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)

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