Reading Photographs – Richard Salkeld

‘Reading Photographs’ is the first of Bloomsbury’s Basics: Creative Photography series. It is not on the reading list given in the course notes but it is on my tutor’s personal reading list and is the book that he recommends reading first. Having now read it (not first, unfortunately) I find that it has given meaning and a degree of understanding to some of my earlier reading.

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source: amazon.com

The book is an introduction to many of the concepts of photography criticism, written in clear language, with interesting example images and case studies and (unlike many texts) does not assume any prior knowledge on the part of the reader. The six main sections introduce key concepts and will be more or less relevant depending on the reader. For me, section 1 (dealing with the history of photography) was revision and sections 4 and 5 (portraits and representations of people, and surveillance and voyeurism) may become relevant later.

Section 2: Identity  is an introduction to semiotics. It gives the clearest explanation I have yet seen of the vocabulary of signs and reading images.

Section 3: Truth and lies covers documentary photography with a discussion of ‘reality’, manipulation, objectivity and viewpoint.

Section 6: Aesthetics introduces the ‘… is it Art?’ question with a potted history of photography’s relationship to the ‘fine arts’, together with comments on postmodernism, conceptualism, appropriation and the current attitude of galleries to photography.

I doubt that there are any really deep insights in this book but, as an introduction allowing this level-1 student to approach the works containing the deep insights, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Reference

Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.

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… but is it Art?

This is one of a series of occasional self-reflective posts; in this case, a stranger’s-eye view of this ‘art world’ that I have thrust myself into. I started on the degree course a year ago, in February 2016, having never studied an ‘arts’ subject at any level (even O-level) but with an educational background in science/engineering subjects and a day job in building construction problem-solving. I knew it would be a challenge and push me out of my comfort zone – that is one of the reasons I am doing it.

I have now completed EYV, read a lot, visited exhibitions and lurked (and occasionally contributed to) the OCA forums and other social media outlets, so I have more than my toe dipped in the water. However, I still have a problem with the question, “… but is it Art?” especially when viewing some of the more conceptual ‘works’. I was, therefore interested to come across the following passage in Salkeld (2014,152). The context is a discussion that anything can be a work of art but it does not follow that everything is a work of art.

What these examples have in common is that the institutions and discourses that constitute the art world have validated them.

 

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it might suggest that a self-serving and elitist clique has defined art in its own terms and is sharing an expensive joke at the expense of the general public. This would be an understandable, but nevertheless very cynical, view!

At present, I do take this ‘understandable’ view, and I do not consider it invalidated because a member of that same clique has described it as ‘cynical. I came to this degree course with a view of ‘art’ similar to the first part of the definition in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “Skill, esp human skill as opposed to nature; skilful execution as an object in itself; skill applied to imitation & design, as in painting etc.;  thing in which skill may be exercised”. Essentially, I have seen art as a supreme expression of a craft or crafts – which explains my impatience with ‘artworks’ that appear to lack or deride the underlying craft skills.

During EYV, as a result of the course notes, tutor feedback and social media interactions, I have come to understand that OCA are working to a different definition, probably related to the next part of the COED definition, ” (pl.) certain branches of learning serving as intellectual instruments for more advanced studies…”. I have started a process of adjustment but suspect that, while adding to my understanding of ‘art’, I will not let go of my view that a level of craft skill is involved.

This post is intended as a sort of benchmark, a record of where I am at the start of C&N. I intend to review it at the end of the course to see if I have made what the art world would consider to be progress.

Reference
Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.

Context and objectivity

This post is inspired by pp24-25 of the course notes (OCA 2017) and a first reading of Richard Salkeld’s ‘Reading Photographs’ (2014, 90-93). Objectivity can be compromised, with the risk of bias being introduced, at several stages in the process of getting a photograph or other information to its viewer, even (it would appear) if the information presented is a discussion on objectivity.

Of course, I have to guard against losing objectivity myself while writing this post, but that way leads to infinite regress so I will have to trust myself and hope that my readers will trust me.

The discussion focuses on the American Farm Security Administration documentary project of the 1930s and 40s and, as with the Time ‘100 Photographs’ book (reviewed here), it uses Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ as an icon. This image is also used by Liz Wells (2000, 35-45) as a case study.

