work to be of a certain quality/value so people believe it is on the basis that ‘you’ve been appointed so your work must be good’, or b) people are interested in your images as subject matter because you are an insider and no-one else could have captured these images not caring too much about the photographer or the rules of photography.

I liken this type of insider to a monopoly situation within the corporate world, where only a select few have the ability to be players within a specific market and, therefore, they get all the opportunities.  I am not sure whether it is the general populous’ obsession with other people’s lives which drives the thirst for behind the scenes ‘insider’ images i.e. there is a market for it; or whether it is driven by the inside out i.e. by subjects wanting to produce these behind the scenes images so it captures people’s interest to want to know more.  Either way it is an interesting debate.

This is a fascinating area to explore further, if you take for example the work of Nan Goldin in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the insider viewpoint is very different to that of the insider viewpoint portrayer by Parr.  Goldin’s work explored intimacy and familiarity on a completely different level.  “Images of what would normally be private scenes, for example dressing, and the closeness of the camera to the subject, result in the viewer assuming an intimate relationship between the photographer and subject.” (La Grange, 2005;127)  So maybe there are different levels of ‘insider’?

To provide balance (for reference):

outsider – noun
“Someone who is excluded from or is not a member of a group.” (Wordweb, 2017)

And so to one of the questions in the course text:
“Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?”

I believe the answer to this question is no.  However, I think it depends on what the project’s objectives and aims are as to how succesful the project can be.

For example, if the documentary project is to prove whether it is possible to infiltrate a particular group/club etc. and you document the steps you take to infiltrate the group/club including whether you are successful or not, then surely that documentary project would be achieved as an outsider (although you may become an insider by the end of the project if infiltration has been successful).

What should also be covered at this point is ethics and whether to infiltrate the club/group you had to use any dubious means, to enable access e.g. bribes, lies etc.  If some of these dubious means were used then it might call in to question the authenticity of your other documentary findings i.e. if you’ve lied about one thing what stops you lying about something else maybe to prove your hypothesis/belief.

So it’s important to be aware that authenticity within documentary can easily be called into question.  Often stories are reported on and then countered.  This links back to the Eyewitness exercise under Project 1 and Citizen Journalism which is increasingly adding to the objectivity and truth to documentary projects.

I could carry on discussing this subject longer but I am going to stop at this point as there is more on the course to cover but no-doubt this will be drawn on further later in the course….

References:

Boothroyd, S (2017) Context and Narrative, Barnsley: OCA.

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

Sontag, S (1979) On photography, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

WordWeb: English dictionary, thesaurus, and word finder software. 2016. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.wordweb.info. (Accessed July 2017).

Aperture Foundation (2017) Nan Goldin – The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Available at: http://aperture.org/shop/nan-goldin-ballad/ (Accessed: July 2017).

C&N Reading List

Essential Reading
Berger, J, (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books. [read]
Bull, S, (2009). Photography. Abingdon: Routledge. [read]
Bright, S, (2011). Art Photography Now. London: Thames and Hudson. [bought]
Curana, N & Fox, A, (2012). Behind the Image: Research in Photography. Lausanne: AVA. [bought]
Jeffrey, I, (1981). Photography: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson. [bought]
Langford, M, et al (2010). Langford’s Basic Photography (9th ed.) Oxford: Focal Press. [read]
Short, M, (2011). Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA. [read]
Szarkowski, J, (2007). The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MOMA. [read]

Recommended
Barthes, R, (1977). Image – Music – Text. London: Fontana Press. [bought]
Bate, D, (2009). Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Berg. [bought]
Campany, D, (ed.) (2003). Art and Photography. London: Phaidon Press. [bought]
La Grange, A,(2005). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Oxford: Focal Press. [bought/currently reading]
Sontag, S, (1979). On Photography. London: Penguin. [read + audio book]
Warner Marien, M, (2014). Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed.) London: Laurence King.
Wells, L, (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge. [bought/part read]

Key:
Green = Read
Amber = bought or bought and part read
Red = not yet bought

 

Abstract: The Art of Design – Platon

Episode 7, Season 1, introduces us to Platon (born: 1968) a Greek–British photographer who initially trained in graphic design, but who is now best known for contributing some of the most iconic images of twenty-first century world leaders to publications such as Time Magazine [image below taken from Time’s Person of the Year 2007 double issue, dated 31 December 2007 – 7 January 2008].