The starting point for an image is the briefing, whether self-directed (such as Lewis Hine’s child labour photographs – also briefly noted) or given by a client or boss. In the case of the FSA images, there are differing accounts of how prescriptive Roy Stryker’s briefings were. According to the Library of Congress website (a US public sector organisation, therefore unlikely to criticise another such) ‘A basic shooting script or outline was often prepared. Photographers were encouraged to record anything that might shed additional light on the topic that they were photographing’  The Wikipedia article on Stryker (which will favour the views of whoever made the last edit) expresses it, ‘The photographers involved attested to the fact that Stryker was expert at getting good work out of them. He made sure that the photographers were well briefed on their assigned areas before being sent out’. The OCA notes quote Lange’s criticism of the detailed briefing, ‘To know ahead of time what you are looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting’.  There is scope for control and loss of objectivity at this stage, but no reason why a photographer might not produce images off-piste as a personal project.

At the point of capturing the image, I believe the camera itself is completely objective; it will record faithfully what it is pointed at. However, the photographer will be be subjective in choosing viewpoint, focal length, focus etc. which will influence the image taken and the likely reading of it. ‘Migrant Mother’ itself is semi-posed and is the tightest-framed of five images that Lange made of the scene (the others are reproduced in Wells (2000, 38)). The Thomas Hoepker image used by Salkeld (2014, 90-93) as a case study was taken for subjective reasons; Hoepker saw the scene as Brooklyn residents apparently unconcerned by events in Manhattan on 11 September 2001, stopped his car, took the photograph and drove away without speaking to any of the subjects.

The next threat to objectivity comes in editing or selecting images for publication, from a contact sheet or memory card. There will be multiple, very similar, images from which one is selected. There will be only a limited number selected from dozens, if not hundreds, captured. The process is seen and well-described in the Magnum contact sheets book (Lubben 2014). The selection may simply be based on the art director’s view of what will look good on the page, or it may reflect editorial policy. The story of the FSA images necessarily includes Stryker’s heavy-handed policy of editing by ‘killing’ negatives with a hole-punch. Ironically, these ‘black sun’ images have subsequently been the subject of exhibitions and web pages; examples here and here.

See also my EYV blog posting ‘The camera never lies … huh?’

Finally, the context in which an image is seen can influence the viewer’s reading of it. A 5’x3′ print, framed on a gallery wall will be viewed more reverently and taken more seriously than the same image as a 5″x3″ enprint in a Boots envelope. In printed media, an image in a ‘serious’ newspaper will be read differently from the same image in a coffee-table art book and, of course, the surrounding text will have profound impact – especially if it is a headline or a caption. ‘Migrant Mother’ has made the jump from a documentary image to an art icon, partly assisted (in my opinion) by the change of title from the factual ‘Destitute pea pickers in California, a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936’ to the snappier modern name, reinforcing the Madonna-and-child associations.

The Hoepker image was originally published five years after 9/11 in a context suggesting that the subjects were relaxed and uncaring or unknowing about the event taking place in the background. The view was forcefully challenged by one of the group – asserting that he and his girlfriend were discussing the WTC attack with strangers, all of whom were stunned and overwhelmed, something that Hoepker would have known had he spoken to them. This is a fitting close to this post, with an example of a situation where subjectivity gets us closer to the truth than detached objectivity.

References

Library of Congress (s.d) Farm security administration/office of war information black-and-white negatives – background and scope – prints & photographs online catalog. [online at:] http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/background.html (Accessed: 24 February 2017)

Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

OCA (2017) Photography 1: Context and Narrative (updated 2017, document control number PH4CAN240117) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2000) Photography: A critical introduction. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Wikipedia (2017) Roy Stryker. [online at:] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Stryker (Accessed: 24 February 2017)

Exercise • Citizen Journalism

A Google-trawl, search term ‘citizen journalism’ brings up multiple examples and multiple definitions of the phenomenon. I would broadly classify them under two headings – ‘citizen news-gathering’ and ‘citizen news-broadcasting’. There is a also a pedantic quibble about whether a stateless person could properly be described as a citizen-anything.

Citizen news-gathering is the concept illustrated by the CNN billboard above. People caught up in a news story, and equipped with a camera, mobile telephone or smartphone, can contact the ‘established media’ and report breaking news before the network media have time to mobilise. The early example quoted in several sources is Abraham Zapruder, whose 26.5 seconds of 8mm cine film of President Kennedy’s assassination have been the source of news stories, books, films and conspiracy theories since November 1963. Slightly later, we have John Filo’s images of the Kent State shooting (although, as Filo is described as a student and part-time news photographer, this might not strictly be citizen journalism) and coming right up to date, every terrorist attack sees our newspapers full of smartphone images by victims and passers-by.