In this episode of Abstract Platon is shadowed on a number of jobs, including a portrait session with former US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Platon’s approach to his photography is about making a connection with his subject, so that, through his images us, the audience, has the opportunity to experience that connection too.  The camera, in Platon’s view is a tool, the important part for him is the story and connection.

He starts his sessions by building rapport, with no camera in sight.  He wants to reach the person within and bring out their personality before a camera is introduced or any images are taken.  This relationship building is so that when he does start taking images there is immediately a familiar and more relaxed connection, which comes through in the subjects demeanor and facial expressions.

His ability to make these connections was particularly apparent during his session photographing Congolese women who had been victims of rape as a weapon of war.  At one point during the sittings you can see Platon is emotionally moved by how brave these women were to agree to be photographed considering the ordeal they had been through.  He was sensitive to the situation even before an image was taken, he turned to his all male crew and asked them to be mindful that these women had been abused by men so to act with care and respect.

A lot of Platon’s portrait images have back lighting, behind the subject, a technique to get good separation between the subject and the background (see above image of Putin), which forms a halo aesthetic.  This effect Platon explains was inspired by the images of Christ he observed growing up.

I can see why Platon appears in this series given his graphic design background and the aesthetic he brings to his images.  He shoots with a Hasselblad 553 ELX hand-held with 120mm lens.  This is a medium format camera.  He uses plain backgrounds.  These choices also contribute to creating the Platon aesthetic.

As I am into portraiture I found this episode very interesting, also I have been experimenting with using 35mm film and I have to say I am now considering adding medium format to my list of things to try.

References:

Platon: Photography (2017) In: Abstract: The Art of Design [television programme online] Netflix (Accessed 2 July 2017)

Abstract: The Art of Design – Paula Scher

Although not on photography or a photographer, episode 6 , Season 1 of Abstract covers the creative and personal life of Paula Scher, a graphic designer famous for her use of typography, particularly in logos and brand systems. “Typography is painting with words,” as opposed to photography which is painting with light.

Scher talks about her work for New York’s Public Theater and how in 1994 the theater lacked a cohesive brand identity, or unified name. Scher collects books on typeface and typography and one which included American wood type was her inspiration to create a logo for “The Public” which aimed to symbolize the diversity of the people of New York City.

I like the use of this typeface and it’s hint at diversity and inclusion by using the different size (weight) of letters, to make each letter look different but still in keeping with the other letters.

She also worked on album covers in her early career where she would use words with photography to create a sense of something.

Watching this episode, it made me think that not only can different typeface provide powerful subliminal messaging which is seen, understood but not explained but it can also be used to support (or skew) an image’s message when provided as part of a written narrative.

In this episode you get to see and hear from Scher’s fellow design professionals at Pentagram, “a design co-operative”.  It is clear that they all have a different way of working but that working collaboratively is the key.  Scher admits that she couldn’t sit at a desk all day.

It was interesting to hear from Scher how her ‘world’ as a graphic designer had changed over her 30+ year career, especially with the introduction of computers which brought about a less physical side to the creative process.  That said, in her personal work she concentrates on this physical process and paints large-scale maps of the USA and labels them by different categories e.g. one of her paintings had each state filled in with its zip codes for that area etc.  Her paintings are colourful and her writing is neat.

Scher benefited from being one of the few women in the typography space at the start of her career, so she was bringing something slightly different to the table.  The fact that she is still immersed in typography today all these years later shows a passion and commitment to her creative ideas which I found very inspiring.

 

References:

Paula Scher: Graphic Design (2017) In: Abstract: The Art of Design [television programme online] Netflix (Accessed 3 July 2017)