Citizen news-broadcasting seeks to break away from the ‘established media’. Jay Rosen (2008) described it thus:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

News, gathered by ‘citizens’ or established media sources is distributed by an anarchic network of websites, blogs and social media. Images and film, such as the death of an innocent bystander shot during an anti-government protest in Iran, can ‘go viral’ and be around the world in hours. More relevant to the question asked in the course notes is Tami Silicio’s image of flag-draped coffins being returned from Iraq, in defiance of a  a government ban on such images which some considered to be part of a policy of sanitising the conflict.

A UK example is the death in April 2009 of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander caught in a police riot-control ‘kettle’ in London, who died after being attacked by a balaclava-wearing policemen with his badge number covered to avoid identification. (Lewis 2009). Video shot by an American hedge-fund manager also caught in the ‘kettle’ gave the lie to the police account of the incident, resulted in the identification and prosecution of the policeman and led to changes in the policing of protests.

We are asked to comment on the objectivity of our examples.

In my opinion, the Zapruder film and the Tomlinson video were objective at the point of capture; in both cases, an unexpected event occurred in front of an unprepared observer who happened to have a camera running. The relevant question is one of  objectivity in distribution. Zapruder gave copies of his film to the Secret Service for investigation/evidence purposes and sold the rights to Life for $150,000 (1963 currency) (Wikipedia, 2017). The Tomlinson film was provided (price, if any, unknown) to the Guardian publishers, rather than to the investigating authorities, five days after the event because the photographer had read of a conflict between the police story and that of protestors and others caught in the ‘kettle’. Would the film have come forward if the controversy were not already being reported?

The Iranian bystander and the Kent State images arose because each photographer had seen an event, then filmed the aftermath. I suspect an element of subjectivity in each case; would a government supporter in either case have filmed and distributed their images? We must consider that the photographers were shooting images that supported their own world-views and, again, there is the question of objectivity in the method of distribution. Filo sold images to an already-sympathetic press. The Iranian photographer used social media (YouTube) because the local media could not be relied upon.

The Silicio image of the coffins is objective – the scene existed in front of the camera – but shot for subjective reasons. ‘Tami Silicio was moved by the increasingly human freight she was loading and felt compelled to share what she was seeing’ (Dyer, 2015)

Objectivity in news images is uncertain. If an event is unfolding in front of the photographer’s eyes, he has no opportunity to ‘pose’ the subjects, but he may be able to influence the look and apparent context of the images by a choice of lens, technique or viewpoint. If shooting aftermath images, then there is more opportunity for posing or ‘gardening’ (Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima or Fenton’s cannonballs, for instance).

In post-production, at editing and selection stages, there is a risk to objectivity by selecting one image over another from the contact sheet or memory card. The selection of an image might simply be a function of page design but it may represent the editors world-view.

References

Dyer, G. (ed.) (2015) 100 photographs: The most influential images of all time. United States: TIME.

Lewis, P. (2009) Citizen journalism counters police propaganda. [online at] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/aug/04/ian-tomlinson-death-g20 (Accessed: 16 February 2017)

Rosen, J. (2008) PressThink: A most useful definition of citizen journalism. [online at] http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/07/14/a_most_useful_d.html (Accessed: 16 February 2017).

Wikipedia (2017)  Abraham Zapruder. [online at] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Zapruder (Accessed: 16 February 2017)

100 Photographs from TIME

If you ask a photographer’s opinion of the most influential photographs of all time, you will probably get a list of 5-10 images. Of course, we will each have a slightly different list but most of us will find our lists well-represented in this book.

‘100 photographs’ (Dyer, 2015) is the book of the website of TIME’s project to assemble the most influential photographs of all time (or at least since 1826, which is when time started for photography – and, yes, the Niepce rooftops image is here).

There is no formula that makes a picture influential. Some images are on our list because they were the first of their kind, others because they shaped the way we think. And some made the cut because they directly changed the way we live. What all 100 share is that they are turning points in our human experience. (100photos.time.com)

An influential photograph is not necessarily a good one – the book includes the 2014 Oscars selfie yet has nothing from Ansel Adams or Walker Evans. It is also rather US-centric (unsurprisingly given the source) and appears biased toward more recent images. In part, this is because there are overwhelmingly more photographs taken since the birth of digital than before (see previous post) but I suspect the same kind of bias that packs lists of ‘the ten best films (or songs, albums or whatever) of all time’ with recent examples.

The book is divided into three parts, Icons, Evidence and Innovation.

Icons are the images that stick to your consciousness in a way that a mere photograph does not. Examples are Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (presented here, rather than in the ‘Evidence’ section), Joe Rosenthal’s flag-raising on Iwo Jima or – more quirkily – Betty Grable’s legs and the vertigo-inducing ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’

Evidence is the largest section and contains the photos that say “This is happening now”. From Gardner’s 1862 ‘The Dead of Antietam’ which brought the reality of the America Civil War home to New York society, through Nick Ut’s napalm girl which did the same for Vietnam to more recent images of famine in Africa, these are the photographs that changed public perception and, indirectly, changed the world. We also see the rise of the citizen-journalist with Filo’s Kent State shooting and Tami Silicio’s defiance of the ban on showing flag-draped coffins.

Innovation is the shortest and, perhaps, the lightest section and covers the development of photography itself and of photo-journalism. [If I may ride a personal hobby-horse for a moment – while the Niepce rooftops picture and Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple are landmark early images, why is there nothing from Fox Talbot? After all, the daguerrotype was a technological blind alley while the calotype ushered-in the negative-positive workflow that dominated the film photography era and which made photographs infinitely reproducible, therefore democratic and influential.] This section includes Muybridge’s horse, Röntgen’s X-rays and the Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ picture which showed us just how delicate our planet is.

Not all is doom and gloom. We also see the Beatles pillow fight, Buzz Aldrin on the Moon and Michael Jordan in flight. Plenty for everyone.

I have referenced 18 images, which means I have missed 82. None of them is trivial; all repay viewing, but I have to stop somewhere.

Having said, in the first paragraph, that most of us will find our personal lists well-represented I would go further and say that, after reading this book, most of us will add a few images to our lists. I know I did.

References

Dyer, G. (ed.) (2015) 100 photographs: The most influential images of all time. United States: TIME

TIME (s.d.) TIME’s 100 most influential images of all time. [online at:] http://100photos.time.com (Accessed: 13 February 2017).

… and Narrative

From the OED

a spoken or written account of connected events; a story: a gripping narrative • the practice or art of telling stories • a representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values.

As seen in the course notes, individual photographs and series of photographs can each hold narratives within themselves.

A useful, if glib, working distinction between ‘context’ and ‘narrative’, then, is that narrative deals with what is inside the frame and context deals with what is outside. As a photographer, my first thought is that narrative is the more important because that is the part the photographer has direct control over. He shares control of context with others, the publisher, gallery owner or curator.

It is therefore interesting to read in the course notes, ‘By understanding the context of particular photographs it becomes possible to obtain the fullest appreciation of the narratives they convey’. This is something I look forward to exploring further over the next few months.

A Profusion of Pictures

No, not an obscure George RR Martin title, but a description of the mass of photography being made and shared every day. According to Michel Franck (2017) a single sharing site, Flickr, had an average of 1.7 million images uploaded per day in 2016, down slightly from a peak of 2 million per day in 2015.

This image, by Jesse Alexander and blogged by Gareth Dent (2013) shows an installation by Erik Kessels, ’24 hours of photographs’, being printouts of one day of Flickr uploads. Dent uses his blog post to ask why we take photographs, given the extent of the flood, and there is a fascinating comments thread, 44 posts over a week in 2013, that seeks to provide answers.

A slightly different question, asked by Joachim Schmid (Boothroyd, 2013) is ‘why do we all take the same photographs?’

Schmid collects (he prefers ‘gathers’) ‘found photographs’ – tens of thousands of them –  from jumble sales, flea markets and online sources and arranges them into typologies. For example, the set above, Archiv 321, is of small girls posing with their toy prams. Other archives show other common image types (bride-and-groom shots, camels at the Pyramids, cars and their owners, etc. (Schmid, 2007)) linked by similar subject matter, groupings, props and poses.

One answer to the question is that, with so many photographs taken per day, simple probability theory implies that many will be similar or near-identical.

Schmid himself does not give an answer; he seems more interested in observing than explaining, but there is a good comments thread to Boothroyd’s blog which refers to ‘appropriate photographic moments’ (rites of passage, preservation of happy memories etc.) and maybe it is simply a matter of many people in modern society living very similar lives.

References

Boothroyd, S. (2013) An interview with Joachim Schmid. Available at: https://weareoca.com/photography/an-interview-with-joachim-schmid/ (Accessed: 11 February 2017

Dent, G. (2013) Dealing with the flood.. [online at] https://weareoca.com/photography/people-are-hungry-for-stories/ (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

Franck, M. (2017) How many public photos are uploaded to Flickr every day, month, year? [online at] https://www.flickr.com/photos/franckmichel/6855169886 (Accessed: 11 February 2017).

Schmid, J. (2007) Archiv (1986–1999). Available at: https://schmid.wordpress.com/works/1986-1999-archiv/ (Accessed: 11 February 2017)